Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

A reader comes a-visiting

I can never emphasise enough how important book bloggers are to us writers.  Not only do they take the time to read and review our books, but they also come with advice and smart suggestions, and they generously give of their time to spread the word about our books.

So I felt it was about time that some of these book bloggers are given some “air time” of their own, and today I start with dear Stephanie, who, despite never having met her in person, I count among my real friends. Internet does have its upsides, doesn’t it?

Should one go browsing, this is what one finds about Stephanie:

StephanieStephanie M. Hopkins conducts author interviews, helps promote the B.R.A.G. Medallion and participates in the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. She has reviewed books for the Historical Novel Society, is Co-Admin of English Historical Fiction Authors Group on Facebook, and is an avid reader of Historical Fiction, Alternate History, Non-Fiction and History. She currently has several writing projects under way.
When she is not pursuing her love of a good read, chatting with authors and fellow readers (which is pretty much 24/7). Stephanie also enjoys creating mix media art on canvas. She is into health, fitness and loves the outdoors. These days she has no idea what rest is!

I would like to add to this that Stephanie is one of the more supportive people I have ever met, always generous in her comments, never snide. Not that many people are, these days… (And I can see her squirming on her chair, peeps. She doesn’t really like being in the limelight) Plus she now and then goes into these bouts of super-healthy living when she posts about her gym routines and her food (no carbs, no fat, no chocolate…)  – but I forgive her for this ;)

So dear Stephanie, welcome! And before we start chatting about the real stuff, how about some tea or coffee? I’ve even made my famous carrot cake to go with it. 

Thank you for having me visit with you, Anna! It is always a pleasure to chat with you. I would love a cup of tea and your carrot cake sounds divine!

(As an aside, I can assure you my carrot cake IS divine…)

 I read in a recent post with you, that your reviewing career sort of happened because of another book blogger spurring you on. But I would suppose that the main driving force would be your love of books, right? So, do you have any favourite genres?

Right on both scores! My favourite genres are Historical Fiction, Non-Fiction History and Alternate History. One of the things I love to do is talk books and spread the word on great reads. What better way to do than with writing book reviews?

I bet there are also some types of books you stay clear off. Any tip on what not to send you?

I’m not a fan of- Ahem- erotica, western romance, werewolves or vampire stories….
No, I’d sort of understood the paranormal is not for you ;)

You have a pretty strict policy when it comes to your reviews: if you don’t like the book, you will simply not write a review. Some people could argue this is the coward’s way out – and also, if only positive reviews are posted, what’s the point? What are your thoughts on this?

Well, I would have to disagree with those people about it being the coward’s way out. We all have our personal- and different – purposes in how we review or why we review for that matter…. I strive to share my love for reading and the books I love by writing positive (but honest) reviews…that is my purpose and personal decision. It is also my purpose to share what I find worthy of a reader’s time and money.
I have on occasion shared thoughts to fellow bloggers and friends about books I did not find agreeable to my taste-privately and occasionally in book groups or on my wall on facebook. And I have been known on occasion to give a bit of constructive criticism in my reviews…. Lol. Most of all, I know how hard writers work, what they sacrifice in their own personal life and their families lives to write stories to share with the world. So I respect writers too much…. 

One more thing….I have been known to reject a book for review and I will tell the authors why. Kindly and with respect that is….it is my way of helping the writer and letting know what I expect in the stories I read.

If you’re looking for a book, do you go to a real bookstore, or do you go to Amazon? 

I do both. My first love is an actual standing bookstore, of course. There is nothing like brushing your hand across the books on the shelves as you walk by them and seeing all the wonderful books surrounding you. I could probably live in a bookstore. I am the most comfortable there.
That makes two of us – as long as there’s a steady supply of tea and cake….

 Do you see a conflict between e-books and real books? Will one cannibalise on the other, and if yes, is that a problem?

E-books are here to stay and I’m sure e-books will eventually take over whether we like it or not….but there is still a small hope in me that won’t be the case. I love printed books way too much.

If you were to have your own bookstore, what would you not serve in the adjoining café? (Of course you’d have an adjoining café, right?)

A Café is a must in a bookstore….I probably wouldn’t serve alcohol. I wouldn’t want people drinking irresponsibly in my store and causing scenes or damage precious books.

 I know for a fact that you’re presently working on a novel of your own. How do you think your book blogging has affected your approach to writing? 

Yes, I’m hoping to get my first draft of, Poison Letter, done soon. It is so hard to find time in the day to focus solely on my own writing. Which – I know – I need to make a priority at some point during the day. 

Hmmm…..book blogging has given me a great deal to think about in my style of writing, how to proceed with it. Not only from what I’ve written and posted but from other guest authors on my blog. 

I believe there is a positive approach to writing and a negative one. Blogging has helped me discover the joy in writing. I have to admit, long ago I struggled with it and was too worried what other people thought of my writing, so I wouldn’t write stories. I would just write down my thoughts, ideas for stories and poems I love. Now, I write for myself and for the people who are encouraging and appreciative of what I do. I love to tell stories and by golly, I will. 

What drives you to write? And how do you find the time? 

As I said above, I love telling stories. There is putting my imagination to the test. That is a great thrill in itself. These days I am finding very little time to write but hopefully I will find more time when my daughter’s school starts back. That remains to be seen. As I type this, I’m planning on writing today. Ha!

Finally, if you were stranded on a desert island, what three books would you bring along? And why them?

Just three? Yikes! Oh, dear. The pressure is on. Okay, here it goes….

  1. The Holy Bible. Because it is the written word of God and is my instruction book on how to live the life that God wants me to live as a Christian. 
  1. The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman. If I recollect this book is the first I have read of Sharon’s. It is a brilliant rendition of the controversial Richard III and the first historical fiction story I had read about him-if I remember correctly.
  2. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The first two lines in the book says it all. “A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept. My first thought on waking was to tell my best friend about the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”

Good choices – but I would not be without Lord of the Rings…

Thank you so much for stopping by, Stephanie! 

Anna, it was an absolute pleasure! Thank you!

If you want to know more about Stephanie, why not pop over and find her on:

Layered Pages

Layered Pages Facebook Page

indieBRAG

indieBRAG Facebook Page

With the attention span of a gnat

When I was a child, dear reader, we had at most two TV channels. (No, it wasn’t black & white, I’m not that old…) In some parts of Sweden, the two Swedish channels were augmented by the Danish single channel. In others, one could peek at Norwegian TV. In the far north, the Finnish channel offered variation. (Woohoo! In an incomprehensible language…) Whatever the case, wherever you lived there were maximum three channels. The viewers were, to some extent, hostages to the educational and political purposes of the TV-makers. If there are no options, watching a documentary about World War II in the Baltic States can be quite intriguing, as can the two-hour programme depicting the history of the Swedish Social Democrat party. (No, we were not being force-fed. Swedish TV is a democratic institution and would therefore just as likely show a documentary about the industrial bigwigs as about the political party in power)

If the powers that were decided to show anything in English, chances were that this would be a British “quality production” where polished gentlemen detectives (think Dalgleish) solved complicated murders without ever becoming ruffled. To this day, Swedish people have a particular fondness for British series – Emmerdale Farm has been as much an institution in our lives as in that of British people…

In retrospect, this narrow selection made us all a bit more educated. Good at English, as the British shows were subtitled, not dubbed. Somewhat more knowledgeable about the world that surrounded us. Quite opinionated, which is why Swedish people so totally boycotted produce from apartheid South Africa, or why we staged loud protests against Pinochet in Chile. It felt good to exercise that world conscience most of us toted about, all of us quite convinced that we lived in the best of worlds, namely the egalitarian paradise named Sweden.

