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Sunday, 27 December 2015

10 anniversaries we could have celebrated in 2015

2015 has been a year of major anniversaries, the battles of Waterloo and Agincourt, and the drawing up of Magna Carta, the great charter on which the USA's Bill of Rights is based. There have been other anniversaries though, not of such great note but still deserving of attention. After all, small events, quirky achievements and doomed ventures also  shape history. Here are a few; if you have any to add, I'd love to hear about them.

Davy's Lamp: 1815

If you walk up the high street at Penzance in Cornwall, linger a moment by the statue of Sir Humphrey Davy. A pioneering chemist who cared about ordinary people even though he was a toff, while Wellington was busy defeating Napoleon, Davy set about making life safer for coal miners. He invented a lamp that wouldn't ignite the lethal methane gas that infested mines. Sadly, his efforts were only partly successful as the lamps lulled miners into a false sense of security and gave unscrupulous owners an excuse not to install proper ventilation fans.

Jane Austen's Emma

1815 saw the publication of the novel that many think is Austen's best, combining the sparkle and wit of her earlier work with her most perceptive and mature delineation of character. It has been filmed several times, including once as Clueless, and recently dramatized for radio with the setting transported to India.

The Barber of Seville

Rossini was commissioned to start work on this perennially popular opera in 1815.

Rhinoceros: 1515

Possibly the greatest animal illustration ever, Albrecht Durer's his famous woodcut is based on the description of an Indian rhino that had been shipped to Lisbon. It was probably the first to arrive in Europe for a 1000 years. The poor creature was dispatched from there as a gift to the pope but died in a shipwreck on the way. Even though Durer never actually saw the rhino, his picture bursts with a sense of the rhino's awesome power.

Umbrella Wars: 1715

In Paris 300 years ago, it was brollies at dawn when Jean Marius' royal patent on the world's first 'modern' umbrella - small lightweight and foldable - ran out. Three rival guilds claimed the right to manufacture the brollies and the ensuing legal battle lasted for most of the rest of the century. Umbrellas became expensive status symbols. King Louise Philippe, the 'Citizen King', who sat on the French throne as a constitutional monarch after the Revolution, was famous for his green one.

Nahum Tate: 1715

Next year we celebrate the anniversary of Shakespeare's death but give a hand to this far less well known dramatist who died 300 years ago. He rewrote King Lear so that almost everyone in the play had a happy ending. He also penned the carol While shepherds watched their flocks by night.

King Cnut: 1015

Most famous for attempting to hold back the sea to demonstrate that he could not control the elements , King Cnut was also one of the most successful kings of Anglo-Saxon England. He ushered in an age of prosperity after years of warfare between Saxons and Vikings. His victorious campaign to become king began in summer 1015, when he landed in Wessex with an invasion force.

F***: 1965

The expletive was broadcast on British TV for the first time on a late-night BBC TV show by the theatre critic, Ken Tynan. Outrage followed and Mary Whitehouse, that self-appointed guardian of public morality, said he should have his bottom spanked. As he was known to indulge in flagellation, he might have been happy to agree.

I'm on the train: 1985 Comedian Ernie Wise made the first mobile phone call in the UK. He called Vodafone's head office in Berkshire from St Katharine's Docks in London.

 Parlez vous franglais? 1990 The workers on the French and British sections of the Channel Tunnel met 120 feet beneath the seabed. Britain was at last linked to the Continent by land.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

