Tuesday, 31 January 2012

January Competition

There are five copies of The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner to win in our January competition. UK entrants only.

In the Double Shadow, there is a "Memory Machine." If you could choose a moment you could preserve and re-live, what would it be?

Leave your answers as comments here and we'll pick the five we like best. Closing date 7th February.

Monday, 30 January 2012


H.M. Castor starts us off on an occasional series in which History Girls will write about a historical figure who is the opposite of a favourite: someone whose reputation or character or actions are just incomprehensible to them.
Harriet has chosen another "other Boleyn girl" for her post on a figure who perplexes her.

I don’t get Jane Boleyn. I don’t understand her – which is a fair indication that I don’t know enough about her story, I realize, but I’m not sure I can ever know enough to be able to get my head round the extraordinary events of her life and what seem to me to be the flabbergasting decisions she made.

Jane was a Boleyn by marriage. Born Jane Parker, she was the daughter of one of Henry VIII’s gentleman ushers. In 1526 she married George, the youngest sibling in the ambitious Boleyn family (Mary was the oldest, and Anne the middle child). Through that marriage, Jane later acquired the title of Viscountess Rochford; often she is known as Jane, Lady Rochford, or simply Jane Rochford.

There is no authenticated portrait of Jane but, searching for an image with which to open this post, the Holbein woodcut above felt suitable since this is, decidedly, a story of sex and death (familiar Boleyn themes, one might say). There’s also, for good measure, betrayal, a whiff of what was deemed to be insanity… and very possibly a hefty dose of blackmail too. For Jane helped assure the downfall of the Boleyn family and then, just five years later, created a more baffling and horrible downfall for herself than any ghost bent on revenge could have devised.

Jane’s marriage was not, it has been assumed (and with ample justification, as we’ll see), a happy one. I love Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of the relationship in Wolf Hall. In one of my favourite passages, Thomas Cromwell witnesses the Boleyn family’s discussion of a possible stumbling block to Anne’s royal marriage – the allegation that she was pre-contracted to marry Henry Percy:

‘I suggest we pack Anne’s bags and send her down to Kent,’ Jane Rochford says. ‘The king’s anger, once roused –‘
George: ‘Say no more, or I may strike you.’
‘It is my honest advice.’ Jane Rochford, God protect her, is one of those women who doesn’t know when to stop. ‘[…] The king cannot do all he has done, and all he means to do, for a woman who is concealing a secret marriage.’
‘I wish I could divorce you,’ George says. ‘I wish you had a pre-contract, but Jesus, no chance of that, the fields were black with men running in the other direction.’

Relations between Jane and Anne (below) were presumably somewhat less acrimonious, however, for when in 1533 Anne Boleyn became queen, Jane served as one of her ladies of the bedchamber. Jane clearly did Anne’s bidding, even to the point of taking risks: the following year, she was dismissed for plotting with Anne to secure the removal from court of an unnamed lady to whom Henry was showing favour. Yet, the year after that (1535), Jane apparently took part in a demonstration against Anne by London citizens' wives (a short stay in the Tower was her reward).

What had happened? Did Anne not sufficiently recompense her for her dismissal from court? Had Jane quarrelled with her mistress, or her husband – or both?

Jane’s actions against her in-laws were to take a much more sinister turn. Anne Boleyn’s downfall in April-May 1536 was orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell and was driven by charges that were lurid, shocking and manifestly untrue: that Queen Anne had committed adultery with 5 men, including her brother George, and had plotted Henry’s murder.

Jane Rochford was one of the people Cromwell questioned. Different versions of the story are related, but it seems clear that Jane provided the kernel for the worst of the (much-embroidered) allegations against Anne and George. First, Jane made some kind of allegation about ‘undue familiarity’ between her husband and his sister (which, in Cromwell’s hands, was blown up into an allegation of incest). Second, and quite possibly more damagingly, Jane repeated a remark that Anne had allegedly made to her about Henry’s performance in bed: that Henry was incapable of making love, and had neither skill nor virility in this respect.

The reason this was more damaging is that, unlike the other charges, it could well have been true. Henry probably did suffer from impotence, and it’s also perfectly likely that the forthright & intemperate Anne would have remarked on it in private. However, to say such a thing publicly – to humiliate the King – was fatal. At George Boleyn’s trial, the remark was deemed so sensitive that the record of it was passed around the court in writing so that no one would have to speak the words. When the text was handed to George, however, he read it aloud anyway (and I admire him for that).

Anne, George and the other 4 unfortunate men were all found guilty, and all executed.

So… back to Jane. Doubtless Cromwell was an intimidating questioner, and the atmosphere of those nightmarish weeks must have been terrifying. Clearly he made as much capital as he could out of what she said. Clearly, too, there’s an interesting story of family turbulence (or hatred?) in there somewhere… albeit one that we can never explore except by guesswork, due to lack of evidence.

(And, in case anyone's been carried away by the version shown in The Tudors TV series, I must at this point quote Professor Eric Ives' excellent book The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn:
We can dismiss out of hand the nonsense that [Jane] felt insulted because George was a homosexual, a fiction for which there is not a scintilla of evidence, indeed, quite the reverse.)