In the eighties, Swedish Television decided to broadcast Dallas. Life in Sweden was never the same again. Gone was the yearning for good black&white documentaries, for world peace and democratic processes. Instead, we hungered for anything American, preferably starring women with lots and lots of hair and men who swaggered and exuded self-confidence. You see, that is the conundrum that is Sweden; on the one hand a proud and very independent nation that believes we’ve cracked the code to the good life by ensuring all our citizens get affordable dental and medical care, free university education and generous parental leaves. On the other hand, a nation that can never get enough of dazzle and glamour, still somewhat enamoured by the dream of the good life in America (well, basically anywhere else but Sweden – as long as it is warm and has palm trees).

These days, viewers are bombarded with a selection of channels. Just flipping through them gives me a sore thumb, and I don’t even have them all. What I do notice, though, is that almost all channels offer similar infotainment fare. No in-depth documentary, instead it’s American Idol, a host of crime shows, an even larger selection of soaps, and an endless supply of rather inane entertainment shows.

Obviously, we get what we want, and apparently most viewers do not want to be made to think. We prefer slouching on the sofa, feet propped on the coffee table, as we watch a sequence of entirely inter-changeable shows, all of them defined by starring people with very white teeth, perfectly coiffed hair and toned bodies. Bleh. Double bleh. (Which is why I rarely watch television these days)

Just goes to prove that those old Romans had it right, didn’t they? Give the people bread and circus, and they’ll not worry overmuch about other matters such as politics and human rights. And seriously, people, isn’t that exactly what is happening? With the exception of that glowing minority which always exists, no matter culture or period in time, that elite of erudite people who never compromise when it comes to value and integrity, we seem to be evolving into uninterested ego-centred beings. The selection on TV isn’t helping (and may I just stop to say that there are exceptions; thank you for shows such as House of Cards, The Newsroom, Game of Thrones) Nor is the present development in news reporting, where it’s one punchy headline after the other, rarely accompanied by an in-depth analysis. Of course not: most of us can no longer be bothered to read about the background to the Israel/Gaza conlict, or the emergence of IS. We conclude, based on six words strung together by a snazzy wordsmith, that the truth is this or that. Guess what: the truth is far more complex, and politics and conflicts requires hundreds upon hundreds of words to set into context.

So where does all this leave us?
First of all, it makes us uninformed.
Secondly, it makes us surprisingly easy to misinform.
Thirdly, it makes us shallow – extremely shallow, having no understanding of context, and not caring overmuch to begin with.

People who are uninformed, misinformed and shallow are scarily easy to manipulate. If we’re not careful, soon enough we’ll stand tightly packed in town squares and roar our approbation as one savvy character or the other explains that all our woes are due to the XX (read as you wish: Muslims, Jews, red-headed people, Norwegian Oil companies, pygmy cannibals, men in pin-striped suits…)  Ring a bell anyone? Does it bring to mind a certain person with a distinctive mustache? Sheesh, I forgot: no it doesn’t, not anymore – after all, who ever bothers with stuff like history and analysis anymore?

Humans have great intellectual capacity. Humans are also per definition lazy creatures who like maximum output on minimum of effort. Let’s just be careful our inherent laziness does not result in the rather depressing title of this post – after all, who wants to be a gnat? And even worse, a MANIPULATED gnat.

Swimming with the fishes

Many of us like swimming. Very few of us want to swim with the fishes – at least not for any extended period in time, as reasonably this would mean we are very, very dead. Or mermaids.

Louis_XIV_of_France

Did not smell like roses

These days, a majority of the children in the Western world are taught how to swim. Not so long ago, the swimmers were in minority, and immersing yourself in water was considered dangerous to your health. (Think Louis XIV of France, this magnificent 17th century king, who is supposed to have said that he only ever bathed twice: upon his baptism and on the even of his wedding. The man lived to the hearty age of 77, so one can assume all that perfume was a necessity to cover the stench of grime and bodily fluids….)

Anyway: today I’d like to share with you the rather sad story of Grace Sherwood. Now, if you’re from Virginia, you may have heard of Grace, but if you’re from somewhere else (and let’s admit it; the vast majority of the world’s population is from somewhere else than Virginia) I bet you’ve never heard of the lady in question – unless you’re into witches.

Baldung_Hexen_1508_kolAha, the discerning reader says, Gracie was a witch. Umm… Personally, I don’t believe in witches – not if by witch you mean a lady who flies about on her broomstick with a black cat balanced behind her. But a witch defined as someone who knew her herbs and knew how to use them, yes those I believe exist(ed).

It was a difficult existence to be one of these herbal experts. Imagine your neighbour pops by and wants a remedy to help his wife who is constantly short of breath. The discerning witch may insist on visiting the lady in question, and may decide not to treat her, thereby being accused of purposefully withholding a remedy – i.e. she’s a bad, bad witch. The more optimistic – and lazy – witch decides that probably what the neighbour’s wife needs is a nice combination of  various herbs – and she adds a pinch of foxglove to the mixture, seeing as she knows for a fact that the old lady has had heart palpitations recently. Too much foxglove, it turns out, and the neighbour’s wife dies. Bad, bad witch.

EHFA digitalis

Not a plant to overdose…

Grace was a healer. She was a midwife. She was accused of being a witch on several occasions, so one must assume she wasn’t the best at socialising with her neighbours and keeping everyone happy. Maybe she was a grumpy lady who had no tolerance for uppity females who talked down to her. Maybe she wasn’t the best of midwives. Maybe a young lady whispered and begged for a remedy to help her get rid of the child she was carrying, but when Grace complied the husband had already found out about the coming baby, and the young woman had to blame the resulting miscarriage on someone – on Grace.

Witches'Familiars1579In 1706, Grace was brought to trial for witchcraft. At the time, she was probably in her late forties, and the accusations levied against her covered everything from having transformed herself into a cat to the far more serious one of causing a lady by the name of Elizabeth to miscarry. This was not the first time Grace faced her accusers in court – there’d been a case some years back involving a bull she had spelled, causing its death, and another case in which she’d been accused of killing someone’s hogs with magic. Neither of these cases led to conviction, but the miscarriage accusation was serious, so serious that the court decided that there was only one way to ascertain her innocence: the swimming test.

The swimming test – or ducking – was an ingenious little test whereby the person accused of being a witch was tied up and thrown into the water. If she (and it was mostly a she; 75% of the people who died as witches were women)  floated, she was a witch, as the water had “repudiated” her, thereby proving she’d repudiated the Christian baptism. If she sank, she was innocent. Problem was, if she sank she was probably dead by the time they managed to pull her out of the water…

Grace does not seem to have been much liked – at least not by other women. From what little we know, she was tall and well-made and in 1706 she was since some years a widow – and an attractive widow at that, a woman with a loud sense of humor and a capacity to attract men. Not something that endeared her to her female neighbours… Still, being accused as a witch seems somewhat harsh even for a femme fatale, and there seems to be other motivations behind the 1706 accusations, notably that the accusers wanted revenge on Grace for having had to pay her damages the year before.

