Anna Belfrage

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

Every time we say goodbye

A5 Mailer-FrontWhen you have children, the more helpful among your relatives and friends will tell you to make sure and enjoy them, because time is short, and one day your babies will grow into young men with whiskers and leave home. Sort of depressing to hear, when you’re sitting with your arms full of that precious miracle, your firstborn…

My mother-in-law, a woman I loved dearly and miss daily, expressed it somewhat differently. “We only borrow them,” she said, smoothing a lock of bright red hair away from my daughter’s brow. “Remember that; they belong to themselves, and you only have them on loan.” Which, IMO, explains just what parenting is about: to nurture the unique person entrusted to you so that they grow into their – not your – potential.

A lot of people get that wrong. Very many parents see their children as an extension of themselves, which is why you have wannabee football player dads yelling at their kids from the side-lines, when said kid really only wants to build Lego. A parent must be careful so that the weight of their unfulfilled dreams don’t squash their child to death. In fact, a parent must encourage their child to dream their own dreams, no matter how different from the parent’s.

It’s a bit the same way with characters. The writer shapes them to be someone based on the needs of the storyline, but at some point, the characters have developed into beings of their own. No longer can the writer say “jump” and the character will jump, instead they will ask pesky questions, like “why?”

When you’ve written EIGHT books about the same characters, they are no longer restricted to the world for which they were created. No, suddenly these characters have developed into close friends, people whose opinions you value, with whom you’d really love to share a cup of tea or two.
There’s some sort of dependency at work here, people: the characters need the writer to create them, the writer needs the characters to continue creating, and the resulting bond may be imaginary – after all, the characters don’t exist, not really – but real all the same.

Which is why, of course, writing the “last” book is like cutting your heart out. This is when one should think like a parent and let the characters go, to enjoy the green pastures of the ever after, or wherever characters go once that final THE END has been written. Or, alternatively, the writer decides there’s a certain elasticity to the word “last”. Yes, it is the last in the series, but there are a number of unanswered questions, and doesn’t the writer owe it to the readers to tie things into a neat little knot? Not that life ever ends with a little rosette, but the writer suffering withdrawal symptoms doesn’t want to hear that. Nope, the writer who clutches the “last” book to her chest (and just in case you haven’t got it yet, the anonymous writer referred to is ME) and cries buckets must hold on to the hope that she will, at some point, return to visit with her beloved leading man and woman.

Thing is, do Matthew and Alex Graham want me to visit again? Maybe they prefer to ride off into the sunset, their future adventures unrecorded and private.
“Oh, come off it,” Alex Graham says, settling herself as close as she can to the hearth. She shakes out her dark skirts and gives me a sharp look. “Mi casa es tu casa, honey – it always will be.” She tilts her head in the direction of her tall man, and her mouth widens into a dazzling smile. “After all, you gave me him.”
I look at Matthew and my heart swells with pride. Tall, strong, stubborn and brave, he has loved her from the moment he saw her, will love her until, as Robert Burns so beautifully put it, “all the seas go dry my dear, and the rocks melt with the sun, and I will love thee still my dear, while the sands of life will run”. That dear people, is a fact, no matter how imaginary Matthew Graham may be.

I smiled as I wrote the above. I smile even more right now, because suddenly I hear Alex in my head, and she is yelling at Daniel, her minister son, not to be such a straight-laced idiot, and look, isn’t that Matthew, walking side by side with Ian with a musket at hand a grim look on his face? Clearly, “last” is an elastic term for me – and for Alex and Matthew Graham. I pick up my skirts (hey, I try to blend in, okay? 17th century doesn’t go well with sweats and t-shirt) and run after Matthew, quill in hand and heart in my mouth. Why is there so much blood, and what is that obnoxious toad, Richard Campbell grinning about? Well, dear readers, who knows? Maybe I will tell you – in a future book!

Of Alcohol and Devious Merchants – a brief history of Armagnac

äppelblomThe other day, I went into the local liquor store and bought a bottle of Armagnac. It was time, I’d decided, for me to acquire a sophisticated adult vice, and I quite liked the mental image of me curled in the sofa, book in hand and with a glass of Armagnac within reach. Now, buying Armagnac – well, any kind of alcoholic beverage – in Sweden, requires a visit to the state owned Systembolaget, which has a monopoly on all such sales. They earn a mint, are among the world’s largest purchasers of wine and spirits, and never spend as much as a penny on promoting their wares. No, Systembolaget spends a considerable budget on trying to convince Swedish people NOT to drink – or at least not as much. (Swedes have a conflicted relationship with alcohol, let’s leave it at that)

Anyway, obviously this anti-spirits propaganda had not had much effect on me. There I was, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (Umm…) and asking one of the knowledgeable staff where they kept the Armagnac. He laughed when I explained why I wanted to buy it – and it’s not only the pretty colour, but also the name. I mean, say Armagnac, really slow, and it conjures up men lounging in the shade of a giant beech, legs extended before them, polo-mallets littering the ground…Ahem: back to order.

The guy in Systembolaget tried to get me to go for something else instead.
“A nice aged Tequila,” he suggested, and I shook my head, no matter just how much I love The Eagles and Tequila Sunrise. So, fifteen minutes later, I was back outside, now the proud owner of a liquor that as per the guy was “rough on the palate and hot in the belly”. Sounded promising. Sounded ADULT. Sounded sinful – a nice little vice to cultivate.

IMG_6020So why all this hang-up on vices? Well, I have recently come to the conclusion that I need to cultivate an edgier profile. Maybe dye my hair henna red, and start wearing only black. Or start drinking Armagnac – seemed easier. You see, I worry that I am too proper. Outside my books – where adventures, high drama and romantic moments occur recurrently – I am a tad boring. “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee,” I could almost croon, what with preferring water to wine, books to wild parties and nice comfy pants to sexy stockings. Okay, so I do now and then put on those sexy stockings, and yes, I have a collection of lacy bits, but it’s not really me. Me is a day-dreamer who can sit for hours on the meadow at our summer house, surrounded by flowering lupines and the drone of happy bees, while I pretend I’m elsewhere, preferably somewhere that involves horses instead of cars and long, swishing skirts instead of yoga pants.

Being a to-do-list person, I therefore added a couple of items to my (interminable) list:
1. Do something wild and crazy
2. Develop an adult vice
Hubby laughed at me when I shared this with him, winking as he told me that there were some adult vices in my life. Yes, yes, of course there are, but we were talking sophistication here, something to be combined with a husky voice and slinky evening wear. I conveniently forgot I rarely wear slinky evening wear, and my voice is relatively dark anyway.

So there I was with my newly acquired bottle of Armagnac. A beautiful colour, like bottled carnelians. It smelled like the devil though, but as per the guy in the liquor store this was good stuff, however rough on the palate, single-distilled as all good Armagnacs have been since the 15th century. Okay, so now it wasn’t only the colour. Now I had a spirit in my glass that came with history. Anna was a happy camper…

600px-Armoiries_Armagnac-Rodez.svgIt comes as no surprise that Armagnac comes from the Armagnac region. This, in turn, is part of Gascony, famous for important (however fictional) people like d’Artagnan, and for having been under English control for a number of centuries before the French got their act together and ousted the English once and for all in the 15th century.

I’ve never been to this region of France, but from what I understand we are talking countryside – even more so back in the 15th century. Situated to the west of Toulouse and south of Bordeaux, Armagnac nestles into the foothills of the Pyrenees, a region that does not invite easy travelling. Historically, Armagnac used to have its own count, and through an elegant balancing act between English and French demands, the region managed to retain a high level of autonomy – until the Black Prince decided to bring Armagnac to heel. Didn’t work all that well, as the Count of Armagnac appealed to the King of France to come to his help, and from this point on, the rulers of Armagnac held to La France.