A Christmas Quarrel

A loud rap at the door induced a sinking feeling in Mr Dickens’ breast. He had been struggling with his story since breakfast and now he was to be interrupted.
‘Come in,’ he called out wearily.
The door opened and he peered over his pince-nez at his wife; she seemed flustered. ‘Ah,’ he murmured, ‘Catherine, my dear.’
His wife frowned. ‘The goose, Charlie. You promised to collect it today.’
‘So I did, but I’ve been very busy.’ He stretched out his left arm to hide the sheets of paper he had spent the last two hours covering with doodles and caricatures of his mother-in-law. ‘Is there any chance the boy could go for it?’
She shook her head and her ringlets danced. ‘I’ve set him to chopping logs.’
‘She’s up to her elbows in plum puddings.’
‘Maybe the downstairs maid?’
‘Blacking the grate in the parlour.’
‘The upstairs maid?’
‘Not the way she flirts with the butcher’s boy. I won’t encourage such nonsense.’
‘Perhaps, my love… if you’re not too busy that is….’
 Sparks flew from the ringlets. ‘As if I haven’t enough to do.’ Her skirt flounced. ‘It’s Christmas, Charlie. Have you forgotten?’
‘Of course not. That’s just the trouble. The publisher wants a Christmas story.’
Her brows knitted. ‘But you write stories all the time.’
‘I know, and I have the plot in my head ready. It’s about a miser who’s visited by ghosts on Christmas Eve; they teach him the meaning of Christmas.’
His wife sniffed. ‘Well, to me Christmas means having a nice roast goose to put on the table on Christmas Day, and if you know the plot, I don’t see the problem.’
‘The name… the main character’s name. It’s important, you see, to get it right. I’ve tried all sorts but the best I can come up with are Mr Meany, Mr Stingy or Mr Grouchy and I can't see any of them catching on.'
There was a moment's pause; the fire crackled. Then, ‘My mother had a neighbour called Scroggie,' his wife said thoughtfully. 'He was a Scotsman. She said he was the meanest man you could meet in a month of Sundays.’
Dickens closed his eyes. It was just the kind of tired old phrase his mother-in-law would use, but the name had possibilities. He turned it over in his mind. Scroggie, Scraggie, Scrags, Scrouge, Screwge? Not quite right yet. Then a flash of inspiration: Scrooge! That was the one. His mother-in –law had her uses after all. He stood up, reached for his hat, clapped it on his head and kissed his wife’s cheek. ‘Where would I be without you, my love? I’ll be off and fetch the goose now, shall I?’

I hope you enjoyed this little story, my Christmas gift to readers who've been so kind as to visit the blog over the year. In fact, Dickens found the tombstone of Ebeneezer Scroggie in an Edinburgh churchyard and noted the name in the book where he was in the habit of collecting names for future use. Poor Ebeneezer didn't deserve to become a byword for meanness. He was apparently a generous man and bestowed charity on his community. It was Dickens' misreading of the weathered inscription describing Scroggie as 'a meal man' for 'a mean man', that led to the injustice.  

Happy Xmas Everyone!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Sweet Dreams are made of Cheese

Due to expanding waistlines, cheese only tends to be a treat in our house these days, but with Christmas approaching, it's a good excuse to plan a lovely cheeseboard. That set me thinking about cheese in general and some facts that might interest readers of this blog.

The origins of cheese are lost in the mists of time but scholars think it was probably discovered by nomadic tribes who stored their sheep's or goats' milk in animal hides for transport. The movement would have separated the curds and whey which interacted with the bacteria already present to make cheese. Cheese was probably very salty originally as a lot of salt would have been needed to preserve it. Very likely it wouldn't have appealed to modern tastes.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans developed the art of cheese making. In great Roman houses, it was customary to have a separate kitchen for preparing cheese. They experimented with smoking and flavouring it with all kinds of spices and herbs. At the Roman palace at Fishbourne in Sussex recently, I tried some smoked cheese prepared by a food historian. Mashed with garlic, coriander seed and parsley, it was absolutely delicious. (Recipe below.)

The Latin word for cheese - caseus - gives us the modern cheese and its variants, for example the Dutch kaas. The Romans called the hard cheese the legionaries were supplied with caseus formatus, from whence come the French and Italian words, fromage and formaggio.

Does cheese really give you nightmares? No one is quite sure where the idea came from but it may have to do with Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol where Scrooge blamed his ghostly visitors on the crumb of cheese he had eaten before bedtime. A study by the British Cheeseboard has, however, cast doubt on the theory. They invited 200 volunteers to eat a small piece of cheese before going to sleep and no nasty dreams were reported. Dr Judith Brian, a nutrition scientist at The Diary Council, explains that 'one of the amino acids in cheese, tryptophan, has been shown to reduce stress so cheese may actually help you to have a good night's sleep.' 

But the type of cheese you eat may affect the dream you have. The Stilton eaters reported the craziest, including a vegetarian crocodile upset because it couldn't eat children! If you want to dream of celebrities, apparently Cheddar works best. Almost two-thirds of volunteers reported meeting one, including Johnny Depp. Apparently, if you don't want to dream at all, try Cheshire.

