Monday, 26 January 2015

JE SUIS CHARLIE Carol Drinkwater

I am writing this ahead of my regular blog date because I will be away on a work commitment and possibly without internet. Much could happen between today and the 26th...


This month of January has been a tragic opening to the year of 2015. One of the murdered Charlie Hebdo team collaborated with my husband on a film proposal quite recently, so we feel the loss personally.

For twenty-two years here at our Olive Farm in the south of France, we employed an Algerian gardener whose family name I gave in my series of Olive Farm books as “Quashia”. In fact, his real family name is Kouachi. “Quashia” is a man I have described as owning a passport stamped direct to heaven. His heart is huge and his soul is just. He is a practicing Muslim who doesn’t smoke or drink, although he indulged in both when he was younger, and who has made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. When his eldest son was killed in a car crash some years ago, he wept in my husband’s arms. When one or other of his daughters or daughters-in-law gave birth to yet another of his thirty-three grandchildren, we celebrated with him. When one of our farm dogs died, he dug the grave with Michel and together we grieved the creature’s loss.

When his carte d’indentité needed renewing Michel accompanied him to the immigration offices because in this high-percentage Le Pen area of France the officers are not always known to be gracious to the Arabs. When “Quashia” had an accident, I drove him to the hospital and sat with him in Emergency until they were ready to treat him and then I signed myself as his local next of kin to allow him to be released from the hospital. When one of his comrades died and he was helping to raise the money to have the body returned to its family in Algeria, we, of course, chipped in.

“Quashia” is family. Now that he has finally retired, aged eighty-two, and returned to his wife and children in his Berber village near Constantine in Algeria, I miss him deeply. Every day, I hear his laughter.
Imagine my horror then as I watched the events of early January play out. “Quashia” has five sons. Dear God, I was praying, please don’t let these murderers be related to our man. Of course, they were not. The two Kouachi terrorist brothers were Parisian born, runts of a society that does not always make it easy to be Maghrebian and unemployed here, does not pave the way for immersion...

On 11th April 2007, I landed in Algiers intending to travel the length and breadth of the country alone questing the history of the olive tree. 

As I was leaving the airport, chaos ensued. I assumed it was the usual state of affairs. In fact, Al Qaeda had bombed the offices of the prime minister in Algiers and then set off another bomb close to the airport. The death toll was frightening, shocking. The phone lines were all down. I couldn’t get a signal, couldn’t ring home to let Michel, my husband, know that I was safe because for sure he would have heard the news and would be concerned. I was meeting up with an Algerian historian working at the university who also happened to be a beekeeper. His contact details had been given to me by our beekeepers back here on the farm. Finally, he and I managed to locate one another and he drove me directly out of town south of the capital to lunch with the man who was the president of Algeria’s national beekeeping society, a vast network. The three of us sat together in a restaurant in the middle of what seemed to me to be nowhere, drinking soft fizzy drinks and eating grilled Halal lamb and chips.

I suppose you will go home? the president sighed.

The truth was I was still digesting this Algerian welcome and had not considered my immediate future. All I knew for certain was that I had a book to complete, a Mediterranean journey, and that no other modern travel writer had included Algeria in their itinerary. I really wanted to make this leg. Paul Theroux skipped Algeria when he wrote his Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, Pillars of Hercules. I was determined that I wouldn’t. And I am a woman. An even greater coup, I had been smugly reckoning. Monsieur Le Beekeeping President and the historian talked me through modern Algerian politics: before, during and most importantly after their exceedingly bloody war of independence with France. It was a sobering afternoon.

The bottom line was, they said, they needed me.

Need me?

You can be a witness to what we are living through. You can take what you see out of Algeria and help us. We need a life line, a voice.

The two men struck a deal with me. If I agreed to continue with my planned month-long trip they would guarantee hospitality and, as far as they were able, my security. It was a madness to accept, to stay on. American Express who serve as my travel insurance declared the country a high risk zone. This meant if I stayed on of my own accord, I was travelling without cover.

I stayed on.

I was parcelled east across the country and then south towards the Sahara always staying with beekeepers, many of whom have remained friends. My book, The Olive Tree, recounts my experiences of that extraordinary month, unforgettable and very challenging, so I won’t re-narrate those chapters here.

I am mentioning the experience now in the light of these recent events in Paris.

There have been so many articles written over these last few days, so many opinions set out, which is as it should be. We, in Europe, are exceedingly fortunate to live in countries where freedom of speech and debate are essentials; food for our daily lives. For others, this is not necessarily the case. Algeria is a land in question. Algeria is still reeling from over one hundred and fifty years of French colonialization and before that Ottoman rule. The vast landmass of desert, mountains and coast, that is a nation of Berbers more than Arabs has not yet established its own post-colonial identity. This has left it wide open to the fanatics.

I am reading articles everywhere saying that Muslims worldwide if they are TRULY peace-loving Muslims MUST speak out now against the horrors that have been perpetrated in recent months. We all must speak out, of course we must, but such a command is simplistic.

South Africa is an example where at least two generations suffered from lack of education because education was not provided for them. The same is true in countries such as Algeria where the French colonials took the best pickings and left little opportunities for the indigenous people, where many of the colonials treated the local people cruelly and seeded resentment, hatred. The same was true in my own land of Ireland. Catholics under centuries of British rule were forbidden education and we know how long it has taken to sort-of iron out that complex legacy.

I am sometimes accused of being soft, hippy, peace-loving... yes, I am all of these. Most importantly, I believe in dialogue and education and taking responsibility. I think we need to look, to penetrate, to understand the seeds of this Islamic fanaticism. We need to understand that millions of Islamised peoples are ignorant of what is really going on. They are just being fed violent shortcuts.