However, as far as Jane and her motives go, I’m not throwing my hands up yet. The truly bewildering behaviour is yet to come.

Considering the depth of the Boleyn family’s disgrace, Jane came back to court pretty rapidly after her husband’s death and went on to act as lady of the bedchamber to Henry’s next three queens – Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. One might expect that her involvement in the terrifying events of 1536 would have transformed her into the most cautious possible practitioner of careful court-footwork.

But no. In 1541, a scandal was uncovered. Catherine Howard (the portrait above has been thought to be of her) – the very young fifth wife of the now bloated & ulcerated king – had been holding nocturnal trysts with one of her husband’s handsome young courtiers, Thomas Culpeper. The stupidity of this behaviour is jaw-dropping. How they thought they could keep such a thing secret in the crowded, gossip-hungry court, I can’t imagine. In the case of Culpeper (a young man who had already, according to one account, committed rape and murder and been saved from the consequences by the King), it seems likely that ambition clouded his (already fairly limited) judgment – perhaps, calculating that Henry could not survive long, he thought that influence over the Queen would bring him power. As for Catherine, was it passion that motivated her, or fear? She was already hiding something else from Henry – an unchaste premarital history – and Culpeper could well have been blackmailing her over it. Either way, there are motives to ponder. But in the case of the third actor in the drama, motives are thin on the ground. This third actor was Jane Rochford.

Astonishingly, Jane – who was Catherine’s chief confidante among her ladies of the bedchamber – acted as go-between for her mistress and Culpeper. She facilitated the late-night meetings, making sure doors were left unlocked and that the coast was clear. Catherine later claimed that it was Jane who encouraged her to acquiesce to Culpeper’s insistent demands for meetings in the first place – and though this may have been nothing more than desperate buck-passing, certainly there is no evidence to suggest that Jane ever tried to dissuade Catherine from her madly risky behaviour, or indeed to distance herself from the practical tasks necessary for its accomplishment.

Why, I want to yell. Of all people, Jane Rochford – with her personal experience of the brutal horrors of Henry’s regime – should have known that she was walking alongside Catherine and Culpeper on a sure path to the block. And what possible incentive can she have had to act like this? It was no power play for her, no mad passion. What’s left? Bribes from Culpeper? Surely, as the Queen’s chief confidante, she had other people offering her less dangerous sweeteners. Blackmail, then? If Culpeper were blackmailing her (and about what, I don’t know – her knowledge of Catherine’s past?), no danger of exposure could have been worse than the danger in which she now placed herself.

The chickens, of course, came home to roost. Upon arrest, Jane made a feeble attempt at claiming ignorance, and then admitted her knowledge of the liaison. She seems to have had some sort of breakdown, and the Imperial ambassador Chapuys later reported that she “had shown symptoms of madness till they told her she must die”. (Henry, incidentally, was so determined that she would die that he sent his own physicians to ensure that she was well enough for her execution). In the event, she went to the block calmly, immediately after Catherine.

“Lady Rochford’s motives are hard to understand,” writes David Starkey in Six Wives – The Queens of Henry VIII. Antonia Fraser (in The Six Wives of Henry VIII) concludes that “absolute truth – and thus relative blame – is impossible to establish. One can however assert definitely that Lady Rochford, Queen Catherine and Culpeper were all in their different ways involved up to the hilt in something that none of them should actually have countenanced for a moment.”
Hilary Mantel, in the passage from Wolf Hall quoted earlier, has Thomas Cromwell sum Jane up as “one of those women who doesn’t know when to stop.”
When it comes to fathoming her, I guess I’m just one of those people who doesn’t know where to start.

(And, by the way, I can’t wait to read Mantel’s interpretation of Jane Rochford’s role in the Boleyn debacle in her forthcoming novel Bring Up The Bodies. Roll on May 17th!)

H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK, and by Penguin in Australia.

H.M. Castor's website is here.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Good war, bad war a guest post by Sally Gardner

We're delighted to welcome Sally Gardner to our blog today.

Sally is an award-winning novelist from London. Her books have been translated into 22 languages and have sold more than one million copies in the UK.

Her historical novel for older readers, I, Coriander, won the Smarties Children's Book Prize in 2005. Two thrillers both set at the time of the French Revolution, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 2009, followed. Actor Dominic West (The Wire) has bought the film rights to both titles.

Sally Gardner is an avid spokesperson for Dyslexia, working to change the way it is perceived by society. She is dyslexic and argues that it’s not a disability, but a gift.

Her latest novel, The Double Shadow, published by Orion, is a new departure. You can read History Girl Mary Hoffman's review of it in the Guardian: here

The character of Noel Pascoe in my novel The Double Shadow was based on the knowledge I had of my two grandfathers, both of whom fought at Passchendaele in the first world war. One was seen to have had a good war, the other a bad war. Any soldier who has fought in Afghanistan will tell you that there is no such thing as a good war.

My Grandpa John, on my mother's side, was an officer and awarded the Military Cross on the battlefield. He returned home a reluctant hero who went on to have a successful career in finance. He never talked about why or how he was awarded his medal. He left that for us to find out after his death.

