21 December 2011

Down Under For Christmas

It's Christmas but I thought we would visit somewhere 
different for the festivities.
So here we are in.....

welcome and g'day to my guests, friends and avid readers
Paula Mildenhall
and Jel Cel

Paula and Helen
I am an Optometrist living in a small country town in Victoria, the south eastern part of mainland Australia.  I have made some amazing friends on Facebook, two of the most special being Helen Hollick and Sharon Kay Penman. Another new Facebook friend is Jel Cel, my co guest on this blog. We met via posts in the Sharon Kay Penman Australian fan club Facebook group. This year has been a great year for me as I met Helen in person in London and then I met Sharon in Paris on the ‘In the footsteps of Eleanor of Aquitaine’ tour.

Sharon Kay Penman and Friends
Reading historical fiction is one of the biggest interests in my life and I also love to travel so being able to combine the both was truly a dream come true. On the ‘Eleanor’ tour I met 35 other SKP geeks and it was bliss! Conversations did not have to begin with an explanatory prologue. We all just ‘got’ each other and we saw some pretty amazing places. It was Jel’s idea that we have a Helen Hollick Australian fan club Facebook page, which we started soon after I returned home from London.  Thank you Helen for inviting us onto your blog. 
(Helen: my pleasure Paula!)

I am a secondary teacher living in the capital of Victoria. I have lived in a city all my life, except for two years when I lived in Papua New Guinea teaching at a Secondary School there.  I finally decided to try this Facebook thing that my children were using, and one day noticed that there were groups pages for authors whose books I liked. Sharon Kay Penman’s page led me to find the Australian equivalent, and I have been blessed with meeting some likeminded souls, including Paula my co guest on this blog, who can talk all things medieval, and enjoy the books that I have loved.  Sharon will often recommend books that she has enjoyed by other authors, and she recommended the books of Helen Hollick. Fortunately my library had them, and when I learned that Paula had had the pleasure of meeting Helen in London, and saw a squirrel with Helen in the park, we talked about the possibility of setting up an Australian page for Helen as well.  So we have, and you can find it on Facebook.

Christmas in Australia.
I guess the biggest distinction of Christmas in Australia is long, hot days rather than the short, cold days you experience in the UK. In 1989 I spent Christmas in York. My Grandmother and Mother had Yorkshire pudding in a local pub and I had the Vegetarian version. I had no idea what being cold meant until I spent that December and January in Europe!
When I was a child, my family always had a traditional Christmas dinner, Turkey with Cranberry sauce, ham, and Plum Pudding with coins in it. In my adulthood I have had a lot more variety, some traditional and some not so traditional Christmases.
When I lived in Adelaide and had no family with me I spent one Christmas Day having a picnic at the beach with Buddhist friends. 
A lot of people I know have seafood salads for Christmas. If it is a 35 degree Celsius day (95 Fahrenheit), often the last thing you want to do is roast a turkey. I remember steering clear of the kitchen on hot Christmas days if there was roasting going on.  I have grown up  with the images of Christmas trees with snowflake decorations, Santa with his winter suit on, Reindeer and the North Pole. We would often buy a can of fake snow to spray around. It seemed normal to see people with Santa hats complete with fake fur trim and also wearing a sun dress or shorts and a t-shirt. It became popular for a while to have a second Christmas in July so you could have the Christmas experience in cold weather.

I grew up in the country so my town had a volunteer fire brigade, the CFA (Country Fire Authority). On Christmas eve the CFA would bring Santa into town on the back of a fire truck and he would hand out icy poles and lollies to all the local kids. Hot days always bring the threat of bushfires. I can’t recall any Christmas celebrations being affected but it is always in the back of your mind.
Another strong memory of childhood Christmases in Australia is going to town to see the Myer Christmas windows. Myer is one of the large department stores in Melbourne. Every year they decorate their shop windows with a Christmas story or theme. They are so popular now the crowds tend to keep me away.

