Anna Belfrage

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

Oh, glorious dawn come hither…

Aurora_von_Königsmarck… and no, this is not  a post about returning light. Seeing as us Scandinavians are already experiencing how are days are growing shorter, I am simply not in the mood. Instead, I aim to introduce you to Aurora von Köningsmarck, one of the first documented examples of female Swedish sin.

Aurora, apparently, was drop dead gorgeous. With black hair, black eyes that shone with “fire and passion”, perfect teeth and skin as smooth and white as alabaster, one could think her Snow White’s sister. Nor was our Aurora shy: when the occasion required it, she would gladly dress up as a Greek goddess and swan around with one perfect breast openly displayed – all in the name of art, of course.

Born in 1662, our little Aurora was in no hurry to wed. In fact, thirty-two years on she was still merrily unattached – if not inexperienced – and kept a long line of suitors ranging from the tender age of seventeen to the somewhat more staid age of sixty, jumping through hoops. In 1694, being thirty-two and unwed was more or less the equivalent of a social disaster, but this does not seem to have bothered Aurora much – or her family.

Aurora bror Philippe_Christophe_Kœnigsmark


And talking of her family, Aurora was not the only Swedish sinner among her siblings. Oh,no, she had a handsome brother, Philip von Köningsmarck, who is famour for three things. First, he was the lover of Sophia Dorothea, wife to the future George I of England, mother to the future George II. Secondly, the man had a major romantic streak, and so he saved all the letters between himself and his mistress, a huge collection of passionate writing and passed them on to his sister (yup; Aurora) for safekeeping, which is why they still exist. Third, the man went up in smoke one night, propitiously just as he and Sophia Dorothea were planning how to somehow get around the irritating obstacle of her husband. (Poor Sophia Dorothea wanted nothing so much as divorcing her husband – a lecherous type – so lecherous that poor Sophia Dorothea once came upon him in bed with his mistress while his newborn daughter was fast asleep in the same bed) Anyway; one moment Philip was there, the other he was not, and some time later his body showed up in a river. Poor Sophia Dorothea got the divorce she’d desired to start anew with Philip – but at the price of her freedom. She was kept under lock and key until she died.

Back to Aurora, who, I am sure, took the whole matter regarding her brother badly. They were obviously close – why else send her all those letters? – and they also shared a propensity for sleeping with people not their spouses. Aurora suspected her brother had been murdered – a logical conclusion, given that George of Hanover did not take kindly to being cuckolded, no matter how unfaithful he himself was –  and she chose to enlist the help of a man whose exploits in bed would make her seem like a mere amateur. Enter Fredrik Augustus of Saxony – soon to be Augustus the Strong, King of Poland –  lebesman extraordinaire and more than willing to come to Aurora’s aid. Once he saw this voluptuous (if somewhat overage) Swedish cherub , his heart burst into a gallop.

Augustus and Aurora’s brother had spent several months in their youth together, sowing wild oats and in general enjoying the good life a rich young man was entitled to back then. Augustus was a veritable Don Juan, and it is said that he had more than 365 mistresses during his life, and well over sixty children from these liasons, even if he only acknowledged a handful of them.

(c) British Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


Anyway: love was in the air, as they say, that enchanted evening when Augustus clapped eyes on Aurora. While he may have been enlisted by Aurora to help clear up Philip’s disappearance, this very quickly became his – and her – secondary concern. He was eight years younger and recently married. She compensated with her come-hither eyes and a sultry inviting manner that set his blood aflame. But Aurora was not a one-night-stand proposition, oh no, the lady expected to be wooed, and  Augustus went at this new challenge with everything he had. Balls, hunts, little picnics, more balls, jewel-encrusted clothes – he did it all, and finally his lady succumbed, allowing him, so to say, to climb aboard.

Oh joy!  Augustus did cartwheels, he had an entire house prepared for Aurora in Dresden – conveniently close at hand to the palace. His wife and mother did not seem to mind – and to give Aurora her due, she went out of her way to befriend Augustus’ wife and even chided her lover for being remiss in marital matters. Maybe she now and then needed to catch up on her beauty sleep…

Aurora 1

Aurora in a blond wig

It is said Augustus had her bed hung in silks dyed the colours of a rose-tinted dawn. He couldn’t get enough of his sloe-eyed nymph – no doubt attracted not only be her physical attributes but also by her wit. Aurora was a well-educated lady, fully capable of holding her own in any intellectual conversation. She was also, apparently, more fertile than anyone had assumed, and in 1696 she gave birth to a son, Maurice (Moritz), one of the few of his numerous illegitimate children that Augustus ever acknowledged. At the same time,  Augustus’s wife also gave birth to a son, so it would seem Augustus followed his mistress’ advice and gave his wife the joyful experience of his intimate presence on occasion.