Grandpa Edward Gardner never recovered from his experiences at the front. He returned home, as my grandma said, half the man he was.

Last year I was given Edward's war diaries. They had been talked about in the family but I had never actually seen them. They were written in two leather-bound books. The handwriting, like that of my father, is pretty illegible. I was stumped as to what could be done with them until I had a brainwave. I have worked for a number of years with a remarkable woman who manages to decipher my dyslexia. I wondered if she could do the same to Grandpa's war diaries. What came back was the most moving insight into a man I realised I hardly knew. It made the war all that more shocking because it is so immediate.

His words illustrate the small, mundane detail and the quiet courage of his days, the waste of a lost generation. I now know that my grandfather was a ghost of a man, one of the many living dead who returned to continue with a life that had little meaning. At the age of fifty he gave up and waited to die. He was to spend the next forty-one years in that particular waiting room. He sat in an armchair, reading Dickens or watching old Westerns. He hardly ever talked, he was a silent character who smoked two packets of Woodbines a day and drank tea with so much sugar that the spoon would stand up for a second or more. His only food was buttery, mashed potatoes with a fried egg on top.

On Thursdays he would help my grandmother make what was called pea soup. This soup was an alchemy that involved the potting shed, a muslin cloth and took two days to conjure, and it was a routine that never varied until he died at 91. Apart from this one activity he sat in his armchair, twiddling his thumbs round and round. Only now, through his diaries, do I see what happened to him and why he was so emotionally damaged. It was a time when you just shut up and put up, when there was little or no help for ex-soldiers suffering the after-effects of war.

Edward Walker Gardner was born in 1880, in Penrith, Cumberland. At twenty, he was working for a watchmaker, a job he was to return to after the war, eventually opening a jewellers in Fishergate, Preston.

He married my grandmother, Annie Lucas, a Preston girl, in June, 1910. He was thirty, she a year older. They set up home close to Annie's parents in Preston and two years later, their only son was born. Married men were not conscripted to fight until June 1916 and it was in April 1917 that Edward was called up. He was posted to the Royal Garrison Artillery and throughout the war was a Gunner in 129 Heavy Battery.

Before the war broke out he had been a cycling fanatic. There is a wonderful picture of him standing with his bike in a striped cycling outfit and a moustache to be proud of. In short, he looked a confident, handsome man. Between that photograph and the man I knew was the Great War.

These extracts from Edward's diary were written during the advance on Passchendaele.


Mon 22 October

Just been in bed an hour when called out at 9 pm to proceed to Iron Cross with a couple of the guns. Went to the Wagon lines & from there on past the canal. I was with A Sub gun & all went well until we reached the Iron Cross roads. Here the drivers of the team took too wide a sweep to miss a shell hole with the result the off wheel of the gun left the track and sank nearly axle deep in the mud. The night was pitch dark & Jerry was lobbing over shrapnel just to liven us up a bit & to put the tin hat on the job it commenced to rain. In spite of all the efforts of the men & horses we could not shift the gun. We were just getting the jacks ready to lift the wheel when a driver rode up & said the other gun was stuck near the canal & all the men were required to assist in getting it out. It was now about 1 am in the morning & we were pretty wet already. Back we trudged along the plank road for a distance of about a couple of miles, finding the other party busy with the gun which like our own lay with one wheel off the track. It was an hour's hard work to get it up & once more the team was hitched in & we went forward. Everything went well & we passed our gun, turned the corner safely round the crossroads. A few dozen yards further there was another turn & this time the drivers again bungled it, so that the gun was bogged once more, this time worse than ever.

It was now about 3 am & the rain was pelting down but there was no alternative but to keep on working. Daylight came along & Fritz commenced shelling the Cross in earnest, so at about 6 am we were ordered to leave the guns where they were & return to the camp. This we did arriving back at 11.30 am fagged out & as hungry as owls, having had nothing to eat since 5 pm the previous night. Had breakfast & to bed for we were to return to the Cross at 9 pm. Had sleep, some tea then out once more, arriving at guns near midnight.

Tues 23 October

Rain still pouring down as we worked on the guns. Got ours out with the aid of a caterpillar tractor & commenced on the other. Fritz started heavy shelling & we had to take shelter. Poor Bibby was killed & another man wounded. I was called in to identify Bibby who lay in a concrete strong point along with four other men who had been killed.

During a lull we got the other gun out & rushed it down to the platform where we got it safely fixed in spite of Fritz's efforts. We then had to run for shelter as things were pretty warm & it was 4.30 pm before we could get away. We had only gone 10 yards down the trench when a shell burst close behind us, but we kept on & at the Canal picked up a lorry which gave us a lift as far as the Rest Camp. We were thoroughly done up, wet through & had had no food all the day.

After tea I went straight to bed & to sleep.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Richard 'Beau' Nash by Marie-Louise Jensen

My latest novel The Girl in the Mask (publishing 1st March 2012) is set in my home town Bath.

In the early Georgian era, Bath was second only to London as a destination for the rich and titled; many of the aristocracy spent the winter in London and the summer in Bath.