A swimming test was not simply a matter of being asked to put on your bikini and dive into the water. Oh no, it was much more terrifying and humiliating that that. First, Grace was led down to the water where she was stripped naked and inspected thoroughly by five other women. These women (headed by one of Grace’s former accusers) were looking for the Devil’s mark, which could manifest as an odd birthmark, a flat wart or any other potential minor disfigurement. Every single square centimetre of Grace’s body was studied and assessed.

Ducking Ordeal_of_waterAfter this ordeal (and one can imagine the comments, the nails scratching at your skin, fingers pinching and hurting) Grace was tied up in the classic ducking position, her right hand to her left toe and vice versa. In some cases, the potential witch was then draped in a sack – ostensibly to preserve modesty, but possibly because a large sack would trap air and cause the accused to float. It seems Grace was not put in a sack. Instead, she was put in a boat and rowed out some distance from the shore.

Remember we’re talking 1706. Women and men rarely saw other women and men than their own spouses naked. For a woman to be so exposed before the interested eyes of hundreds of spectators must in itself have been a terrible experience. At present, Grace was probably beyond the humiliation, because she must have been in a sheer panic as to the next part of her ordeal.

Some way out from the shore, Grace was pushed out of the boat. If you’re tied up the way she was (and I would not recommend trying it, but next time you go for a swim, clasp your arms around your calves and see what happens) you’d end up floating face downwards. And as an aside, people rarely sink immediately upon hitting water – there is too much air in our lungs for that to happen.

Grace floated. She bobbed like a cork in the water, and people yelled “witch”, they stamped and clapped. The witnesses in the boat pulled her up, tied a huge Bible round her neck and threw her back in. Now Grace did sink – like a stone. Somehow, Grace contrived to rid herself of the Bible and succeeded in making her way back to the surface – I suppose the ropes must have loosened. She was hoisted back onto the boat, rowed ashore, and submitted to yet another extremely humiliating inspection by the five women. And this time they proudly proclaimed to have found some very odd marks on Grace’s privates.

hanged witchesConclusive evidence, people: the lady floated and she had the Devil’s mark. The witch had been found out, and the good people of Princes Anne County could draw a relieved breath or two. Evil had been vanquished, and the enchantress would soon be gone. Happily for Grace, by 1706 very many people in position of authority had serious doubts as to the existence of witches. Some muttered that all that ducking and inspecting proved nothing, and poor Grace was the victim of a smear campaign. Others did not quite know what to do: the woman could be a witch, but from there to hang her seemed excessive. The consequence of all this was that Grace was thrown in jail, where she languished for several years, but by 1714 she was out and about again, seeing as she paid taxes on her property that year.

Grace was to live for very many more years, dying at the ripe old age of eighty or so. I guess she never forgot her ordeal on that July day of 1706. I guess she was also pretty glad that she floated, all things considered. After all, had she sunk as a rock, she might have died, and been left to swim permanently with the fishes – not, I believe, something anyone aspires to.

 

 

Of hamburgers and other stuff

When I was a child, my father would now and then ask my mother to prepare him a hamburger. This consisted of one slice of fried bread (in plenty of butter, so it was nice and crispy), a beef meat patty – at times enhanced with finely chopped beets and capers(ugh!) – and a fried egg, sunny side up. Voilá, my childhood’s hamburgers… Needless to say, this was not eaten with your hands, but with knife and fork. Sometimes, this little meal was called a Parisian instead, which had me very confused: was this a German or a French invention?

Still life with lobster

stuff one may eat w hands

I was a teenager when I had my first real hamburger. By then, I knew what a hamburger was, but all the same, it was quite exciting to study my first Whopper – and realise I was supposed to eat it with my hands. We didn’t do “eating with your hands” in my home, the only exception being chicken drumsticks, shrimps and seafood in general. We even ate our chips/french fries with fork and knife.

Some years later, I introduced my mother to the delights of a real hamburger. Or not, as she was more than stumped when she realised there was no cutlery forthcoming. We decided to agree that in the future, I would invite her to restaurants with forks and knives.

These days, there is a lot of food that you eat with your hands. Most people don’t seem to mind – as long as wipes are provided. And it helps if the finger food is bite-size and not too greasy.

The other day, I was watching my colleague eat water melon. We were at a lunch restaurant, and dessert consisted of water melon cut into small triangular wedges, with the rind left on to hold on to. Except my colleague was attacking his wedges with fork and knife. I watched, somewhat amused (and even more amused when he dissected each piece to scrape out the seeds), and chomped into my own slice. Chomp, chomp, it was gone, so it wasn’t as if we were talking huge uncut slices, was it?
“What’s with the fork?” I asked.
My colleague visibly shuddered. “I can’t imagine eating something with my hands.”
Come again? I must have blinked – or looked very surprised.
“Too right,” said my other colleague. “It gives me the creeps.”
Okay, so I eyed my remaining slice of water melon and decided I would forego, listening with incredulity as these two men went on to describe acute angst at having sticky or oily fingers, and how important it was to always have a supply of wipes available.
“So how do you eat shrimp?” I asked. Very valid question, as in Sweden we eat a LOT of boiled, unpeeled shrimp, and part of the fun is to peel them as you eat.
The younger of my colleagues looked at me as if I was daft. “I don’t.”
Ah.
The other shifted on his seat before admitting that generally he cut off the head and ate the rest – shell included.
Ah.
Turns out these gentlemen don’t eat ribs. Too messy. They don’t eat hamburgers – unless in dire straits. And I didn’t even ask what they do with lobsters. These are not the men to dip strawberries in melted chocolate and feed them to you (And just to make things clear, I do NOT want these particular men to feed ME strawberries. This is just an example).

CoorteStrawberries1705TheHagueMhuisWAll this set me to thinking. Once upon a time, there were no forks, no knives. There were fingers and teeth – and not a wipe in sight. So either you ate and got messy, or you didn’t eat at all. I guess back then my two colleagues would not have made it to the reproduction phase, poor sods, because seriously, a man who won’t feed you strawberries? Sheesh!

 

 

 

Yay! I did it again!

BRAGI was just informed that yet another of my books has won a B.R.A.G. Medallion! For those of you that have no idea what this means, Indiebrag is an organisation that has taken it upon themselves to provide some sort of quality stamp on self-published books – if a book is awarded a Medallion, it has gone through a pretty tough reader’s test, and only 10% of all books submitted make it through.

For me as a writer, organisations such as Indiebrag are invaluable – if nothing else because winning a medallion spurs me on to work harder, write more, polish and re-polish my texts. So a major THANK YOU to all the people at Indiebrag!

