Nellie Bly deserves to be much better known these days.  She was a fearless, crusading journalist in an era when most women were probably limited to writing about the latest fashions, or how to cope with one’s domestic servants.    She was spunky, good-humoured, level-headed, and up for anything.   I admire her not only for her crusading journalism, but also for the fact that she went on a solo, record-breaking trip around the world armed only with a small leather handbag!

She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, at Cochrane’s Mills, Pennsylvania, in May 1864.   The town had been founded by her father, Judge Cochrane, a self-made man.   Her father died when Elizabeth was only a child, which led to a sharp downturn in the family fortunes.  Elizabeth was pulled out of her private boarding-school due to lack of funds, and the family moved to Pittsburgh.  Elizabeth got her break in journalism when she wrote a strongly-worded letter to a pompous male journalist who had written a piece arguing that women were only fit for having children and keeping house.  The editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch was so impressed by her fire that he gave her a job.

It was customary at the time for female journalists to write under a pseudonym, and Elizabeth adopted the name Nellie Bly after a popular song of the time.   Somehow it suits her better than Elizabeth Jane Cochrane.   Over the next few years Nellie got a reputation for being up for anything, there wasn’t an assignment she wouldn’t try.  First in Pittsburgh, and then moving to New York, where there was a story, she was there.  She travelled to Mexico to report on life south of the border.  She went down in a deep-sea diving-bell, and she went up in a hot-air balloon.

One of her most commendable assignments was in exposing the barbaric treatment being meted out to female patients at The Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.  Nellie got the job by faking insanity.  She said she managed this by staying up all night, giving herself a vacant, dreamy expression, and coming out with paranoid statements about the other women in her lodging-house.   Somehow Nellie managed to convince a policeman, a doctor and a judge that she was ready for the asylum.   She spent 10 days inside, before her newspaper managed to spring her out.   Nellie exposed the terrible conditions, with patients being served rotten meat, and dirty drinking water.  The treatment included having buckets of ice cold water poured over their heads, and being made to sit for most of the day on hard benches in unheated, rat-infested rooms.  On one occasion she witnessed the guards dragging a distressed elderly woman out of a room by her hair.   Nellie’s shocking expose of this place led to a public investigation and a substantial increase in funding.   Nellie wrote about her experiences in a book Ten Days In A Mad-House, which is now available on Kindle.

Nellie’s most famous assignment though was when she emulated Phineas Fogg and took up the challenge (decades before Michael Palin did it with a BBC film crew) of going around the world in 80 days.   Nellie’s adventure became a huge source of publicity for her newspaper, and at the same time another female journalist, Elizabeth Bisland, also attempted the stunt, but going round in the opposite direction.  The two ladies captured the public’s imagination.  One (Nellie) was a no-nonsense Yankee girl, the other (Elizabeth) was a more genteel Southern lass, who had once written that a woman was finished when her looks were gone.

Nellie travelled from England down to Brindisi, through the Suez Canal, onto Ceylon (Sri Lanka), then China and Japan, and finally back to the United States.  She adopted her own unique travel outfit, wearing a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat, a Scotch Ulster coat over a 2-piece dark blue suit, and carrying a small leather bag.   This travel bag – which in illustrations looks about the size of an old-fashioned doctor’s medical bag – must have been like Doctor Who’s Tardis, in that it astonishes me how much she was able to cram into it.  Contents as follows:

  • 2 travelling caps
  • 3 veils
  • a silk blouse*
  • a pair of slippers
  • a bar of soap
  • an ink stand [that must have been precarious, to say the least]
  • pens and pencils
  • a supply of writing paper
  • needle and thread
  • pins
  • a dressing-gown
  • a tennis blazer
  • hankies
  • a small flask and drinking cup
  • several changes of underwear [& think of how voluminous Victorian ladies undergarments usually were]
  • a pot of cold cream

She carried all her money in cash in a drawstring bag around her neck.

Both ladies completed their challenge within time, but Nellie beat Elizabeth by 4 days, largely because Elizabeth had had to return to New York across the Atlantic on a slow-moving vessel.  Nellie completed the journey – to much fanfare – in 72 days 6 hours and 11 minutes.  Elizabeth completed hers in 76 and-a-half days.  Both beat Phineas Fogg’s fictional record of 80 days.   I can only say that it’s about time the adventures of both of them were filmed.

In 1895 Nellie married Robert L Seaman, President of the America Steel Barrel Company, and 40 years older than her.  When he passed away in 1910, Nellie took charge of the business, but embezzlement by employees and bankruptcy swallowed up her fortune.  She went back to what she knew best, journalism, and when War broke out in 1914, Nellie went to Europe to report from the front line as a war correspondent, sending home harrowing accounts of the wounded and the dead on the battlefields.

Nellie died at the age of only 57, from pneumonia, in 1922.  She was a remarkable woman, and for more on her astonishingly versatile travel bag visit the brainpickings website, and their article “How To Pack Like Pioneering Journalist Nellie Bly, Who Circumnavigated The Globe In 1889 With Only A Small Duffle Bag”.

*I once read a memoir by a woman who had cycled alone around the world, and she wrote that she packed a silk dress for special occasions, on the grounds that silk is very light, folds up easily and barely takes up any room.

For the record, I once tried an experiment, to see if I could emulate Nellie’s packing arrangements, substituting my computer bag for her leather bag.  I think I would have been going round the world with stuff spewing out all over the place.

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The character of the Tragic Clown has been a perennial one in the world of show business, probably since the days when humans first began performing for each other.  The Tragic Clown who brings so much laughter to the world, and is so much loved by their public, and yet at heart is tormented by untold demons, acute loneliness and deep unhappiness.   Few come more tragic and haunted than British actor Peter Sellers, a very talented man who earned devotion from his legions of fans, and yet in private was a deeply disturbed individual who managed to alienate most of those around him.   Sellers also had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, and many close to him felt that his fascination became an unhealthy obsession which took over his life.

Sellers was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1925.  His parents were vaudeville performers, so you can say showbiz was in his blood.   He made his own very first public appearance was at the tender age of 2 weeks old, when Dick Henderson carried him onto the stage of the Southsea Theatre, where the audience serenaded him with For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.  Baby Sellers wasn’t impressed, and cried in response.

His parents were often touring round, so Sellers had a vagabond childhood, but he was very close to his mother, Peg.  Many have said that their bond was too close, almost Oedipal.   Sellers’s Goon Show colleague, Spike Milligan, described it as unhealthy.  Peg was the archetypal, cosseting Jewish mother.  She lavished love and attention on young Peter, very likely exacerbated by the fact that she had lost her previous son, who had been born stillborn.  And this is the first strangeness in young Sellers’s life.  His deceased older brother had been called Peter, and, although Sellers was named Richard Henry, he was known ever afterwards in the family as Peter.   Young Sellers must have felt haunted by this ghostly older brother from the word Go.

It is safe to say that Sellers grew up into the classic Mummy’s Boy.  His every whim indulged by his adoring Mum.   When he signed up for military service in World War 2, Peg even went to live at a guesthouse near Peter’s training camp, so that she could keep an eye on him!   Many young men would have been acutely embarrassed by this excess of maternal devotion, but it never seems to have fazed Peter.   In fact, he seems to have accepted it as his divine lot in life to have Peg dancing attendance on him.  Spike Milligan recalled going to stay with them, and hearing Peter, lying regally in bed, constantly shouting for Peg to bring him things.  Peg of course was only too happy to oblige Her Boy.

After the end of World War 2 Peter got his first break in show business when he joined the cast of the radio comedy, the Goon Show, a hugely anarchic and surreal programme which ran for years, and still has a devoted following to this day.   One of his fellow Goons was the lovable Michael Bentine, an interesting, deep-thinking man who too had a lifelong interest in the paranormal.  Bentine had served in the RAF during the War, and he said he had developed premonitions.  He was able to tell which men would come back alive from their flying missions, and which ones were doomed, just by looking at them.

Peter became noted for his skill at mimicry, and a gift for creating comic characters.   Later in life he would compare himself to a medium channelling spirits, in that he simply opened himself up to a character and let it inhabit his body.   This is far from unknown in the creative arts (writers can have it too).  Other actors who worked with Peter said it wasn’t unusual for him to stay in character during rest breaks.   Sellers himself put this down to the fact that he claimed he had no personality of his own.  He was a hollow man, with no character.   I suppose, to put it more kindly, he was a blank canvas, waiting for another character to impose itself.   Again, this isn’t unusual.  Other comedy actors, such as Ronnie Barker and Arthur Lowe, could feel deeply uncomfortable about appearing as themselves, and would lapse into their characters instead.