It may seem to have been an odd choice. Why spend the summer months walled up in a shabby, overcrowded medieval city in the bottom of a river valley? But royalty had been pleased to praise the benefits of the spa waters and that was enough, it seemed, to catapault steamy, smelly, dirty Bath (as it was then) to the height of fashionable desirability.

The Bath Corporation realised they needed to organise entertainment for this sudden annual influx of visitors. They firstly appointed a Captain Webster as 'King of Bath', or Master of the Ceremonies. But Captain Webster was most unfortunately killed in a duel the following year. And so in 1705, Richard Nash was offered the post.

Richard Nash, born son of a Swansea glass manufacturer in 1674, might not have seemed an obvious choice. He had no birth and no standing in the world; he had attended a grammar school, gone to study law at Jesus college Oxford, but spent his whole allowance on clothes and then dropped out because of one too many intrigues with the ladies. A brief career in the military was likewise unsuccessful.

But Nash had caught the King's notice in 1694 when he organised the pageant for William III and had been offered a knighthood, which he refused. The role in Bath was far more to his taste and he accepted.

Richard Nash, Or Beau Nash as he later became called, transformed fashionable life in the city. He was a tremendous facilitator. He persuaded a Mr Harrison to build Assembly Rooms by the river; he set up subscriptions to cover teas and musicians. He organised gambling of all kinds. Gambling was practically a national obsession at the time, and was so widespread and ruinous that it threatened to destabilise the economy. But cards were also how Nash made his living. His post was prestigious but most unfortunately unpaid, thus he needed some means to fund his lifestyle. It is said that he swore most terribly when he was losing, but he usually won.

He continued to organise balls and famously regulated the tone of the balls most strictly. They ended punctually at eleven, and from this he would not be moved. It is remarkable that a man of no birth could manage his social superiors so successfully, but Nash was most adroit. He banned boots and spurs from balls. One night a gentleman arrived in boots and Nash stopped him at the door with words to this effect. "Why sir!" he said. "You have forgot something. I see your whip and spurs, but where is your horse?" The gentleman concerned retired abashed. Nash also banned the fashion of aprons, and once stripped a costly lace apron from a duchess at a ball and cast it aside.

He was tolerated and - by the ladies - much admired. For many years, he reigned supreme. He raised huge sums of money for charity, ran the entertainment flawlessly and generally appeared at all times gorgeously and richly attired.

Nash is remembered as a local celebrity in Bath to this day. His name can be found in many museums and guidebooks. But the ending to his story is rather sad. Gambling was outlawed, removing almost his only means of subsistence. He grew portly and unwell as he got older and began to be crushed by debts. He took to spending his evenings in the Bath taverns, telling tales of his grand past in exchange for drinks. Gradually he became an object of ridicule. He eventually died in poverty in 1761, cared for by his mistress - reputedly one of many women who had supported him over the years.

Nash had reigned as uncrowned king for some 55 years and the city would scarcely have been what it was without him.

Marie-Louise Jensen's latest book, The Girl in the Mask, publishes on 1 March 

Friday, 27 January 2012

We wanted to tell you!

by several & sundry History Girls

Mary Hoffman writes:
The History Girls don't make a habit of reviewing one another's books on this site but we are making an exception today. Louisa Young can't post today for personal reasons, but there has been a spate of positive comments among us about her title My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You, recently read on Radio 4 as a Book at Bedtime, and a Richard and Judy pick for Spring. The audio version read by Dan 'Downton Abbey' Stevens, won the Galaxy Award. So we are going to post a few History Girl reviews here today, to cheer Louisa up and because we think she wrote a really good book!

Caroline Lawrence writes:
I started to hear the buzz about Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and downloaded the audiobook to my iPhone. I walked for hours, completely captured by this compelling love story. Brilliantly read by Dan Stevens (left), the story gripped me from the beginning and wouldn't let go. I was especially in awe of the amount of research Louisa must have put into this. Yet the research never intrudes. It does what it should do, it makes the world utterly real and gave me great confidence in her authority. The plot, too, is compelling and carried me to places I did not think it would go. But what impressed me the most were the brilliant internal monologues, especially those about how the mind shrinks from the agony of protracted battle and shell-shock. I can't remember reading such imaginative and accurate descriptions of a person's interior mental state. Brava, Louisa, for writing a superb historical novel.

Adèle Geras writes:
Most of the time, if I want to read a newly-published hardback, I order it from the library. In the case of Louisa's book, I read a review of the novel, and wrote to her on email (we'd never met, but I'd met her daughter at the Edinburgh Festival) asking for some research advice I needed for a story of my own. She was very kind and helpful and  I bought her book immediately. There was a great deal in it that fed into my short novel for 8-12 year olds, believe it or not, but as well as that, I loved My dear... for its unusual  and  perceptive look at aspects of the First World War that I hadn't seen tackled before. There is great sadness in the story but also inspirational courage and unswerving love which overcomes obstacles in a very satisfying way. The afterword, where we learn that much of the book is based on real events that happened to real people, is a revelation. For my part, the work done by the medical profession and the insight into the beginnings of plastic surgery is what I remember  best from the novel and what makes it different from almost everything I've read about this period.