Anyway, this time round the first book in The Graham Saga, A Rip in the Veil was awarded the honour (I have submitted my books stochastically, as I was very, very nervous about how I would cope w rejection. Only upon seeing my third book in print did I dare to submit. Yes, yes: I have issues w insecurities) and I thought it might be appropriate to post a little “Why on earth does she write about the 17th century in Scotland, seeing as she’s as Swedish as IKEA” (I’m not, actually. But let’s not go into that…)

So why set a story in 17th century Scotland? (Modified, but first published on the wonderful Debbie Brown’s blog)

9781781321676-Cover.inddSomehow, the 17th century exists in a bubble of obscurity, trapped between the great drama of the 16th century and the bloody upheaval of the 18th. The 17th century has no Mary Queen of Scots, no Marie Antoinette. Instead, the 17th century has religious strife a-plenty. It has war, it has pillage. It has the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I, Cromwell’s mass deportation of the Irish. It has Mazarin and Louis XIV, it has the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish, it has a Glorious Revolution, it has men like John Locke and Isaac Newton. Really, not much to write home about, right?

Reading through that rather impressive list, I can only congratulate myself on my choice of century. After all, there is no shortage of dramatic material. Besides, there’s a personal reason for my fascination with the 17th century, and that’s my husband.

Let me immediately disillusion you by assuring you my husband is not a time traveller. He is a man very much rooted in the here and now, but on his finger he carries a signet ring, and his family can be traced back to the more remote parts of time. He can claim ancestry from Erik XIV of Sweden (but rarely does, as Erik XIV was not all there, plus 90% of all Swedish noble families share that honour) but he can also claim Stuart ancestry – and all because of the religious upheaval that plagued Scotland in the 17th century.

Picture Gothenburg in the early 17th century: having brought in Dutch city planners to design his new city – as yet very much under construction – the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, also needed to populate this city of his, preferably with merchants.  Sweden at the time mostly traded in raw material. We exported timber, iron ore, wool and oats. We imported everything else – including capable people. On the opposite side of the North Sea lived a nation of savvy merchants, namely the Scots. Being a small and relatively poor country, Scotland produced a number of surplus sons, many of whom crossed the sea to Sweden (or elsewhere – a minority chose Sweden, having as yet not developed latter day’s appreciation for Swedish blondes).

To this building site, yet another Scot arrived in 1624. John Belfrage was twelve, and came with his mother, Joneta. As per the records, they were fleeing their homeland due to religious persecution – that was the reason Joneta gave. Given that they chose to go to Sweden, we must assume these refugees were Protestants. Sweden looked askance at Catholics. As John received an education and rose to local prominence, we can deduce that Joneta carried funds of some kind with her. Other than that, we know very little. In what straits did Joneta find herself that her powerful Stuart connections could not help her? And what became of John’s father?

Anyway, this glimpse into my husband’s ancestry fascinated me, to the point that I began reading extensively about the sixteen hundreds, a period defined not only by religious conflict but also by the birth of modern science, of concepts such as the rights of men. Sadly, at the time those human rights did not include the right to worship as one pleased, but the seeds for future liberties were sown.

And so The Graham Saga began to take form. My central character, Matthew Graham, very quickly became a Scot, and because I was intrigued by the tales of Covenanters and the brutal persecution they suffered at the hands of the restored Stuart monarchy, this shadow man of mine developed into a former Commonwealth soldier, a man of convictions and a deep personal faith.  Just to spice up his life a bit, I decided to endow this man with a woman very different from him. Enter Alexandra Lind, a modern day woman who had the misfortune (or not) to fall through time and land at Matthew’s feet. The rest, as they say, is history.

R&R webstamp smallOn July 1, the sixth instalment of the series, Revenge and Retribution, was published. I am of course inordinately proud of this particular book, a heady mix of adventure, emotional drama and despair. But it all began in A Rip in the Veil, when Alex Lind first clapped her concussed eyes on Matthew Graham. Below an excerpt from that first book – I hope you enjoy it!

Alex rested back against the cave wall and concentrated on breathing without hurting herself. She studied him from under her lashes, irritated to find he’d gone back to gawking at her. What was the matter with him? Had he never seen a woman in jeans before? She looked closely at him. Tall, broad in shoulders and chest, but thin and with an underlying pallor to his skin – as if he’d been ill, just recently allowed out of bed. His hair was cut unbecomingly short except at the back where some longer strands still hung on, his cheeks were covered by a dark, unkempt bristle, like the one Magnus, her father, would sport at the end of his summer holidays – so far nothing alarming. His shirt though… Worn linen that laced up the front, mended cuffs – all of it hand stitched.

Maybe his girlfriend had made it for him, or maybe New Age people believed in doing everything from scratch, in which case they needed a serious fashion update. She moved, scraped her foot against the rocky ground, and winced.

“Is it alright if I touch you?” he said. “It might ease somewhat if I wash the blood off.”

“Sure, go ahead, touch all you want.” Well, within limits of course.

He looked at her with a hesitant expression. “All I want?”

She made a huge effort to look him straight in the eyes, despite the fact that she could see two – no, three – of him.

“Help me, I’m not feeling too good.” She turned her head to the side and retched, but this time it was just slimy yellow bile that burnt her throat as she heaved. “Damn,” she said afterwards, keeping her eyes closed to stop the whole world from spinning. “I must have hit my head really hard.”

He spent quite some time on her forehead, close enough that she could smell him, drawing in the scent of sweat and unwashed male. She wrinkled her nose. Phew! How about some soap?

“What?” he said. “Did I hurt you?”

“No, I’m fine.” She wasn’t; her brain was banging against her skull, the broken skin on her forehead itched, her ribs were using her lungs as a pincushion and her foot… no, best not think about her foot, because it looked absolutely awful, blisters like a fetter round her ankle and all the way down to her toes. She flexed them experimentally. It hurt like hell.

He poured some more water onto the rag he was using and wiped her face. She liked that, opening her eyes to smile her thanks at him. He smiled back, teeth flashing a surprising white in the darkness of his beard. He sat back on his haunches, a worried expression on his face.

“What?” Did she need stitches? Because she really, really hated needles.

“Your ribs, I have to do something about them.”

“Like what?”

“Bandage them, so that you don’t shift them too much.”

“You’ve done this before?”

“It happens, aye.”

“Oh, so you’re a doctor?”

“A doctor?” He laughed. “Nay, lass, I am no doctor. But setting ribs is no great matter, is it?”

“It is when they’re mine.” She shifted on her bottom. “It won’t hurt, will it?”

“No, but I will have to … err … well, I must … the shirt, aye?”

“The shirt?”

“Well, you have to take it off.”

“Oh.” Where did this man come from? “That’s alright; you won’t be the first to see me in the flesh.” He looked so shocked she laughed, but the pain that flew up her side made her gasp instead.

He pulled his bundle close and rummaged in it, muttering something about having to find something to bandage her ribs with.  Finally he extracted what looked like a rag and proceeded to tear it into strips.

He was very careful as he helped her out of her jacket and her shirt, and at the sight of her bra his eyes widened, but he didn’t say anything. She sat up so that he could wrap the torn lengths of cloth around her. His exhalations tickled her skin, and she took short breaths, staring straight ahead as his big, capable hands worked their way around her torso, a gentle touch that sent surprising and quite unwelcome tingles of warmth through her body.