Myer Department Store
I knew that Christmas was coming when I was a child when the out of bounds living room was given an extra good clean. This was followed by the freshly chopped and purchased Christmas tree being put in a bucket. Around this time (later than the cook books would recommend) the afternoon with the Christmas pudding boiling on the stove would happen, followed by the cooking of the Shortbread. One year Mum left the puddings cooking on the electric stove while we made a dash trip to the shop for something she needed, only to be delayed, and on arriving home found the power was out, and so she had to start over. Second try – again the power went out thanks to a summer thunder storm. She risked it again – and third time lucky – we had Christmas puddings. We had coins boiled in our pudding;  after 1966 the stock of coins was traded with the decimal currency – pre decimal had silver and was safe to boil, post, less or no silver and not safe.
Meals were traditional (I see them as traditional) Roast Turkey and warm ham with Cranberry sauce and roast vegetables followed by hot Plum Pudding with Brandy Butter. Repeated cold for days.  Only later did the family relax the tradition, having cold food on some days, or having an Icecream Plum Pudding instead of the traditional one.  Now seafood platters may appear, other roast meats along with the Turkey, and other forms of puddings although my brother prides himself on his Plum Puddings.

I have memories of Midnight services for Christmas, which Mum took me to, because she held a champagne and omelet breakfast on Christmas day for her friends – up to 40 would come. So an impatient child had to wait till after Christmas lunch for the presents under the tree, but Santa left some in a pillowcase overnight – he somehow knew to swing by after 12.40am when we were back from Church and I was asleep.

Why we love historical fiction.
I have always been a reader, the first books I remember loving were mysteries and fantasy novels as well as the odd classic. My parents were also readers of fantasy and I am forever grateful that 'Here Be Dragons' by Sharon Kay Penman was misclassified as fantasy and was bought by my father. It sat on the bookshelf for a while, then when I was 16 and meant to be studying for exams I picked it up and read it. I still have very clear memories of that first reading, especially the scene where Llewelyn has to make a humiliating surrender to King John and Joanna helps him to save face. I had never read anything so powerful. 
(Helen: same here Paula!)

The rest, as they say, is history. I still love fantasy novels as they take you away to another place. Historical fiction also takes you to another place, but it is not so far removed from ours. You can step out of the book and on to the actual ground walked by those who have been before. It may not look just the same or smell just the same as it was say in medieval times but you can often feel the energy of a place. I had tingles in my spine when I first visited Henry II's keep at Dover Castle.

I was a bit of an ‘Arthurian’ nut in my youth and I liked interpretations of the legend that had a lot of fantasy and magic. Since reading the ‘Pendragon’s  Banner’ series by Helen Hollick I have changed my opinion on that. Her realistic portrayal of Arthur and the times he probably lived in reinforced my new love of historical fiction.

My love of historical fiction has inspired 3 trips to the UK (so far, I hope to travel there again). I have been to Scotland, and seen a lot of the countryside from the Isle of Skye to Stirling. I have been to Gwynedd and travelled to the top of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) twice. As I stood on the shore near Aber, looking across to Llanfaes on Mon (Anglesey) I was hoping so much that Llewelyn forgave Joanna as portrayed in 'Here Be Dragons'. 
In England I have been to so many historical sights it would take a long time to list them all. One of the most memorable was Evesham, visiting the memorial to Simon de Montfort and walking around the battle ground.

On my most recent trip in May/June this year I spent some time in London and then did a self guided mini William Marshal tour in South Wales. That was inspired by ‘The Greatest Knight’ by Elizabeth Chadwick. Since my return to Australia, I have found out from my ancestry guru friend Fiona that I am related to William Marshal (he is my 23 times great grandfather).

The Twelve Apostles - Victoria

I love reading about Kings, Queens, Bishops, Cardinals and all the people with power, seeing how political systems, church and secular law have changed over time. I also love to read about more ancient history, England in the dark ages just after Roman occupation, Druids in Ireland, Egyptians and Romans. And that only just scrapes the surface of what I want to read. I love the saying, 'So many books, so little time'. If only there weren't exams, work and other commitments - by the way, I did pass those exams when I was 16!

Both my father and my mother were avid readers, and for many years they despaired over me, for I could not feel the bug. But finally and I wish I knew the name of the book, I met a book that hooked me – hook, line, and sinker as we Aussies like to say.
After that I could not find enough books, and my mother despaired of the History course at school, so she introduced me to the books of Anya Seton. Dragonwyk was the first but Katherine led me to fall in love and not with John. I then sought out other historical books to learn more and more about life in different ages, reading Victoria Holt, and Georgette Heyer - her Regency novels kept me sane in my last year of school! 
Later my mother gave me a book about Richard III – she had been a Ricardian for many years, and I met Sharon Kay Penman’s writing. The years between books allowed time to read other works. Through Sharon I have met Helen’s writing and other authors. So I am grateful to my mother for introducing me to such a wonderful world.
I read many different genres of books, and am known at work to stop and talk to students to encourage them to read books. 