Barbara Mitchelhill writes:
This was a book I wanted to read but as I was in the throes of research for my next book, I had little time for ‘treats’. So I bought the unabridged CD version and listened to it in the car. This did nothing for global warming as I often took ‘scenic routes’ so that I could listen for longer. The story, which is beautifully written and filled with detail of life before and during WW1, is a love story without sugary sweetness and with characters that are unique and believable.  When I came to the end, I had to play the last two CDs over again before I could bear to let then go. I must mention Dan Stevens (the gorgeous one in Downton Abbey) whose reading is a delight to listen to. Thank you so much for this book, Louisa. I loved it

Catherine Johnson writes:
I have been looking after my Mother, post heart attack, in North Wales. I always find it hard to work away from home, and resort to reading two for fifty pence thrillers from the local charity shops. But I saw this book in Sainsbury's; it was by the checkout, and I thought a 'History Girls book' and put it in with my mother's shopping. I read it in two nights sat up in bed. I would have read it in one but had to stop as soon as I realised something horrible was about to happen to Riley and Nadine. How old am I? Too old to care this much about fictional characters surely.
What a beautiful, wonderful, transporting novel.

Sue Purkiss writes:
Just after Christmas, I went into my local Waterstones and saw that there was a half-price sale. I picked up My Dear I Wanted To Tell You because it looked interesting, and didn’t click for some time that it was by Louisa, and that Louisa is one of the History Girls. (Yes, I really am that dense!) I began to read it last Friday, and it was so good that, when that evening we had a power cut, I carried on reading by the light of a candle.
The book is set mostly during the First World War. I think this is a difficult period to write about. How can you say anything new? How can you get past the classics written by veterans – All Quiet On The Western Front, Memoirs Of An Infantry Officer, Wilfred Owen’s poetry – let alone the many successful novels which have been written more recently? But Louisa makes familiar territory seem completely fresh – read the book to find out how. However, it’s the characterisation that really draws you in. Riley, the hero, is charismatic, endearing, and utterly human. Nadine is richly painted. Relationships lurch and jolt and soar and stutter, just like real ones do. I can’t wait to meet these characters and others again in the promised sequel.

A review which may contain 'spoilers':

Linda Buckley-Archer writes:
The premise of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, rooted as it is in solid historical research, is deeply compelling.  For most us, thankfully, our experience of war is second-hand. We view the casualties of war through the filter of what the public can reasonably be expected to cope with on the large or small screen or when leafing through the newspapers. Logic tells us that injuries are not restricted to ‘emotionally acceptable’ parts of the body:  an arm in a sling, blood seeping through a jacket, a missing limb.  Yet it is rare that we are asked to confront serious facial wounds – not the odd character-forming scar – but disastrous injuries, a jaw blown off, flesh reduced to pulp, features that a close relative could not recognise. The face identifies us, communicates emotion, attracts us to others.  What would you do if your face was destroyed?  Would you want to die?  Would you want to tell the person that you loved?  And what would you do if you were that man’s lover? Louise has written a moving, page-turning novel, in lyrical prose, that tries to answer these questions, and in so doing highlights some of the pioneering work in the field of plastic surgery in the aftermath of the First World War.

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is available in hardback, paperback, ebook for Kindle, unabridged CD & unabridged audio download.

You can read a fascinating post about the research Louisa put into the novel HERE, but again, beware of spoilers. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012


In a slim volume of The Tempest on my shelves, I found, inscribed in childish handwriting in green ink, the name Dianne Townsend 1963 Form IV. The notes in the margins remind me of how completely I immersed myself in the story. So much so I wanted to rename myself Miranda. The Tempest was probably written around 1611. Shakespeare is believed to have been influenced by the news of a ship driven onto the coast of the Bermudas by a hurricane in 1609. The crew managed to escape drowning and built two boats out of cedars growing on the island and were able to sail to Virginia. Interestingly the storm and wreck in The Tempest takes up very little of the story.
Survivors building two boats almost mirrors a wreck I’m researching at the moment. Most shipwrecks along the African coast took place during the era of the carreira da India, the Portuguese sailing route between Lisbon and Goa. Luis de Camões in his epic poem the Luisiades refers to the wreck of the São João in 1552. But the wreck for my story is slightly later.