Aurora son Maurice_de_Saxe_(1696-1750)

Maurice – quite the hunk

At 34, Aurora’s charms were somewhat dimmer – plus she’d been recently delivered of a son. Augustus was not the constant type, and soon his roving eye found other women to woo and win. Not that Aurora seems to have borne him any ill will – and he was gentleman enough to make provisions for her upkeep. Their son he raised as he saw fit, and little Maurice spent most of his time in close proximity to his fathers court. Aurora had no choice but to comply – and besides, she wanted the best for her son. (Maurice went on to make a very good life for himself as a military man, and several decades later, his descendant Aurora Dupin would become a well-known author under the pseudonym George Sand)

In difference to one of Augustus’ future mistresses, the most unhappy Constantia von Brockdorff, Aurora was pragmatic enough to accept that her relationship with Augustus was over and arrange her future life without him. Constantia, on the other hand, did not. But her very sad story will be the subject of a future post – that much, at least, Constantia deserves.

Back to Aurora, who spent her remaining days as some sort of laywoman abbess for the Quedlinburg abbey. Not that she lived there much, her time mostly divided between Berlin and Dresden, where now and then she’d share a glass of wine or two with her former lover – maybe even a flirty look or two – while bantering with him about the headaches all his future mistresses cost him. Did she ever regret not having married? I think not. Aurora was a free spirit, an adventurous soul who much preferred her freedom to security. In many ways, quite the modern woman, wasn’t she?



How a Swedish spread became a part of New York

We have recently had cause to celebrate here in Sweden. Or in Denmark. Or on the Faroe Islands. You see, some days past it was 375 years since Jonas Bronck bought himself quite a spread just on the outskirts of New Amsterdam, and to this day the area in question still carries his name. The Bronx.


The Faroe Islands…

Some say Jonas was from the Faroe Islands. Just to properly validate their claim to him, the islanders have a road named after him. (And for those of you who have NO idea where these islands might be found, let’s just say they are specks of rock stuck in the North Sea, from where come hardy sheep and very hardy people – that’s what you get when you grow up in such barren and harsh surroundings.) As per the Faroe contingent, Jonas was the son of a priest who was born and raised in Torshavn before being struck by the travelling itch and setting off for the American continent.

Huh, say the Danes. Everyone knows Jonas was born on Bornholm, a small Danish island in the Baltic Sea. He was the son of a Danish priest called Morten and even studied at the university in Copenhagen before being struck by the travelling itch and etc. etc. etc. Thing is, this Morten character seems to have died like fifteen years before Jonas was born. We’re talking a very, very long gestation period should Jonas be his son.

No, no, no say the Swedes. I mean, who has ever heard of a Dane being called Jonas Bronck? That’s a solid Swedish name – or rather Brunke is – and Jonas was a farmer’s lad from the interiour of southern Sweden, where he grew up until he was struck by the travelling itch and – well, you got it by now.

The only thing these three versions agree on is that Jonas went to America – and that he did so via Amsterdam. They also seem to agree on the fact that he arrived in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands in 1639 and that he bought a substantial amount of land – at a most auspicius price, one would guess. I mean, this was before the New York property market had begun to boom…

1988.150_CAMPrior to setting off to make himself a fortune in the New World, Jonas had spent time in the Netherlands, where he also met and married his wife, Teuntje. By the late 1630’s, things were a bit shaky in Amsterdam. The tulip boom had come and gone, leaving a number of people in financial ruin (and one must love a people that goes wild and crazy over tulip bulbs, mustn’t one? Seriously: ONE bulb could be priced at the equivalent of a house…).

The powers that were in the Netherlands were less than happy with how things were progressing in their American colony. In difference to the English colonies, things weren’t happening, so to say, starting with a depressingly low influx of settlers (What can I say? Those spectacular tulips kept all of them at home…). To encourage more settlers, land was offered at discounted prices, and our Jonas quickly saw the oppotunities this might offer. Together with his Danish friend Jochem Kuyter (and yes, this is an indication that Jonas could potentially have stronger Danish connections than us Swedes want to recognise), Jonas leased a boat with the rather epic name “The Fire of Troy”, loaded it with cattle, other wannabee colonists and set off for this beckoning brave new world.