This far south in France, the cultural influence from Spain and the ancient Moorish kingdoms was substantial. The University of Montpellier – one of the oldest universities in the world, with a medical school that goes back to the early 12th century – had extensive intellectual exchange with Islamic institutions, which is why the Arab invention of alcohol distilling reached the Languedoc – and Armagnac – as early as the 1410s. Now, the Arabs distilled alcohol for medicinal purposes. The Armagnacs – and others – quickly cottoned on to the other effects of distilled spirits, namely that they could “relieve pain and bring joy”.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_CrécyThe reason why the winemakers of Armagnac eventually took to distilling their precious wine is one of geography and controlled trade. Bordeaux was the wine-trading capital of the Gascon region, and the merchants of Bordeaux had a tendency to protect their own local vine-yards by refusing to sell the wine from the Haut-Pays (the Highlands, eg an area which, among others, encompassed Armagnac). By the mid-15th century, the refusal became a prohibition, whereby Haut-Pays wines could not be traded in Bordeaux prior to December.

This was more or less a catastrophe for the Haut-Pays winemakers. At the time, wine was a fragile product, bottling and preservation techniques far from modern standards. Come December, there was a major risk the wine had gone sour, so the beleaguered Armagnac winemakers had to look elsewhere for the distribution and trading of their product. Enter Bayonne, a smaller city right at the south of France’s Atlantic coast. Problem was, to get the wines there, they had to be transported in barrels on carts, thereby risking the quality. This is when some bright young thing suggested they distill the wines before they sent them off.
“I don’t know,” one of the older wine-makers said. “Does anyone want to drink something as…as…fiery as that?”
“You bet,” Mr eager-for-change said. “Our distilled product – our burned wine – will take the world by storm.”
“Hmm.” The older wine-maker sipped at his mug. Sipped some more. “It does grow on you doesn’t it?”
The other assembled wine-makers agreed it did – most definitely, it did. In a corner, one of the men was slumped on a bench, too drunk to button his cotehardie. One of the more senior wine-makers, a dour man name Jacques, was beaming at the smoky room at large, the cup of brandy in his hand already empty.

And so the beleaguered Armagnac wine-makers decided to embrace change, and soon enough they were all doing their own little distilling – the wine-makers of the region were per definition more prone to experiment than to standardise, which is why to this day there are as many methods of making Armagnac as there are Armagnac brands. Hmm. To me, that seems to overcomplicate things. To the true fans of Armagnac, this means the variety is huge.

Whatever the case, to this day the people of Armagnac proudly insist their brandy is the oldest in the world. There are people who mutter and grumble that being first is not always best – notably the gentlemen of the Cognac region – but in recent years there’s been an explosion in demand for Armagnac, that demand now augmented by my desire to explore the world of adult vices.

the-summer-poppy-fieldIn the event, I am sad to report that I remain of the opinion that nothing beats water or tea. That single glass of Armagnac was the equivalent of swallowing fire, and I must say I’m with the ancient Arabs in this: as a medicinal device, designed to revive the almost-dead, distilled wine is a great and magnificent thing. For me, I’m thinking I’m more like Ferdinand the Bull – I prefer to sit among the flowers. And as to what I did that was wild and crazy, well, some things are best left unshared :)

Waiting for the annual miracle

IMG_0095The wagtail has arrived. Five days late, but still. (And yes, the wagtail tends to be very exact, showing up on April 6th. Not so this year) Over the newly ploughed fields the lapwings dip and wheel, the wrens and sparrows are squabbling in the shrubs and the willow is in full, if muted, flower, the silver catkins converted into miniature greenish yellow powderpuffs.  As yet, the trees stand stark and denuded against the pale blue April skies, but the buds are swelling and the birch bleeds sap.

There is scilla under the brambles, colt’s-foot in the ditches, and where the sun filters through, the forest ground is carpeted with anemones, shy little things that retract their white flowers if the day is too cold, too cloudy. Spring is in the air, as they say, and there is an element of anticipation, a desire to strip and run out naked to welcome back the sun. I don’t, of course – I’d freeze my butt off.

It’s as if the entire Nature is holding its breath, not quite believing spring is back, with warmth and long, long days of sunlight. A couple of weeks in which it all hangs in balance, while irrevocably the Earth turns and the sun’s heat comes closer. Days in which every glimpse of the sun is a promise, in which every freezing wind carries the dying breath of winter.

I wait. I collect signs of spring as others collect stamps. Look, the nettles are showing, and in the protected corner just by the house, the Monk’s Hood has broken through the earth, pinnated leaves like dark green lace. I inspect my roses and taste the wind, trying to decide whether it is safe to prune them. In the mornings, I wake to frosted windows and frozen puddles, but I refuse to wear my winter coat, shivering in the icy air as I tell myself that it is April, and therefore spring.

IMG_0093The chestnut by our house is decorated with heavy sticky buds, the pod straining to hold the bud closed, while the newborn leaves within clamour that they want to escape their confining prison. The pod cracks, and a glimmer of green can be seen within. Does it hurt? Maybe it does, maybe that is why spring stands on the threshold and waits, not quite daring to break through the constraints of winter.

One of our more famous Swedish poets, Karin Boye, expresses it thus:

Of course it hurts when buds break open,
Why else would spring hesitate?
Why would all our heated desire
remain fettered in frozen bitterness?
The pod was there throughout the winter
so what is it that now pounds and strains within?
Of course it hurts when buds break open,
for that which grows, and that which is burst open.
(own translation)

Every year, life returns. Every year, we are blessed with the miracle of seeing our world reborn. Gratitude sings in my veins, life pounds in my blood. I am alive – and so is the world!

And for those that just want to shape their mouths around the Swedish version of Karin Boye’s poem, see below.

Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister.
Varför skulle annars våren tveka?
Varför skulle all vår heta längtan
bindas i det frusna bitterbleka?
Höljet var ju knoppen hela vintern.
Vad är det för nytt, som tär och spränger?
Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister,
ont för det som växer och det som stänger.

The Neanderthal within

The other day, I was out walking with second son. To do so, is not only physically exerting (we went on a long walk), but also intellectually challenging, as this boy of mine has been gifted with a vivid and mobile intellect that has him leap-frogging from discussions as to what exactly happened when Rome fell (an incorrect term, he points out, as it never actually fell, it sort of dissipated) to the fantastic opportunities offered by genetic algorithms (and no, I don’t really understand, but I’ve gathered this is a collective describing a situation where mathematicians develop multiple algorithms, “mate” them, and see what happens next, a mathematical application of Darwinism, if you will).

I must admit to letting my mind wander to other things when he goes too in depth. An adequate “mmm” or “really?” keeps him going while I consider just what to cook for dinner or if it is warm enough to prune the roses. Mostly, though, I listen and learn, rather impressed (and yes, I am biased) by the things he knows, and just how broad his interests are. So when he halfway through the walk brings up the Human Genome project I am not particularly surprised. Nor am I all that surprised when he follows up with an account of how the team behind the Human Genome Mapping approached mapping Neanderthal genome. Even I understand it must be quite the challenge to match the genome of an extinct species, and I am quite fascinated when second son describes how the Neanderthal tradition of eating the marrow of their dead was crucial to conserving their DNA. Turns out that bone sucked dry of marrow still retains some traces of marrow, but so little it dries more or less instantly, thereby bypassing the rotting stage that would contaminate the marrow with bacteria. (It is quite fascinating, isn’t it?)