When I penetrated the sandy wilds south of Constantine to villages and settlements where herders trudged the desert distances alone with their beasts, where young boys received no education and had no future and were facing the same illiteracy as their grandparents, I passed many Al Qaeda bases on my way to nowhere, to where the winds roared and the sand whorled. How simple, I thought back then, to lure these boys with promises of a future, offering them the opportunity to make their mark as martyrs to a cause, offering a false spiritual wealth to their closed-in impoverished lives, offering their families a little money to help them along and the assurance that their offspring would, for the first time in centuries, be educated.

I don’t have any simple answers. I can only ask questions, point at unresolved situations, attempt to understand some of the complexities.


I feel these murders acutely, this attempt at destruction of freedom of speech and of expression, the mindless loss of talented work colleagues, but I also believe that if we don’t begin to take responsibility, everyone of us, for the ignorance, the lack of direction these murderers have lived with, we give the word to the fanatics and lost forever will be the path to dialogue. 

The 11th January demonstrations all across France have proved that this nation will stand up proudly for its right to freedom of speech. Three and a half million people on the streets, and no skirmishes, in the biggest national demonstrations this country has ever known.

‘Paris is the capital of the world,’ said our President Hollande. ‘Our entire country will rise up towards something better.’

There was barely a dry eye in the house, as we say in show business.

But this is just the beginning.

What I hope now is that we all begin to ask ourselves in which ways we can reach out to those who are disenfranchised, to the nations who are cut off from the west, to provide education and opportunities for those who live amongst us and are lost. The outer suburbs, for example, where the Kouachi brothers were brought up would be a very good place to start to turn fine words and sentiments into actions. 

What do you think or hope for from this experience?

PS: I have used "Charlie" photos taken from the internet and I could not find names to credit to them. I apologise for using others' copyright. If anyone knows who took these images, I will happily credit them.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

WHAT A CAREER by Eleanor Updale

One of the joys of the Internet is how quickly we can now answer questions that we would once have parked in the back of our minds - even when all the libraries are closed.  Here’s a chain of discoveries I made over Christmas.  It all started with a board game, and it led me to a very interesting 20th century man who turned out to share a lot with a 17th century natural philosopher about whom I once knew a great deal. 

For those of you who don’t know it, Careers is the best board game in the world

I’m talking here about the original 1950s version, not the feeble ‘updated’ editions of more recent times. We play using a set that has been in my husband’s family for nearly sixty years, and unlike its evil, boring, family-busting cousin, Monopoly, Careers never fails to generate laughter and good will.

The rules are pretty simple.  You go round the board according to throws of the dice, entering various careers along the way, trying to achieve a formulae of money, fame and happiness that you set for yourself before the game starts. 

The genius of the game is that it is impossible to tell who is winning until the victor emerges, and fortunes change rapidly, so you are always in with a chance.
One of the most amusing things about Careers is what it says of its own time.
Look at the Expedition to the Moon, for example, plotted out long before the era of space travel:

So the game is a bit of a history lesson for the younger members of the family.  It’s cheering to realise from the causal sexism throughout that feminism has achieved  something  since 1957: 'Gorgeous secretary. 4 Hearts'. But some things that raised a laugh a few years just back have reverted to their old status and no longer shock: In the University section: "Sweetheart has rich uncle. Draw 2 Opportunities". At the turn of the century we would have chortled at getting only £5000 for writing a successful book. Now it sounds like a pretty good deal.  And paying to get out of hospital used to seem strange.  Now you can imagine it being in someone's election manifesto.  But don't get me started on that...
For all its anachronisms, the game still captures something true about human beings and human society.  I wondered who had invented it, and it turned out to be a very interesting man, with an intriguing career of his own.

James Cooke Brown was born in 1921, and lived till 2000.  He was a sociologist, a civil rights campaigner, and above all an idealist.  He believed in the possibility of constructing a fairer society, and set to work devising methods by which that might be done. Shortly after the died, his publishers released The Job Market of the Future in which he foresaw a role for computers in a globalised world of work.

'I shall be bringing an inventor’s perspective to the solving of economic problems' he wrote. 'Blaming people who some might think had “caused" the problems is no part of the inventive process…all we need to know is how to solve them now - preferably with a solution that can remove their structural causes, and so have some chance of being a permanent solution.'

What James Cooke Browne proposed (to grossly oversimplify his theory to fit this space) was a new system for organising work - rebalancing the power relationships so that the person supplying the labour had control of its use.  The ultimate aim was to ensure security of employment combined with a living wage.

All this was prefigured in his even more fascinating book The Troika Incident, a  Science fiction novel published in 1970.

This book is interesting on two levels.  It looks forward to the world in 2070; but its immediate plot is set in 1975 which, at the time it was written, was still in the future.  So characters reflect on who won the Vietnam War (correctly diagnosed as ‘nobody’) and look back on the abandonment of conventional, and in particular nuclear, warfare in 1993 (oh well…) and to the arrival or a more equal society with enough money and plenty of sex.  The job market of 2070 would be a constantly shifting scene, where the least popular jobs were the highest paid.
It’s one of those novels you read for its quirkiness and background message rather than to find out what’s going to happen next - but it’s worth downloading it to one of the electronic readers whose invention James Cooke Brown predicted in this very book, back in 1970. 

For people who know about such things, James Cooke Brown is most famous for his tireless work to establish and develop a new universal language: Loglan

His motivation was (at least) twofold: the primary aim of facilitating universal unambiguous communication between people and between machines; and to test theories that our thinking is determined and constrained by the linguistic apparatus we use.
Obviously, Loglan has not taken over the world, but its exponents still exist, and there is a site you can visit to see how it works
By the way, history is hisri, and girl is nirli  -  but it’s much, much, more complicated than that, and I haven’t cracked all the rules that would enable me to say History Girls correctly.