It was a new world. Magnificent and wild, it offered the intrepid man endless opportunities to improve his lot in life. Jonas was most definitely intrepid – as way Jochem. One of them settled in present day Harlem, the other – Jonas –  chose land on the other side of the Harlem River, with Jonas ending up the proud owner of close to 700 acres, some of this land bought directly from the Lenape tribe. Unfortunately, Jonas would not be given the chance to truly explore this new land of his. For unknown reasons, Jonas died early in 1643.

Jonas Bronck signing-the-treaty-with-the-indiansAt the time, a certain Wilhelm Kleft was the Dutch Governor. This gentleman is infamous for his treatment of the Native Americans. In early 1643 he had Dutch soldiers slaughter 120 Native American refugees – in flagrant breach of the treaty signed in 1642 at Jonas Bronck’s homestead. This event sparked a two year period of hostilities between Colonists and Native Americans. Those most at risk were those living on the fringes of things – Like the Bronck family – so maybe Jonas fell victim to a retaliating attack by the angered Native American tribes. We don’t know.


See? She’s riding a moose

What we do know, however, is that Jonas was a literate, multi-lingual man, possessed of a library numbering well over 30 books and a number of pamphlets when he died. From his reading matter one can deduce he was also very devout – further substantiated by the name he gave his homestead, Emmaus. Several of the books in Jonas’ possession were in Danish. Quite a few were in Dutch, one or two in German or Latin. None seem to have been in Swedish – but this may say more about the sad state of the Swedish publishing industry at the time than Jonas’ nationality. After all, Sweden was at war! We had no time to print books when we needed to produce weapons and tame moose for the cavalry. (And yes, moose were domesticated, were broken in and ridden, but the poor beasts died quickly, having no liking for hay and oats. Plus they leapt like March hares at the sound of muskets…)

A Peter Bronck was named as Jonas’ heir. Whether this was a son, a brother or a cousin we don’t know. We do know Jonas’ widow remarried in the summer of 1643, so either she wasn’t all that grief-stricken, or women were such a valuable commodity in the colonies that she drowned in potential suitors, all of them vying for her hand. We also know that a Peter Bronck was to build a house in 1662 – the oldest existing building in the New York vicinity.

For some years after Bronck’s death, his farm seems to have been left untended, indicating there were concerns with living so far away from the centre of things (well, the collection of houses and the wind-mill right at the southern tip of Manhattan that went for the centre of things back then). But people still referred to the area as “Bronckland”, and the nearby waterway was called Bronck’s River. The name of the land changed with new owners, but the river retained its connection to the very first white settler, even if Bronck’s became Bronx. And so the name was still around when the five boroughs of New York were named, which was how present day The Bronx came about. A small, tenuous connection to Sweden, right there in the Big Apple.


JB’s homestead was where the smudge, middle right, is (over Harlem River)

So, was Jonas Swedish? Well, Brian Andersson seems to think so, and given that Mr Andersson is a historian and genealogist who has been researching the topic for several decades – and he’s also the former Comissioner of NYC’s Department of Records – he should know, right? After all, Mr Andersson has chosen to celebrate the 375th anniversary of Jonas’ arrival in the New World here, in Sweden, at the Jonas Bronck Centre.

What further proof do you want, people? Jonas Bronck was as Swedish as moose and lingonberries, as Swedish as meatballs and cinnamon buns. And as to why he left Sweden to begin with, I’m thinking it all had to do with that dratted Thirty Years’ War: any young man in Sweden risked being conscripted into the royal armies. Maybe Jonas was a pacifist. Maybe he didn’t relish the idea of having selected parts of his body shot off by muskets or cannon-balls. Or maybe he was one of those boys who was always looking at the horizon, wondering what might lie behind it. Whatever the case, his life took him on a very long trip given the times, and he must have made a very lasting impression on the people he met along the way – why else keep on calling the spread he lived on for four short years by his name?


The adventures of a modern medicine man

This post is about a man who wanted to become a medicine man – or at least that’s how I understand it, based on the little snippets of info I’ve gathered. Being blessed with a rich imagination, the huge blank spots not covered by what I’ve read have been filled in by yours truly.