Like many actors Sellers became deeply superstitious.  This is quite a common trait in the acting profession, particularly in the theatre world.  But Sellers seemed to be a bit of a magpie, picking up a superstition when he heard someone else had it, and adopting it as one of his own.  His son Michael would later claim this gave Sellers a licence to misbehave, such as the time he stormed off a film set because someone had been wearing the colour purple!   On a darker note, Michael said that Sellers had once killed a flock of doves on the roof of his country house, because he believed they would bring bad luck to the property.

As the 1950s wound into the 1960s, Sellers was reaching the peak of his fame.  He had appeared in a number of hit films, including The Ladykillers, The Naked Truth (where he played multiple characters), and I’m Alright, Jack, where he gave a brilliant performance as the militant trade union leader, Fred Kite.   Sellers was ripe for the bohemian hedonism and the Occult world of the Swinging Sixties.   He became obsessed with astrology, and would plan his day around what they had to say.  He became particularly attached to a flamboyant psychic and astrologer called Maurice Woodruff, the Derek Acorah of his day.  Woodruff was a charismatic cove, who claimed to be the 7th Son Of A 7th Son.   He predicted that Sellers would meet someone with the initials B E who would become very important to him.  Sellers thought he meant the film director Blake Edwards, but it was in fact Swedish beauty Britt Ekland.

Sellers spotted Britt when she arrived in London in February 1964, and they were married only 10 days later.   Britt was the hot stuff of her day, but this fuelled Peter’s jealousy and paranoia.   Anxious to impress his new bride in the bedchamber, he recklessly dosed himself up on stimulants.  The results were terrifying.   Sellers suffered multiple heart-attacks.   Whilst the doctors were fighting to save his life in hospital, Sellers claimed to have had a Near Death Experience.  He saw the ubiquitous tunnel, with the bright light at the end.  He said he than saw a large, strong arm which urged him to cling onto it, and told him his time wasn’t now.  Sellers was interviewed about the NDE on television several years later, and seems totally serious and sincere.  The movie star Elizabeth Taylor also claimed to have had a very similar NDE when she was in hospital once, after she had actually died for 5 minutes on the operating table.

Having such a traumatic experience as this would cause most people to re-evaluate their lives.  As the old saying goes “a heart attack is Nature’s way of telling you to slow down”.   Not Peter though.  He seemed to have got it into his head that cheating death this way had made him invincible.   That he was now some kind of Superman.  He predicted that he would in fact die in his sleep at the age of 75, and as such he would have nothing to fear until he turned 74.   Sadly this would not turn out to be true.

Peter’s career was about to take a negative turn.   He was virtually promised the earth to appear in the all-star film Casino Royale (needless to say, not the 2006 Daniel Craig version), which was to be a lavish send-up of the Bond films.  Casino Royale has gone down as one of the great mis-fires of cinema.  Its big budget and all-star cast couldn’t save it from being a confusing, unfunny, self-indulgent dogs breakfast of a movie.   It’s one of those films where all the cast look as though they’re having fun, regaling each other with in-jokes, and you, the audience, are left out of it, sitting on the sidelines in bewilderment.

One of Peter’s co-stars was the legendary Orson Welles.  Welles was a gifted conjuror, but Sellers took this as a sign that he was a magician, a master of the dark arts, and became scared stiff of him.  He decided he didn’t want to appear in any scenes with him, which made things very difficult for everybody else.   One of the Sellers’s famous friends was the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret.  It is alleged Sellers had an affair with her, and she famously popped up in one of his home movies, appearing out from behind a screen and waving regally at the camera.   Mags made a visit to the set one day, which must have delighted Sellers, giving him a chance to show off in front of the rest of the cast with his royal friend.  HRH though completely ignored him, and instead marched over to Orson Welles, gushing all over him.  Sellers must have felt this humiliation keenly.

When the film was released it was a flop, and the producer, Charles K Feldman,  died soon after from stomach cancer.  There is a rumour that Feldman believed Sellers had cursed him, not helped by the fact that Sellers himself believed that anyone who crossed him would come to an unfortunate end.   If he truly believed this, then I think the curse was ultimately on Sellers himself, as 1967 would turn out to be turning point in his fortunes all round.

Peg passed away in 1967, and Peter went into Queen Victoria levels of grief.  He built shrines to her wherever he went, and took to holding conversations with her as if she was standing right in front of him.  This might not have been so surprising, if the conversations hadn’t often been in public places, like restaurants and film sets.  Someone compared Sellers at this stage to Norman “a boy’s best friend is his mother” Bates in Psycho.    On one occasion Sellers even destroyed one of the sets on Casino Royale because Peg had appeared to him in a dream, and told him she didn’t like it.

Sellers turned his paranormal fixation away from astrologers and more onto mediums.  He conducted oujia board sessions, where he claimed to have contacted great men of the past, like Napoleon.  Spike Milligan was very unimpressed with these sessions, and said it was notable that Sellers conversed with dead pharaohs, but never with the ordinary Joe who had cleaned the loos in the pyramids!   A few years previously Sellers claimed to have contacted the spirit of Dan Leno, a music hall comedian, who had passed away in 1910.  Leno advised him to do the hugely popular Pink Panther films, so we have to grateful to him for that at least.

The late 1960s was of course the era of Flower Power, and Everything’s Like Real Deep, Man, and Sellers immersed himself in the counter-culture.   In 1969 he moved to Ireland as a tax exile, and indulged himself with marijuana.   He turned in on himself, even one day locking himself away, and cutting off his hair.  At around this time he married his umpteenth wife, Miranda Quarry, an aristocratic fashion model (she is now the Countess of Stockton), and real Hippy Child of the Flower Power era.  She is said to have had her own dogs as her bridesmaids.   Things must have looked ominous when she woke up on their honeymoon on a yacht, and found her bridegroom had legged it, hitching a lift with a passing water taxi, claiming he had made a mistake.

By now Sellers was a liability to film studios.  His health scares had made him uninsurable, but even without that his eccentric, unpredictable behaviour on set had made directors run shy of him.  When all is said and done, their job is to bring a film in on time, and preferably on budget.  They don’t need actors choosing when they’ll turn up, or developing a paranoid fear of their co-stars, or smashing up a set on the whim of their dead mothers!   Throughout the 1970s I still remember him cropping up on TV from time to time, where he would delight us with hilarious interviews, which were a joy to watch.   But Sellers was past his best.

Whilst making Revenge Of The Pink Panther in 1978 he suffered another heart-attack.  He consulted psychic surgeons, and claimed they had cured him through using chicken guts surgery (whatever that is).   His penultimate film Being There, was one he had yearned to play for years.  It was a real labour of love for him, and he desperately hoped he would win a long-awaited Academy Award for it.   Although Being There was highly regarded, the Award went to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer Vs Kramer, and Sellers’s disappointment was intense, doing nothing for his lifelong sense of deep-rooted inferiority.  In his diaries, Richard Burton mentioned meeting Sellers in the late 1960s.  Sellers had demanded to know how many Academy Award nominations Burton had had in his career.  When Burton replied that he had had 5, Sellers immediately ramped up on his own to try and impress him.  It was a silly fib, as it’s the sort of thing that is so easily found out, but that was him.

In the summer of 1980 Spike Milligan urged Sellers to fly back to England for a Goon Show reunion.  Milligan had a feeling in his bones that Sellers wouldn’t be around for much longer, and it would turn out to be all too true.  After lunching with friends in his suite at the Dorchester, Sellers had another heart-attack, and he passed away in the early hours of 24 July 1980.   Sadly he didn’t made anywhere near the age of 75 that he had previously predicted, he was in fact only 54.   But he had sure crammed a heck of a lot of living into those years.  His personal life had been tumultuous to say the least, and as a husband and a father he must have been an absolute nightmare.   For instance, he had once got a fixation that his children’s nanny was a witch, and had thrown a knife into her bedroom door.  The nanny had escaped by climbing out of the window.

He was the narcissistic  little Mummy’s Boy who had never grown up.  When his children were small he had spent a fortune on toys for them, including a giant train-set in the garden, but refused to let them play with it, as he wanted to use it himself.   He was a true clown in that he was perennially the mischievous toddler, playing pranks on life, but also objecting to anyone else getting attention.   As an entertainer his reputation should stay intact, as he brought so much laughter to so many people.  I can only hope he’s found peace now.   And the same goes for his son Michael, who also passed away of a heart-attack on the 24th of July … in 2006.  He was 52, just two years younger than his father had been.