She was aware of his eyes on her skin, on her neck, but mostly on her breasts, quick glances that returned time and time again to the lacy red bra edged with cream that cupped her breasts and lifted them high. She sat up straighter, shoulders pulled back. She peeked at him, met his eyes and looked away.

“What’s this?” He put a finger on the satin strap. Impossible; men that hadn’t seen a bra didn’t exist – not where she came from.

“It’s a bra.”

“A bra,” he echoed, tracing it round her middle. She jerked back, making both of them gasp.

“My apologies.” He raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I shouldn’t … But there, now it’s done.” He gave her the shirt and averted his eyes as she struggled to put it back on.

Alex closed her eyes, trying to come up with a label to pin on this strange man. Isolated goat farmer? Recluse? Maybe he was an old-fashioned – extremely old-fashioned – Quaker, or maybe the Amish had set up a little colony up here in the Scottish wilderness.

 

 

 

 

 

The things that make us human…

lupinerSome people would argue that humanity’s defining characteristic is our intelligence. Hmm. Given our predilection for constantly endangering the future of our species through war, pollution and excessive exploitation of this our very precious, very small, green planet, I am not so sure about all that intelligence.

Others will say it is our communication skills that set us apart Definitely a good argument. People talk – a lot. However, communication is a two way street, and how good are we at listening? Especially to someone who doesn’t agree with us? (And I must immediately raise my hand in the air on this one and admit I have a teensy-weensy tendency of being so carried away in the heat of a discussion that my ears close. Literally. Working on it – which may make my friends choke on laughter, as I’ve been working on this  – and on learning how to keep a low profile – for like four decades…)

I would say that there are some emotions that are very specific to humans – like insecurity. We fret about a lot of things, us oh so intelligent bipeds. Does he/she like me? Will they give me the job despite my deficiencies? How can anyone love me when I have a HUGE pimple on m nose? Who am I to think I can do this? Will my children turn out alright given my lousy parenting skills?

The-Hunted-Roe-Deer-on-the-Alert-Spring-by-Gustave-CourbetNow, consider instead Mrs Bambi, who lives out in the forest somewhere. Does Mrs Bambi ever struggle with insecurity? Does she nudge her fawn and wonder what on earth he’ll grow up to be, what with her not spending enough time with him? Does she ever look at her reflection in a forest tarn and sigh, thinking that who can possibly love her, with those huge eyes of hers? Nope. Mrs Bambi simply IS, all the way from her beautiful, dewy eyes and twitching ears to those long, fragile legs of hers. And the same thing applies to Mrs Crocodile (except she has neither dewy eyes, twitching ears nor fragile legs. She is mostly tail and teeth).

Another very human emotion is love. Sorry to tell you this, but Mrs Bambi doesn’t love her kid – she nurtures it. That utterly stressed pair of swallows that flies back and forth, back and forth, to feed their voracious young don’t love them either – in fact, one can suspect they will sigh with relief once their nestlings take flight.

I’ve had a pair of gulls nesting on a ledge outside my office window for some weeks, and after sitting on their egg for ages, out came a speckled fluffy chick. A most demanding chick, that grew at an impressive speed as its parents flew out, flew back in, hawked up what they’d swallowed so that their baby could eat it. Now and then, Mama and Papa gull had to defend their chick against others – which they did – but despite all this care, one day the chick was gone, having plummeted six floors to its death. (This due to some very determined magpies. Now, I happen to like magpies much, much more than I like gulls, horrible raucous things that they are, but in this instance I was a bit upset – if impressed by the intelligence the magpies gave proof of as they herded the chick towards the edge…) Just like that, all those caring instincts disappeared in Mama and Papa gull. They did not swoop down to sit by their dead chick and weep, nor did they expend much time looking for it. Proof, I’d argue, that they felt no love for their offspring – it was merely biology taking over.

Just as animals can’t feel love, neither can they feel hate. Deer do not band together, sharpen their antlers and hooves, and set out to punish those nasty, hateful foxes. Even more to the point, animals don’t hate us, despite humans being by far the most dangerous and cruel of predators.

Deer huntingAnimals, it would seem, are advocates of Determinism – what will pass, will pass, and there is little we can do about it. Some humans belong to religious groups that also advocate Determinism – Islam comes to mind, as does the Greek-Orthodox Church, and Calvinism – but this concept sits uncomfortably with most of us, seeing as it can be perceived as being in conflict with our very precious Free Will. So as not to go entirely wild and crazy while attempting to penetrate this very difficult issue (Determinism vs Free Will), let us just conclude that here we have yet another thing that separates us from animals: many of us believe in God – and those of us that don’t, still remain fascinated by the existential issues. Let me tell you that Mrs Bambi rarely raises her head from her grazing, looks at her sister and asks, “What do you think happens after death?” If she did, chances are her sister would say, “Death? What is death?”

a002175501-001And here, I believe, lies the most defining differences between humans and animals. We are aware of our mortality, of the ridiculous brevity of our time on Earth, while they are not. They live unencumbered by the gnawing disquiet that most of us humans fall prey to, those eternal questions ringing in our minds: Is there life after death? Does God exist? And what if He does exist and I’ve been laughing my head off at the concept of God throughout my life, will He punish me for that? And what if there is no life after death? What if it is just over, the moment my heart stops beating?
“Aaaaaagh!” wails this particular human, “I don’t want it to be over!”

I once heard this very depressing philosopher expound on the brevity of human life. “Our lives are as inconsequential in the overall context of things as a soap-bubble,” he said. But guess what? You look at that soap bubble and it shimmers with colour, it twirls and it dances as it soars upwards, ever upwards. Pretty wonderful, all in all, even if it pops into non-existence far too soon.

Mrs Bambi doesn’t care about soap bubbles – nor does Mrs Crocodile. They take each day as it comes, and worry little about a tomorrow as intangible as the wind. That, dear people, is something we should learn from them, the ability to live in the here and now, the only moments of time that are truly ours to fully enjoy. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never come. But we always have today. Always. Which is why I will now turn off my computer and wander down to the lake and go for a swim. Halfway out, I will flip over onto my back and float, my eyes lost in the blue of the summer sky, and wonder, as I always wonder, what lies beyond.

 

The saucy consequences of a naval battle

Yesterday, I treated my family to one of my favourite summer dishes – salt-fried prawns with aioli. I make the aioli myself, and what is not consumed with the prawns is eaten with chunks of bread, dipped in this delicious Spanish sauce that tastes of garlic and oregano.

The first time I ever had aioli was on Menorca. This is one of the Balearic Islands, and as its name implies it is smaller than Mallorca – but bigger than Ibiza, even if that is neither here nor there. Menorca is famous for an absolutely fantastic lobster soup/stew called caldereta, for its aioli – and for being the birthplace of mayonnaise.

Mayenne-charlesWhat? I can see some of you straightening up from your summer slouch. Mayonnaise is a French sauce, you say – derived from Mayenne. Hmm. I am less than convinced, even if I do find the French version of this sauce’s pedigree historically interesting. As per some, one of the more capable (and likeable) generals in the religious civil war that plagued France in the 16th century was addicted to this thick, creamy sauce. I am talking, of course, about Charles de Mayenne, a son of the House of Guise and leader of the Catholic League. So fond was he of this sauce that it was given his name, and all that mayonnaise consumption is supposedly why our Charles grew stout with age.