Melbourne by night
 dinner guests
as always my guests get to invite ten people to dinner - alive, dead or fictional -
but this is Christmas - so Paula and Jel get to choose ten each.
What a party this will be!

Eleanor of Aquitaine: My acquaintance with Eleanor of Aquitaine began with 'Here be Dragons' by Sharon Kay Penman and grew from there, culminating in the trip of a lifetime when I went on the 'In the footsteps of Eleanor of Aquitaine' tour escorted by the wonderful Sharon herself. Eleanor impresses me in so many ways, but mostly when she came out of semi retirement after the death of Richard the Lionheart to help secure the throne for John. During that time she was besieged at Mirebeau by her grandson Arthur, inspiring John to his greatest military triumph when he raced to her aid. I think it says a lot about how remarkable she was. Her beloved son Richard was dead but she still did all she could to preserve the Empire for a son who she hadn't seen much in his childhood and who had been a thorn in Richard's side.

Henry FitzEmpress: A remarkable but flawed man. He was gifted Normandy by his own father, but was never able to do the same for his sons, the 'Devil's Brood'. A man of boundless energy who could never sit still. His fierce intelligence and great political and military skills helped him to hold together a massive Empire. A pity he couldn't hold together his family. Each of his sons rebelled against him, most having just grievances. He died a broken man, betrayed and alone. I would like to have him as a dinner guest when he was a young man, newly crowned as the King of England and already the Count of Anjou, the Duke of Normandy and through his wife Eleanor, the Duke of Aquitaine.

Emma of Normandy: Wife to two Kings of England and mother to two more. A complex woman who had to make some difficult decisions but managed to navigate a way through political upheavals and invasions and stay in power. Portrayed wonderfully in 'A Hollow Crown' by Helen Hollick, our host.
(Helen: Note - this novel is called the Forever Queen in the US)

Helen Hollick: I am honoured to include our host in the dinner party. I was lucky enough to meet Helen in person on my last trip to the UK. A wonderfully generous and giving woman with a great sense of humour. We were sitting in Regent Park, London, talking serious historical things when all of a sudden I cried out with joy and pointed to a squirrel that had ventured close to the park bench. Helen has gifted me with many wonderful squirrel pictures via e-mail and Facebook since then.
and here is that very same squirrel
he/she was around for quite a while -
must have enjoyed  listening to
Paula and me chatting!
(Helen: thank you Paula - I had a fabulous afternoon with you. Because of the time difference I reckon I can come to dinner with you - and make it back for Christmas Dinner with my family as well! *laugh*)

Davydd ap Gruffydd
The last Welsh prince, brother to the remarkable Llewelyn ap Gruffydd. Davydd is portrayed so wonderfully in the novel 'The Reckoning' by Sharon Kay Penman. Davyyd is devious, funny, romantic, clever, witty and charming. He was overshadowed by his remarkable brother who was a great Prince of Wales, but I think he would be great fun at a dinner party.

Fiona and Lesley: I only joined Facebook when Sharon Kay Penman did as I was very much a Facebook snob before that. What I didn't anticipate was that it would change my life! Next thing you know I have met Fiona (who started the Sharon Kay Penman Australian fan club Facebook page) and Lesley when we all flew to Sydney for the first annual general meeting of the the Aussie SKP fan club. Next thing you know we have a fan club t-shirt to wear and the next annual meeting in Melbourne. The amazing thing about Facebook is that I can maintain friendships with these two like minded and wonderful women who live in Brisbane and Perth. A great addition to any dinner party. I would have added Sharon to my list as well, but Jel has already invited her.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez: Songwriter for my all time favourite band 'The Mars Volta'. I have not had any other CD's in my player at home for years. Their music resonates so closely with me and I never tire of listening to it. I often say that if Omar ruled the world it would be a much better place, if a little crazy and weird at times.

Vincent Van Gogh: I always enjoyed Vincent's paintings and I was lucky enough to visit the Vincent museum in Amsterdam twice. But, Monet was my favourite, couldn't get enough of those water lilies! That was until I was lucky enough to see 'Starry Night on the Rhone' by Vincent when it featured in an exhibition in Melbourne. I was transfixed! Never before and never since has a painting been able to create so much emotion in me. I felt a sense of loss when I had to leave it. I barely saw any of the other paintings in the exhibition. I was lucky enough to see it in person a second time and it was just as moving.