As his Pink Panther co-star Burt Kwouk once said, people aren’t interested in most actors when they’re still alive, but we’re still interested in Sellers long after his death.

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This sci-fi tale, originally published on the eve of WW2, deserves to be much better known.  In fact, in my opinion it should be up there with the Greats.   It concerns an unassuming middle-aged ex-schoolmaster called Edgar Hopkins, who lives quietly in the Hampshire countryside, keeping poultry.  On a visit to his astronomical society in London he is informed of some very grave news.  The Moon has veered off course, and is heading on a collision path with Earth.

Yes, it has dated in some parts, particularly with the characterisation, but as it’s nearly 80 years old, that’s only to be expected.  His younger characters can be a bit bland and jolly hockey-sticks, but Edgar’s concerns for them would have been very relevant at the time it was written in 1939.  The portrayal of Edgar’s elderly aunt and uncle, who live entirely for pleasure, and don’t seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation they’re in, was well-drawn.  Edgar himself is lovable, even if he can veer towards fussy pomposity sometimes.  It makes such a refreshing change to read an apocalyptic novel with such a down-to-earth character at the centre of it.  Frankly, these days if I read another modern day one featuring some boring American Rambo-esque know-it-all super-hero, armed to the teeth with guns, and wittering on about Saving His People, I shall scream.

I did find myself losing interest a bit in the second half of the novel, when it looked as though Civilisation was getting rebuilt, and everything was going to be hunky-dory again … but then I remembered the dark beginning, and knew all was not what it seemed.  Clearly something was going to go drastically wrong.   And it does.  I won’t give away any more spoilers, suffice it to say that it will stay with me for a long time.   There are moments of pure poetry in this story, particularly the scene in Trafalgar Square, when people look upwards and first notice something very odd about the Moon.  Likewise with the Eve Of Apocalypse moonlit village cricket match.   There is a moralistic vein to the story, but it’s certainly one we can all relate to these days, in that human greed and in-fighting amongst nations can wreck any chances of civilisation getting off its backside and focusing instead on what really needs to be done.

A sad, surreal and deeply profound story, with a very unsettling prophetic feel to it.

A curious phenomenon of modern times is the current craze for buying allegedly haunted objects Online. It’s only something I’ve become aware of in recent months, but it seems to have become quite a thing in the paranormal world, and I can’t help feeling it’s not very healthy.

Some people buy Haunted Mystery Boxes. I’ve watched a couple of unboxing videos on YouTube like this, and find it hard not to come to the conclusion that it is a total scam. All someone has to do is collect together a load of old tat – the sort of thing that your local bric-a-bac sale might reject for being rubbish – and then concoct a few dark stories around them, such as “an old lady vowed to curse anyone else who drank out of this, her favourite teacup”. Even if it’s not a scam, and there is some truth to it, then why on earth would you want such an object, riddled with negative vibes, in your home?

One object that often makes an appearance in these kind of videos is the Haunted Doll. I know some people really, really do not like dolls at all. In fact, they don’t even like being in the same room as one. Personally, they’ve never bothered me at all. I’ve always put the spooky effect they can have down to the glassy, staring eyes. It’s curious that it’s usually porcelain dolls that have this effect. I’ve never come across people freaking out at Barbie or Sindy dolls for instance, and there might well be cursed Barbie dolls out there, but I’ve never heard of one.

I have a vintage porcelain doll myself. She’s called Nina, and she’s been standing on the bookcase in my office for years. I can honestly say I have never felt any freaky vibes from her at all, although I have sometimes wondered why she’s dressed as a Victorian sex-worker (Nina will probably now take umbrage, and cause poltergeist activity to break out). Most of the time I forget she’s there, but I know some people would react to her presence quite badly.

Having seen a Haunted Doll video, I decided to have a look at the ones on eBay myself, and it was then that I finally understood why some people really don’t like dolls. Page after page of sinister, close-up shots of dolls faces can leave you feeling a bit “ooh crikey”, and that was even before I read the descriptions that came with them. It was like looking at glassy-eyed police mug-shots. The dolls were a mixed-bag. Some were reputed to come with positive vibes, but they seemed to be outnumbered by the cursed, demonic ones. It was impossible to tell from the faces alone which were the bad ones and which were the good ones. One that looked like a sweet Victorian doll with wavy blonde hair was reputed to be possessed of “demonic” energy. A Spanish flamenco doll with scary eyes (the eyes were blank, and had no orbs), was said to have “playful” energy. So, like books and their covers, you clearly shouldn’t judge a doll by its looks.

One seller, who specialised in haunted dolls, had a huge collection. Here is a small selection of some of the descriptions:

  • One doll, called Kelsey, used to live at a Scottish castle. She was kept in the dungeons there with the express purpose of frightening visitors. It seems she did this too well, as they wanted to get rid of her. Whilst she was in-situ, paranormal phenomena broke out. A ghostly woman was caught on CCTV at night. A security guard had nightmares about spiders and was also subjected to sleep paralysis (have had this myself, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone). An area manager was pushed down two flights of stairs. Although this was caught on CCTV, no one was seen standing behind him. Whilst waiting to be sold, Kelsey is kept inside a salt circle, which is probably just as well.
  • Another doll, with black plaits, was fine with women, but seemed to hate men. The husband of the doll owner reported seeing a ghostly old hag in a doorway, and dreamt about banshees.
  • A black doll, dressed in what seems to be some kind of African tribal costume with a grass skirt, is reputed to have a “nasty” vibe to her. She was presented to the seller with her arms and legs bound. When the seller asked why this was so, the person presenting it to her said “untie them and you will see”. I remember hearing a few years ago that vintage black dolls are hugely sought after by collectors, as they are quite rare, so perhaps a brave collector would like to snap this one up.
  • Poltergeist activity seems to be par for the course with many of the dolls. Owners have reported having plates broken, a washing-machine flooded, doors slamming, lights flickering at 3 AM, and one owner’s son was drawing strange, shadowy figures on his sketch-pad.
  • Another seller had an extremely menacing-looking doll listed called “Veronica”. With her ghostly, pale white skin, huge dark eyes and slightly predatory expression, Veronica looks the stuff of nightmares. The seller added the comment “you will not be disappointed”. Why, is Veronica going to approach you in the night with her arms outstretched and a demoniacal leer on her face? Or crawl out of the TV like the girl in Ring?

Frankly, after looking at this lot I doubt I will ever tolerate having another doll in the house! But what about the positive energy ones, you may well ask? They are usually advertised as “needing a loving home”, and the description of one of them credited the doll with bringing you good fortune. “She likes to sit in the sunlight, so put her on the windowsill ….” STOP!! Now look, I find living human beings quite demanding enough these days, without having to pander to the wishes of a porcelain doll!

Haunted dolls have also become tabloid fodder, with stories of such objects wrecking havoc in homes across the country. One woman though said she loved collecting them, and was now dedicating her life to helping the souls of spirits trapped inside the dolls. I feel the same about them as I do the Haunted Mystery Boxes I mentioned earlier. If it’s all fake, then it’s a scam, pure and simple. If you buy one of these boxes you will just be left with a load of worthless, dust-collecting trash cluttering up your house, of no sentimental, aesthetic or monetary value. If there is truth in it, then God knows what vibes and energies you will be recklessly attracting. I think this is one craze I will be glad to see the back of.

UPDATE 22/1/2019 – I have recently acquired two Reborn Dolls.  Now Reborn Dolls really do freak some people out!  Well mine are cute … just saying.

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Mary Blandy has the dubious honour of being Henley-on-Thames’s most famous ghost.   She was a well-to-do woman in the 18th century who was hanged for poisoning her father with arsenic.   Since then her ghost seems to have incurred a number of spectral legends in and around the affluent Oxfordshire town.

Mary was born in 1720, the daughter of Francis Blandy, a wealthy lawyer.  She was his only child, and the apple of his eye.  Mary was well-educated, and respected in her neighbourhood.   Unfortunately, due to having been left scarred by an attack of smallpox, Mary was no beauty, but Francis let it be known that he had settled a dowry of £10,000 on her (a huge sum in those days).    Not surprisingly, the wolves soon came sniffing around, and Francis had unwittingly sealed his doom.