Anyway, the conclusion of the whole genome thing was that essentially modern day man and the Neanderthals had a lot in common. Like 99,8% in common. Son points out that these “in common” discussions are a bit dangerous, as we actually have 50% of or so of our DNA in common with a banana, but rarely do we define ourselves as fruits. (Oops! The banana is NOT a fruit. Well hang on; yes it is, except it is also a herb. Almost as complicated as a human being…)

We went on to discuss why the Neanderthals died out, how come the shape of their chests were so different from ours (news to me) and whether or not they were capable of abstract thinking. Absolutely, is my conclusion. A species that buries its dead (albeit marrow-less in some cases), has some sort of advanced communication and lives in complex tribal systems, was probably fully capable of now and then tilting its head towards the heavens and ask that classic existential question, “why am I here?” A large chunk of our walk was covered while talking about this, now and then interrupted by son’s desire to study a particular type of moss, or to poke at the thick layer of frog’s eggs in jelly that floated in some of the pools of water we passed.

What really did surprise me was when second son told me that Northern Europeans have traces of Neanderthal genome. Not, he hastened to point out, to a massive extent, but enough to indicate that at some point the ancestors of modern man and the Neanderthals met and mated. For some odd reason, that made my day. I have Neanderthal DNA and I’m proud of it! Besides, having devoured the Ayla books when young and impressionable (Am I the only one who has fond memories of Jondalar, I wonder?) I have a fond relationship with the people of the Clan of the Cave Bear. So fond, I have found the prevalent theory that the Cro Magnon man brutally hunted and murdered their Neanderthal cousins very disturbing. Now, it seems, there is room for a touch of romance…

I go all twinkly-eyes, imagining this ancient joining of him and her, a primitive Romeo and Juliet story starring him in smelly skins and her in…taa-daa…smelly skins. Second son jostles me and shakes his head. “That’s probably not how it happened.”
“No?” I say, disappointed.
“Nope.” He ruffles my hair – and I don’t mind, because this is my son, the boy become man who combines his impressive mental skills with a heart the size of an elephant. “Man has great capacity for cruelty against those considered lesser beings.”
Yeah. And instead of my starry-eyed couple, I see a bewildered girl, led off by a group of dirty men, while round the campfire behind them lie the still bodies of the girl’s father, her brother. I decide to interrupt this little sequence before it gets too grim.

VanGogh-starry_night_ballance1Whatever the case, maybe it is that long ago girl, whether victim or lover, who has bequeathed me that remnant of Neanderthal genes. Maybe it is because of her I can stand for hours under the starry winter nights and wonder why I am here and where I might be going. A question as old as the DNA that sings in my veins, as ancient as the human race. A question my little Neanderthal girl may have expressed with bitterness and fear as she clutched her half-breed baby to her chest. But I hope not. I hope she asked it with someone holding her hand.
“Mum!” Second son rolls his eyes and says something about romantic fools.
Hey; I prefer my fairy-tale version, okay?

Sweet like candy – a variation of authors

SelectionBoxImage

Have I told you I am struggling to cut back on chocolate? No, I don’t think I have, have I? Whatever the case, in my present chocolate-craving state, the cover of the Silverwood Selection Box is enough to have me salivating – and that’s before I open it to peek inside…

The Silverwood Selection Box is an anthology that introduces ten Silverwood authors, spanning everything from fiction through poetry to non-fiction. It serves as an excellent introduction to unknown authors, and seeing as it is free, it’s an opportunity to browse at length.

Yes, I am among the featured authors – and damned proud of it. At the bottom of this post, there are links to the various authors and I recommend you to do some hopping about. In celebration of this little selection box, I have been asked to contribute with a post that “relates to the matter included”, which essentially describes how the heroine of The Graham Saga, my Alex, falls three centuries through time. I must admit to having spent some time on considering just what relates to such a life-changing event. Sadly, I cannot say I have any personal experience of travelling through time.

I have recently posted about some of the downsides of time travelling – as perceived by Alex (see here). If I’m going to be quite honest I think the concept of time travelling is far more titillating than the actual doing it. I mean, how fun would it be to end up back in London in the 1340s, with the Black Death in full swing? Or to land in Krakatoa, seconds before it exploded? Or to spend the rest of your life in the dreary, damp Edinburgh of the sixteen hundreds, where sometimes the only lunch that you got was what could be scraped out of the porridge drawer? For those of you that don’t have a porridge drawer, this was a drawer (duh!) in which leftover porridge was poured and left to solidify. It could then be cut into convenient slices and used as portable lunch food. Sounds an utter delight, doesn’t it?

Now, my Alex is spared Krakatoa and the Black Death – although the plague is a definite threat in the 1660s. She never warms to the idea of the porridge drawer, and instead does her best to ensure the people she loves acquire somewhat healthier eating habits. Not that there is any risk of splurging on chocolates or cake, but all that salted fish and meat, all that over-boiled cabbage is not exactly Alex’s cup of tea. And talking of tea, this is something Alex sorely misses, as when she first lands on that Scottish moor where Matthew Graham finds her, tea is still a very long way off from being available.

However, I would argue that the truly life-changing event for Alex is not falling three hundred odd years backwards in time to land in 1658. No, what permanently alters her life is Matthew Graham. Does Alex believe in love at first sight? Not likely. (Not that it matters: this author believes in love at first sight, so Alex is struck by Cupid’s bolts whether she likes it or not). But Matthew stirs something deep inside of her, and it is as if all those little jagged holes she has inside of her – consequence of previous events in her life – heal themselves under his touch, his magical hazel eyes. The way he looks at her, how he holds her – she may be lost in time, but she is found in love. I know, it sounds almost too sweet to be palatable – which, of course, is why I’ve added the spicier ingredients of a treacherous brother, a determined avenger who follows Alex through time, the unstable political situation (Cromwell dead, Charles Stuart waiting in the wings), a rather nasty witch-hunting minister, and the general confusion Alex experiences at being jettisoned into an environment she knows nothing about.

I am a firm believer in love – not the “scorch my sheets and leave me panting for more all the time” love (although this is a nice little extra which most of us enjoy experiencing now and then), but rather the “I’m here for you whatever happens” love. The love that is so beautifully described in 1st Corinthians, Chapter 13:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

That is what Alex finds with Matthew (although they do their fair share of scorching). That is what carries them through a life filled with adventure, with joy and with grief. That, people, is a life-changing event. In comparison, falling through time is no more than a walk in the park!

The SilverWood Selection Box is available for free from:

SilverWood Books
KoboBooks
ITunes

And priced 99p from

Amazon
Barnes and Noble

And should you want to find out more about the authors (which of course you do) why not hop along to the blogs/websites of the other authors in the Selection Box?

Adrian Churchward
Alison Morton 
Harvey Black
Helen Hollick 
Edward Hancox
Michael Brown
David Ebsworth
Lucienne Boyce

The royal impediment – of a king and his heir

Gustavo-III,-Rey-de-Suecia_1777-by-Roslin

Gustav III by Roslin

Most people know very little about Swedish history – and that comment is valid for most Swedish people as well. If people know anything at all, they may have heard of Queen Kristina (because she abdicated and converted to Catholicism) or her bellicose father (Gustav II Adolf, for modernising warfare and pillaging the European continent). Some have heard of Karl XII, that warrior king of ours who supposedly was shot to death with a button. (Hmm. Will revert on that one) And then, of course, there’s the king of operatic fame, that graceful dandy who did everything he could to yank his backward, rustic kingdom into more sophisticated times. So, ladies and gents, today I give you Gustav III, the man who gave the elegant flourish a face in Sweden. Well, he gave Sweden a lot more than that, including the the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet, the Royal Theatre and the Royal Swedish Academy (of Nobel prize fame) as well as a couple of fantastic theatres and a number of beautiful buildings. But what he’s famous for is his death, shot in the back while enjoying his Masquerade Ball. Oh yes; and then there’s the matter of his son…

Gustav was the son of Adolf Fredrik – the dude who ate himself to death, see here for more about him. Maybe his father’s early demise made Gustav more than aware of the dangers of excesses – at least when it came to food – and he remained slender and in good shape throughout his life. The clothes he was wearing when he was shot indicate a man we would consider slight, a tight fit to both the coats and trousers that would display an agile and wiry physique. Didn’t help much…

Our young hero was in Paris, imbibing the sophistication of  all things French when his father died. He hastened home immediately, and a year or so later he pulled off a bloodless coup that effectively muzzled parliament, making Gustav III an absolute monarch. Ultimately, this high-handed behaviour would cost him his life. Many were the men who were more than upset at seeing a return to a form of government based on the divine rights of the king – no matter how enlightened a despot Gustav III might be.