John Phillips: I got to know John when we both posted on Sharon Kay Penman's blog. When we found out we both had places on the 'In the footsteps of Eleanor of Aquitaine' tour we started chatting on Skype. It was so nice to actually know someone before the group met in Paris. I travelled to England before the tour and met up with John for a day. He took me to see Hedingham, Framlingham and Orford castles. We also had lunch at a beautiful old English pub. John describes himself as an 'enthusiast' which seems to me an admirable trait to aspire to. Enjoy the dinner John, as the last place at the table was fiercely contested by Richard Armitage as well. You won by a nose!
My mother has asked if she can be the waiter/ cup bearer for the night.


Anya Seton: Author, writer of historical novels   - my mother introduced me to historical fiction by giving me Dragonwyk to read , and I loved it so much I had to follow on with the rest of her books, and then moved on to other authors.

Sharon Kay Penman: Author of historical novels and mysteries– who is incredibly generous and  gave time to our Australian Fan Club to speak for over an hour to us, and would have continued if we had not had a Chocolate tour to get to.  The Sunne in Splendour was another book my mother introduced me to, and I am so thankful, for when Here Be Dragons came out and I saw it in a book shop I knew I had to buy it. I love the way she writes, and believe her research is extensive and serious, so that the books are historically as correct as they can be at the time.  I have recently met at my school a parent who is writing a book, and to whom Sharon has provided much encouragement and assistance.

Katherine: Mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt – Anya Seton’s book about her made me fall in love with John of Gaunt and Katherine, and I would love to see what sort of woman she was and to talk about her experiences. The fact that her descendants rose to the throne is amazing.

Llewellyn ap Iorweth: The great Prince of Wales – for he had vision to allow his land to remain independent and to stand against King John.  Unfortunately when another Llewellyn was Prince of Wales the divisions of the Welsh  proved the weakness needed by Edward I to overcome Wales.

Pierre de Fermat: The “lawyer” who in his spare time studied Maths and in the margin of a book wrote that he had solved a question of maths that showed that  for  xa +ya = za the only power that a can be that works with whole number solutions  is the power 2. I would love to see and write down his theorem, because it took another three hundred years for Andrew Wiles to produce a solution, with an unfortunate error in his initial unveiling that led to the creation of a new field of mathematics by a Japanese collaborator in the final solution.  A German Industrialist had offered a huge prize to the one who could solve it, but it was wiped out in the Great Depression.

Alan Alda: An actor well known for his character Hawkeye in MASH.  I loved his playing of Senator Vinnick in West Wing, and loved Four Seasons a movie from a while ago. The title of his first memoir – “Never have your dog stuffed” makes me think that he looks at life in an amused , caring way. I would like to meet the man behind the characters and see if the eyes that look as though they come from a sympathetic person do so.

Leonardi Da Vinci: Scientist, Artist, Inventor , left hander like me.  A scientist before the structure of modern science was developed, probably mainly considered an inventor – but to be able to invent some of the machines he had an idea of science.  An experimental scientist in understanding the structure of the muscles by his investigations (I will not say more for any squeamish readers).

Antonio Vivaldi
Composer and violinist.   There are many musicians that I would love to invite, but The Four Seasons has meant special things to me at different stages of my life, so I would love to meet him. There is a link with Alan Alda as the movie about stages in a marriage was to the background of Vivaldi’s music.

Ken Rosewell: An Australian elite tennis player who never won Wimbledon but should have who shone in the 50’s and 60’s and still played Wimbledon in the 70’s. When I was growing up his nuggetty tenacity inspired me. He always acknowledged the good shots his opponents had made, told the umpire if the ball they had called out, served by his opponent, had actually touched the service line, and so conceded points. He seemed to be a nice gentleman, and I would love to speak things tennis with him.

Audrey Hepburn: Actress, UNICEF Goodwill  Ambassador.  Hers was such a varied life, from work as a child in World War 2 to her ballet, to becoming an actress and the work at the end of her life as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.  See the eyes, and you recognize the person. I loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s and recently have grown very fond of How to Steal a Million.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone - wherever you are!


  1. Paula MildenhallDecember 22, 2011

    Thankyou for having me as a guest on your blog. It was a lot of fun to write.

  2. My pleasure Paula! (I have added one more image at the end - EarthNight)

    Now everyone - please stop fighting over who sits where - this is going to be like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party : we all move round with each course!

  3. Helen, I think I tried leaving a comment a while ago to say thanks for having me as a guest as well, but it would not let me. So thanks


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.