It is said that, on a trip to the fashionable spa town of Bath with her parents in 1746, Mary made the acquaintance of one Captain William Henry Cranstoun, the son of a Scottish nobleman.   The two hit it off, and for about a year, Captain Cranstoun even moved in with the Blandys, but things soon proved to be complicated.  It turned out that William already had a wife, Anne Murray, up in Scotland, who had had a son by him.  William kept making return trips to Scotland, stressing to Mary’s father  that he was making great efforts to get his marriage annulled.   Francis though was sceptical about this, and looked as if he was getting cold feet about the whole arrangement.

What happened next is a matter of some conjecture, but Mary claimed that William sent her a powder, saying it was a “love philtre”, and that if she slipped it into Francis’s food he would soon come round and be amenable to them.   Whether Mary really believed this fanciful tale is still open to debate, but she put the powder into her father’s tea and gruel.   Francis became ill, and so did some of the servants, who tasted it too.   When it became clear that Francis was dying he called for Mary, and gave her his forgiveness.   It was unlikely everyone else was going to be quite so forgiving though.

Wen Francis died on 14 August 1751, a local doctor advised Mary that she could be held responsible.  Mary immediately burnt all Cranstoun’s letters, and tried to dispose of the incriminating powder by chucking it on the fire.  Unfortunately (for Mary that is), a housemaid, Susan Gunnell, was quick off the mark, and snatched some of the powder from the embers.  It was sent to a chemist for analysis.   Perhaps, to no surprise to anyone, the powder turned out to be arsenic.

Mary was put under house arrest and confined in her room.  Somehow though she managed to get out and brazenly went for a saunter around Henley, where she was greeted with some considerable hostility by the locals.  So much so that they chased her across Henley Bridge and into Berkshire, where Mary took refuge with her friend, Mrs Davis, who was landlady of the Little Angel Inn at Remenham.

Meanwhile Captain Cranstoun was doing some fleeing of his own.  He managed to escape to France, and eventually wound up in Belgium, where he died, penniless, and suffering from an intestinal ailment, several months later.

Mary was carted off to Oxford Castle Gaol to await trial.   Her story had become a considerable ’cause celebre’, and her trial was to become famous for being the first time that forensic examination of arsenic – by Dr Anthony Addington – was to be used.   The trial opened at 8 AM on 3 March 1752, and lasted one whole day.   The audience was mainly made up of excitable students from the university, and Mary reportedly defended herself with intelligence, saying she had put the powder in her father’s food, but she had had no idea it was arsenic.   She tried to paint herself as the innocent wronged woman, issuing the rallying-cry “what woman can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make for us?”  But the Court was having none of it.  By 9 o’clock that night Mary had been granted a date with the hangman.

On her return to Oxford Castle Gaol, Mary was greeted by the jailer’s family, who were upset on her behalf, as they had become charmed by their now famous inmate.  Mary though seemed unperturbed by her fate, and brusquely told them “don’t mind it”, and then announced she was hungry and wanted a speedy supper.  She dined heartily off mutton chops and apple pie.   Whilst in jail Mary had been informed that her father had left only £4000 in his Will, so the infamous £10,000 dowry – the cause of all the trouble – wouldn’t have materialised anyway.

There is some speculation as to exactly where Mary met her death.  Some say she was hanged in the courtyard of Oxford Castle (which to me seems the most logical place), or in what is now the site of the Westgate Shopping Centre.   Wherever it was, Mary walked out to her doom on the morning of Easter Monday, 6 April 1752.   She was wearing “a black crepe sack”, and her arms and hands were bound with black ribbons.   As she ascended the ladder to the noose, Mary noticed that some spectators in the crowd were trying to look up her skirts.  She uttered the legendary phrase “for the sake of decency gentlemen, don’t hang me high”.

It is said that throughout the execution had blackbird had perched on the crossbar of the gallows, and that no blackbird ever perched there afterwards.

If the people of Henley-on-Thames thought that was to be the last of Mary though, they were to be mistaken.  Reports of her spectral presence in the area have lasted down the years.  On one occasion it is thought that she objected to a play about her, which was being put on at the local Kenton Theatre, and indulged in some petulant glass-smashing.   She is also thought to have haunted the Little Angel Inn, as well as the Catherine Wheel pub, and ghost walks have been held in her honour in the area.   She has also been reputed to haunt Oxford Castle and the Westgate Shopping Centre (goodness knows what she makes of that).

Mary has been in the news as recently as 2011, when her former home, Park Place, was bought for a staggering £140 million by a Russian oligarch.   It was the highest sum ever paid for a house in Britain.   I wonder if Mary came as part of the package …

May Eve


 You could cut the atmosphere with a knife round here.  There is something in the air. You don’t have to have special powers to feel it.  The corridors and stairways seem to be hives of whispering, and people rush past me with eyes downcast, scuttling along.  As a mere servant, I don’t expect to get noticed anyway, but this is even more than usual.

 I was mopping the stone floor that runs from the main kitchen to the door that opens onto the gardens at the back, when Master Cromwell himself accidentally slammed into my bucket.  I apologised profusely, but he barely noticed and marched on, lost in his own thoughts. I had a little chuckle to myself, “he kicked the bucket!”, but it would be more than my life’s worth to say it out loud.   The way things are at the moment a poor soul could find themselves in the Tower just for making a ribald joke.

 Some people are far too reckless, they don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are at the moment, and a humble background is no guarantee of safety.  That poor young man, Mark Smeaton, has been missing for several hours now. I heard he had been invited to Master Cromwell’s house, but he hasn’t returned.  He had his head turned. He was on the fringes of Her circle, but they would never have accepted him as one of their own, not them, with their noble backgrounds.  They regarded him as little more than a performing monkey, someone there for their own amusement. The nobility can be cruel and unfeeling. Poor little Smeaton. His talent will be his undoing.   Not for the first time, I am glad that I have the kind of looks which no one notices. I can fade into the background, like a humble piece of furniture.


 “What did he look like, Gerta?” asked the meat cook, who was sweating by the fire when I went to walk past, to return my bucket to the stores area.

 “He looked like Master Cromwell”, I replied.

 “Now don’t get lippy, girl”, he said “Did he look harassed?  Worried?”

 “Well he was deep in thought”, I said “It was a very fleeting look.  I didn’t want to detain him, he looked like a man with a lot on his mind”.

 The others exchanged glances.  Clearly they saw something significant in all this, but at the moment they’re seeing something significant in everything.   A cock crowing probably has significance.

 I returned my mop and bucket to the stores, and then took advantage of them all being distracted to slip out into the garden for a little while.   It was sunny, but the air was still too much on the cold side for my liking. I went over to the fruit trees and admired the apple blossom, which is now in full petal.  I love this time of year. I surreptitiously picked a small sprig of the blossom, and slipped it into my apron pocket.

 I wish I could gently walk His Majesty around the gardens and show him the joys and the loving solace of Nature.  I feel sorry for him, but I could never voice that aloud. It’s probably treasonous, so much is these days. It is treasonous to think of the King as anything other than all-mighty and all-powerful, like the Good Lord Himself.  But I know how sick he is. I have conversed with the maids and the stewards of the royal bedchamber. He has never recovered from that terrible accident he had whilst jousting back in the New Year. It has affected him completely, body and soul.   It seems to have aged him overnight. And those stupid physicians don’t know what they’re doing. Their treatments are often worse than the ailments! He needs a healthier life, with gentle exercise and good food, and freedom from care. But I know he cannot hope to attain that in this life, not whilst he wears the crown.   His rages are because he is in constant pain, and because he is lonely, and frightened for the future. I have known humble families who produce hordes of strong, healthy sons with no trouble at all, and yet he, the great ruler, seems to have an underwhelming seed. He must feel that humiliation acutely.

 My skin prickles.  I feel someone watching me.  I turn round in agitation. There is no one else in this part of the garden, but on instinct I look up at the upper windows.   I am horrified to find I am being watched from a part of the palace which I know to be the Queen’s chambers. I see a pale face staring down at me from behind the latticed glass.  I get only the briefest of glimpses before she backs away from the window. I am shocked by how gaunt and haggard she looks. I have only before seen her in the distance, and then I’ve been dazzled by her gorgeous gowns and jewels and headdresses.  I had heard rumours that she’s lost her looks, that she now looks old and decayed, but I hadn’t seen it for myself. There were dark shadows around her eyes. She was emaciated. She looked halfway to her grave.