Scultze winter streamYoung man sits in a cold Arctic winter and stares at the snow. It’s cold, it’s been cold for two months, will be freezing for another three, and everywhere is this damned snow. Due to the very low temperatures, the snow is brittle and dry, rising like puffs of smoke around you when you move. The man – being afflicted with being both young and male – has a tendency to brave this weather in jeans, a too short down jacket, a rather ugly purple scarf his ex-girlfriend left behind and downtrodden trainers. As a consequence, snow makes it’s way down his socks, his neckline, his …
“Agh! I hate this!” expresses our hero, stamping to free himself of all this frozen moisture. He scrubs at his hair. “I should emigrate,” he mutters,and as he says it, he realises there’s nothing stopping him, is there?
Our young man – and as of now we’ll call him Anders – is a third year medicine student, he’s single, has no pets, no financial obligations, and besides, he really needs a change of scene to get over Klara. (He does, actually. Klara may have left her scarf behind, but she pretty much cleaned out everything else, leaving poor Anders with the sum total of three glasses, one mug, two chipped plates and a very worn leather sofa. Oh; and the TV)

Said and done. Two weeks later Anders hands over his down jacket to his sister at the airport, kisses his mother farewell and gets on the plane to Brazil. Why Brazil? For one, it’s hot. And it’s green – no snow. Plus Anders has acquired some funding for this madcap venture of his by selling the idea that he will set out to learn traditional medicine from medicine men living in the jungle. In actual fact, Anders is planning on lying in a hammock and flirting with the Indian girls while sipping at whatever intoxicating beverage might be available in the wilds, but why tell anyone that?

Homer Homossasa jungleNo one told Anders about the downsides to this new life of his. Or rather they did, but Anders didn’t want to hear about mosquitoes and snakes, about rabid bats and steamy heat, about nights so humid and cold your teeth chatter so hard your jaws ache. It’s only as he begins the slow journey up the Amazon that he understands this won’t be a walk in the park, but heck, he’s young and heartbroken, and he needs to liven up his CV somehow.

Life on the riverboat is slow. It is also conspicuously lacking in comforts, and for a man who’s lived his life in hyper-clean, hyper-organised Sweden, it’s all something of a shock. Even more so when he sees his first cockroach. I mean, the thing is huge! (You ain’t seen anything yet, Anders. Wait until they swarm, and the air fills with flying cockroaches. Yuck.) The hammock he’s been allotted makes his back ache, he hates being this close to so many people all the time, and guess what? No showers. (This is due to Anders being thrifty and opting for the cheapest ticket, something he now regrets. However, all his attempts to upgrade to the better side of the boat have been met by a resolute head shake.)

This is the furthest Anders has been from home, his previous travels restricted to Mallorca, the Canary islands and Kos in the Greek archipelago. It surprises him that everything is in Portuguese, and that every single meal consists of beans and rice. The first few days he rather enjoyed the black beans, but now, after five days straight he wouldn’t mind a hamburger. Which is why he is thrilled to bits when next afternoon the captain offers him “meeeeet, good meeeet”. It’s only after he’s gobbled down the chunks of spitted meats that he begins to wonder what kind of meat this is – it isn’t as if he’s seen any cows or pigs lately. The captain grins and holds up the head of a monkey. Anders decides to stick with the beans.

After three sweaty days in Manaos, a long weepy phone conversation with his mother who begs him to come back before he is eaten by the cannibals (Anders knows for a fact that she’s got that wrong, there aren’t any cannibals in the Amazon) – and a very long, very wet night in a Manaos nightclub which results in all his money being stolen, Anders sets off on the last leg of his journey, hitch hiking with two very silent Indians as they paddle up the Amazon. He would have preferred to go by riverboat all the way to Iquitos, but no money = no ticket. Anders doesn’t like it when his canoe turns right into the Japurá, even less when they turn into an even narrower waterway, talking amongst themselves in low melodious voices. It makes him nervous when they laugh, and he is beginning to worry that maybe there are cannibals here what with how they’re looking at him. Anders tries out a wide, placating smile. They smile back, but it isn’t exactly reassuring what with their filed pointed teeth.

