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History with all the Horrible Bits

History with all the Horrible Bits

Where better to hold a literature festival than the home of William Shakespeare, -upon-Avon? I was there last weekend with my seven-year-old, sampling some of the literary delights on offer. The highlight of the festival had to be Birmingham Stage Company’s brilliantly batty piece of educational theatre, Barmy Britain, the (more or less) complete history of our great land.

horrible histories

Young and old alike were treated to grisly details of the bubonic plague, (some of the more bonkers cures included strapping a shaved chicken’s bottom to the afflicted person’s neck), the dastardly deeds of body snatchers, Burke and Hare, and the sensational story of heinous highwayman, Dick Turpin. Big bad Boudicca, King John, and the six-fingered Anne Boleyn were also some of my favourites. The show was a perfect mixture of history lesson, musical theatre and fart jokes, and performed so energetically that I was worn out just watching it.

What a wonderfully exciting way to cultivate a love of history in children! I still remember my school history lessons with my teacher sitting at the front of the class saying, “Read pages ten to seventeen in your text books and write them out in your own words.” It’s a wonder I managed to pass my history GCSE at all, let alone go on to write historical novels! History is full of gritty, nasty, thought-provoking stories, and the Horrible Histories team does a great job of bringing them to life.

Those of you who missed it can catch Barmy Britain in London’s West End this August.




The Long Road to Acceptance: LGBT Characters in Historical Fiction



“It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity. It even suggests that their self-made debasement is unavoidable, because they cannot save themselves.”

James Douglas on Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, “A Book That Must Be Suppressed”, Sunday Express, 19 August 1928.

radclyffe hall

Radclyffe Hall, Author of ‘The Well of Loneliness’

It has been almost ninety years since the publication of Radclyffe Hall’s ground-breaking novel, The Well of Loneliness, the story of a young woman from an upper-class family who falls in love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver during World War I. Their relationship is met with abomination, and Stephen struggles to come to terms with the social isolation that follows.  Hall was at the pinnacle of her career when she wrote the novel, and risked ruin by doing so, but she hoped her writing would bring about better social understanding, and told her publisher at the time that “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world… So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction.”

The reader could be forgiven for missing the novel’s only sexual reference: “and that night, they were not divided,” but one man, James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express newspaper, was so incensed that he embarked on a vicious campaign to rid the nation’s bookshelves of this ‘indecent publication’. In his editorial dated August 19th, 1928, he wrote that The Well of Loneliness only highlighted the need for society to “cleanse itself… of these lepers.” Children, he said, were most at risk from the dangers of this scandalous of book.

Despite significant support for Hall and her novel, the Home Secretary ordered publisher Jonathan Cape to withdraw it from sale, otherwise criminal proceedings would be brought. However, with all the publicity, demand for The Well of Loneliness was high, and it continued to be sold illicitly. An obscenity trial followed. The court ruled that all copies of the book should be destroyed and that the defendants should pay legal costs.

In the dark decades that followed, LGBT authors were often very careful about the characters they created and indeed their own private lives. Understandably so, when you consider that homosexuality between men wasn’t decriminalised until 1967 in England and Wales, even later in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Books which LGBT readers could identify with were difficult to come by. This was true not only in literature, but in television, film, and the music industry. I remember the first gay character on EastEnders, the first lesbian kiss between Beth and Margaret on Brookside, and the day Boy George exploded onto our television screens singing Karma Chameleon. I saw these people as trailblazers, who opened up a wealth of opportunity for LGBT voices to be heard.

As a writer, I am fortunate to live in a more enlightened society, where LGBT authors can write openly, from their own experience. Human beings, who happen to be LGBT are part of the fabric of society, and increasingly are being represented in literature, not only as protagonists but as characters incidental to the story, in a way we have never seen before, across every genre. No longer are our books placed in small sections in forward thinking bookshops, with a discreet sign saying LGBT Fiction.

It is a shame that some readers still find LGBT novels offensive. There are some wonderful writers who have received scathing reviews, not because of the quality of their work, but simply because of the LGBT content. I have yet to see a review berating a book for being too heterosexual! A couple of readers have said that they didn’t enjoy my novel The Women Friends: Selina because it contained lesbianism and bisexuality. In fact, the sex scenes make up only about three percent of the story. The rest of the novel centres around a young woman who leaves her troubled past, and moves to Vienna to model for the notorious artist Gustav Klimt. It is set against the backdrop of 1920s bohemian society and sinister developments in Europe leading up to World War II. There is much more to the story than the few paragraphs with sexual content.


The Women Friends: Selina by Emma Rose Millar and Miriam Drori

I was inspired to write the novel by Gustav Klimt’s sensuous masterpiece of the same name, (below). Nothing is known about the two women in the painting, but it is thought that they were lovers. The fate of the painting itself was a tragic one, and I wanted to reflect that in the story itself.