 I feel a cold shiver run through my entire body, and I rub my arms in their calico sleeves.   I decide to go back indoors, and seek the sanctuary of the service areas. I am unlikely to encounter her there.




It is very late.  I have made up my customary makeshift bed, comprised of my spare clothing, on a small stone landing in the attic, which is outside one of the rooms belonging to the ladies-in-waiting.  I think it may even have been Mistress Anne’s room at one time. I am so glad that Winter is over. There were times when the stone floor was so cold that I feared I would end up with chronic rheumatism, like my poor dear Mother did.

 In the shaft of moonlight which comes through the narrow window, I have prayed for His Majesty The King.  I have also prayed for little Smeaton. There is still no sign of him, and I have been listening out for news of him all day.  I am deeply worried as to what they may have done with him. We poor folk are so at the mercy of Them.

 I yearn for some soft cushions to comfort my aching bones, and yet the curious thing is, that for all my lack of luxury, I would not trade places with that Lady in the sumptuous apartments on the floor below me.   I have a strong feeling that they are lining her up for a sacrifice, and it is that feeling which has been permeating the palace all day. I am filled with foreboding as to what the next few days may bring.


May Day


 The Nobs all went off for their traditional May Day joust today.  I heard whilst I was breaking my fast that His Majesty looked relaxed and jolly, which is pleasing news.  I can imagine him riding through the sun-dappled trees, his head thrown back as he gives one of his hearty laughs.  He’s had such an awful time of it this year so far that he deserves a bit of pleasure. Someone said he was slapping Master Norris on the shoulder, in a very brotherly way, so that’s good news.  There have been so many wild rumours of late that the King was being strangely suspicious, even paranoid, of his friends. The only thing that still gives me concern is that there is STILL no sign of little Smeaton.  This is very odd indeed.

 Later this morning I managed to have a chat with Agnes, one of the upstairs maids.  One of her duties is to sweep the passageway which connects the King’s private rooms with Hers.   We managed to secrete ourselves in an alcove and talked in hurried whispers. Sometimes it’s easy to believe that Master Cromwell has found some way of making the very walls themselves eavesdrop on us round here.  Nothing would surprise me where he’s concerned. He has his spies everywhere.

 “Things are still developing apace round here”, said Agnes “The trip to France has been called off, either that or the King is threatening to go alone.  Either way it’s not good news for Her is it”.

 “I wouldn’t be in her shoes for anything”, I said.

 “She flew too close to the sun that’s her trouble”, said Agnes “Couldn’t be happy with just a bit of slap and tickle like her sister was.  No, Her Ladyship had to go and get ideas above herself. Too good for a quick roll in the hay, nothing but Queenship was good enough for her”.

 “Ssh!” I said “You could get into awful trouble talking like that.  She’s not gone yet y’know”.

 “I don’t care”, said Agnes, stubbornly “I’m not going to be around here for much longer.  I think I’m with child”.

 I gave a little muffled squeal and kissed her in delight.

 “If that is the case”, said Agnes “I’ll go back to my parents’ farm, and stay there.  I’ve had enough of this Court life. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Everyone frightened of their own shadow, and scared to bloomin’ well speak all the time.  It’s not natural. It’s no way to live”.

 “What will your father say when he finds out?”

 “Oh he’ll grumble a bit at first no doubt, but he’ll soon come round, particularly when I tell him it’ll be another pair of hands to help out around the farm.  I tell you this Gerta, no child of mine is ever coming near this place, that’s for sure. It’s not been the same since the old Queen went. I miss her, terrible shame it was when she died.  I felt really heartbroken when I heard”.

 “I know what you mean”, I said, and dropped my voice even lower “Between you and me, I think the King still loves her.  He was married to her for an awful long time. And that fall he had, at the January joust, came very soon after he heard she’d passed over”.

 “That Witch put a spell on him, I swear it”, said Agnes “Either that or she used a whore’s tactics to snare him, probably some little bedroom tricks she picked up in France”.

 “Ssh!” I said, although I couldn’t help giggling as well.

 Suddenly the doors to the Queen’s ante-room were flung open, and a couple of her snooty, silly ladies-in-waiting emerged.  We pressed ourselves further back into the alcove, as far as we could go, but they were too engrossed in their own conversation to pay any attention to us, and they swept past us in a swirl of silks and velvets.  Unfortunately we couldn’t catch anything of what they were saying, because they were whispering too. It seems everybody whispers around here these days.


Late Afternoon


 The King came home early!!  And he didn’t ride back, he came by river, so everyone’s assuming he was in a hurry to get here.  The whole palace is buzzing with what could have happened at the May Day joust.

 “He was in a foul mood too”, said one of the pages, who had been in attendance in the main courtyard, when the royal party returned “I wouldn’t want to be one of his private chamber staff this evening.  Had a face like thunder he did”.

 The Queen didn’t return with him, which has only made the grapevine even more frenzied.  She came on along a bit later, with her own retinue. What on earth is going on??


May the 2nd


 What a turbulent day.  It started at the very first cold grey light of dawn.  When I first woke up I had a feeling that something huge had happened.  When I got down to the main kitchen I found the spit-turner at the fire beaming all over his face, with that “I know something you don’t know” look about him.  

 “What’s happened now?” I said, in no mood to play games.

 “You may well ask”, said the meat-cook “Norris has been carted off to the Tower, happened when it was barely light”.

 “Master Norris?” I gasped “But why?”

 “Dunno”, said the meat-cook “Rumour is the King got handed some note whilst he was watching the joust yesterday, and he’s never been the same since.  Doesn’t take a genius to see the note must have been about Norris and …”

 “Hey now be careful”, said red-faced old Alice, who plucks the fowl, and who always seems to be covered in feathers “It doesn’t take much to set the King off at the moment.  We would all do wise to be careful”.

 “I’m sick of being careful round here”, said the meat-cook, slapping some sorry-looking skinny birds onto the table “This place is nothing like it used to be.  We used to have some right old laughs in the old days”.

 “Is there any news of Mark Smeaton?” I asked.  I have been praying for little Smeaton almost constantly since he disappeared.

 “Gone to the Tower as well”, said meat-cook “You won’t be seeing him back here again.  Going down like ninepins they are. That’s the Nobs for you. Knife each other in the back quicker than … well quicker than you can say knife.  No honour amongst thieves”.

 “Now watch it!” said old Alice, pointing a finger at him “You won’t half get into trouble one of these days, running off with that big fat mouth of yours.  It wasn’t that long ago the King had his cook boiled alive! Yes, think on that. Be careful you don’t meet the same fate”.

 “Blah!” said meat-cook, cuffing the spit-boy round the ear “You mark my words, SHE [he raised his eyes upwards, in the general direction of the Queen’s apartments] will be gone as well before the day is out.  If the rumours are true then she’s been making His Majesty look a right old fool, a cuckold, and he won’t take too kindly to that. No man would”.

 “Oh no”, Agnes had been coming into the room, and she paused with horror “Don’t say that!”

 “What’s it to you?” said meat-cook “You haven’t had a good word to say about that concubine ever since you’ve been here.  Don’t try and tell me you now feel sorry for her!”

 “I was thinking of her little daughter, the Princess Elizabeth”, said Agnes “She’s not even three-years-old yet, that’s far too young to lose a mother”.

 “Huh, and what about all the other little chavvies who lose their mothers?” said meat-cook “I don’t notice you crying your eyes out over them.  Don’t you worry about that ginger-headed brat. She’ll be alright, she’ll always have someone to wipe her arse for her”.

 “Now that’s enough!” said old Alice “There’s enough tension and bad feeling round here at the moment, without you adding to it.  Let’s all just try and calm down a bit shall we”.

 “Blah, bloody women!” said meat-cook “All the problems in the world can be put down to bloody women.  Sometimes I wish I was a monk”.

 “Sometimes I wish you were as well!” said old Alice.


 Late in the morning, the Queen and her ladies went out into the grounds to watch a tennis-match.  By this point it was palpable that something wasn’t right, and I couldn’t help hoping that she was making the most of one of her last moments of pleasure.   It was nigh-on intolerable, like waiting for a storm to break. Things couldn’t carry on as they were, or we’d all descend into a pit of hysteria.

 At two o’clock in the afternoon, the storm did indeed break, and I have never known anything like it.   Orders were put out that the tide had turned on the river, and that the Queen was to be bustled off to the Tower!  Just as she was, in the clothes she was standing up in! It felt as though every window in the palace which overlooked the river was clogged up with faces all peering out trying to get a glimpse of her.  