In 1630 the São Gonçalo, a great square rigged carrack totally overladen with sacks of pepper, bolts of silk and heaps of Ming china, left Goa and limped into this bay protected by a rocky headland, that I face right now as I write. A small group was sent ashore to forage but a wild easterly gale came up and the ship broke apart in the night on the rocks. A few hundred crew and slaves on board all drowned. It doesn’t take much imagination to feel that inrush of pounding sea and hear the flapping of loose shrouds, the sound of splintering timber and screams of drowning men in the darkness. It could have remained some nightmarish dream that would eventually fade, except an account was kept by one of the friars sent ashore. In confirmation of his report, a portion of crude sandstone was found in tangled bush in the 1850’s with the poignant words carved in Portuguese…
Here was lost the ship São Gonçalo
In the year 1630.
They built two vessels…
The remaining piece of writing on the broken stone was never found.
From the friar’s report we know the survivors built shelters of driftwood and a chapel between the tall reeds and bush of the dunes against the headland and became the first ‘foreigners’ to live on Southern African soil. Though Bartolomeu Dias had sailed past in 1487. From his ship he recorded the sharp cape that stuck out into the sea and the bay of lagoons he could see beyond. The spirit of a man braving these wild Atlantic rollers in the 15th century in a frail scallop of a boat to explore what Dias called ‘the dark side of the globe’ is beyond imagination.
My1630 survivors managed to build two boats of salvaged wood but the men split up… one group deciding to sail back up the coast towards Mozambique planning to reach India, the other heading west towards the Cape of Storm hoping to get home to Portugal. Those who went east reached Mozambique and remained there. The boat which hoped to reach Portugal drifted in the currents and winds until they were picked up by another ship, the Santa Ignacio de Loyola, and finally reached Lisbon in 1632 where the ship hit a sandbar in the Tagus and sank. Accounts differ as to whether the crew were saved or not. A Greek tragedy couldn’t have had a more dramatic ending.
Nothing was found of the Portuguese encampment or of the wreck of the Sao Gonçalo until 1979 when a bulldozer turned over a clod of sand in the dunes and some fragments of porcelain showed up. They were later identified by a ceramics expert as Ming china within the period 1623 because of the depiction of certain Taoist immortals and some characters on one bowl, with an upper limit of 1637 because of the absence of the Transitional style of porcelain which showed a more Western demand on Chinese potters. So the time frame fitted perfectly with the friar’s handwritten report of the wreck in 1630 and the fragments were typical of the porcelain carried on Portuguese carracks during this period known as ‘kraak’ porcelain… the Dutch word for a carrack. The exact place they camped had been found.

I'd love to find a fragment of porcelain baked in a Chinese kiln 370 years ago or rub my hands over the patina of a shell that was once used as a spoon. For the past forty years I’ve been foraging on this beach next to the Robberg Peninsula searching for some fragment of blue and white that is not willow pattern, some sliver of a 17th Century buckle, some mother of pearl spoon…but nothing!
I know what the men might have foraged for. This morning on my beach walk the owner of a border collie carried a bagful of huge white mussels the dog had dug up from the sand at low tide. Mussels, crabs, jellyfish, oysters and oyster-catchers are abundant.

And in the ‘fynbos’ (the indigenous dune bush) around my house, the carissa bispinosa with its sweet smelling white star-flowers has delicious wild red fruit that the original Khoisan people who lived in the sea caves, descriptively called ‘num num’. There are tortoises as well and wild honeycomb they might have collected and seals and snakes too that they might have skinned and eaten. And this morning in the damp sand of my dune I found the tiny imprints of a bushbuck.
What did they think and feel during the eight months of being cast up on this Caliban coast on the ‘dark side of the globe’? The storm and the wreck itself will probably take up very little of my story. I have to get inside the heads of my characters. When dreams were lost and hope had dried up, what prevented them from becoming just another piece of wrack washed up on this shore?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

AND THE WINNER IS… By Eleanor Updale

Last night, the Costa Book of the Year chosen. The winners of all the individual categories (Novel, First Novel, Biography, Children’s Book, and Poetry) were announced just after Christmas, and in the final stage of the competition those winners went head to head for the big prize. I was one of the judges, but I’m pleased to say (because I don’t trust myself to be in a fit state to blog after the party) that I am writing this before our final meeting, and so I have no idea, as I write, which of the five books will triumph.

I only know what a tough job it is comparing such diverse work and trying to apply a common yardstick. Four authors are going to be disappointed, when they should be bursting with pride. It’s hard not to feel uneasy about prizes (for all sorts of reasons we might discuss at another time) but they do serve one great purpose: they draw attention to books that might otherwise be missed.

Two of the contenders for the Costa prize are ‘history’ books. That is why I am concentrating on them here. They tackle the past in very different ways. Andrew Miller’s Pure is a novel, set in Paris shortly before the French Revolution. Now All Roads Lead to France, by Matthew Hollis, is a scholarly literary biography describing the last five years in the life of the poet Edward Thomas, who was killed on the battlefield at Arras on Easter Monday, 1917. Both are profoundly successful works, and being forced to rate them against each other has shown me the utter absurdity of taking sides for or against fiction and non-fiction as vehicles for discussing the past. I can commend them both to you without reservation.

So why do they work so well? I’ll try to tell you without spoiling them if you haven’t read them yet.

Some of their qualities are shared. Neither book can be the fruit of anything other than rigorous historical scholarship, but that effort is never gratuitously displayed. Even Hollis’s academic detail takes second place to the narrative drive of the human story he has to tell. Both writers move effortlessly in the worlds they depict. The reader is always confident that the author knows more about the era than he is letting on. Details of dress, food, transport and so on are there in the text, and chime as somehow ‘right’, but in neither case are they paraded to demonstrate the amount of background work the author has done. Miller uses them only as needed by his plot; Hollis to clothe the subjects of his attention in the mantle of their times.