Loglan may not yet have been a resounding success, either as a language in its own right, or as a tool for linguistic study, but it is an amazing achievement nevertheless, and it puts James Cooke Brown in good company.  One predecessor, who seems to have shared JCB's ability to drop the preconceptions of his day to enquire, invent and explain was the seventeenth-century academic and cleric John Wilkins.

Wilkins was one of the founder members of the Royal Society, who not only predicted space travel and a moon landing, but invented his own ‘universal language.’

Wilkins’s attempt was more phonetically based, and looks to the modern eye rather like shorthand, 
but his reason for developing it was very like James Cooke Brown’s.  Alas, much of the work for it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but Wilkins soldiered on.  Wilkins also had a profound effect on the way the Royal Society wrote about itself and its achievements, establishing a clarity of expression that survived until the deliberate self-aggrandising obfuscation of specialists in the past century or so.

Across the ages, Wilkins and Cooke are brothers.  And what fun that Cooke’s board game, which has given my family such joy over the years, led me appreciate the link between them, and to find out more about a man who deserves to be better known.

James Cooke Brown photo: Marshall Anderson 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Alternative Research: The Psychic Strand by Elizabeth Chadwick

sun prism at Pembroke Castle, 
I use many research methods to weave the braid of my history stories.  I use primary sources in Latin and Old French (in translation when I can get them). I use a variety of secondary sources ranging from the work of academic presses to children's books. I visit locations, I research online. I re-enact with early medieval society Regia Anglorum to try and create a 3D feel for the words on the page.  And...I use the psychic.  Let me explain.

I need to take you back 30 years. At that time I was a young mum with small children. One afternoon, while attending a group set up for mothers and toddlers, I met fellow mum Alison King who would become a very dear friend and colleague. At the time I was a hopeful but unpublished author, and she was taking a job break to bring up her family. We hit it off and began meeting  once a week for a coffee and a chat at each other's houses while the children played together. Later, when our offspring had gone to school and we both had part time jobs, we still met up every week. Gradually as we got to know each other in more depth, Alison told me that she had awarenesses that I suppose you'd say come under the umbrella of being psychic. She could see auras and sense energies.  It's not the sort of thing you tell people until you get to know and trust them, because there is often  stigma, scorn and even hostility attached to such admissions and Alison, being soft, shy and unassuming, only told me once she had come to know me well.  I accepted it as part of who she was. I had an open mind even though I wasn't gullible and I had come to know that she was a very genuine person.

In the fullness of time I realise my dream and became a successful published author, and Alison, on her own path trained in Reiki and neuro linguistic programming (NLP) and became a therapist.  We began working together in the psychic sense quite by accident in 2004. I was writing my bestselling novel THE GREATEST KNIGHT and was about three quarters of the way through it when I went round to Alison's for our usual coffee and chat. She asked me how I was getting on with the novel and I said that it was going very well except that I was having difficulty finding out about the woman who had been the mistress of William Marshal's brother. I knew her name and had a few dates but that was about it. Alison in her therapy job had been dealing with clients who had had a traumas in the past and she had discovered that her abilities enabled her to tune in and go back to when that trauma happened and to work through it with them. She offered to go back for me and look for this lady, reasoning that if she could go back 20 or 30 years, then she could go back 800 or further. As I said at the beginning, I have an open mind, so I thought why not?  

Alison doesn't go into any sort of weird mediumistic trance when she accesses the information. She is fully awake and aware, although she may close her eyes the better to see what she is accessing.  She tunes in to the vibrational pattern of the past and what comes through to her are visuals, sights, sounds, smells and emotions the latter in particular. For her, it's like seeing a film but with full sensory perception and from all angles. She then relays back to me what she is experiencing. When I say full sensory input, that includes the smells and tastes of the time! I recall once she was with a character who was very hungry and impatient for his dinner. She could actually smell the good food smells that were making his mouth water but to make sure it wasn't coming from an external source, she made me go in the kitchen and check that my husband wasn't secretly cooking a casserole!

What came through in those 10 minutes was astounding. I didn't write it down, we were just sitting there over the coffee and biscuits and it was totally impromptu. At the outset Alison came across a lady swinging what she described as a bag on a string. 'Do you think she's drying lettuce?' Alison asked me - not knowing anything about the Middle Ages. I said I suspected the lady in question was actually swinging a hawking lure!   She proceeded to describe a meeting between this lady and William Marshal's brother that was detailed and fascinating. I was amazed and could immediately see how useful this ability would be for me the novelist if Alison was able to do this on a regular basis. The possibilities knocked the ball way beyond the boundaries.

We agreed to meet next week and have another go, this time perhaps going to William Marshal himself, and taking notes. Again, what came through was astounding. This is Alison's description of William Marshal from our first ever 'official' session we did.  I've followed it with some quotes from Professor David Crouch's biography of The Marshal 'William Marshal, Knighthood, War and Chivalry 1147-1219.'

I asked her to go to William Marshal in the spring of 1168 when he was in the entourage of his uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and in the company of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Alison:  "He has incredible courage. He's like a bouncy castle: very buoyant. He's riding with a lot of highborn people. He's awed by them but not overawed. He feels as if he's in the right place. He has a good sense of his own worth. He's very flexible and alert, responds not just in a chitchat way but deeply and appropriately. He knows how to say the right thing at the right time and it comes easily to him. He's alert and all his senses are awakened. He has dark hair, long cheeks, strong nose. His clothes are intricate. His eyes look dark but inside they feel light. I'm seeing the youth and the older man mingled. It is difficult for others to gauge what he's thinking. He has very dark eyes: might be brown might be blue.
There is a woman laughing and William is making her laugh by telling her jokes about the English being loutish and stupid. It's probably Poitiers they are going to. The woman is Eleanor of Aquitaine (Alison has several stabs at saying Poitiers, and prompted by me. She was unsure how to pronounce it). 