 I sneaked into one of the galleries, as it had many windows and I felt it was my best chance of getting a view.   And I saw her! She was swathed in a hooded cloak, as though it was the depths of Winter, but I managed to get a brief glimpse of her face.  She looked pale, pinched and highly anxious. As well she might, poor lady. Yes it’s true, I felt sorry for her, even though my love for the late Queen Katherine, whom she had cruelly usurped, remained undiminished.   I knew she had no chance of returning from the Tower. I suppose there’s an outside chance the King might be merciful, and allow her to go to a nunnery, but it’s much more likely that she faces – God forbid! – a burning or a beheading.  Oh how the mighty have fallen! And it gives me no pleasure to record that. I have enough imagination to know how terrified she must be, and how concerned she must be for her loved ones. These are such dangerous times.

 After that, everything felt very flat.  The Queen, the Dark Lady, the royal concubine, was gone, and many were relieved, as they had hated her.  It was as if a troublesome spirit had finally been exorcised. And yet some of us were left with a feeling of confusion and  trepidation. What happens now?


4th of May


 The whole palace is in a state of jangled nerves.  I overheard someone joking earlier that at this rate everybody will be in the Tower, and there will be no one left here but His Majesty!  I have lost count of how many men close to the Queen have been arrested, including even her brother, Lord Rochford! Accused of incest with her!   That is an appalling accusation. She was close to her brother, and sometimes I thought they were like a pair of overgrown giggling spoilt brats, but INCEST??

 “I don’t know what to believe anymore”, said Old Alice “There are some dark forces at work round here, I can tell you”.

 “But incest?!” I exclaimed.

 “The Boleyns have always been a peculiar lot”, mumbled meat-cook, who seemed less gobby and more reserved than usual today “Old man Boleyn would have sold his daughters to the Devil himself if he thought he could get a few cushy titles out of it”.  

 It was all getting to me too much.  I was finding the palace corridors dark, cold and oppressive.  I could well believe in the sinister forces Old Alice had mentioned.  At any chance I could I escaped to the garden, but I didn’t get much easing of tension there either.  I could only think of the Queen holed up in the Tower, and wondering if she would ever get to stroll in a sunlit garden again.   How we take these simple little pleasure for granted! The beauty of the time of year seemed to be mocking us all. Would I be feeling all this as much if it was the depths of Winter?  I don’t know.

 I had struck up a chatting acquaintance with Blanche, who does some of the finer laundry and mending from the Queen’s apartments.  She told me that the Queen wasn’t incarcerated in a windowless dungeon, but in the sumptuous rooms she had occupied just before her Coronation.  What a cruel irony!

 “It’s all mayhem in here at the moment”, she said.

 We were standing on the landing outside the main doors of the Queen’s rooms.  Everything was in turmoil. Maids were constantly marching out, carrying armfuls of clothes and bedding.

 “What’s happening?” I asked “Where are they taking all her things?”

 “I don’t know yet”, Blanche shrugged “We’re under orders to strip the rooms of all her belongings.  And anything with the letter ‘A’ on it has to be unpicked or discarded as well. It’s as if her whole identity’s being erased.  He’s really determined to be shot of her”, she gave a shiver “This is what happens when Love dies. A few years ago he would have handed his entire Kingdom to her on a plate, now he wants every trace of her removed.  Wouldn’t surprise me if he made it an offence to mention her name in future. Makes me glad I’ve never had any man infatuated with me, I can tell you, not if this is what happens”.

 “How is she?” I said “Does anyone know?”

 “Not good”, she dropped her voice to a whisper “Some right old cats have been put in to look after her, and they’re all on orders to spy on her every move.  None of them like her. They’re determined to make her suffer. They’re loving it. Anyway, I’d better get on. Probably best not to stand around talking for too long.  We could probably get arrested just for that at the moment!”

 “Master Smeaton”, I said, quickly “Any news of him?”

 “Put him out of your mind”, she said “We won’t be seeing him again”.


9th of May


 It has been a horrible atmosphere in the palace for the past few days.   There is a tomb-like silence, and it’s as if we’re almost afraid to make a noise when we walk down the stone corridors.   His Majesty has been closeted in his rooms, conferring with various powerful men. Sometimes I think I would like to be a fly on the wall, but at other times I think I would rather not know what is going on.  We’ll find out soon enough.

 It has been only a week since the Lady was taken to the Tower, and yet it feels like a year.  Life has been turned upside down. There is no more music, no more sports, no more sounds of laughter or singing wafting down the stairways.   I try and escape into the gardens as often as I can, just so that I can sit for a while and listen to the birdsong, as a respite from the gloomy atmosphere indoors.  The weather has been glorious, as if it’s mocking us. I yearn for the days when His Majesty would have been out playing tennis with his friends, and returning to the palace with his shirt drenched in sweat, and roaring with laughter and bonhomie.   What on earth has gone wrong?

 Many blame the Queen.  “She’s a witch, she put him under a spell”, said the meat-cook “And now he’s woken up from it, that’s all”.   I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It takes two to dance, when all’s said and done. The Queen was bewitching, but … oh I’m already referring to her in the past tense.  But it feels at the moment as if she’s halfway out of this world already.

 Yesterday I was roped into helping with the final scrub-out of the Queen’s apartments.  All of her belongings have been removed. There is no trace of her identity there anymore.  The rooms stand almost empty, with the windows flung open, the walls bare, and the curtains flapping in the breeze.   Agnes and I speculated (in whispers) as to who would occupy the rooms next.

 “My money’s on Mistress Seymour, the Wiltshire girl”, I said “His Majesty has been putting some yearning looks in her direction for months”.  

 “I heard the Lady caught him spooning with her one day”, said Agnes “She had hysterics about it”.  

 “Hm, when I think of how many times Queen Katherine had to turn a blind eye to his antics”.

 “That’s what the King said at the time!”

 Agnes leaned in closer to me.

 “I’ll tell you something”, she said “If Seymour does take up the mantle, things will be very different round here.  She’s a priggish little thing. Always looks as if she’s chewing on a wasp to me. There won’t be any of the gay old times the Lady and her coterie engaged in, that’s for sure”.

 “Well perhaps things might calm down a bit”, I sighed.

 “God help her if she doesn’t give him a son either though!” said Agnes “That’s all he cares about these days, he’s obsessed.  Anyway, keep an eye out for her. She’s sly. I never trust those prim, quiet ones, they always seem to be looking at you out of the corner of their eye, sizing you up.  Ugh!”


11th of May


 The full list of charges against the Queen has been published, and it is as long as your arm.  She must have been a very busy lady these past couple of years to have fitted all that in! How in God’s name she managed to have sex with all and sundry, as well as plotted against the King, whilst she was also doing Queen’s duties, going on royal progresses, trying to conceive a royal baby, and sewing shirts for the poor is beyond me.   But it seems His Majesty is so determined to be shot of her that he’ll accuse her of every crime in the land. If he can’t find one charge to stick, then he’ll find another.

 “I know for a fact she couldn’t have had sex with Mark Smeaton this time last year”, Agnes hissed, during one of our hiding-in-the-alcove chats “They weren’t even in the same palace!  And why would she have committed incest with her brother just before Christmas, when she knew she was already pregnant with the King’s child? It doesn’t make sense!”

 “It seems things don’t have to make sense these days”, I said “It’s also been said that last All Hallow’s Eve she and her lovers conspired to take the King’s life.  I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the significance of the date. The old witchcraft charge. When all else fails resort to that one”.

 “Has he forgotten that she’s the mother of his child?” snapped Agnes.

 “He doesn’t want to be reminded of the child”, I said “It reminds him that he went through all that, divided the country, alienated the Church, just to end up with another daughter”.

 “I suppose it’s never occurred to him that he might not be able to father a son?”, said Agnes “All men are fools!”

 I found it very hard to disagree with her by that point.


 At night I have been remembering all of them currently incarcerated in the Tower in my prayers.  Even the King can’t get into my thoughts and dictate who I can pray for, although I remember him too.  Whatever the outcome of all this – and it’s impossible not to think it will be utterly horrific – then he will have to live with it on his conscience for the rest of his life.  And that will be an enormous cross to bear. I don’t believe he will ever be truly happy again.