Gustav Klimt, (1917) The Women Friends

My favourite novels aren’t stories about lesbianism or bisexuality, but these themes usually run through the book to a greater or lesser extent. I love historical fiction; at no point in history has society been wholly heterosexual, and increasingly this is being reflected in literature. Moreover, I would argue that in historical fiction, the portrayal of LGBT characters is more important than in any other genre, precisely because of the nature of our histories. There are countless stories to be told, stories which previously would have been suppressed, because by telling them, people faced being shunned, ostracised, and in some cases, imprisoned or executed, as is still the case in many parts of the world.

The books that have influenced me the most are Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter.


In The Colour Purple, the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug is the catalyst which transforms Celie from a submissive, downtrodden woman, into one who is strong and fiercely independent. In Shug, Celie finds love for the first time since she was taken away from her sister, Nettie.

In Affinity, Margaret Prior’s feelings for disgraced spirit medium are shady and almost invisible. The story is a deeply sensual one, despite there being no sex in the entire novel.

The Sealed Letter is based on a real life Victorian scandal, a delicious tale of secrets, betrayal and forbidden love. An intriguing story of a courtroom drama and the appearance of a sealed letter whose unknown contents could destroy more than one life.

All three writers weave complex stories, in which lesbianism is only a part. The novels all highlight the choice women were faced with in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of remaining true to themselves, or conforming to what was considered the ‘social norm.’

The Well of Loneliness remains a controversial book, criticised for inspiring shame and self-loathing, and for portraying lesbian women as masculine figures. However, along with a handful of other books, it paved the way for many of the novels we know and love today.

Author Bio

Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham – a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son who keeps her very busy and very happy. Emma left school at 16 and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, laboratory technician and editorial assistant for a magazine, but now works part-time as an interpreter.

Emma writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards with Five Guns Blazing in 2014. Her novella The Women Friends: Selina, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published on December 1st, 2016 by Crooked Cat Books. She is currently writing her third novel, Delirium, a Victorian ghost story.

Emma is an avid fan of live music and live comedy and enjoys skating, swimming and yoga.

For more information visit her Amazon author page.



Your Attention, Please

Your Attention, Please

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I’m joined by the ever fabulous Ailsa Abraham, whose novel Attention to Death will be launched tomorrow. It’s a murder mystery with LGBT characters, so it sounds right up my street!

attention to death

Thank you for inviting me to talk about my latest release today.

This is a departure from my previous series in magical realism. Here I take off on murder mystery. Why? Erm… limited attention span? Love of variety?

Attention to Death is released on 10th March and here is the info on it.

“Find Attention to Death on pre-order on Amazon:

“In Attention to Death, Ailsa Abraham pulls off something I wouldn’t have thought possible – a steamy romance with a twist of murder and a splash of social conscience. A remarkable book that will have you turning pages as quickly as you can to find out what happens next.”
~ India Drummond, author of the Caledonia Fae series

Finding a murderer among a group of killers is not going to be easy for two Royal Army Military Police investigators, Captain Angus Simpson and Staff-Sergeant Rafael ‘Raff’ Landen, whose Christmas leave is cancelled for an investigation into a suspicious death on a base in Germany.
The case is further complicated by unhelpful senior officers who make pre-judgements on colour, creed, race and sexuality. Yet the insight of the investigators helps them uncover a sinister plot, although they too have something to hide: their own fledgling relationship.
Will Angus and Raff be able to solve the murder without giving away their secret?
The best and worst of human nature is represented in this story, which is why it is suggested for over 18s only.”

I delved into my past life as an officer in the Royal Air Force and my lifelong friendships with gay men to research this book.  Coming right after LGBT History Month in February, it highlights the problems that men who have to be “in the closet” and the sort of bigotry that causes people to refuse to read a book just because there are gay characters in it, although this doesn’t stop them leaving reviews. Me? I’ve never been too sure. I’m gender-neutral which is why the first thing I wonder on meeting new people isn’t “What do they do in  their bedrooms?”

Read it for yourself and decide. Is it an honest portrayal of two men doing their job who just happen to have started an affair?


Ailsa Abraham  is the author of six novels. Alchemy is the prequel to Shaman’s Drum, published by Crooked Cat in January 2014. Both are best-sellers in their genres on Amazon. She also writes mystery romance.

She has lived in France since 1990 and is now naturalized French. She enjoys knitting and crochet and until recently was the oldest Hell’s Angel in town . Her interests include campaigning for animal rights, experimenting with different genres of writing and trips back to the UK to visit friends and family.  She is also addicted to dressing up, saying that she is old enough to know better but too wise to care (pirate gear is her favourite!)