Henri_Rousseau_-_Il_sognoFive hours later, Anders disembarks. His canoe buddies are swallowed into the welcoming horde of the tribe, and Anders feels rather conspicuous, more than a head taller than everybody else and with a rather unbecoming bright red sunburn. Still, so far he hasn’t been eaten, and right now he is very glad to have solid ground under his feet, even if it does squelch quite a lot when he moves. Two more hours, and Anders believes he has succeeded in explaining his errand, this via a combination of six Spanish words, a number of intense charades and very many wide smiles.
“He wants to do what?” the tribal leader whispers to his medicine man, regarding their strange visitor.
“I have no idea. But he seems harmless enough, don’t you think?”
“Hmm,” says the tribal leader, not at all liking how Anders is gawking at his eldest daughter – and how said daughter is gawking at Anders. “Ugly,” he sighs,”poor guy. Imagine going through your life with hair like cotton wool and skin the colour of a roasted pig. And his eyes …” He shudders.
“Yes,” nods the medicine man. He purses his mouth. “They’d make quite an amulet, those eyes.”
“No way,” the tribal chief says. “Last time I let you have your way with a bloody tourist we had the military here for six months straight!”
“But they didn’t find him, did they,” the medicine man grins. They throw a look at the offal pile in which a number of pigs are rooting.
“Pigs eat anything,” the chief says. “Thank the gods for that.”

RousseauThe CharmAnders decides to embrace his new life and appears at breakfast next day as naked as his hosts. The resulting hoots of laughter have him retreating like a greased monkey.
“Now THAT is what I call an amulet,” the medicine man says, pointing at Anders’ scrotum. The chief glowers, the medicine man holds up his hands. “I won’t, okay? But a man can dream, right?”
Anders has no idea what the potbellied man sitting beside the chief is saying, but he doesn’t like how he keeps on smacking his lips and decides that this medicine man must be approached with some care. He edges towards the chief, lips stretched into a wide, friendly smile.
“What’s the matter with him?” the chief asks. “Why is he grinning like a sick iguana?”
“I think he’s trying to be friendly. Remember that German dude, Heinrich? He was always showing us his teeth like that – well, until I…”
The chief sighs. “No, he didn’t like that much, did he? Poor Heinrich.”
“Poor Heinrich? He was going to steal our secrets and sell them to Bayer – and what did he offer us? A handful of glass-beads, I tell you. Glass-beads! What does he think this is? The 15th century?” The medicine man shakes his head. “Maybe that’s what this guy wants to do as well – didn’t he say he was a doctor?”
“A doctor?” The chief scowls at Anders, happily unaware of this as he is looking the chief’s eldest daugher over. Not at all like Klara, Anders concludes (well, duh! Klara was an anemic, tall Scandinavian girl, all legs and blonde hair. This young lady is curvy and dark, with hair like black coarse silk that falls straight to her waist) Definitely someone Anders could consider getting friendly with – even if he has no idea how to get really friendly with someone of the opposite sex in a hammock. But being young and optimistic, he is quite sure he will work that out when the opportunity arises. (Anders shows some nasty streaks of colonialism here, taking it as a given that all the young ladies will swoon at the prospect of bedding with him, when in fact they consider him to be somewhat revolting, like a two-legged maggot with very much pink skin – and a rather big appendage between his legs)

Days pass. Weeks pass. The tribal chief has no idea what to do with his unwelcome visitor, but word from Manaos has it that the man may be in league with the government – which now and then has the chief considering just how to dispose of Anders. The man is clumsy and inept, so it would be a child’s game to have him fall off a tree trunk into a swamp, or arrange his drowning in the river.

Rosseau The_Equatorial_JungleMonths pass. Anders has at last cottoned on to what exactly this primitive people mixes together to induce that wonderful, dreamy state when it is no problem at all to make love in a hammock – or hanging upside down from a rafter. In actual fact, this very potent drug combination seems to Anders a miraculous cure against anything he has ever encountered, and he is thinking that if only he could find the energy to do so, he could pack this stuff into nice, green little pills and call them The Cure for Everything. People these days like stuff that comes directly from nature, he snickers, and this is most definitely nature – at its best.
The medicine man just chuckles and nudges the chief in the ribs.
“A druggie,” he says. “He wanted to learn about our medicine, I’ve given him hallucinogens and mushrooms and he’s as happy as a sloth in a beehive – well, happier, even, as he doesn’t need to worry about the bees.”
“But what does he want?” the chief asks. “Why is he here?”
“Hmm,” the medicine man says. In his private opinion, Anders is here to get laid and have a good time with as little clothes as possible on. The chief’s daughter is already swelling up like a giant melon, so the young man must be blessed with vigorous seed.