The inner lives of real and fictional people are probed and speculated upon, but in neither book are the squeamishness or sensibilities of our time imposed on people from another era. They are judged by their standards, and not ours. Somehow the reader emerges from each book better informed about the mores of the time, but without a feeling of having been lectured or patronised. Of course, that apparent light touch is achieved with consummate control of the writer’s craft. In Pure, Andrew Miller even cured my allergy to the use of the present tense. In both books, the use of language is a joy.

One would, perhaps, expect the biography, with its footnotes and careful sourcing, to be less gripping than the novel, but Matthew Hollis’s mannered, squabbling poets are just as compelling as Miller’s French grotesques. Though unmistakeably in awe of Thomas’s poetic abilities (Hollis is a poet himself) he nevertheless allows Thomas’s frailties as a man to seep through. Thomas is all the more convincing for the lack of any attempt to excuse his selfishness, or his multiple failures as a friend, husband and father. These shortcomings are not emphasised or over-analysed in the manner of so many biographies, rather they are just placed before us – emerging from Thomas’s words and actions; scrupulously observed. And Hollis resists the temptation to enfold his subject in the glamorous cloak of the (now) more fashionable ‘war’ poets such as Owen and Sassoon. While illustrating how Thomas’s poems were drenched in the fact of war, and reflected the wrenching calamity of the conflict, Hollis nevertheless reveals an uncomfortable truth about Thomas: he was happier inhabiting a soldiers uniform than his own skin, and enjoyed being at the front far more than battling against publishers and household obligations in his life before the war.

Andrew Miller uses a real location for his story Pure - the ancient, overstuffed, unsanitary cemetery of Les Innocents in the heart of eighteenth-century Paris - but the plot is a work of the imagination. And yet, how can we not believe absolutely in creations such as the casually disdainful functionary who tasks the main character - a young provincial engineer - with razing Les Innocents to the ground? You can almost smell the rotting corpses unearthed by the team of labourers imported to do the job. The violence in the book hurts. The uncertainty and danger that pervade the personal lives of the characters mirror the political atmosphere of the day (1785). Could there be a more convincing evocation of the mood of excitement and distrust than that created by Miller’s vignettes of everyday life slithering on as the foundations of Paris begin to shake? Reading this book, it’s somehow easier to understand what it must have been like to live in Cairo or Tripoli early last year, as the Arab Spring was gathering momentum. The Revolutionary graffiti in Miller’s Paris somehow pre-echoes that of 1968 and 1989, and the tweets and emails of 2011. But Miller never hits us with a leaden reflection on parallels with modern times. His fictional characters, and Hollis’s real people, are allowed the values of their day while retaining an essential humanity - making their plights just as relevant to the 21st century as those of the cast of any news bulletin or modern novel.

So will one of these ‘history’ books win the Costa prize? They are up against a wonderful shortlist: Carol Ann Duffy’s new collection of poems, The Bees, Christie Watson’s first novel, Small Sunbirds Far Away, and Moira Young’s original and exciting book for children Blood Red Road. I’m not going to say which book I’m voting for. Who knows what passions will be unleashed and what trade-offs made when we judges sit down together to make our decision?

But I should remind myself, in the real world that happened yesterday. When you read this, you will know whether Pure or All Roads Now Lead to France has taken the palm. Whatever happened, both books are well worth a read. In their very different ways, they do what lovers of history books want: when you finish reading, you are left with a heightened ‘feel’ for a past time, wanting to find out more, and not entirely sure how you found out all the new things you now know.


Tuesday, 24 January 2012


By Essie Fox

Much of the action in my Victorian novel, The Somnambulist, takes place in East London – and I was to return to those haunts last week when being interviewed and filmed for the 2012 TV Book Club.

One of those settings, in the middle of Bow, and just five minutes walk from Mile End underground station, is the actual location in which my imaginary narrator, Phoebe Turner,  has been brought up, living with her widowed mother Maud, and Maud’s much younger, more glamorous sister who once had a singing career on the stage - the rewards for her fame now keeping the family in style.

Tredegar Square is a beautiful collection of houses which surround some well-kept gardens, a development that would not be out of place in the more affluent parts of Kensington or Chelsea. The north side of the Square is the grandest, with fine stucco and classical decoration – all of which has hardly changed since the mid-nineteenth century. 

The land upon which the houses were built was originally used for pasture, later leased out to builders by Sir Charles Morgan of Tredegar, whose ancestral home was in Newport, Wales - which explains why the streets in the surrounding estate have names with Welsh connotations - such Rhondda, Aberavan, or Cardigan. By the time the development was completed, aroundabout 1860, it had its own school, shops and church, along with several public houses. And, in time, it had its own murderer. 

Henry Wainwright lived at number 40 Tredegar Square, along with his wife and four children, while running a brush-making business on the nearby Whitechapel Road. Right next door to that premises was the Pavilion theatre - and Henry did love a trip to the theatre, socialising with many performers, even inviting them back home to dine with his wife in Tredegar Square - though the younger, prettier actresses were entertained elsewhere, and when Henry met a hat maker by the name of Harriet Lane, he set her up as 'Mrs King' in various East End residences, the last being in Stepney's Sidney Square. 