 In the still watches of the night I find the Lady constantly in my thoughts.  No amount of comfortable rooms will be able to make up for the strain she must be under.  She must know she’s under a sentence of death already, and she has those loathsome, hate-filled old harridans spying on her every move.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she went off her head, living under that kind of strain.

 I try not to get carried away on a wave of sentiment.  Agnes is already doing that enough for both of us. I often come across her looking as if she’s been weeping, and she’s always hastily rubbing her eyes with her apron.  Her condition won’t help. My Mother used to say her emotions were all over the place when she was expecting me.

 I remind myself of all the times I really disliked Anne Boleyn, of how badly she treated the old Queen.  She demanded her jewels, she demanded the royal christening robes for Princess Elizabeth, and, cruellest of all, she refused to let her see her daughter, Mary.  There were times when she was a complete cow, quite frankly. But I wonder how much of the time she was being coerced by her family. Meat-Cook was right about one thing.  Old Boleyn would sell his own grandmother if he could get a good price for her. And the same goes for most of the men in that family, including that evil old swine the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle.   As my father would have said, “I wouldn’t give you house-room for the lot of ‘em”. Anne must have been under enormous pressure to bring home the bacon, as the saying goes. As soon as the King clapped eyes on her, she was doomed.  Her life wasn’t her own anymore.

 And now I’m thinking of her as “Anne”, whereas before it’s always been the Lady, even the Dark Lady, the Witch.  I don’t go as far as some who’ve called her the Night Crow, and the Boleyn Whore, but I’ve never … up until now … thought of her simply as Anne.   There was always something a bit supernatural about her, as though she couldn’t possibly be just a normal flesh-and-blood woman. But all that has changed now.   I think of her as a frightened woman, possibly wrongly maligned, not just in fear of her own life, but concerned for her daughter, and for her mother, who I’ve heard is not well at all.  

 And I’m pretty sure Queen Katherine, if she was here, would be feeling sorry for her too.  She knew from an early age how ruthless royal life can be. Her mother had been a warrior queen, barely getting out of the saddle long enough to give birth.   Queen Katherine would have forgiven her, and now so must I. Whatever sins she has committed in the past, Anne, the girl from Hever, doesn’t deserve to be in this current predicament.  


18th of May


 I couldn’t record my thoughts whilst the Trial was on, as it was all too horrendous.   And so far it has resulted in five healthy men in the prime of life being put to death.  I have dreamt of the Tower being awash with blood, and it must have resembled a butcher’s shop that day.   All I could think of was headless bodies being bundled into makeshift coffins. Such a waste of life.

 At the Queen’s trial her own father – HER OWN FATHER – sat in judgement on her.   He sat there in his red robes, and watched his own daughter being condemned to death.   Shortly before he had likewise sat and watched his own son going the same way. What is running in the veins of a man like that?  Because I can’t believe he’s human. I could only think of their poor mother, back home in Hever Castle, what on earth must she be feeling?  Two of her precious children to be put to death on the scaffold. Truly, we do live in corrupt, barbarous times. I have to be so careful where I conceal this scroll of paper.  If it were to be discovered, I too might find myself in the Tower. My Mother taught me to read and write because she felt it would give me advantages in life. How darkly ironic it would be if it led to my doom instead!  Even just writing these words could be seen as treasonous.

 Public opinion has swung dramatically in the Queen’s favour.  All along the people have reviled her for taking Queen Katherine’s place, but now she has gone from the Harlot, the Witch, to That Poor Lady In The Tower.  She is now the wronged wife and mother, being ruthlessly put aside for another, just as Queen Katherine had been. Poor Anne. She must have yearned to be loved and respected by the people, only for it to come at a terrible price.  I have heard a rumour that Cromwell has warned His Majesty that it would probably be best if he wasn’t seen in public for a while. The King must be grievously upset by this news. He has always been popular with the common man. They love his boisterous laugh, his hearty appetites, his love of a good time, they see him as one of their own.  This will dismay him … or then again perhaps he’s so obsessed with Mistress Seymour that he doesn’t care. When the King gets a fixation in his head it seems nothing can distract him. Nothing.


 Early this morning I was dusting the main stairs, which connect the royal apartments to the private chapel on the first floor.   Suddenly I heard the doors flung open above me and a posse of men emerged. The King was amongst them! I couldn’t afford to be seen.  I could have just turned my back and faced the wall, as we are meant to do sometimes, but even that didn’t seem to be enough. I just felt it wasn’t wise at the moment to draw attention to myself in any way.  So instead I slipped through a nearby door into the gallery, and flattened myself against the wall.

 “What is taking so long?” the King roared, as they came down the steps.

 “It is not yet 8 o’clock, Your Majesty”, Cromwell replied “There is still over an hour to go”.

 “It is days like this where Time seems to slow to a veritable crawl”, said the King “I am constantly listening out for the cannon.  I don’t want to miss it. I want to know the very moment I am free of her”.

 The men passed into the private chapel and closed the door behind them.  I breathed a sigh of relief, and found I had been clutching my dusting-rag to my chest so fiercely that my hand ached.




 The execution has been postponed until tomorrow!  The headsman has been delayed on the road and can’t get here today.   What a cruel blow for the Queen. She will now have to go through it all again, when she could have been at peace by now.  Either that, or she might be thinking that she is heading for a reprieve, which would be too cruel, as I’m pretty certain there is no chance whatsoever of the King granting her that.  

 Everyone has been very quiet today.  There is an undercurrent that something is happening which should not be happening, but there is nothing we can do about it.  On reflection, I think her Fate was sealed from the moment she was arrested. Soon after she was bundled off to the Tower, her rooms were cleared out and her household disbanded.  That would never have happened if there had been the slightest chance she would be declared innocent.

 It is very late.  I am scribbling using the moonlight coming through the narrow little window as my only source of  illumination. I can hear loud raucous voices coming from the direction of the river, which must mean the King is on his way home.  He has spent the evening dining with Mistress Seymour. As far as he is concerned he is now a free man in all but name. Even if he now hates Anne, how can he go merrymaking whilst she is in the Tower, only a few hours from death?  Would it have hurt him so much to have delayed it a couple of days? I feel like I am losing all the respect I ever had for him, and yet I know how dangerous it is to record such thoughts here. I must try and seek sleep. Tomorrow will be a very long day.


The 19th of May


 I couldn’t eat first thing this morning, which is very unusual for me, as I normally have a hearty appetite.  But the thought of any kind of sustenance made me feel sick. I avoided the kitchens. I didn’t want to run the slightest risk of hearing Meat-Cook making one of his pathetic remarks, or Agnes blubbing into her apron.  Later I will no doubt feel strong enough to face them, but not at the moment.

 It felt as though all of us were constantly ear-cocked, listening out for the sound of the cannon down on the Tower wharf, which would tell us that the dreadful deed had been finally done.   I slipped out into the kitchen gardens, and met the young lad who is one of the Pages in the King’s apartments. He is a slender, fair-haired little thing. I often think he seems like a pretty girl in men’s attire.  He was sitting on a low wall, staring thoughtfully ahead.

 “They’ve all gone to the Tower”, he said, when he saw me “All of them.  Except the King”.

 “All of the nobs?” I asked.

 “Yes”, he said “It’s the hottest show in town, the first time a queen has ever been executed in England, so they all wanted to be there to witness it.  The sadistic bastards”.

 “Ssh!” I said, horrified, flapping my apron at him.

 “S’alright”, he said “No one around to hear me, might as well take advantage of not having old Cromwell and his henchmen around spying on us all the time.   Makes a change. It must be a rare event for His Majesty to have some time all to himself. I heard him pacing up and down up there earlier”.

 “I can’t imagine it’s his conscience pricking him”, I muttered, sitting down on the wall “And you didn’t hear me say that!  For all I know you might be in Cromwell’s pay”.

 “Not me”, he said “I leave all that stuff well alone.  No good ever comes to the likes of us meddling in Their business.  Leave ‘em to it, I say. I’m learning the guitar. I fancy meself as a minstrel”.

 We both sat for a moment, looking up at the cloudless blue sky.  I imagined her walking out of the Queen’s House at the Tower, seeing the scaffold and the headsman in front of her.  Hearing the birdsong around her, smelling the scent of the may-flowers, and knowing that she was about to die.

 “I dreamt about her last night”, he said “I could see her head, with all its bits hanging out”.

 “Now stop that!” I said “There’s going to be quite enough of all that before the day is out.  Anymore remarks like that and I’ll box your ears, young man!”

 “Fair enough”, he shrugged.