Here's what David Crouch has to say on the character of William Marshal. (Alison didn't know any of this beforehand. All she had to work on was a name, date and a place).
"He was undoubtedly a big, healthy and prepossessing man, a fine athlete and horseman. This mixture of quick wit and hand made him as perfect a warrior as he was in time commander. The crown of his fortune was that he had an open face, a ready humour and an underlying alertness for his own advantage that made him as natural courtier as he was a soldier. The Queen of England, as good a judge of a male animal as might be found in mid 12th century France, was bound to be impressed. William's face was his fortune.'... With tact and a well bridled tongue he had no need to be a master of manoeuvre and dissembling. What for others was merely the carefully constructed outer mask was for him his natural disposition. His ambition rode easily beside his own disposition... He rose effortlessly, without needing to plot and subvert the position of others. His only danger was his own success.
And re the jests against the English: 'that the English were more fond of drinking and boasting and fighting was a routine insult thrown by the Norman French at their English cousins 12th century English writers took great exception to it... And Williams lying in self-deprecation is a very good example of this form of defence. He was filing down the teeth of persecution by jokes against himself.'

Alison's assessment of William Marshal was a wonderful character study and spot-on with history that I had already read but Alison hadn't. (there is more than the above paragraph but I've not included it here).  I accept that it could be coming from her imagination, or she could have been somehow plucking it out of mine, But it could also be the real deal. It all depends on what you believe. Whatever the source, it was something I knew I needed to tap into. What a fantastic strand to add to the research threads - a glinting gold line taking me straight back to the past. 

99%  of the time the history is spot on where it can be corroborated. For the minor percentage when the known fact and the psychic readings go awry, I take that as margin for error. If it's really weird I discard. If it goes against the grain but has some plausibility, it goes in the pending file.  There was the time Alison was accessing 12th century Lincoln castle for me and told she could see a tunnel.  I said there weren't any tunnels at Lincoln Castle.  6 months later this turned up. Tunnel at Lincoln Castle
It's always fascinating when Alison describes the people she sees. King Henry II 'never sits still.' She describes all his fieriness and energy and his red hair. Of course she could have got this out of a book or from general knowledge.  Knowing her, I suspect not, but it can't be ruled out. I remember her accessing William Marshal's second son Richard. With a delighted laugh of surprise she said:  'He's a lovely roly-poly lad with red hair.' Now we don't know what Richard Marshal looked like, but we do know that his maternal grandfather was a red-head and that the de Clare line was very busy with folk bearing that particular hair colour. It's circumstantial, but it's a great handle for me the novelist.

Since I had almost finished writing  when we began our journey, The greatest Knight, that novel only contains a few small sections from what Alison calls The Akashic Record - a handle name for the way she taps into the past.  But from that point every novel I have written has contained that golden weave throughout. I have friends in the historian community who have looked at the material and have told  me that what is being accessed is mediaeval culture and mindset. So wherever it comes from, I am delighted because getting the mindset right is one of  the holy grails of historical fiction.
Alison (left) with me taking notes at a session. This was a
few years ago - my hair is shorter now!

What Alison accesses for me helps me think outside the box for conventional research too.  It helps me shovel aside the detritus of secondary source opinions. While these can be enlightening some have a tendency to obfuscate and get in the way of clarity or be downright wrong. That is particularly true where Eleanor of Aquitaine is concerned. Her biographers have taken  a lot of liberties.  It was heartening to find that my research on Eleanor with Alison has paid dividends behind the scenes. Professor Michael Evans in his recent work Inventing Eleanor (Bloomsbury Academic)  has cited me as a novelist who follow the newer academic research and avoid the pitfalls of making the egregious mistakes garnered from the popular biographies.  If only he knew about my gold thread research and its contribution to my work!

Leaving Eleanor, here's an example from my research when I was writing a novel titled A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE  about William Marshal's father John and his chequered career during the anarchy between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. There was an incident described in a chronicle called the Gesta Stephani where, in 1140, a mercenary thug, attempted to take John's Castle at Marlborough away from him.  I was interested in the dynamics of this incident and asked Alison to go to it and see it from John Marshal's point of view.

Taken from my notes:

Elizabeth:  I want to look at a situation between John Marshal and a mercenary named Robert FitzHubert. In 1140, FitzHubert was serving Robert of Gloucester. FitzHubert made a surprise attack on Devizes castle, and took it for himself, renouncing his contract with Gloucester. Then he started looking around for others to conquer and his eye fixed on John Marshal at Marlborough. He approached John by way of intermediaries and mooted the notion that the two of them might join forces and carve up the surrounding area between them. John was suspicious but wanted to know what FitzHubert was really up to, so invited him over to Marlborough to discuss the situation. This is known history. Go to the meeting.

Alison: I can see parallel lines going upwards and light between them. I think it's a window in a church. It's very quiet and still. I get the sense that John is in a church thinking, praying, enjoying the stillness. He needs that stillness to be able to think. He is trying to figure out what FitzHubert's intentions are. He needs to work it out before FitzHubert arrives at Marlborough. He's given himself a good amount of time. He's figuring it out like you would in a chess game, working out all the possible moves FitzHubert could make and all the directions he could be coming from. John can see that none of them are good. A pact doesn't make sense for FitzHubert whichever way John looks at it. Now he's ruled out that perspective he has to work out what FitzHubert's motive really is, what he's trying to do. If he can do that, he can make his own response more effective. He has sussed out that the man is coming to threaten him, that the visit is going to be about threats and bullying. Alison sees a symbolic image of FitzHubert with a big sword pointing at John. 'Do what I say or else.'