“Marry?” Anders stutters, backing away from the chief. “How marry?”
“What do you think?” the chief growls. “You take her to Manaos, you walk into the registry office and you make an honest woman out of her – before  she has the baby!”
“Err,” says Anders,  trying to clear his head from the constant hang-over his drug consumption induces.
“Now,” the chief adds, “or else…” He makes a slashing movement over his throat – an international gesture Anders has no problem interpreting, and he is rather fond of his jugular. But he doesn’t want to marry the chief’s daughter – an opinion he shares with the young woman in question, who just stares at her father.
“Marry him? Why on earth would I do that?”
“Because you’re having his baby!”
“Me?” The chief’s daughter laughs. “No I’m not – this is all excessive flatulence.” She rubs her rather round belly. “I really have to stop eating gluten,” she mutters, before returning her attention to her father. “And even if I was, so what? There are at least five other girls who are potentially pregnant with him, and anyway, what’s with the moral tone, huh? How many babies do you have in the works?”
“Your father is a most virile and powerful chief,” the medicine man puts in. The chief scowls. His love life is neither here nor there. “He’s been sleeping around?” he asks his daughter, jerking his head in the direction of an oblivious Anders. “Where are young people going, eh? No morals, just sex and drugs…” He sets his jaw. “I want him gone – or dead.”
“Dead? I could do dead!” The medicine man brightens. “Now, I could dip him upside down in the water to feed the fishes, or I could cover him in honey and leave him for the ants, or…” His face acquires a dreamy look. The chief eyes him, suppressing a little shudder. “Bloody psycho,” he mutters under his breath, and with a sigh discards the idea of having Anders killed. Plus he doesn’t want the military to pop by – last time it cost him a fortune to bribe those bastards.
“I say let him go,” the chief’s daughter says. “Not much use to keeping him around, is there? He was cute at first, you know, like an overgrown pet, but these days…Nah, the novelty’s worn off. Plus he’s no major thrill in the sack.”
“He isn’t?” The medicine man leans forward. “But he’s so well-endowed.”
“Sheesh!” She rolls her eyes. “Size doesn’t matter, okay?” She crosses her fingers behind her back, because size does matter – to a point – but from the wide smile on the medicine man’s face, she can see she’s made his day.

RousseauThree days later, a still very high Anders is bundled into a canoe, handed a large package of various “herbs” and sent back home. “Ticket, passport, credit card,” the chief mutters, reviewing Anders’ documents before stuffing them in Anders’ back pocket. “Seriously, no phone?” he asks, glaring at the medicine man.
“Nope,” the medicine man says. “No phone.” He shrugs. “They don’t deliver out here, okay? he’ll have to buy one in Manaos.”
After what Anders perceives as a very emotional farewell, the canoe shoves off, and Anders twists so that he can wave to his tribe for as long as he can see them.
“Finally!” says the tribal leader. “Now where are my jeans and my Nikes?”
“I don’t know,” the medicine man replies, adjusting his Ray-bans. He sighs. “Too bad; he would have made a great addition to my collection.”
The chief decides not to ask.

Anders does his trip here in reverse, but with every additional layer of civilisation his anxiety rises, and he clutches his precious bags of herbs, not quite grasping how on earth anyone can live in all this noise, with all these people. Still, the young man has money to make, women to conquer, and so he gets on the plane, returns to Stockholm where he is greeted by a weeping mother – and the Customs officers.
No matter that Anders insists all those herbs he is carrying are for medicinal purposes, the Customs officials remain unconvinced. “Hemp,” one of them repeats. “Marijuana. Hashish.”
“Yes, yes,” Anders waves him quiet. “But it’s for making medicine – good medicine!”
“Huh!” The other Customs official snickers. “And you think we haven’t heard that one before?”

And so it is that Anders ends up in jail. It has its advantages, he reflects, being very clean and very quiet. But now and then he can’t help but dream himself back to that little tributary to the Amazon, to the deep green of the jungle.
“My people,” he sighs (he has a rather dramatic streak) “I will never forget them. Never.” He produces the only photo he has of the chief’s daughter and kisses it, thinking that surely the poor woman is weeping her eyes out, longing for him.

Not. Why on earth should she, when gorgeous Peter from Switzerland has just arrived?

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… 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:

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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.


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.”
The other shifted on his seat before admitting that generally he cut off the head and ate the rest – shell included.
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?



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