This little coup of his is considered one of the better examples of a well-planned hostile take-over. Even historians who have little fondness for Gustav III, can’t but admire just how elegantly he played the masses on that sunny day in August of 1772 when he effectively deposed parliament and replaced it with himself. Not, Gustav III hastened to assure the confounded spectators, out of any genuine desire to rule, but because he felt it necessary to defend “our common Swedish liberties”. People hear what they want to hear, and Gustav III was handsome and gracious, a man who happily paraded himself before his subjects, more than aware of the importance of good PR.

Gustav-III-Sweden

Gustav III

Of course the man wanted to rule! He wanted to sink his hands into the rustic mess that was Sweden and shake it into appropriate Continental shape. Gustav III wanted glitter and glamour, he wanted French fashion and French food, Italian statues and architecture. His passion in life was the theatre, and to this day, two of the theatres he built remain in existence. The king himself was no mean actor and an even better director, filling his court with masques and operas, with emotional tragedies and lighthearted comedies, with dancers that capered about like fauns, with handsome men and delightful ladies.

The Swedes were okay with the theatrics, and they liked the delightful ladies part. A lot. The rest, they were less enthusiastic about. The King himself was not a ladies’ man. In fact, he seems to have been rather uninterested in the more erotic aspects of life, this due to a “physical impediment” that had his lady mother quite convinced her precious Gustav would never sire any children.

Alexander_Roslin_-_King_Gustav_III_of_Sweden_and_his_Brothers_-_Google_Art_Project

Three brothers: Gustav to the left

Fortunately for Sweden, Gustav had two younger brothers who more than made up for his deficiencies in the erotic areas, lining up an impressive collection of mistresses.  It was to Duke Carl and Duke Fredrik Adolf that Dowager Queen Louisa Ulrika set her hope when it came to grandchildren, but for all their enthusiastic bedding, neither of these two gentlemen left any legitimate children. Their older brother, however, did – despite the impediment. Or did he?

Sofia Magdalena by Roslin

Sofia Magdalena by Roslin

Let us backtrack a bit: In 1766, the then twenty-year-old Gustav had informed his mother that he intended to go through with the planned marriage to Sofia Magdalena, Danish princess. Gustav’s mother was not pleased. Her future daughter-in-law was not her choice. As to the princess herself, she wasn’t given any choice, and arrived in Sweden in November of 1766.

Where Gustav was outgoing and energetic, Sofia Magdalena was shy and phlegmatic. Where he was a man with a genuine appreciation of the arts, she was deeply religious and somewhat staid. He was happiest in front of an audience. She preferred being alone. In Gustav’s own words, he perceived his bride as being “ice cold”. She, apparently, never expressed an opinion. With so little in common, it is no surprise the newlyweds were far from happy.  They lived separate lives, had as little as possible to do with each other, and where Gustav lived his life in the public eye, his wife preferred to melt into the background. So incompatible were they, that the marriage was not consummated. Not something anyone found particularly strange, given that little impediment.

By the late 1770s, Gustav had begun to realise his brothers weren’t about to fill a nursery. The royal line was threatened by extinction, so Gustav took a deep breath, downed a cup or two of fortifying wine, and … turned to his stable master for help. Said stable master was a Finnish gentleman named Adolf Munck, who, by all accounts, was well endowed and more than experienced in bedsport. In fact, Munck had the reputation of being a major rake, quite an achievement in an environment as libertine as that of Gustav III’s court.

Claiming “inexperience”, the king demanded Munck’s assistance in the royal bedchamber. And here I must just stop and take a breath, wondering how on earth this played out and just what poor Sofia Magdalena might have thought of all this. It’s not as she could close her eyes and think of England…

As per Munck’s memoirs, he was obliged to “physically touch and guide” so as to ensure consummation took place. His contemporaries were far more crude, as can be seen in this caricature.  The Dowager Queen was more inclined to believe the artist than her son’s version – especially given the very expensive watch Sofia Magdalena presented Munck with. When the court announced the Queen was expecting, the Dowager Queen called a meeting with her younger sons, explained that she wasn’t about to let the bastard of an up-and-coming Finn usurp their royal rights, and actively went about spreading the rumours that her eldest son, the king, was a cuckold and the expected child a bastard. After all, she added sadly, she knew for a fact her eldest son was incapable of ever fathering a child. Nice lady…

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Louisa Ulrika – not a nice lady

Predictably, Gustav III flew into a rage.He banished his mother from Sweden, but was convinced to allow her to stay if she issued a writ, stating all her previous statements had been malicious gossip, which she did. Except, of course, that when some months later, a little prince saw the light of the day, the Dowager Queen sent Gustav III a letter in which she expressed she was happy for him but hoped that the scales would soon drop from his eyes and have him realise the baby was no prince. This time, the rift between mother and son became permanent. Only when Louisa Ulrika lay on her deathbed were they reconciled – ironically with the then four-year-old crown prince present…

By all accounts, Gustav was fond of his son, little Gustav Adolf. He was even more fond of son number two, born four years later, but this child was not destined to live. Gustav took his death very hard – so hard some of the more cold-hearted among his companions took it for an indirect admission that only the youngest boy was Gustav’s true-born son. Gustav recovered from the loss of his son and went back to his life of arts and theatre, of planned spectacles and lavish parties. And to ruling his nation, of course.

Gustav III was in many ways a competent ruler. Influenced by the Enlightenment, he revised the judicial system, restricted the use of the death penalty, advocated religious liberty (to a point), implemented laws to protect the poor, promoted free trade in some areas, reviewed fiscal policy and even allowed a certain freedom of press. In 1778, he presented all his achievements to Parliament and was hailed and lauded by its members. Some of the savvier members, however, noted that the king repeatedly drove home that it was he, not Parliament, that held the power. These savvier members were less than happy with the development, and when next the king called a Parliament, in 1786, his opponents had prepared themselves. This time, each and every one of the king’s suggestions were either rejected or so modified the king himself retracted them. Gustav’s solution to the dilemma posed by the uncooperative Parliament was simple: he ignored them.

In 1788, Gustav resorted to that most ancient of distracting devices, he declared war on Russia. Some of his more level-headed aristocratic officers were appalled, and mutinied. This gave Gustav just the excuse he needed. Swiftly, he squashed the mutiny and called a Parliament, explaining that in the present circumstances the future of Sweden was at stake unless he was given unlimited (well, more or less) powers. These hot-blooded aristocrats needed to be brought to heel, he added, throwing an elegant sop at the feet of the other three Estates (The Swedish Parliament consisted of four Estates: The aristocracy, the clergy, the burghers and the farmers) Parliament agreed – or at least three of the Estates did – and the act of Union and Security was passed, whereby the king was given almost unrestricted executive powers. Parliament, however, wisely chose to remain in control of the purse strings.