Now, if we take a step back and study the ingredients of mayonnaise, one can but conclude that they are very, very similar to those of ailoi – bar the garlic. Okay, so to combine egg yolks, oil, salt and other seasoning and whip it all up into a sauce is not exactly rocket science, but all the same: aioli and mayonnaise are sister-sauces. For all those who prefer to view mayonnaise as a French sauce, I offer the comfort that even in the Menorca based mayonnaise myth, the French play a central role. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Minorca_by_Piri_ReisMenorca is an island with a fascinating history. Prehistoric inhabitants have left the island littered with strange neolithic buildings, the Romans have left their imprint on the island, it was a haven for early pirates, it has been raided by Turks and by Barbary pirates – in brief, Menorca has suffered a long string of wannabe owners. In the early 18th century, the British took possession of Menorca (this in the aftermath of the Spanish War of Succession).

At this point in time, the British Empire was still in expansion mode. Backing the right horse in the Spanish War of Succession gave the British not only Menorca but also the far more strategically important Rock of Gibraltar. Suddenly, the British Empire was a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean, and Menorca with its excellent  natural harbour at Mahon (Aha! Mahon-aise…) became an important British outpost. The French were not pleased. The Spanish were not pleased. The Ottoman Empire was probably not pleased, but who cared about their opinion anyway? Consensus among the French and the Spanish was that the British were intruders in the Mediterranean, and for some decades they gnashed their teeth and whetted their claws, waiting for an opportune moment in which to strike.

In 1754, the Seven Years’ War exploded, involving more or less all major European countries and their colonies. The Mediterranean became one of the war zones. The Mediterranean probably sighed and grumbled, shifting its waters in restless waves, but through the ages it has become quite accustomed to being contested waters so I guess it groaned dramatically and went “here we go again” while feeling somewhat flattered by the fact that people were STILL fighting over it.

duc de richelieuIt is time to introduce one of the central character in this our history of mayonnaise, namely the French Duc de Richelieu, Louis Francois Armand de Vignerot du Plessis – Armand to his intimates, among which he counted the king of France, Louis XV. In 1756, this gentleman was sixty, and per the standards of the time he should have been either dead or ailing, but our Armand was a vigorous man, and so he was put in charge of the French force that was to oust the British from Menorca.

Our French dandy set to with enthusiasm, besieging the British garrison of the Fort St Philip which looms over the Mahon harbour. 15 000 French soldiers were landed on Menorca in April of 1756, five times the number the British had. Severely outnumbered, the British garrison set their hopes to the relief forces commanded by Admiral Byng.

John_ByngAdmiral Byng was an experienced naval officer, who at the time was serving in the Channel. He was ordered to immediately set off for Menorca, his protests along the lines that he needed more men and more money so as to repair his ships ignored. Byng had no choice but to follow his orders, despite serious misgivings. His ships leaked, he was seriously undermanned, and further to this he had been forced to replace his experienced marines with boatloads of soldiers to be landed on Menorca.

Byng made a brief stop in Gibraltar to provision. He begged the governor for more men to augment his numbers, but the governor refused. From Byng’s correspondence, it is pretty clear he knew his chances of success were slim. He was more than aware that his ten ship of the line would be no match against a determined French squadron.

On May 19, Admiral Byng and his ships made contact with the French. Outnumbered and outgunned, reluctant to attempt any heroics and constrained by his standard approach to sea battles plus the doubtful sea-worthiness of some of his ships, Byng had no choice but to retire. His intention was to return to Gibraltar, repair his ships and try again. That was not to be.

Prise_Port_Mahon_Minorque_20_mai_1756After three months, the British garrison in Mahon gave up. Always the gentleman, the Duc de Richelieu treated his vanquished foes honourably, and they were allowed to depart the island, leaving the French in charge. And this, dear people, is when the French decided to party – and as we all know, when French people party, they do so with excellent food.

The Duc de Richelieu was fond of his palate. He enjoyed his food and sauces, and therefore where Armand went, there went a cook or two. In this case, the cook was put in charge of a massive banquet in which a sauce made of eggs and cream was to figure prominently. Gah! No cream! The cook cursed, he gnawed at his apron, he threw a wooden spoon or two at his kitchen boys, wondering what sort of uncivilised place this was that there was no cream. Which is when a local may have suggested he use the “salsa mahonesa” instead (like aioli but without the garlic). Or maybe the cook  himself had the brilliant idea of replacing cream with olive oil. We will, I fear, never know.

What remains undisputed is that it was a very good party, with very good food, and ever since mayonnaise has been one of the staple sauces any chef worth his salt must learn to make. Personally, I don’t like it much.

Ultimately, the French dominion over Menorca was to be short-lived. The British won the Seven Years’ War and Menorca was returned to them in 1763, only to be wrested from them again in 1782. And as to Admiral Byng, he was to bear the full opprobium for the loss of Menorca. Upon reaching Gibraltar, he immediately began preparing for a second campaign, but before he could sail, ship from England arrived, relieving Byng of his command and placing him in custody.

What was to follow is one of the worst legal scandals in British history. To save its own hide, the Admirality hung Byng out to dry, and his honour and reputation were torn to shreds by the broadsheets of the time.  As a result of the furore that swept the country, Byng was court-martialed for his failure to relieve Menorca, and found guilty of not having done his utmost to win. Under the new Articles of War, there was only one punishment for this: death.

The_Shooting_of_Admiral_Byng'_(John_Byng)_from_NPGDespite repeated attempts by Parliament, by the Prime Minister William Pitt the elder, to urge the king to show clemency, George II refused. And so, on a March day in 1757, Admiral Byng was led out on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarque, knelt on a cushion and was shot dead by a platoon of Royal Marines.

These days, Menorca is a sun-drenched island that welcomes thousands of tourists to its beautiful coves and beaches each year. Very few of those tourists have any interest in history – whether of Menorca or of mayonnaise. But for those of us that do, maybe this post will serve to make us recall Admiral Byng whenever we open a jar of mayonnaise. Or maybe we should remember Louis Francois Armand de Vignerot du Plessis – but seriously, who can possibly remember all those names?

 

 

Of loaves and love

Judith-Leyster-childrenWhen I was a child, now and then I’d pick up a handful of gravel and throw it up in the air, catching it with the back of my hand as it rained down. All of this was accompanied by a little rhyme along the lines “How many kids will I have when I grow up?” and the answer, obviously, came in the number of pebbles that had landed on your hand. At times it was thirteen (major shudder). At other times it was one.

I must admit to doing this gravel thing out of rote. Where other girls played with dolls, I mainly used mine to attempt various versions of decapitation, and give me a choice between a heated rugby game and a make-believe tea party, and I was all for the rugby.
“A tom-boy,” my mother would sigh, giving my dirty skirt and dishevelled hair a despairing look.
“A tom-boy,” my father would grin, helping me to make yet another bow – or sword.