Roman Smoked Cheese

250g oak or applewood smoked Cheddar
2 cloves garlic
1 - 2 teaspoons coriander seed (to taste)
A handful of parsley, finely chopped
A little olive oil and white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Cur the cheese into small pieces. Crush the coriander seed and garlic and add these to the cheese with the rest of the ingredients. Mash well and serve as part of a cheeseboard or with a salad.

"How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different types of cheese?" Charles de Gaulle former President of France.

"A dinner party without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye." Antoine Brillat Savarin, French gastronome and author.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

England's Mistress

This year sees the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Lady Hamilton, mistress of England's greatest naval hero, Lord Nelson.


I've often found that the lives of women who are primarily famous because of the men they are associated with are fascinating in their own right, and Emma's is no exception. Her extraordinary beauty, that so captivated George Romney and the many others who painted portraits of her, combined with her link with Nelson, may make up the sum total of what she is remembered for today, but a little research reveals that there is so much more to tell.


In fact, Emma Hamilton was one of the most famous women of her day long before she met Nelson and their coming together was a meeting of two celebrities who not only adored, but also admired each other in equal measure.


Emma's real name was Amy Lyon and she was born in 1765 at a place called Ness in Cheshire, England. Until the opening of a coal mine nearby, Ness had been a small, squalidly poor, fishing village where families eked out a harsh living from the sea. The mine changed all that and workers poured in from as far afield as Ireland, overwhelming the existing huddle of meagre cottages and turning Ness into a kind of mini Wild West town.

Emma's mother, Mary, had come to Ness from another village to help a relation with her new baby. She was pretty and vivacious and caught the eye of a local blacksmith, Henry Lyon. The marriage however seems to have been an unhappy one. Domestic drudgery and a husband who may well have proved violent made Mary's life wretched. Following Henry's death in suspicious circumstances, she took Emma and fled to London.


There, by the age of fifteen, Emma had graduated from working as a servant to performing at Drury Lane Theatre. She became the mistress of a baronet (who persuaded her to change her name) and when their affair ended, the mistress of the second son of the Earl of Warwick, Charles Greville.

When Greville saw his chance to marry an heiress, Emma became an embarrassment. He quickly persuaded his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British envoy to Naples, to take her off his hands. Under the pretence she was being sent for a holiday, Emma was dispatched to Naples. When she discovered it was a trick, she was furious but she soon made the best of the situation. Sir William, who loved to play host to the cream of Naples' society,  adored her. Blessed with charm and a shrewd intelligence as well as beauty, she was the perfect hostess, even becoming a confidant of the Neapolitan queen.


Eventually, she and Sir William married, but a few years later, Nelson sailed into the harbour. The rest, as they say, is history....

Harriet Steel's biographical novel about another remarkable woman, Lola Montez, is available on Amazon. In her day, Lola was the second most famous woman in the world after Queen Victoria and the novel has been highly praised. Amazon universal link -

'Wonderful exciting read, I couldn't put it down.' 5*
'A mesmerising read.' 5*
'Wonderful read and wonderful writing.' 5*
'Great book about a controversial character.' 5*

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Golden Age

Imagine you're in the thick of a crowd of two thousand or more people, walking through the streets of London. Full of anticipation, you cross the grey, greasy waters of the River Thames, jostling over London Bridge. You walk through the Paris Gardens, glad of a few moments of shade under the trees for the air is hot and clogged with the smell of unwashed bodies, masked by perfumed oils and unguents. People laugh and chatter; call out to their friends; eat apples and nuts bought from wayside stalls. Those who can afford it have dressed in their Sunday best. Where are they all going? Why to the theatre of course. 

Elizabethan England has always been known as the age that gave birth to modern drama. Up until then, audiences mostly had to content themselves with mystery plays, but under the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, the authorities considered them "too Catholic" and they were banned.
At first, the new plays were performed in the galleried courtyards of inns, then enterprising entrepreneurs, often playwrights and actors themselves, began to build dedicated theatres. The most famous of these was, of course, The Globe where Shakespeare's works were performed, but eventually London boasted a dozen theatres. When you think that they served a population of around a hundred thousand people, it was a considerable number.