Gustav III won his war with Russia. Life, in his opinion, was pretty good, albeit that he was very concerned about the development in France. He should have been as concerned about certain events in his own country. The disgruntled aristocrats had had enough, and under Gustav III’s very nose, a conspiracy grew. It is said that the conspiracy numbered close to 3 000 people. “Never has a conspiracy had so many members, never has the vows of secrecy been so carefully kept.” At some point, the more daring among the conspirators decided the king had to die. That caused a couple of swallows: regicide is never pretty, and as most of the leading conspirators were aristocrats, they definitely didn’t want to inspire something similar to the bloodbath presently drenching France. Still, at some point they nodded solemnly and agreed: the king must die.

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The clothes Gustav III was shot in

On March 16, 1792, Gustav III held a magnificent Masquerade Ball at the Royal Opera House. Everyone was there – including a number of the men charged with the task to kill him. One of the involved men suffered a case of cold feet and sent the king a warning, but Gustav III did not take it seriously – he received such warnings too often to do so. No sooner did he enter the large ballroom but he was surrounded by a group of men in black masks and black cloaks. Moments later, a shot went off, and the king cried out “Je suis blessé, tirez-moi d’ici et arrêtez-le!” (I am hurt, carry me away from here and arrest him).

The king was immediately transported to a separate room and placed on a sofa. All other exits to the Opera were sealed. Meanwhile, the king was doing his best to make light of things, conversing with the few people allowed in to see him, joking about the spreading stain of blood on his cloak and the sofa. At long last, arrangements were made to carry him back to the palace. He is said to have laughed – if weakly – when lifted, saying that here he was, being carried about like the pope.

By the morning, the man who had fired the gun, a certain Anckarström, was under arrest. He had actually managed to flee the Opera, but his gun was left behind, and a gunsmith recognised it. Anckarström immediately confessed to murder, but denied the existence of any conspiracy. However, other people were arrested, and pretty soon the extent of the conspiracy became clear, even if most of those arrested refused to name anyone.

The king, however, still lived. The shot had hit him in the lower back, to the side, and the physicians were hopeful of saving his life – at least initially. But when infection set in, it became apparent to all that the king would die, and a slow painful death it was, until at last, on March 29, he expired. So died a king who lived and breathed art, whose love of song and language left behind a legacy of poets and composers. So died a king who insisted on his divine right to rule, yet applauded the birth of the United States of America (Sweden was one of the first nations to recognise the fledgling state, the king having expressed that were it not for the fact that he was a king, he’d be more than happy to join the courageous effort to create a new country). An enigma in some ways, a sunny extrovert in others. A man who always knew that the world it is a stage, and a king must live and die, forever in the public eye.

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Anckarström being flogged

Anckarström was executed. For three days, he was whipped publicly before being beheaded before a huge and silent crowd. The rest of the conspirators went back to their normal lives, and the fourteen-year-old Gustav Adolf was crowned as king. But was he truly the son of Gustav III? Wasn’t there an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Munck? Gossip flew unhindered now that Gustav III was dead, and among those who spread the rumours about the new little king’s parentage were his uncles and aunt.

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Gustav IV Adolf

When, in 1809, Gustav Adolf was forced to abdicate (he was blamed – to some extent deservedly – for the loss of Finland), he did so to safeguard the crown for his own little son. Parliament was having none of it, barring Gustav Adolf’s children from the succession. Yet again, that infamous little impediment came into play, and instead of the ten-year-old potential grandson of Gustav III, Parliament chose to give the crown to Gustav’s senile brother, Duke Carl, who ascended the throne as Carl XIII. Gustav Adolf and his family were sent off to exile, and instead of a true-born heir to the Swedish throne, a certain French marshal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, was adopted by Carl XIII.

Many years later, in 1882, Gustav Bernadotte (soon to be Gustav V of Sweden)  was to marry the great-granddaughter of Gustav IV Adolf, Victoria of Baden. A vindication of sorts, even if by then the man who lived his life in the shadow of his father’s impediment had been dead for fifty years. As a consequence of this wedding, Gustav Adolf’s remains were brought back to Sweden, together with those of his son and his baby grandson, and re-interred. Somehow, I think they were beyond caring by then.

Lose some, win some – or the vagaries of time travel

I haven’t bragged about it here, but the first book in The Graham Saga, A Rip in the Veil, was recently selected Book of the Month by The Review. I am more than honoured – and proud enough to require someone to prick me before I float off…

Anyway, as part of this honour, I was invited to write a guestpost for The Review. I was sort of planning on reblogging, but The Review is on Blogger, I am on WordPress, and the resulting technical challenges are such that I have instead chosen to publish the post directly here – with the kind permission of The Review. The original post can be found here.

So, without more ado, here is a little something in which I converse with my dear Alex Graham, protagonist of The Graham Saga and by now as dear to me as my children (well, almost)

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There was something dejected about Alex that autumn day. She came walking without her normal bounce, eyes turned inward, and I scooted to the side, patting at the stone beside me in invitation.
Alex sighed – deeply.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, running recent events through my head. As far as I could make out, she and Matthew were as happy as always, both of them lit up from within in each other’s presence. I pursed my mouth; at times, I worried that I’d made them too dependent on each other, thereby making them devastatingly vulnerable to the other’s absence. Should anything happen to either of them…My thoughts drifted away, and the outline of book number 2 in the series took shape, making my stomach knot itself in protest. Could I really put them through that much pain? So many horrors? Yes, I decided, I could – and I had to.

Yet another sigh from Alex returned me to the present – well, the present in the sense that here I was, having a therapeutic conversation with my make-believe (but oh, so real) protagonist of The Graham Saga. And before you all roll your eyes at me, muttering depreciating comments about batty writers, let me state that I firmly believe all writers develop strong relationships with their characters. It’s just that some prefer not to shout this to the world at large…

“Honey?” I stroked her back. The russet broadcloth strained over her rounded back, Joan’s former bodice was a tad too small, having been let out to fit Alex’s substantially rounder frame. Don’t get me wrong; it’s more a question of Joan being very thin. The woman shares her uncommon height with her brother Matthew, but where he is muscle and wide shoulders, a strong broad chest and long, powerful legs, Joan is thin and supple like a willow twig – and as unbreakable.
“One of those days,” Alex muttered. She extended her legs, studying her worn boots. “Sometimes…” She bit off, shaking her head.
“Yes?” I prompted.
“I miss it,” she said simply. “I miss the buzz, the sound of music spilling from a radio, the smell of sun on hot asphalt, the luxury of electricity, of hot water at the turn of a tap.” She kicked at a rock. “But that’s just stuff, right? I can do without the stuff…” She chuckled, somewhat sadly. “…well, I have to do without the stuff, don’t I? – but today I miss the people.”
“Like Magnus,” I said. Who wouldn’t miss a father like Magnus. Into this tall blond man, I’d poured all the qualities I would have liked in a parent – and some of them my real father most definitely had, but most he didn’t.
“Yeah.” Alex gave me quick look. “You miss him too, don’t you?”
“Magnus?” I shook my head. “I can find him anytime I want – I just have to open one of my manuscripts.”
“Uh-uh. That wasn’t what I meant.” Alex shoved at me. “I meant your father.”
Okay, so how had this conversation ended up being about me? But the thing is, it’s difficult to lie to your characters – after all, they’re a part of you, and so to lie to them is to lie to yourself.
“I do.” I smiled at nothing in particular. “But especially I miss that there is so little to miss, you know?”
“Like with my mother.” Alex’s mouth tightened. She disliked talking about Mercedes – and in her present 17th century environment it made sense not to talk about a woman who painted portals through time. Being a witch in the here and now came with substantial risks.
“Maybe.” I rubbed at a spot of something greasy on her sleeve.
“Tallow,” she explained. “Those candles stink like hell.” She leaned back, face to the weak sun, and closed her eyes. “Will I ever see them again?”
“Magnus and John, you mean?”
“No, Tony Blair and Clinton,” she retorted sarcastically. “Will I?” Her voice softened, a begging quality to it.
“I don’t know.” I took a deep breath. “If I write you back, I may not be able to ensure your return to Matthew.”
Her face paled, the fingers on the stone tightening on the moss. “Why not? You’re the writer.”
“Logic.” I tugged at a stand of faded grass. “You fell through time due to a number of circumstances. Yes, you could – potentially – be dragged back the same way. But then what? You think I’ll be able to produce yet another humongous thunderstorm?”
“But her paintings!” Alex shivered, pulling the shawl closer round her shoulders. “I can use one of them, can’t I?”
“Sorry, honey. Magnus has destroyed them all.” Not quite – but not even Magnus knew he’d missed one. I leaned close enough to see her eyes. “I can write you back – of course I can. But if I do, you’ll probably never see Matthew again.”
“Never?” Her mouth wobbled. Her gaze locked on the distant house, the dark slate of the roof wet after the recent shower. The door to the kitchen opened and the household filed out, men and women in dark clothes who spoke to each other as they made their way across the yard.
“Bible class done?” I asked, knowing for a fact Alex was more than creative when it came to avoiding these – in her opinion – far too lengthy discussions about God and faith. A point of contention between her and Matthew.
“Obviously.” She fiddled with her cap, ensuring it covered her hair. “He could come with me.”
“He could. But do you think he would be happy there?” I had serious doubts about that. Matthew Graham had his roots firmly planted in the soils of his day and age. Alex considered this in silence while adjusting her shawl and collar.
“No.” She sounded dejected. “It would kill him, I think. He belongs here.” And so, per definition, do you, I thought, smiling in her direction. Not that she noticed, all her attention trained on the house.