In my beginning…


Such a brave and inspiring lady.

The Bingergread Cottage

… is my end (T.S. Elliott)

images Aslan

I wasn’t going to make a big song and dance about my recent dementia diagnosis but everyone has been so very kind and lovely that I had to write a BIG thank you note.

In case anyone missed it, my brain is deteriorating rapidly and my last MRI scan showed the results normally associated with an 80-year-old. This is only going to get worse and my time left is limited. Details – the blood vessels in my brain are getting very thin indeed and so the chances of a major stroke or heart failure get higher and higher.

I’ve had post-stroke symptoms for some time. You may remember where I told you that at my last MRI in 2014, the specialist and I couldn’t decide if I was post-stroke or early Multiple Sclerosis and we almost tossed a coin for it. At least…

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Behind Every Exquisite Thing…

Behind Every Exquisite Thing…

“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.



Nowhere is this truer than in Tammam Azzam’s Freedom Graffiti. In 2013, the artist superimposed Klimt’s best known masterpiece onto a war-scarred building in Syria – an eloquent comment on the war in his home country, and a passionate plea for peace.


Klimt’s original painting, (1907-08) took its inspiration from a line in Schiller’s 1785 poem, Ode to Joy: “This kiss is for all the world.” A very apt sentiment indeed in today’s political climate!


Azzam’s early works were characterised by a multi-media technique. Using rope, clothespins and other recycled objects, Azzam’s hybrid pieces experimented with depth and were inspired by the artist’s changing perceptions of specific urban environments.

Following the start of the uprising in Syria, Azzam turned his attentions to digital media and graphic art. He created visual statements on the conflict, which resonate with international viewers, seeing digital photography and street art as powerful and direct forms of protest that are difficult to suppress.

Azzam has drawn on paintings by artists such as Matisse, van Gogh and Dali, in an effort to spread his message: “We are all citizens of the same world.”


Vienna Christmas Market

Vienna Christmas Market


Every December I’m always excited; that’s when the Christmas Market comes to town. Stalls selling pork shanks with dumplings, bratwurst and hot cherry wine – I’m in my element!

Then of course there’s the ferris wheel, shopping for all those lovely homemade gifts, and my favourite thing of all – the outdoor ice rink. Here’s me and my son enjoying our favourite winter pass time.

So when I wrote a novel set in Austria, I couldn’t resist the temptation to include a scene from the Viennese Christmas Market.

The Christmas markets in Vienna are an age-old tradition. The forerunners of the present-day events date back to 1298 when Albrecht I granted Vienna’s citizens the privilege of holding a December Market or “Krippenmarkt” – not a Christmas market as such: the first Christmas market in Vienna wasn’t until 1626.

The first records of a Christmas market mentioned temporary huts in front of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, from which bakers, gingerbread vendors and confectioners sold their goods. This market was shut down in 1761.

The Christmas market was resurrected in 1764 when the Saint Nicholas and Christmas Market operated at the Freyung (1st District), moving to Am Hof in 1842.


In 1903, the stands at the market were illuminated by electricity for the first time. The Christmas market had a home at Am Hof until World War I, when it closed down, starting again in 1923.

The Christmas market was closed down during World War I and in he bleak post-war years didn’t start again until 1923, when it was moved to Freyung, and later to the front of St. Stephens. After that, it moved to Neubaugürtel before returning to Am Hof from 1938 to 1942.


Vienna Christmas Market, 1940

In 1943 the market was once again held at Stephansplatz.

Since then, the character and prevalence of these markets has changed considerably.

The Birmingham Christmas Market remains one of my favourite winter nights out. Cheers!


The Women Friends

The Women Friends

The Women Friends was one of Gustav Klimt’s final works. Nothing is known about the two women in the painting but it is believed they were a real couple.


Gustav Klimt, (1917) The Women Friends

Lesbian imagery played a role in Klimt’s catalogue of works since his 1904 painting Water Serpents. But while the water serpents are imaginary creatures, inhabiting a fantastical, underwater world, the women friends are part of the here and now, making it easier for the audience to identify with them.


Gustav Klimt, 1904, Water Serpents

Klimt’s 1913 painting, The Maidens also explores this theme. Here, womankind is shown with many different aspects to her identity of which sexuality is only one. She is entwined with other figures representing death and evolution into womanhood.


Gustav Klimt, (1913) The Maidens

Stylistically, in The Women Friends, Klimt achieved a flat visual plane, throwing off the three-dimensional verisimilitude of his earlier career. His appreciation of Japanese art with its ambiguous background / foreground relationship influenced this painting and his mosaic style paintings from his golden phase.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Gustav Klimt, (1907) Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

Like so much of Klimt’s late work, the painting is partially about space and the various illusions that art creates to deal with it.