Category Archives: History

The Rasputin Dagger

In memory of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Theresa Breslin has written a wonderful historical novel, filled with fear and violence, starvation and romance.

Theresa Breslin, The Rasputin Dagger

The title might be The Rasputin Dagger, and Rasputin and the Tsar family do feature in the book, but this is mainly a story about normal people – brave, normal people – during a time of great upheaval and danger.

16-year-old Nina has recently been orphaned and must leave her home to go to St Petersburg to seek a new life. There she meets medical student Stefan, as well as the Royal Romanov family and the charismatic Rasputin, who seems to be running the show.

There is a war on with Germany, and there is serious unrest at home. Lenin wishes to return to Russia and the soldiers want to survive so they can return home too. The Tsar is weak, and the people hate Rasputin.

By some strange coincidence, Nina owns a jewel-encrusted dagger, which is the twin of one belonging to Rasputin. One of the daggers is said to carry a curse.

The readers feel the cold, and we can imagine ourselves in the early morning queue for bread. The poor need medical help they can’t afford, and the soldiers who return are in a bad shape and require more than the doctors can give them.

This is a lovely, historical, romantic adventure, with nice (yes, nice) people doing the best they can under appalling circumstances. And even though you know that both Rasputin and the Royal family will soon be dead, and Lenin will take power (and you know how that worked out, too), you still wonder how it all will end.

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Memorial

The trouble with time is that it passes. When I was younger I felt it completely natural that soldiers from WWI were still alive. Now it is the people who fought in WWII who are barely still with us. What was once very big, ceases to have relevance to new generations. Whatever it is, it feels hard for those who do remember; that the thing that changed their lives so completely gets relegated to the history books.

Gary Crew and Shaun Tan, Memorial

In Gary Crew’s book Memorial, with illustrations by Shaun Tan, this is evident. It is not a new book, but a re-issued classic, almost. First published in 1999 it shows us a young boy who visits his (Australian) town’s memorial to The Big War with his great grandfather, and the personal memories this man still has, of those who fought with him, and those who didn’t come home. And of the planting of a tree next to the statue.

Then we meet his son, the boy’s grandfather, with his own memories of the next war. And the boy’s father, who was in Vietnam. A lot has happened under the tree; at the various homecomings, but also in everyday life.

The trouble is that the tree has grown quite big, and its are roots damaging the road, which by now is much busier than it was. And the council wants to remove it.

Can you remove a Shrine of Remembrance?

Or is there something else that people remember you by?


Reading this book now, another 18 years have passed, and the kind of family continuity it describes is no longer possible. Soon this boy will be able to tell the story to another generation, but it will be someone who hasn’t met the former soldiers.

The Roman Quests – Death in the Arena

To be honest, I was afraid the death count might be bigger than I wanted it to be. Caroline Lawrence has been known to kill in the past, and people I didn’t want to see dead, too. And let’s face it; to make Roman Britain realistic, you can’t have too many lucky escapes, can you?

Well, I’m obviously not going to tell you if they live or not. There is quite a bit of blood. There are dangerous beasts, and at times even domestic cats can be life threatening.

Caroline Lawrence, Death in the Arena

The third Roman Quests and the turn has come to Ursula to have her tale. She loves her animals, and she loves being a Druid, which is all good apart from the fact that Druids are to be executed if found. The three siblings from Rome are then given a task by Flavia Gemina, which involves our old friends Lupus and Jonathan. Always nice to catch up with old friends.

There is the tricky task of attempting to reunite separated twins Castor and Raven, and getting rid of the Emperor Domitian while also staying alive is a big job.

And romance! These young people fall in love at the drop of a hat. It can be hard to know who you really, really love, and maybe it’s more than one? The modern reader has to keep in mind that the children are of an age to justifiably be thinking of who to marry.

Death in the Arena shows us what sort of entertainment they had back in AD 95. Audiences wanted to see blood from fights between beasts or ritual sacrifice, but also more normal fun, such as music and comedy. Mixed up in the one show, it feels rather over-powering. But nice to know that Lupus is now a superstar with fans! I always liked that boy.

Caroline continues to educate as she entertains. And I do like the long line of continuity from the early days of the Roman Mysteries. Carpe Diem.