Matthew appeared in the doorway, and beside me Alex softened, mouth curving into a smile, hitherto so tense shoulders dropping an inch or so. She ate him with her eyes, this tall well-built man with dark, curling hair. As if drawn by magnets, his gaze leapt up the hillside, finding her. He raised his hand and came striding towards us – well, her. Sometimes, Matthew tended to ignore my presence.
“He’s mad at me,” she stated, watching his movements.
“Yeah, he doesn’t like it when you miss class,” I teased. I covered her hand. “So what will it be, Alex? Will you stay here, with him, or go back to John? To Magnus and Isaac?”
At the mention of her son, she started. “Isaac,” she said softly. “Is he alright?”
“He is. Between them, John and Magnus are spoiling him rotten.”
“So they’re all doing fine without me, aren’t they?” Alex stood up, brushing her apron into neatness.
“They are. Yes, they miss you, but life goes on.”
“It wouldn’t for him,” she said, looking at the man presently leaping up the slope. “And it wouldn’t for me either – not without him.”
“No,” I agreed. “It would be one long slow march towards death – for both of you.”
“I’m staying.” She was already moving away from me, to him.

I watched as they met, and whatever remarks he had planned to make about her absence were forgotten when she flung her arms around his neck.
“Lass?” He wiped at her face. “Why are you weeping?”
Alex just shook her head, rising on her toes to kiss him into silence. Large hands slid round her waist and drew her close – impossibly close. He murmured her name when she released his mouth, hazel eyes wide and luminous as he looked at her.

I left them to it – at times, being a writer is uncomfortably like being a Peeping Tom. With a little wave I walked off. None of them noticed, lost in their own private little world. As it should be, I suppose. After all, I’d created them to be like that – two halves made a whole, at their strongest when together, at their weakest when apart.

A Woman and her Wicked Ways

Some years ago, I was in Poland on a business trip. Like most of my trips, it was one of those short in-and-out visists, and it would probably have been filed away as utterly unmemorable if it hadn’t been for an incident at the airport.

Now those of you that travel frequently, know that one airport is pretty much like any opther airport. You check in, line up to make it through security, and while you’re waiting you study the people in front of you to assess if you can keep your shoes on yes or no, if you’ll have to take the computer out of its case, and if they’re picky about jewellery and watches. In some cases, they insist you take it off, in others, they just wave you through.

There were two security lines in the airport that day. I was talking to a nice American guy, who was making me laugh by explaining just how stressful he found this take your shoes off bit – he now went about with a constant hang-up on socks, because who wanted to have their big toe peep through a hole?

Our line was flowing along quite nicely. The other line had ground to a halt, and an excited Italian gentleman was making a lot of noise about this. American guy and I shared a look: making noise doesn’t help. Complaining doesn’t help. Making sarcastic if funny comments doesn’t help. While you’re in a security line, you’re at the mercy of the staff – something they know just as well as you do. To rile people with such temporary power, is to risk missing your flight.

At the front of the halted security line was a woman. I’d guess her to be somewhere between fifty and sixty, expensive matching computer bag and handbag on the conveyor belt. She didn’t want to take of her high-heeled black shoes, her body language making it quite clear that to set her stockinged feet on the potentially filthy floor was more than repulsive to her.

Well, some fights you can’t win, so after some arm waving and a heated exchange in something I’m guessing to be Polish, she took off her shoes, displaying their bright red undersoles to the world as she placed them in a little tray.

She swept through the barrier. It beeped. She was sent back, the man manning the barrier indicating she should take of her necklaces. The woman’s voice became shrill. Her body language spoke of an urge to ram something down the security officer’s throat. The man in question was young, dressed in an impeccable uniform. He spoke in a low voice. She stabbed at him with her finger. He shrugged. With a “hmph!” that carried through the entire airport, she took off necklaces and bracelet, her watch and her belt.

In only a black dress, a short little black jacket, the lady attempted the barrier again. It beeped. By now, activity in our line too had come to a halt. Attendants and passengers were all watching the drama in the other line.
The American guy snickered. “Think she has a bomb under that?” he gestured at her tightfitting dress. I had no idea. But I felt sorry for her, especially when the attendant now suggested she take of her coat, gesturing at the zippered pockets.
Our heroine complied. In only dress and stockings, she strode forward. Beeeeeeep! One didn’t need to understand Polish to follow the ensuing conversation:
“You’ve got to be kidding me! There’s something wrong with your machine, not me.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’ll have to do a manual inspection.”
“What, you? No way! I insist on a female attendant.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, we don’t have any on call at present.”
“Well then find one!” The lady returned to the other side of the barrier. Hands flew, arms were shaken. The attendant made an apologetic gesture. The woman said something very rude, to judge from the way various men snickered and looked at each other. And just like that, she bent over, took hold of the hem of her dress and pulled it over her head, throwing it to land on the conveyor belt.

In a lacy bra, as lacy knickers, a garter belt and stockings, she looked …umm… striking.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” American guy said, staring at the apparition who was glowering at the horrified attendant. As a last gesture, she pulled the pins out of her hair, and it fell in soft waves down to her shoulders. Bottle blond, I can tell you, but all the same.
One of the older attendants yelled at her. The lady sniffed, raised her head, and pranced through the barrier. It still beeped. But this time, the young attendant snatched her dress off the conveyor belt, pressed it into her arms and more or less shoved her towards the other side and the waiting departure gates. The lady grinned and did the V-sign. A round of spontaneous applause followed.

So, did the lady have a bomb secreted in her bra or knickers? I have no idea. But I do go out of my way to wear nice underwear and dresses when I’m travelling. After all, one never knows when an impromptu little striptease might come in handy!

Bottoms up!