 FitzHubert is an intense small, broad, thorough ball of muscle. John is cool about the notion of threat. He thinks 'Who tells me what to do? Certainly not this little worm.' He thinks he will fight force with force. He's figuring out which of his own men are going to look the most forceful. He will have them in the meeting with him and dressed in an intimidating way. He is going to put all his men on the alert and on guard. He will contain FitzHubert's men in the hall with guards at the door and he will make them disarm and promise them wine and nourishment after their long journey. He's going to instruct his wife to see that they are occupied. He's pleased with his plan and clasps his hands. 'Thank you God.' He lights a candle and leaves the church.

There is still quite a bit of time before FitzHubert arrives. John has something to eat and drink himself. He's relaxing in his chair with his dogs and discussing the above plan with his senior men in an easy way around the fire. They all know what they are doing. John goes to get himself ready. He instructs his steward to make the hall ready and goes to have a word with his wife. She agrees to do as he asks. She doesn't say a lot. She looks plumper than I've seen her before; she might be pregnant.
All John has to do now is wait. He sees to his equipment, inspects the men. He makes sure they know what they are doing by asking them. They are all in the areas where they should be and know what they're doing next. There are meeters and greeters at the hall door and they have concealed weapons or weapons where they can grab them quickly if needed.

The word has gone out that FitzHubert is coming. He arrives faster than he should i.e. at a gallop, but John stands his ground and FitzHubert has to rein in. John welcomes him as he dismounts and shows him where his men can go. He takes him to the private chamber for their discussion, and as the door closes, FitzHubert looks round and sees that as well as John there are two burley well armed men coming up the stairs behind them. John says 'Don't mind them, these are my subalterns.' FitzHubert swallows hard. He's been outwitted; he's left all of his men in the hall and he's on his own. He thought he was on strong ground. He thought that with everyone being so friendly, he was in a powerful position, but now he finds himself at a disadvantage and he doesn't like it.

John offers him wine and nibbles from the sideboard. It's not the sort of food a ball of muscle goes for. He's a doorstop sarnie type, but John is showing off his cultured and courtly ways and again putting FitzHubert at a disadvantage. Plus FitzHubert is hungry after his ride and this stuff won't even fill a gap, whereas John's already eaten.

John is now settling down. Let's have this chat then. What have you come to talk about?
FitzHubert starts his spiel. 'We're friends and neighbours. We might have things in common that we could investigate. Things we might be able to do together. Swap men for example. You lend me men when I need them, and I'll do the same for you.'
John: 'what advantage is there in that for me?'
FitzHubert: 'Well, if you wanted to take on something bigger than you normally would, you'd be able.'
John: 'why should I want to do that?'
FitzHubert: 'You haven't been able to do it before, but now you're in a position to do so: certainly I've thought about it myself.'
John raises his eyebrows. 'Have you indeed? And where would that be? '(knowing bloody well FitzHubert means Marlborough).
FitzHubert can't answer that one and looks away. He continues talking about ambition. 'Who knows where ambition takes us. Who knows where ambition is - but he doesn't say anything specific or definite.
John just says: 'Indeed, indeed, so glad I've met you. Enjoyable visit.'
Alison says she can see John giving FitzHubert a hug. He's saying 'We'll always be friends.' They go into the main hall and there's cheering and carrying on. John gets a nasty feeling seeing FitzHubert's men in his hall. He has a snarl his face. He doesn't like this at all. He's tempted to put something in the wine - pepper? Alison isn't sure if this is what he'd like to do or whether he actually does it. John leaves the hall, really disgusted. FitzHubert's men are getting very drunk and are incapable. FitzHubert thinks that he is a big man and in control. Basically John decides to imprison him. Wrap him up like a present. He'll make a valuable offering to someone. John's men are seizing FitzHubert's  and the latter is now thinking to paraphrase 'Oh shit.' He might be a ball of muscle but there's not much brain in there. John's wife isn't in the room when John orders the taking. She'd left before it got to that stage.
I asked Alison if John had intended arresting FitzHubert from the start but she said no. John was waiting to see what FitzHubert's plans were first. 

The history here is spot on. It's mentioned in a couple of pages in the Gesta Stephani and also John of Worcester, chronicles of the period that Alison certainly had not read when she reported on the episode to me.  What she told me, fleshed out these incidents from an emotional and motivational point of view whilst corroborating everything the chronicles say. 
Incidentally, after that John sold FitzHubert back to Robert of Gloucester, the mercenary's former employer for 500 marks.

From the Gesta Stephani:
"There was in the neighbourhood a certain John, a man cunning and very ready to set great designs on foot by treachery, in forcible possession of a very strong castle belonging of right to the King, named Marlborough.  Robert was anxious to gain possession of it, either because it was near his his own castle and conveniently situated, or because if that too were brought under his power he could more freely cause discord in the whole of England.  He sent word to John by intermediaries that he would make a pact of peace and friendship with him, that he wanted to ask admission to his castle for the sake of giving and receiving advice, that it was his intention to keep the pact unbroken and their harmony unimpaired. But John, perceiving that he made all these promises in the hope of surprising the castle (which was the fact), gladly and affably agreed to his requests, and after admitting him to the castle, shut the gates behind him and put him in a narriw dungeon...and falling with his men on Robert's companions, whom he had brought with him as accomplices of his treachery, he laid hands on some at once, captured them and imprisoned them with their leader, others he put to shameful and discreditable flight and compelled them to retreat all the way to Devizes."

