A few years ago, I was staying in a hotel in Warsaw. With an hour or so to spare, I started to flick through the television channels, and came across an international one broadcasting news and current affairs in English. I sat and watched; there were several extended reports about issues affecting the lives of people in various countries in eastern Europe, and I think further afield, too.
I don't remember specifically what they were about, but as I watched, I started to feel slightly disorientated. Perhaps that's not quite the right way to express it; this is going to sound ridiculously cliched and obvious, but quite suddenly, I realised in a way I hadn't before that Britain really is not the centre of the world. Of course, I knew this already in my head, but somewhere much deeper, my perceptions radiated from my awareness of myself as a person living in 21st century Britain. If I watch a documentary on British television about, say, everyday life in a Chinese village, it will have been filtered through a British lens; even if the commentary attempts to maintain a carefully studied neutrality, the choices as to which bits of film to show, which characters to focus on, which stories to highlight - all these will have been made by British producers and editors, with a view as to what will interest and entertain a British audience.
Watching the news channel in Warsaw, I realised suddenly that there is an unconscionable amount of fascinating history, geography, economics - life! - about which I knew absolutely nothing, just because of where I was born.
Scroll on a couple of years. I was lucky enough to have a stint as a Royal Literary fellow at Exeter University, where it was my role to help students with their essay skills. One of the students who came several times was a Greek postgraduate studying naval battles during a particular period of the Ottoman Empire. As I read his work, I felt that same slightly dizzying shift - or perhaps it could be described as suddenly finding myself on the opposite side of a wall that I hadn't even realised existed: here was a portion of history as full of characters, intrigue, tragedy and triumph, as the Tudors or Dark Age England. It was just that I knew nothing about it.
And then on again, to the book I'm writing now, which had as its starting point my father's experiences as a prisoner of war, so that to begin with, I saw it very much from the point of view of an English person looking out at what lay beyond the barbed wire fence. Again, as I dug deeper, that shift, as I began to see that the history of the war as I had hitherto seen it - a history starting perhaps with Chamberlain and his piece of paper, moving on through Dunkirk and the Blitz to the D-Day landings, with obvious significant sideshows such as Pearl Harbour and Singapore - was a very, very partial one.
I began musing on all this the other day, prompted by a book someone gave me to look at called The Great Sea: A Human History, by David Abulafia. It's about the Mediterranean. I only had time to read the first few pages - but that was long enough to tell me that yet again, here was a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing.
Well, of course, you may justifiably be thinking - how could anyone know more than a tiny fraction of what there is to know? The day when Renaissance Man (or Woman) could reasonably hope to know all that there was to be known is long past, if indeed it ever existed. But what it led me to think about was the subject matter we choose for our historical fiction novels. I know that there are those among us who write about other countries - Mary Hoffman writes books set in Italy, Marie-Louise Jensen has books set in Scandinavia, Theresa Breslin's last book was set in Spain, and very fine they all are. But in general, do we write mostly about British history, do you think? There's nothing wrong with that if we do. But do novels about British history interest, and reach, readers in other countries? And conversely, do we get the opportunity to read much historical fiction written by writers from other counties? And if not, why not?
I'd very much like any recommendations!
And in case this has all been more than somewhat indigestible, here's a picture of a delicious memory from Warsaw - a slice of virtual cake for you to have with your coffee. Enjoy the thought!