IMG_0548Us Swedes like our herring. And with herring, we serve chilled akvavit, served in small glasses. When we eat herring and drink to the herring, we often sing, strange songs about pike fish with legs (but that one we can blame on the Finns, it’s their song) or about hopping frogs, or about girls that ride pigs (naughty, won’t go there). As the consumption of akvavit increases, the will to sing decreases. Maybe not the will, maybe it’s more about the capacity to sing. This is when yet another little Finnish song comes in handy, the one word “nu!” (now). Or we skip the songs altogether, going for a loud “skål”. When my father reached this stage, he would occasionally holler “Andrea Doria” instead, looking somewhat guilty.

Why the guilt, one wonders. Well, thing is Andrea Doria is a ship that sank, went bottoms up, so to say. And while many of my father’s generation found this little version of “cheers” funny, they were also aware of the fact that they were making fun of a tragedy, ergo the twinge of shame. So what happened to Andrea Doria?

Allow me to take you back to the 1950s. The world had survived the war, and after years of restrictions, global economy was taking off. People had money, and that global phenomenon, mass tourism, was about to take off. As yet, most of the travelling across the Atlantic was done by ship, but air travel was beginning to eat into the previous so profitable Atlantic shipping routes. The solution to the profit squeeze was to create floating entertainment centres – voilá, the luxury cruise liner was born.

Initially, it was mostly about bracing sea air and playing shuffleboard, but soon enough these floating hotels were ferrying people from one side of the pond to the other, there to take in the sights. Many Americans had Italian roots, ergo they wanted to go to Italy. The Italian Line catered to these wishes, with a fleet of ship that went back and forth. Being proud not only of its fantastic food but also of its Italian heritage, the Italian Line named its ships after famous Italians, at times something of a misnomer as many of the people so honoured never defined themselves as Italian, but rather as Florentines, or Veronese, or Venetians. Whatever the case, when Italian Line decided to launch their new, top of the range cruiser, they named it Andrea Doria.

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Mr Doria, as Neptune

Andrea Doria the man was a seafaring man, a proud Genoese. Born somewhere around 1466, he spent his younger years as a soldier of fortune, at some point transferring from land to sea, where he quickly became a successful naval commander, serving the interests of Genoa. At the time, Italy was being torn apart by Francis I of France and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. While Doria was chasing Turks and pirates over the Mediterranean, Francis invaded Genoa, and for some time Doria served the French king, but finding him miserly, he switched sides. In return, the Holy Roman Emperor helped oust the French from Genoa, and Doria was allowed to set up a republic, albeit within the umbrella of Charles V’s massive empire.

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Lepanto

Years of fighting the Turks, the Barbary pirates, the French – Doria was not a man to sit about, serving his imperial master well into his ninth decade. He was given command of the assembled navies in 1538 to finally defeat the Ottoman Turks, but at the Battle of Preveza he lost. He lost again at the Battle of Ponza in 1552, and not until 1571 (at which point Doria was long dead) would the Christian navies finally defeat the Turks, at the horrifically bloody Battle of Lepanto (in which a certain Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra lost the use of his left arm, ergo his nickname, El Manco de Lepanto). Doria himself died at home, a rich and respected man – despite never having quite succeeded in defeating those pesky Turks.

Oh, dear: talk about a tangential excursion – especially as Mr Doria’s exploits have nothing to do with what happened to the ship named for him.

Andrea_Doria_posterAs many of us know, Italy’s economy was in shambles after World War II. Being a nation of merchants and engineers, the Italians regrouped and concentrated on rebuilding their nation. When the Andrea Doria was launched in the early 1950s, it was viewed as the most luxurious of all the ships plying the Atlantic. It was also considered one of the most beautiful ships ever built. As an add on, it was also presented as being “unsinkable”. One would have thought such adjectives went out of use after the Titanic, but the Italian engineers were more than proud of their improved construction, the ship divided into eleven watertight compartments, two of which could be flooded without actually sinking the ship. As  final feature, Andrea Doria also carried sufficient life boats to accommodate all passengers and crew – in the unlikely event that it should, despite all that security, become incapacitated while at sea.

In July of 1956, the Andrea Doria was en route for New York. Life aboard was a party, albeit carefully segregated. First Class passengers did not mix with the lower classes, or vice versa. As a consequence, the ship had three outdoor pools – one for each class – separate restaurants, separate walkways. It would not do for some lowlife in tourist class imposing on the daintier and more fragile creatures that travelled in first class. But whatever the class, people had fun.

There were other cruise ships doing the Atlantic route. Some were famous such as the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. Some were anything but famous, such as little M/S Stockholm, of the Swedish American Line. M/S Stockholm was about half the size of the Andrea Doria, and was originally built for practical comfort rather than luxurious cruises, but the general interest in sea holidays in the early 1950s resulted in the ship being refurbished, an additional floor added to offer more and better cabins. It was also a ship designed for cold climates, thereby provided with a prow designed to plough through ice if needed. Not that anyone expected ice to be an issue on that warm and balmy July day when the M/S Stockholm set off from New York, making for distant Europe.

So what have we here? On one side the opulent Andrea Doria, with approximately 1700 people aboard, on the other M/S Stockholm, carrying in total 742 people. While M/S Stockholm was cruising under a clear sky, Andrea Doria hd spent the last few hours stuck in a fog bank, a common occurrence off the Massachusetts coast. Andrea Doria’s Captain Calamai had accordingly reduced speed somewhat, had activated his foghorns, and closed the watertight doors.

M/S Stockholm reached the outer edges of the fog bank. The Andrea Doria was effectively invisible – except on radar. The Andrea Doria had no visuals of any other ships – except on radar. In actual fact, both Stockholm and Andrea Doria were aware that they had company, but from the information on the radar screens, they misinterpreted each other’s course. At some point, both captains realised they were on collision course with each other. At that same point, both captains took measures to avoid this collision. The Andrea Doria  steered to port, so as to enable a starboard-to-starboard passing. Stockholm decided to go for a port-to-port passing and turned 20 degrees starboard. Seeing as they were prow to prow, this meant both ships were turning in the same direction, i.e, instead of widening the distance between them, they were shrinking it.

You don’t exactly pull a handbrake on a ship. With both ships doing over 20 knots, the collision was unavoidable. Stockholm veered hard to starboard. The Andrea Doria turned hard to port. Just after eleven PM, Stockholm rammed into Andrea Doria’s side. Stockholms ice-breaker prow sliced Andrea Doria’s starboard side wide open. Water rushed in – not a problem, one would have thought, given the eleven watertight compartments and all that. Thing is, at the time of collision the Andrea Doria was cruising with almost empty fuel tanks. Those on the starboard side filled with water. Those on the port side acted like a floating device, and so within a few minutes of the collision, the Andrea Doria was listing badly. Suddenly, stairwells and passages began filling with water, causing further list. The generator room flooded, cutting all electricity. The pumps could not be started. Half of the lifeboats became impossible to launch, hanging way up high due to the list. It seemed the world had a new Titanic in the making…

Those of us gifted with vivid imagination have little problems imagining the ensuing panic. Cold water, no light, the floor tilting… People scrambled for the safety of the deck, all too aware that to be trapped below in the rising water was to risk a slow and anguished death. Even worse, Stockholm’s bow had crashed straight into five passenger decks. A number of people died immediately, like the young mother travelling with her four children, or the wife, whose husband was saved by the fact that he was brushing his teeth, or the eight-year-old girl who was crushed upon impact. One teenager was thrown from her bed, out into the night, but was miraculously discovered on the deck of the Stockholm, injured but alive.