442px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_159I was thirteen when my gender caught up with me. One moment, I was as fast, as lithe and as rough as the boys. The next, I had these very tender bumps on my chest, and the boys would look much more at them than at me. My figure developed proportionally to my loss of speed and agility, and where once I was a much respected (and quite brutal) sweep, I was now no longer on the team. Major re-set of my self-image, let me tell you.
“Grow up,” my mother told me and handed me some relevant coming-of-age book to read.
“Grow up,” my father sighed and put away the wooden sword and shield, the helmet and the bow.

At fifteen, I discovered the benefits of my gender. Falling in love was a terrible, frightening experience that left me on a constant high – for the three weeks this passionate but innocent relationship lasted. He went his way, I went mine, but thanks to Tony my eyes had definitely opened to the possibilities offered by the opposite sex, and in my book they were all good – very good.
“Don’t grow up that fast,” my mother said, giving me an admonishing look. (Confusing. Teenagers have that effect on their parents, that they start contradicting themselves)
“Yeah,” my father agreed. “Not that fast.” He threw a longing look at the sword and the shield.

At twenty, I met the love of my life (and no, details of the interesting, chaotic, emotionally quite dramatic years between fifteen and twenty are not forthcoming. Use your imagination – or think about your own teenage years). It took me some time to make him realise I was his number one – seriously, men (and especially young men) can be quite dense at times. But once he did – well, we’re still together on that very heady journey we began all those years ago. My parents didn’t say all that much – they mostly beamed.

files-SalzburgResidenzgalerieStrozzischlafendeskindLargeThe love of my life, I said. And he was – is – until baby number one made her appearance. Can anyone prepare you for the rush of protective adoration that sweeps you when you see your baby? I think not, but the feeling is such that I would be fully capable to tear someone’s arms off if they threatened my child. Baby number one was perfect (and yes, I know we all think our babies are perfect, but just so you know, my babies are perfect – objectively speaking) all the way from the reddish hair that decorated her head to her itty, bitty toes. I fell utterly and irrevocably in love – again.
“Totally normal,” my mother said, counting the baby’s toes. “You were absolutely perfect too.”
“Totally normal,” my father agreed. “But this one is more perfect than you.” Huh.

DROTTN~2When I discovered I was expecting yet another child I was torn between joy and anguish. How could one possibly love two people with the devoted, fierce love I felt for our daughter? How was my heart to cope with all these emotions? My mother laughed. “The heart isn’t a loaf of bread, honey.”
“Nope,” my father said. “Not at all a loaf of bread.”
Well, thanks very much, but I knew that already.
My mother took my hand. “A loaf of bread can only be sliced into so many slices. But your heart can accommodate as many people as you choose to love. Trust me, I know.”

Turns out she was right (Phew!) These days my heart hold very many people, first and foremost my husband and our four children. Given that the kids by now are tall and strapping, the boys all young men, our daughter a woman, it is something of a miracle that they fit as well as they do inside my chest. But then I guess that’s what love is – a miracle. And maybe that’s why five loaves could feed so many at the Sermon of the Mount: Jesus wasn’t distributing bread, he was giving out love. And as to those two fish Jesus handed out – I have no idea. But give me some time and I may come up with a plausible explanation for them as well.

 

A footnote in history

pommern1000In a recent post, I wrote about Margareta of Denmark, a rather impressive woman who ended up as the de facto ruler of Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

When Margareta died in 1412, her adopted son Erik of Pommerania took over the reins of government, and I suspect this thirty-year-old man was more than thrilled to be calling the shots on his own. After all, living under the thumb of someone as competent as Margareta must have been a chore.

By all accounts, Erik was a handsome man. Close to 190 cm tall, he had an impressive physique that helped when he needed to display his royal attributes. He also seems to have been an intelligent man, and in many ways he held ideas well before his time – not something that endeared him to his contemporaries, rather the reverse.

Erik’s reign is a turbulent and messy part of Scandinavian history. His kingdom(s) was beleaguered by the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Knights. His reforms were met with grumblings by the privileged classes, and his attempts to centralise the government of his three kingdoms in one place caused loud complaints. Without going into detail, let’s just say that while Erik began as a king he would end as an embittered pirate, exacting his revenge on every Hansa ship he could find.

Whatever one might think of Erik, he most certainly does not qualify as a footnote in history. His wife, however, does.

Philippa of England was the daughter of Henry IV of England, born some years before her father was forced into exile by his royal cousin, Richard II. As we all know, Henry returned in July of 1399, officially to reclaim his ancestral lands. As we also know, Henry didn’t stop until he had deposed his cousin and made himself king instead.

In difference to Richard II, Henry had a nursery full of children he could use to advance his interests. He seems to have been a devoted father – something he inherited from his own impressive father, John of Gaunt – but ultimately royal children had an obligation to marry as was best for the kingdom, which is why little Philippa was betrothed to Erik. She was a child, he was a young man – not an unusual situation in the Middle Ages. At the age of 12, little Philippa was dispatched to her new kingdom. It is said her father was grieved to see her leave, and I suppose the child-bride herself would have suffered major qualms upon boarding the ship that was to take her away from her home. Being a good daughter of England, I imagine Philippa may have wept in privacy – but never in public.

Eric_of_Pomerania

A very handsome man…

A young girl arrived in Copenhagen in the autumn of 1406, and some weeks later the child was married to her much older bridegroom in the city of Lund (these days a Swedish city. Back then very Danish…) That royal wedding actually set a future trend: little Philippa was all dressed in white, and while it would be centuries before other women cottoned on, these days a white wedding dress is de rigeur.

Royal brides were expected to give their husbands heirs. With a bride as young as Philippa, the marriage was not consummated immediately, but at some point the English princess must have been deemed old enough to take her husband to bed. And as there seems to have been some affection between the spouses, maybe Erik took to visiting his young wife often, but whatever the level of activity, initially Philippa did not conceive – or at least not to the point of it ever becoming public information.

We don’t know much about Philippa, but from what little we can glean, she was mostly situated in Sweden (all her dower lands were in Sweden) which she ruled more or less on her own. At times, she acted as her husband’s regent in the other Scandinavian kingdoms as well, and general opinion seems to be she did a good job of it. The queen was well liked, she was handsome and kind, and all that was truly missing was that elusive heir.

Due to the political turbulence of the time, King Erik was often away on one mission or the other. Being at loggerheads with the powerful Hanseatic League, made it politic to now and then sort of go AWOL. Every time he was out of town, he surrendered the royal seals to his wife. Given that Philippa mostly lived in Sweden, and Erik was on a constant perambulation from one kingdom to the other, now and then with an excursion into other foreign countries, I get the impression the royal couple was not exactly welded at the hip – but that was not particularly unusual in a world where heiresses married heirs with huge landholdings to manage between them.

After years of no babies, Philippa was suddenly confirmed as being pregnant. She was almost 35 years old at the time, and for a first time mother in the 14th century, she was considered quite old. People worried about her health and that of the child – fears that proved correct when the queen was delivered of a stillborn son. In January 1430, Philippa died. She’d been queen of the joint Scandinavian kingdoms for more than 23 years – years in which we must assume her Englishness was submerged under the culture and language of her new homeland. She lies buried in the convent of Vadstena – yet another great reason to visit this picturesque little Swedish town, once the seat of so much royal and spiritual power – and no one really knows who she was anymore.