How to fit a school in

I was nine years old, and I was standing by the front door of the school where Mother-of-witch taught. I’d got it into my head to walk there and meet her after school. I remember watching the traffic on the bridge for quite some time (maybe I’d mis-timed her classes?), and all the students pass me as they left for the day. I knew a lot of them.

The school was for post-16s and taught commerce and office skills and that sort of thing. Many of the students, including all four of our landlord’s children, lived near us. Later on, we’d find them in banks and offices, because in those days people got jobs.

But the memory of that long-ago day has surfaced to help me find the school. I know, it was right there. But where there? I saw the bridge clearly. And the small hotel in front. In recent years I have tried to place the school building – which was demolished in the late 1960s – somewhere in the Town Hall car park. But I could never manage to squeeze it in.

So I tried Google images for help, and came up with exactly one. The one below. And it tells me my problem was that I couldn’t visualise the school in the middle of the road. Because that’s where it was. Where traffic swerved to the side and round the school, it now goes in a straight line from the bridge towards the ‘highrise’ in the back right corner.

Old Halmstad

Funny how you don’t remember. But we didn’t drive in those days. It was perfectly normal for this nine-year-old to have walked the 20-25 minute walk from home, on her own, and with no prior arrangement to meet.

And the school had wooden staircases, with the wood worn into rounded dips on each tread. I remember that. And where the headmaster’s office was. The rest is a blank.

Picture This!

At my age I have seen most, but not all, of the art featured in Paul Thurlby’s new picture book guide to the National Gallery in London. But I’m hoping that the young reader this book is aimed at will either not have seen any, or might feel good about recognising an iconic picture or two, and then want to look at more art.

Paul Thurlby, Picture This!

Paul’s book would be a good start. You could look through it before visiting, and you could either take it along, or revisit these pages after your trip to London’s enormous gallery where you can see so much interesting stuff.

The art is ‘the real thing’ and then Paul has added some of his own, as well as making comments or explaining the great masters. And every now and then you can add your own art into small frames dotted about, or you have questions to answer, quizzes and puzzles.

In other words, lots to do, what with reading the book really thoroughly and then traipsing round the National Gallery.

There isn’t enough of Paul’s own art in this book, but then I suppose that wasn’t the intention. Anyway, if you have lobsters to spot and snowball fights, that’s good enough.

Where in the world?

I lay awake one night wondering where I used to live.

Pathetic, isn’t it?

I mean, I remember full well where I was as a child, including all those details only small humans tend to remember or notice about a home, down at knee level or thereabouts.

And I know where I’ve been since I came to Britain.

I can also visualise [most of] the places I lived in-between. But what order did they come in? And how come I wrote down a list including a street I never lived in? To make up for that, I simply don’t recall the real name of the street I mistook it for. (I remember the curtains I had in my room, though.)

In the end I sat down and fine-tuned a list that is (probably) mostly correct. The forgetfulness is partly due to having been in lots of places during what now seems like a very short time. It’s presumably what young people still do, flitting from one address to another.

But for a night I was really worried. I’m the kind of someone who still can recite phone numbers for my near and dear ones from the early 1960s. Numbers that they no longer use, because they are dead, and the numbers changed, anyway. And the odd postcode, as well as the G’s phone number in Brighton, when I was a student.

I need a book for this. An address book, where I keep myself.

The Story of the Car

At first, my flippant reaction to The Story of the Car was that it was for the daddies more than for the children. Then I recalled a little boy I knew, who was crazy about cars. In fact, my garage still houses two carrier bags full of tiny cars that mustn’t be got rid of.

And non-driving girl that I am, I quite liked this book too. So it’s really for everyone.

Giles Chapman, The Story of the Car

Giles Chapman takes the reader through the very early cars, that were barely cars, dangerous and difficult, and then on to the early cars many of us know about, and then the ones we actually remember.

In 1922 the first car for women was made. How lucky that someone thought to invent a way of starting a car that’s not too hard for women! And if you were rich you could have any design car you wanted. I didn’t know that. Now I want a custom-made car. (Which I wouldn’t be able to drive. I Know.)

Among lots of attractive pictures of cars, we are still reminded that cars are not good for the environment, and that – so far – cars can’t time travel.

I suspect that little boy I mentioned would have loved this book.