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M/S Stockholm

The damage to both ships was severe. The Andrea Doria looked as if it had been slashed open with a gigantic can-opener. The Stockholm had no prow, just a huge gaping hole in its bow. The Andrea Doria continued to tilt, and launching the life boats remaining proved a difficult task. Things didn’t exactly get better when eight of the life boats were sent off with 200 panicked crew members and no passengers… After a thorough inspection, the captain of M/S Stockholm concluded that his ship was not in danger of sinking – the night was relatively calm – and so redirected the efforts of his crew to help the Andrea Doria. Fortunately, the SOS messages had been picked up, and ships from all over were steaming towards the two ships. When the huge Ile de France appeared, I imagine the passengers cheered. The French liner placed itself as a bulwark along Andrea Doria’s starboard side, and lit its floodlights before launching its boats to the aid of the stranded passengers.

Andrea_Doria_at_DawnOn the Stockholm, more than 500 people from the Andrea Doria had been brought aboard – and amazingly enough, a large number of Stockholm’s passengers slept through the whole hullabaloo, a consequence of all that bracing sea air, one presumes. By early morning, the Andrea Doria was empty of all but Captain Calamai and a couple of his crew members. There was no hope for the ship, it was too damaged to be towed, and with every passing hour it took in more water. At nine, Captain Calamai gave the order to abandon ship, and exactly eleven hours after the collision, the Andrea Doria rolled over on its side, lifted its stern heavenward and slipped under the waves. In total, the tragedy had cost 52 people their lives.

Obviously, the legal aftermath was humongous. The most repeated question was why. Why was the Andrea Doria doing 20 knots in a fog as thick as pea soup? Why had the radar information been so misinterpreted? Why had the Andrea Doria turned port, when the accepted procedure was to turn starboard when meeting a ship? Many of these questions went unanswered as the two shipping lines settled out-of-court. Neither party had an interest in full disclosure. At the time, Captain Calamai was apportioned most of the blame, even more so as the Italian Line made it clear they weren’t about to hire him again. These days, the jury is out: yes, the Andrea Doria did that strange turn to port, yes it was speeding – but so was the Stockholm, and how come the Swedish officer so misinterpreted the radar information? We will never know.

Captain Calamai never accepted another command, living out his life in a haze of guilt. It is said his last words were, “Are all the passengers alright?”

And as to that odd tradition of hollering “Andrea Doria” while downing yet another shot of snaps, I am happy to report it went out of fashion long ago – and thank heavens for that!

“Goodbye, farewell” – hang on, not yet!

To catch a falling star-100dpi 201501I’ve done it. I suppose this means I should sit back with a celebratory cup of tea, pat myself on the back and say “well done”. Instead, I’ve been walking about in a fugue, feeling strangely hollow inside. Eight books published, a series completed, and I am so NOT ready to say goodbye.
“Oh come on,” Alex says, giving me a virtual pat on the back. “It’s not as if we’re leaving you.”
Difficult to do when you’re a character trapped in my head, but I don’t say that. Instead I give her a teary smile. For I don’t know how many years, Alex and Matthew have lived in my head, and now we are done? Over?
“Don’t be such a daftie.” Matthew hands me a handkerchief. “And what’s to stop you from writing more about us?”
The fact that they’re approaching the end of their life spans and I just can’t bear the thought of writing their deaths?
Matthew gives me a gentle smile. “That’s how it is. Human life is short, a little burst of light, no more.” He gazes up at the heavens, spread out in darkest velvet above us. It is night, and Orion hangs low in the sky, while way up high the North Star winks and beckons. “But afterwards, there is all that,” he says, pointing at the sky. “Eternity at God’s feet.”

Whoopee. I share a quick look with Alex. None of us are all too thrilled by the notion of spending eternity in some sort of spiritual state. Heaven should be a place that flows with tea and cake, where a constant soft breeze whispers lullabies through groves of rustling poplars, while the meadows stretch endless before us, dotted with poppies and cornflowers. A place in which to walk hand in hand with your beloved, with the words of Solomon’s Song ringing through the air: “Let my beloved come into his garden, and taste its choice fruits.”
Matthew chuckles and wags an admonishing finger at us – well, mostly at Alex. “Our eternal souls need other sustenance, they need the Word rather than the joys of flesh.”
“Tough.” Alex dances towards him, and for all that she’s well over fifty, she moves gracefully, the light in his eyes making her carry herself like a young girl. “I guess the pleasures of heaven will just have to wait, Matthew Graham, for I have definitely not had my fill of you – not yet.”
“Or me of you, lass.” He kisses her, and just like that they fade away, no doubt wanting some privacy from my prying eyes.

It makes me smile – and it also comforts me. Maybe, maybe, there will be another Alex and Matthew book. A collection of novellas, I muse, and the knot of ice in my stomach begins to melt, as all of a sudden one scene after the other tumbles through my brain. In the background, I hear Alex laugh.
“See? We will never leave you, Anna.” I swear I feel her warm breath tickling my cheek. “We live in your blood and your soul, honey. We always will. And once you’re dead, I guess we’ll be coming with you to the place in the sky.”
If there is a place in the sky,” I say.
“Of course there is.” Alex laughs. “Matthew says so, doesn’t he?”
True. And when it comes to matters of God, none of us can hold a candle  to him!

To Catch a Falling Star, number 8 in The Graham Saga, is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK – plus, of course at my publishers, SilverWood Books.

And now a little excerpt…(somewhat amended, to ensure no spoilers)

Well after midnight, and Matthew was asleep on his side. Alex slipped out of bed and went over to the window, struggling to get it open without making too much noise. It was a clear night, with star-studded skies that invited wolves to raise their snouts and howl at the glory of it all. A full winter moon hung just above the treeline, and the yard below lay bathed in its silver sheen. A night of magic, of elves and little folk – except, of course, that Mrs Parson firmly insisted they hadn’t crossed the sea nor ever planned to, and so this brave new world might have Indians and spirits of its own, but elves and fairies, goblins and trolls, they had been forever left behind.

Alex rested her chin in her hand, and inhaled the cold, crisp air. A star shot from the firmament, left a wake of glittering fire, and was gone. Like a flash in the pan, like all human life – here today, gone tomorrow. Another falling star, and Alex splayed her hand and pretended she could catch it, hold it safe against her heart, and cup all that fragile, ephemeral life. A single tear trickled down her cheek, others followed, and she gripped the sill and wept quietly, the brilliance of the night sky blurry with her tears.

A sudden gust of wind cooled her face and, after a couple of steadying breaths, she wiped her eyes with her sleeve. The moon slid behind a screen of clouds, but she found the North Star, blew a kiss to her father and one more for XXX. The image of her angry, hurting son rose before her, and he was screaming that it wasn’t fair – he didn’t want to die, not here, not now.
“Life isn’t fair,” she whispered to the night. Another star blazed a trail through the dark, and Alex closed her eyes and made a wish. For her son, that he be at peace, safe in heaven.
Something skittered over the ground, paused for a frozen instant, and turned goggled eyes to stare in her direction before leaping onto the smoking shed roof.
“Horrible pests,” Alex muttered, but with no real heat. “You get at my ham and I’ll blast you to pieces.” The raccoon sat outlined against the moon, and for a moment Alex was convinced it was indeed an elf, a wood sprite from a distant, long-lost shore. A series of jumps, and the racoon melted into the silent forest. Alex closed the window. Matthew rolled towards her when she got back into bed, opening his arms to gather her to him. “Mmhmm?”
“Nothing.” She patted him. “Let’s sleep, okay?”

And if you’ve made it this far, there’s a giveaway to enter :) I’m giving away a Kindle copy of To Catch a Falling Star – just leave a comment and tell me if you’ve ever wished upon a falling star. Or not. But remember; you mustn’t tell me what you wished for – such wishes must remain a secret between you and the stars so way up above!

Giveaway is open until Monday.
…and now the giveaway is closed! Lucky winner is Joan!

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