So lived and died a woman very long ago, leaving little trace in history. Except, of course, for that incident in Copenhagen. The Danes have a  special place in their hearts for Queen Philippa. Why so, you may ask, and it all comes back to the events of 1428, when the Hanseatic League attacked Copenhagen in full force. At the time, King Erik wasn’t in residence – some of his less than impressed subjects insinuate this was very much on purpose, the king had simply fled. I’m not so sure I believe that, seeing as Erik had a long-standing ongoing powerstruggle with the Hansa people. Whatever the case, Erik wasn’t at home. His wife, however, came to the rescue. As described in one of H.C. Andersen’s stories, Queen Philippa rallied the Danes, showing her “royal heart and royal courage” as she stood on the barricades and cheered the defenders on. With her blond hair whipping about her face (artistic licence, people. The lady may have been brown haired or bald – we simply don’t know) she helped her subjects hold fast against the wannabe invaders. And once the Hansa ships has been adequately trounced, the fair lady went among the sick and wounded, tending them with her own hands.

In conclusion, I suppose Philippa proves that no one is ever a foot note, because all of have done something that affects other people and therefore history – in one way or the other. Philippa helped inflict defeat on the previously so powerful Hanseatic League. A turning point – one of many, to be sure – that would result in the eventual demise of this merchant oligarchy. Not bad, for a woman relegated to the fringes of history.

 

Fear of Dying

Marc_Chagall_L_180Ange_BleuSeveral years ago, when I was still a child, my single greatest fear wasn’t that I was going to die – it was that my mother would. At the time, I was young enough to consider myself more or less immortal – life extended before me as an endless sea. But I was old enough to have grasped that at some point in time, that endless sea would sort of shrink into a puddle, a most finite expanse of water.

My mother mostly laughed when I padded into her bedroom, crying that I didn’t want her to die. “I’m not planning on dying yet, honey,” she would say, and comforted by her presence I’d fall asleep in her bed, secure in the knowledge that she’d be here tomorrow too.

Tomorrows pass quickly. It is no longer quite as certain that my mother will be here tomorrow. It raises issue – topics that are difficult to discuss when one is in the best of health, are touchy, toothy things when the “if” of dying has converted into a fast approaching “when”.

I suppose this is when having strong faith bolsters the fragile human soul. The concept of a hereafter, a reassurance that all will not end when we suck in that last gasping breath, is a lifeline to those among us who simply cannot get their heads around the “not existing” part.

800px-Starry_Night_Over_the_RhoneSince man first began walking upright, the questions of where we come from and where we go to have been rebounding in our brains. Primitive man stood outside his cave and gawked at the stars overhead, wondering if perhaps that was where we came from. Some not so primitive men still hold to the rather odd notion that we are the offspring of an alien race, sent down from a distant galaxy to colonise Earth. Hmm…

As our Stone Age ancestors followed the herds of big game from one location to another, they told each other stories. I bet already back then many of the stories were girl-boy stories, I bet quite a few featured handsome broody young man in a loincloth who has problems expressing his feelings (he’s vulnerable within his shell, you see) until SHE comes along, all tight mammoth skin and dreadlocks decorated with knucklebones. Misunderstandings, heartbreak, separations and reunions follow…. Yes, yes. You get it, right? Besides this particular story is most hale and hearty even now, several millennia later, except that these days broody and handsome is an unhappy millionaire with a dark background and she has lost the mammoth skin in favour of lacy underwear and designer heels.

But apart from the light entertainment offered by timeless rom-com, these flint wielding ancestors of ours also spoke of existential issues. How do we know? Because of the way they buried their dead, preparing them for a journey to the hereafter. All over the planet, our very distant ancestors seem to have found it necessary to bury tools and clothes with their loved ones. At times a faithful dog or horse is included as well, at more gruesome times the companions include other humans, seemingly killed for the express purpose of accompanying Mr Number One to the afterlife.

These days, we have a predilection for cremation, which might make things difficult should Resurrection Day ever come – assuming you subscribe to the version where the dead rise from their graves. These days, we rarely send along a dog or a bagel. Should there be a life after death, we assume dear departed will fix the sustenance thing by themselves.  But even in these days, we still wonder; what comes after death?

Personally, I believe humans are more than their flesh and blood. The thoughts we have, the experiences and memories, our dreams and ambitions – surely they add to the total mass of who we are. Does all that disappear? Is there a whispered “poof” as everything intangible that made a person into a specific person is erased – for ever? Or is it this cognisance, this collection of half-formed thoughts, of remembrances and hopes that constitute our soul, and if so, does it float off to a HEA moment? Deep shit, isn’t it?

My mother and I have rarely spoken about faith. I know that once my mother believed very deeply in God, but that she never quite forgave Him for allowing her mother (my grandmother) to lie abed for years, slowly shrinking into nothing, before she died. I also know that for years my mother kept radio silence vis-à-vis God – until the day when I hovered so close to death that she clasped her hands and prayed for my life. That time, it seemed God listened – or maybe it was the doctors who saved me. I wouldn’t know, being too young at the time to have anything more than the haziest recollections of lying in a tent filled with ice. Whether this event led to a reopened conversation with the God of her youth, I don’t know. The issue of faith is far too personal for me to pry.

Now and then, my mother will make the odd sarcastic comment about the hereafter. “I’m not so thrilled at the thought of wafting about as an amorphous spirit,” she said once. “I mean, what’s the point of an afterlife if I can’t hug and kiss the people I love?” Which is when I realised that my mother and I have a great deal in common, starting with a romantic streak that hopes that there will be opportunity to love – in the full sense of the world – on the other side as well.

dance-1962

Like souls, rising towards the sky

I think the problem with dying is not the actual dying part, it is the not knowing part. Us modern humans don’t like it when we’re not in control of our destination – and this is definitely one of those occasions, isn’t it? I suspect it was easier to die some centuries ago. First of all, because everyone had at some point or another seen somebody else die, while to us this is mostly a process draped in the shrouds of hospitalised care. Secondly, because at the time no one had as yet begun to question the existence of an afterlife – at least not openly. Going to heaven (or hell, gulp) was a truism, sort off.

All of us will die – someday. But until we do, let’s make sure our tomorrows count. Life is a gift, and whether finite or not, the one thing we know for certain is that THIS life, THIS moment will never return. A wasted minute can never be recouped and used again later, a day spent bemoaning the downsides of things is one day less to praise the joy of living.

When I die, I want there to be someone I love beside me. Someone who holds my hand and croons me gently out of life and into the unknown. And when I am truly gone, I want that someone to open a window so as to allow my soul to soar into the never-ending deep blue of the star-strewn skies.

450px-Campanula_rotondifolia (1)As to what comes after, well as one formidable lady in my acquaintance once said, “I have no idea what will happen after death. The only thing I know is that I will be taken care of – somehow.” Not a bad thought, hey? I mean, either there is God and his angels, and rolling green meadows and gambolling lambs (I have a very traditional view of heaven) and it will be happy days ever after. Or there is nothing, in which case it won’t matter. We will simply sink into universal oblivion and if we’re lucky our body (or our ashes) may one day be reborn – as harebells in the sun!

 

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