 And then we heard it.  The cannon-fire. It was over.   I couldn’t help it. I burst into tears.


 By the time I had composed myself and finished my morning chores, the palace gossip mill was churning away at full tilt.  Every detail of the Queen’s execution was seized upon and discussed at great length. When I reached the kitchens for my Noon victuals, everyone was twittering away like an aviary of excitable birds.  

 “They hadn’t even got a coffin for her?!” Old Alice was shouting, shocked.

 “Bundled her into an old arrow-chest”, said a despatch-rider, who was wolfing down bread and cheese at the table “That was all they had”.

 “An old arrow-chest?!” Old Alice sounded angry enough to confront the King himself “She was the Queen!  You don’t go putting queens into old arrow-chests, no matter what you think they’ve done!”

 “Where have they buried her?” asked Agnes, who was red-nosed and red-eyed from crying.

 “They hadn’t thought that one out either”, said the despatch-rider “Last I heard they were going to put her under the altar in the chapel there”.

 “That’s a bloody disgrace!” said Old Alice “She should’ve been given a decent funeral at least!  This lot … they don’t give a toss about anybody. No respect. No feelings”.

 “Alice, pipe down”, said Meat-Cook, who wasn’t as snide and abrasive as I had expected him to be.  If anything, he seemed unnaturally quiet “You’ll get yourself into trouble if you carry on like that”.

 “See if I care”, said Old Alice “There’s not much They can do to me at my age”.

 “Don’t bank on it”, said the despatch-rider “A dungeon in the Tower wouldn’t do your old bones any good.  He’s right, tone it down. The deed is done, nothing we can do about it now”.

 “I heard she was wearing a gabled hood”, said Agnes, after blowing her nose noisily “Why would the Queen have worn a gabled hood?  That wasn’t her style at all, she preferred French hoods”.

 “Don’t ask me”, said the despatch-rider “I’m not clued up on women’s garments.  I suppose it doesn’t matter much what her head-gear is now, does it!” And he gave a roar of laughter, his big mouth stuffed full of bread.

 “Men!” said Old Alice.




 Perhaps, as to be expected, the King didn’t waste any time grieving over the Lady Anne.  He became betrothed to Mistress Seymour the very next day! By that point I think I was beyond being shocked where he’s concerned.   He seemed to regard Anne as a dark, fantasy interlude in his life, and one where – if we knew what was good for us – we would move on from it too.  

 And the curious thing is that, once the shock of execution day had passed, we did all move on.  It was as if the storm had passed. We weren’t likely to forget her in a hurry, but for those of us on the lower rungs of the ladder, I suppose it doesn’t really matter much who occupies the Queen’s apartments.   And if Mistress Seymour makes the King happy, then he’ll be easier to work for no doubt. I can’t in all honesty say I will like her though. It takes a pretty cold bitch to step into a dead woman’s shoes so quickly and so willingly.

 Agnes has gone back to her father’s farm.  We had a brief, hurried goodbye one morning, as she set off with her bundle for the wharf.

 “If you get fed up with it here”, she said “Come and find me in the Essex countryside.  We could always do with another pair of hands around the place”.

 I haven’t made up my mind what I’m doing yet, but I thanked her and said I would certainly bear it in mind.  

 “We’re the lucky ones really, Gerta”, she said “With our skills we’ll always be able to find work.  The nobs will always need their piss-pots emptying for them when all’s said and done. The Lady Anne’s sister had the right idea, she disappeared into the countryside and stuck to breeding, and that’s what I’m doing”.

 I was pleased she had got her spirits back, and I said I would miss her around the place.


 And now it is WhitSunday at the beginning of June, and the new Queen has been declared.  His Majesty married her here in the palace a few days ago. He doesn’t believe in wasting time.  A coronation has been postponed though because there are rumours that plague has broken out in the city.  

 Sometimes there is a bit of whispering that the Lady Anne’s dark-eyed ghost has been seen around parts of the palace, but I don’t know how much to believe it.   (There is also a wild rumour going round that, on the day of the execution, the tapers around Queen Katherine’s tomb lit all by themselves).  These ethereal rumours are all that is left of her, apart from the little red-haired princess of course. It is as if she had never existed in the first place, that the years of turmoil she had brought in her wake had never happened.  

 “Don’t you believe it”, said Blanche, who was busy stitching the letter ‘J’ to various pillows and cushions “SHE won’t be forgotten in a hurry, I can tell you that, and I can’t see this one [meaning Mistress Seymour] overshadowing her”.

 And so the dust settles again.  For the time being anyway.





One thing that used to irritate me a bit, when I was still knocking about Twitter, was how some of the TV nostalgia buffs would try and make out how British comedy of recent years has been nothing but rubbish, of how there has been no genuinely funny comedy since the days of Fawlty Towers. This is completely untrue. If anything, I would argue that the past 20 years has seen some of the best comedy we’ve ever produced in these isles. This should be reassuring news for those who fear that political correctness has stifled humour. I don’t think it can ever really stifle humour, you probably just might have to look more outside the primetime mainstream for it, that’s all.

What follows is a straightforward list of my favourite sitcoms and comedy performers of the past 40-50 years. I haven’t added any commentary as otherwise it would be just me going “oh I love this!” over and over again. The list is heavily weighted towards British and Irish comedy, and perhaps not much in the way of American stuff. This isn’t because I have anything against it, but simply because much of it – such as Friends or Frazier for instance – I just never really got into. It didn’t happen. Although, for the record, I do think the US remake of The Office was every bit as good as the Brit version, and it has to be said that the Americans are outdoing us when it comes to political satire at the moment.

I have a penchant for anarchic or surreal comedy, or anything that pokes fun at the absurdities of life. I am really not interested in sentimental schmaltz [Miranda’s love life for instance], or worthy, naggy sitcoms which are Making A Social Point, like something Carla Lane had written on a bad day. I almost lost the plot with one fairly recent Channel 4 sitcom (the name of which escapes me, thank God) which included the words “if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this programme” and a Samaritans number right at the end of the closing credits!! Please don’t email me about the importance of Raising Issues in a TV programme. I ask only one thing of comedy, and that is that It Makes Me Laugh. If I can laugh I don’t need a Samaritans number.

Compiling a list like is very much a personal choice, and as such can be a bit of a potential minefield. All I can say is this, if you violently object to any of my choices, or exclusions, then MAKE UP YOUR OWN LIST!! Anyway, here goes:

  • Absolutely Fabulous
  • Alan Partridge
  • Benny Hill
  • Big School
  • Big Train
  • Bill Hicks
  • Blackadder
  • Black Books
  • Bless This House
  • Bottom
  • The Carry Ons
  • Catherine Tate
  • Chris Rock
  • Count Arthur Strong
  • Dad’s Army
  • Dave Allen At Large
  • Dave Lamb (narrator of Come Dine With Me)
  • Derek
  • Detectorists
  • The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin
  • Father Ted
  • Fawlty Towers
  • Frankie Howerd
  • The Good Life
  • The Grumbleweeds (radio show)
  • Human Remains
  • Kathy Burke
  • Katy Brand
  • Lee Evans
  • Man About The House
  • Monty Python
  • MysteryScienceTheater3000
  • The New Statesman
  • Nighty Night
  • The Office
  • Open All Hours
  • Peep Show
  • Phoenix Nights
  • Plebs*
  • Rising Damp
  • Sean Lock
  • Smack The Pony
  • Spike Milligan
  • Steptoe & Son
  • Sykes
  • That Mitchell & Webb Look
  • Toast Of London
  • To The Manor Born
  • The Trip … with Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden
  • The Two Ronnies
  • Vids … with Nigel Buckland and Stef Gardiner**
  • The Windsors
  • Yes Minister

*Plebs is rapidly going down as one of my favourite comedies of all time. I love everything about it, and its largely young cast fill me with hope for the future, that it won’t be the humourless, dried-up earnest nonsense some of us have feared at times.

**Vids was a late-night video review show, made on a shoestring budget, which ran on Channel 4 in the late 1990s. It built up a small but devoted following, due to its totally anarchic nature, and the lovable antics of its two presenters. It was totally messed around by Channel 4, who never gave it a set time, so it often got relegated to the depths of the night. Finding some episodes on YouTube in recent months has felt like meeting up with old friends. I have no idea what Channel 4 show late at night anymore – I’ve got Netflix – but as the late Paula Yates would no doubt have put it, it’s probably some right load of old poo instead.


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