Using this resource is like, I suppose, conducting journalistic interviews with the persons involved, except that one gets to see it from the inside to and with sensory input.

Truth vibrating along a wire from the past to someone who can access the signal or vivid imagination? Whatever one's take on it it's a marvellous resource for a writer of historical fiction to have in his or her toolbox.   I'm busy researching my third Eleanor of Aquitaine novel THE AUTUMN THRONE at the moment and the research with Alison is proving as fascinating, insightful and intriguing as ever.

Alison's website can be found here: Alison King

Friday, 23 January 2015


I was thinking of this as we drove out of London just before New Year; when I saw a pub sign that was a metal bunch of grapes, thought: That looks old! looked again, saw it was modern, and lost interest. It is one of the downsides of being a historical novelist, I fear. Mentally cutting out all the buildings that weren't there during your period. Clearly, if you are writing about medieval times, you might find your London tends to be largely non-existent, but even if you are in Georgian times, as I am, it means that large swathes of towns have to be fuzzed out as you look at them. In Berlin-Charlottenburg, when I was writing Saving Rafael, I was always crossing out the modern bits annoyingly at the entrance floors of buildings. Here is Jenny's house from Saving Rafael, having had The Treatment. Later in the novel, a lot of damage had to be added from bombing.

I remember returning to Hong Kong in 2000, having spent eighteen months there in the early '80s, and then having written a novel set in the Hong Kong of the 1880s (The Mountain of Immoderate Desires). There are still some old buildings left in HK, but not many (one Hong Kong friend appalled me when he came to Henley and demanded: 'Why don't you knock all this old stuff down and build high-rises? You could just keep one or two old houses, to show people how it used to be). But I had, by then, spent so much time peering at numberless old photographs of the territory, that when I looked at the new city, I could see the old scenes like a veil over the new buildings.
Stage One of the process
Stage Two
Stage Three; more or less back in old Taipingshan
My father used to like to quote Marshall McLuhan's saying: 'We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror', saying that people (this included me, even in childhood obsessed with history) looking into the rearview mirror and seeing a coach and horses behind instead of a dull and boring car. I thought, in those days, that this would be an improvement. Adulthood, which is supposed to bring maturity, has at least brought me the insight that the coach and horses, to those living at the time, would be just as mundane as a Mondeo, whereas of course to those who experienced the first cars, and had to cope with their horses' fear of them, the car was anything but dull and boring.
Chinese junk, Hong Kong harbour 1982

Though on the Marshall McLuhan theme, skippers of vessels in Hong Kong harbour in the 1980s did still sometimes see junks (sometimes whole fleets of them) and sampans from their bridges. It all added to the vivid panorama of the port which one captain told the South China Morning Post, risked reducing him to a jibbering wreck. I know the above photo does look as if I'd photoshopped an old picture onto a new one, but believe me, I haven't a steady enough hand to do the scissoring out; those junks really were sepia-coloured.
I fear, however, that I am still looking in the rearview mirror; at present, for example, I have a tendency to mutter that we need Charles James Fox. I read the paper, more or less, every morning, only to let modern politics fall out of my mind and be more concerned with the state of Parliament in the late eighteenth century, and the state of play in the battle to win control from the meddling George the Third. His descendant, Charles Windsor, bids fair to rival him in going beyond his constitutional role, it has to be said - and there you are, I'm off… But tell me, have you heard whether the King is truly going mad again?
You have to button up your mouth for fear you become a bore - unless talking to other Historical Novelists, who understand.
Charles James Fox by Samuel Cotes (Parliament via Wikimedia Commons)

If you have adopted some of the language of your chosen period - something I normally find myself doing, except when I wrote about Nazi Germany, and had to translate all the dialogue out of German into English, you find yourself using its expressions, especially when writing. To be sure, I normally managed NOT to start talking German to incomprehending Brits, but it is much harder if your characters do speak the language you normally speak. Unless you are Hilary Mantel, whose characters all talk modern English. When she asked me for help with German for Wolf Hall, I was reaching out to my shelves for my 15th-century German books, and was a little disappointed to hear that she wanted modern German. It was easier, however! Hilary, however, does get kept awake, as she told the Guardian, by Tudor courtiers gossiping.
Finally: if the screening process I have mentioned above does fail in order to allow one to notice anything happening in the present day, specific to the present day (as opposed to eternal things like sex, grandchildren, human relations, gardening and making bread*), you are riddled with frustration because you CAN'T PUT THEM IN YOUR NOVEL!

So what does being a historical novelist/novel reader do to you???

*Though on that topic, you have the perennial problem and eternal/internal talking point: Is the Past Another Country? Did kneading dough feel different a hundred years ago? It has to be said that baking must have been a whole lot different without a thermostatted oven!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Black Gold by Kate Lord Brown

"If I can't have too many truffles, I'll do without truffles"
Colette quoted by Maurice Goudeket

Research has a strange effect upon writers - it can make you crave other countries, other times. Having lived in a literal desert for five years, I am grateful on a daily basis to spend the majority of my working day lost in more interesting places. Lately the new research has induced an unquenchable craving for truffles, however. The closest I have found here was a disappointing truffle oil which had none of the feral allure of the real thing (I doubt it ever came within sniffing distance of a real truffle). Scrambled eggs will have to wait until we are home.

Expat TV is as limited as the options for fresh produce, and similarly imported (I watch a lot of Antiques Roadshows). Five years ago I laughed at the dated reruns of 'As Time Goes By', and 'One Foot in the Grave', now I put on 'Midsomer Murders' just for the English accents and lingering shots of green countryside. One episode last week caught my eye - a landowner was tied to a tree smeared with truffle oil (clearly a better vintage than the one I found here), and savaged by wild boar. Ingenious.