The price of a ticket was low, so theatre going was a relatively democratic pastime. Most of the audience stood in the pit; seats cost twice as much. There would have been no scenery to speak of, although some plays demanded a few props, so actors relied on costume to add glamour. Favoured servants sometimes inherited items of clothing from their masters and mistresses. The strict sumptuary laws prohibited them from wearing these so they often sold them to theatres where there was no prohibition.
Naturally, such a popular pastime needed many plays to keep audiences coming back for more. Most theatres changed their programme daily and performed around thirty plays a year. Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson were the greats of the day whose work is still performed five hundred years later but there were many others. Most of their works are known only by title or fragments of text now, but scholars estimate that well over a thousand plays are lost to us.

Were any of those lost plays good enough to rival the great dramatic works we know today? In my novel, Salvation, my hero, Tom Goodluck, sets out to make his fortune in the world of the London theatre, encountering danger, intrigue and love along the way. I like to think he would have made the grade.
Salvation, a winner of the Awesome Indies Gold Award, is on Kindle Countdown until 15th October. Hurry and get your copy at 



Friday, 20 February 2015

Why I branched out into Fiction by Carol Cooper

My debut novel One Night at the Jacaranda appeared after a string of traditionally published non-fiction books, some two decades of health journalism, and more years on the planet than I usually divulge in public.
People often ask why I branched out into fiction.
The truth is that I've always wanted to write a novel. My first attempt came as a student when I knew nothing except how to pass exams.
Studying medicine took up the next few years and proved to be a great displacement activity. It's easy to see why I didn't write much in the days when junior doctors were on duty 106 hours a week. I did however co-author works such as Simultaneous turnover of normal and dysfunctional CI inhibitor as a probe of in vivo activation of CI and contact-activable proteases', which I am sure you'll agree is a snappy title.
The itch eventually had to be scratchedI began writing droll articles for other doctors, then books on parenting and child health for general readers. The Sun newspaper wanted me as their in-house medic, which means I get to say my piece on the big health topics of the day, whether that's ebola fever or a celeb spraining an ankle falling out of a night club.
Surely by now I knew how to write, I reasoned. I went on a novel-writing course.
The tutor Ruth Rendell complimented me on my dialogue and a couple of sex scenes I'd written. I glowed with pride until she asked the killer question, "Carol, could you handle a strong plot?"
I couldn't at the time, as all my false starts show. There were children's books about railways in East Anglia, stowaway dogs, and missing teddy bears. Then came a story about a 14-year old girl in a wheelchair, followed by half a novel about a female health surgeon.
The storyline for One Night at the Jacaranda came to me out of the blue, on a flight to the USA and my father's funeral. Over a much-needed gin and tonic, I got an idea for a book about dating. Jottings on a paper napkin developed into a novel about a group of Londoners, each of them with a jumbo jet load of baggage.
I've always made people up. Raised as an only child, I had an imaginary family of 14 sisters, all with Spanish names, with whom I did amazing circus acts and had many adventures. 
Fiction satisfies my creative side and allows a cast of fantasy characters to have their day. That's why I write - how is another matter. Long-form fiction requires concentration, which is in short supply between seeing patients, teaching medical students, writing non-fiction, broadcasting and coming up with opinion pieces on corset-training. Writing for The Sun gives me the same thrill as working in Accident & Emergency because I never know what's next. The snag is that it can be just as urgent.
I soon discovered that writing fiction isn't just a different branch from non-fiction. It's a whole new tree.
I can let my imagination ramble all over it, but I've had to prune journalese and abbreviations, make my paragraphs behave, and generally obey traditional rules of grammar. Apparently readers expect proper punctuation, a tall order for those allergic to the semi colon. Decide, damn you: are you a comma or a full stop?
But being a doctor, the very thing that slows my writing down, is also what makes my fiction breathe.
It's a great privilege to be allowed into people's homes and lives. I can't put real patients, or colleagues for that matter, into a book, but I'm constantly inspired by their traits, their triumphs, their tragedies. It's no great surprise that One Night at the Jacaranda has a medical thread.
Medicine has also sharpened my observation skills and taught me the value of discipline, hard work, and perseverance. For me, doctoring has been a fantastic apprenticeship. While I'll never be in the same league as Somerset Maugham, AJ Cronin, Michael Crichton, Khaled Hosseini and other celebrated writers, I'm honoured to have had the same professional training.