Truffle hogs (or sows), lust after the fungi because they contain something which smells like the sex pheromone of boar saliva - which is why they eat the truffles given half a chance, unlike truffle dogs. These fruiting subterranean fungi which Brillat Savarin called the diamonds of the kitchen are enjoyed, white and black, across Europe. Most are the size of a small pebble, but the Guinness World Record breaker was a hefty 2lb 14oz. The first mention of them dates back to Sumerian times, and their existence puzzled many (Plutarch thought lightning had something to do with it). Truffle hunting grew in popularity during the Renaissance, but it wasn't until the seventeenth century that they took their place in French cuisine (but Brillat Savarin noted they were so expensive they appeared only on the tables of nobles and kept women).

I've cooked along with my research over the last few months, rediscovering all of Elizabeth David and M K Fisher, but the gorgeous, musky truffle recipes will have to wait. The pungent smell always conjures up open air markets, and leisurely breakfasts in the sun. Perhaps it's good in this 'have it all and have it now' society to have at least one thing to lust after that is still rare and looked forward to. Although, if you are like Colette you would rather go without if you cannot have plenty. I found a passage describing her cooking method. Once a year, when she was able to eat truffles 'like potatoes', she would cook an enormous pot, boiling them in champagne, scenting the entire house. What a woman.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

History, fiction and Josephine Tey by Imogen Robertson

I’m writer in residence at Plymouth University at the moment and am thoroughly enjoying myself. Mostly I’m there to try and give students some insight into writing as a profession and supplement their already excellent teaching of creative writing. I’ve done talks such as ‘How to write a prize winning short story and why you should’, and ‘A writer’s year’ for instance. Tomorrow though, I’m going to talk about researching historical fiction with particular reference to 'The Daughter of Time' by Josephine Tey. This is for a module that some of the English students are doing on Historical Fiction. I rather wish I was doing the course - it looks like a fascinating opportunity to study the interplay between fiction and recorded history. 

For those that don’t know the novel, ‘The Daughter of Time’ is about a policeman, Tey’s regular detective Alan Grant, who is stuck in hospital after breaking his leg during a chase and is very, very bored. His friend, the actress Marta Hallard, who knows his love of faces and mysteries brings him a collection of prints - portraits of individuals concerned with unsolved historical crimes - to distract him. After rejecting a few he lights upon the portrait of Richard III. When he looks at the portrait, he sees no sign of the villainous, and is disturbed to discover who it is. He begins asking his visitors, the nurses and his doctor what they think of the portrait, what they know of Richard and his crimes, and sending them out on research errands works his way through the standard accounts of the Princes in the Tower. Soon he recruits an available and amiable researcher, and is able to probe the sources a little further.  He ends up convinced that the accepted story is a lie, and that Henry VII was the real villain of the piece. As a wider point he also learns to question a lot of accepted historical truths. 

Tey, and through her Grant, are so persuasive that many of her readers joined and reinvigorated what is now The Richard III Society. 

What strikes me as a writer of historical fiction and of crime when reading the novel, is how Tey manages to have her cake and eat it. Several cakes. This is a detective story without threat, action or suspects - not ones alive at the time is story is set anyway. It is a work of historical revisionism without being a history book, and it is a piece of historical fiction (well, it has bits of historical fiction in it), without having to create a convincing portrait of 15thc characters and their world. Hardly seems fair. Nevertheless it is an excellent and thought provoking novel. 

It works, I think, for two reasons. One is the considerable charm of the writing. Someone is always coming in to talk to Grant and his discoveries are dramatised in his conversations. Tey manages to show not tell, while telling. These cameos are neatly and amusingly drawn as are the politics of floral gifts, Grant's boredom and the shock of his guests when they realise the accepted facts of history are not as sacrosanct as they thought. The text is also studded with arch references - Marta is annoyed because the author she wants to write a play for her is doing ‘one of her awful little detective stories’ instead. Grant knows about Richard II because he saw the play Richard of Bordeux several times. It is a play Tey wrote herself under her other pen name, Gordon Daviot. There are various casual, caustic asides about different popular fiction genres.

The second reason the novel works is that it does do the one essential thing quality detective novels and historical fiction should do. It makes you question your beliefs and look again at the evidence. There is always an element of sleight of hand in detective fiction, you want the reader to think one thing, then find out they were wrong. Tey is reminding us that many of the individuals who created the story of history were as unreliable as the distraught fiancée in an Agatha Christie. Equally the best historical fiction is there to remind us any period is made of of the experiences of individuals, and those individuals and experiences have always been a lot more varied and complex than the flattened history of school books has room to allow.  She’s also reminding us of of the importance of approaching any received wisdom with both sympathy and scepticism.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Commedia dell'Arte - by Ann Swinfen

Even today, many novels and plays use certain recognisable archetypal characters, although they may be heavily disguised – the young couple thwarted by an intransigent parent, the clever and lovable rogue, the swaggering and boastful alpha male (who may be a coward at heart), the fraudulent professional or swindler, the rich and miserly businessman. Such characters may take many forms in the hands of a skilled writer, but their roots lie deep in remote literary history. 

These archetypes were employed repeatedly by the Roman comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, though some had been used even earlier by Greek comedians like Aristophanes. However, it was the Roman writers who refined the types and certain stock situations which their large audiences greeted with glee. As in all theatrical performances of classical times, the actors wore masks, particularly exaggerated masks in the case of comedy, which crudely emphasised the essential characteristics of each type. Since all the parts were played by men, the female characters wore female masks and wigs to denote their sex. 

With the collapse of the Roman empire came the collapse of professional theatre, but it seems unlikely that all forms of play-acting could have disappeared altogether. During the somewhat mis-named ‘Dark Ages’ and early Mediaeval centuries, there were certainly jongleurs and bands of travelling entertainers who may have carried forward fragments of the old traditions. Traces can be seen in the mummers’ plays and the early morality plays, with their stock characters and use of masks and symbolic costumes. 
Peeter van Bredael - Commedia dell'Arte
The true commedia dell’arte appeared in Italy in the sixteenth century, and it must be significant that it emerged in the country which had produced the Roman comedies, even though no direct line of descent can be traced. Commedia dell’arte used stock characters, stock situations, stock costumes, stock props, and symbolic masks, like its Roman predecessors. Unlike the Roman plays, however, the commedia was not performed in permanent theatres, but by itinerant companies, like those of the Middle Ages. Also like them, and like the actors in morality plays, the performers appeared in the open air, on temporary platforms or movable stages. And unlike other forms of theatre developing at the time, the commedia companies included women. Ben Jonson referred to one such as a ‘tumbling whore’. 
Four Commedia Figures - Claude Gillot c.1715
The commedia quickly perfected its standard cast of characters: the braggart soldier Il Capitano; the rich but miserly merchant Pantalone; the bogus scholar Il Dottore; the old woman La Ruffiana, intent on thwarting the young lovers; the ugly hunchback with his large nose, Pulchinella, lusting after pretty girls; witty and mischievous Arlecchino, who dressed like a jester and was a skilled acrobat; Brighella, the vicious and mercenary villain; the melancholy dreamer Pedrolino; Scaramucchia, with his black clothes and sword, a kind of roguish hero. Set against this cast of mostly unpleasant characters who satirised contemporary social types were the charming young lovers who sought escape from their elders and a future together, cheered on by a sympathetic audience. 
Karel Dujardin - Commedia dell'Arte Performance
Staging was minimal. These travelling players could not transport elaborate scenery, so the most they might have would be a painted backcloth depicting a street or country scene. Props, however, were important: plenty of exaggerated wooden swords, food to be thrown about, watering pots to sprinkle the unwary, huge stuffed paunches worn by Pulchinella and Pantalone. The most distinctive were the pair of flat sticks tied together and carried by Arlecchino, which he slapped together to make a loud noise – hence our term ‘slapstick’. 

All of the satirical characters wore leather masks, generally the type of half-mask which covers the upper face and nose, forerunner of the masks worn at the Venetian carnevale to this day. Some were very specific – for example, Arlecchino wore a cat mask and Pedrolino’s mask was white (ancestor of the white-faced clown). The ‘straight’ characters like the young lovers Inamorato and Inamorata did not wear masks. 
Commedia Masks - photo by Hugh Dismuke
Costumes were elaborate and sometimes very fine, the best the company could afford. For the companies themselves varied greatly. There were the famous companies such as I Gelosi, I Fedeli, I Accessi, and I Confidenti, who had noble patrons and performed at ducal courts as well as to the public, but there were also small itinerant bands which might last for a few years only. As well as the patronage enjoyed by the more established companies, finance was obtained by passing round a hat at public performances.

These performances were vivid and exciting affairs, structured around standard episodes, but also full of extemporised incident and horseplay, music, song and dance, juggling, acrobatics. The players all had to be multi-talented. Local and contemporary affairs were often the targets of the satire. Excitement must have run high in a village or small town when the commedia players arrived, for nothing else so entertaining would have come their way. Although the commedia began in Italy it very quickly spread throughout Europe as the companies travelled abroad, during the sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries. Some forms of the commedia became merged into various carnivals, not only in Venice but in Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras celebrations elsewhere. 
Although the true commedia dell’arte eventually fell out of favour, its themes and influence have survived to this day - in specific characters like Mr Punch, descended from Pulcinella, and the sad, white-faced clown from Pedrolino. Less obvious, but just as persistent, are the types and the situations found in the commedia. Even at the time when the commedia was going strong, Shakespeare used many of its stock characters and situations in his comedies, as did Ben Jonson. They may have derived them directly from the Roman comedies (some of the plots are borrowed unashamedly), but they may also have drawn on this new theatrical form which was spreading across Europe. Moliêre certainly borrowed from the commedia, in plays like Le Misanthrope. Elements of the commedia can even be traced in some of Shakespeare’s plays which are not comedies (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Tempest). 
Watteau - Pierrot c.1718-9
By the time the comedies of the Restoration period came to be written, the similarities to elements of the commedia dell’arte are unmistakable. In the eighteenth century, pantomime developed as a kind of side-shoot from the commedia, but the original satirical form could still be seen as politically dangerous. Napoleon outlawed it, even in Italy itself. 

The traditional stock characters may take on many forms – sometimes as satirical as the originals, sometimes more mellow – but they crop up even today in such popular dramatic forms as television situation comedy. The form is flexible. It can be used as readily for political satire as for gentle family comedy. It is a great legacy in our theatrical tradition, surely because it deals with many fundamental truths about human behaviour. 
In the fourth novel of my sixteenth-century Christoval Alvarez series, Bartholomew Fair, I have a troupe of Italian puppeteers who perform at the Fair. Their marionettes act out a commedia dell’arte, but the puppets depict major figures in Elizabethan society and the satire is a vicious attack, intended to be subversive. Italy was, of course, the home of the Pope, who had granted a pardon to any assassin taking the life of Queen Elizabeth, declared a bastard heretic by the papacy. My puppeteers are part of a wider conspiracy to bring terror to the streets of London. It seemed to me fitting that the commedia, a public display of satire, might be used as an instrument of something altogether more sinister.