But, or so the story goes, Henry tired of Harriet's charms. She was murdered and her body was buried under the floor of his Whitechapel warehouse, which is where it was to remain until, a year later, in 1875, with the warehouse sold and about to change hands, Henry was said to have exhumed the corpse, cutting it into pieces which he wrapped in thick canvas cloth. When trying to move those remains he asked a member of his staff to help with transporting them to the site of his new premises - claiming the packages contained hair that was used in the process of his trade. When the poor workman complained at the stench, Wainwright assured him that it would 'blow off'. A little while later, out in the street, when the workman complained again at the weight, Wainwright became exasperated, leaving his employee alone with the parcels while he went off to find a cab, into which the parts were then loaded as Wainwright travelled on alone. But, during his brief absence, the suspicious employee had sneaked a look inside the offending parcels and discovered a human head and hand and although he said nothing at the time, fearing he might also be murdered, as soon as the cab set off he sought out a constable to inform and, in due course, Wainwright was detained - literally red-handed, with blood seeping out from the cloth in his arms. 

However, as in many Victorian sensational tales, there was one more twist to this story. Wainwright was hanged for the crime, but during the court case it came out that he had a brother, Thomas, and how, when Henry had tired of Harriet's affections, his brother had wooed her in his place, a situation that Henry encouraged hoping that way to ease the break. 

When Harriet's death was eventually known, Thomas had long since disappeared and some believe that he was the real murderer but that Henry, having already been ruined when discovered with the grisly 'proof', sought to protect his brother's name by taking the blame for Harriet's death, until the time of sentencing when he was reported to have said - 

"...standing as I now do upon the brink of eternity, and in the presence of that God before whom I shall shortly appear, I swear that I am not the murderer of the remains found in my possession. I swear that I have never in my life fired a pistol. I swear also that I have not buried these remains, and that I did not exhume or mutilate them...I have been guilty of great immorality. I have been guilty of many  indiscretions, but as for the crime of which I have been brought in guilty I leave this dock with a calm and quiet conscience. My Lord, I thank you for the patience with which you have listened to me."

This story has been briefly alluded to in the pages of The Somnambulist, but I think there is the seed of a entire novel in Henry's final statement. And for those who wish to research him more, and perhaps to visit his old stomping ground, I recommend a visit to The Morgan Arms just to the east of Tredegar Square. The food is very good and the atmosphere most convivial - as Henry Wainwright might also have found back in the mid-nineteenth century.  

My debut novel, The Somnambulist, is a Victorian gothic mystery set in the London Music halls, the docks and a nearby cemetery, as well as a sprawling country house that may, or may not, be haunted. The paperback was published earlier this month, and for more information about the book, please visit www.essiefox.com.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Silesia - the land between by Leslie Wilson

Although my mother was German, she only lived for a year of her life in what is now Germany. She was born in Hindenburg/Zabrze in Upper Silesia, and went to live in Graz when Germany annexed Austria in 1938. She was then thirteen. As a child I was confused about her pre-war nationality, because she talked about Austria so much I was sure she was Austrian. One day, however, she corrected me when I said she had been Austrian(she took British nationality when she married my father). And she told me that the part of Germany she'd been born in was now Poland. This is the house where she was born in 1925; it was then a block of police officers' flats

When I was a teenager, my brother began to learn Russian - and we were startled to hear my grandmother say - 'Oh, chleb for bread, that's the same as in Polish - and what's butter? Maslo? That's the same, too.' I'd never imagined that she spoke Polish - my mother certainly didn't. So I started to ask more questions. Where was she born? 'Zabrze,' she said. I thought: That's a Polish name. I asked her what her maiden name was, and she said what sounded like 'Kolotsi'. That sounded pretty Polish to me, too, and when I asked her to spell it, Kolodziej looked even more Polish. (In its Polish spelling, Kołodziej, it's a very common Polish name; I've been told it means 'Wheelwright.')

During my teen years, Omi (German for Granny) used to worry my mother very much by walking into Nottingham to attend the Polish mass in the Catholic cathedral, because it reminded her of home. My mother would drive into the city to try and pick her up, and once she asked me to join Omi there and come home on the bus with her. I can remember a general impression of candles and clouds of incense in the dark Victorian building, not at all like the airy spaces of the modern Catholic churches Omi attended in the suburbs. She was uncharacteristically annoyed to see me, and said quite shortly that she was quite able to come home on her own. It wasn't till recently, when I was reading about Silesia prior to finally visiting it for myself, that I discovered that Upper Silesians spoke a language called 'Schlesisch,' which was a dialect of Polish with German words fed through it. My brother said quite casually: 'Oh, yes, Omi told me she spoke Schlesisch, and played with Polish children when she was young.'

My grandmother never spoke English apart from a word or two - so when the liturgy of the Mass became English, the language was alien to her - but when she went to the Polish services, she must have understood everything, including the homily. No wonder she didn't want me arriving to take her away. Maybe she'd even made friends there and chatted to them in the language she hadn't been able to speak for so many years. I don't know.

Silesia has always been a place where peoples and ethnicities met. In early times, it was populated by Celts and Germanic Vandals (who left behind some very well-made artefacts, actually), before the Slavs arrived in the 6th century or so. Silesia then became a Polish dukedom; part of Bohemia; Polish again - then it reverted to Bohemia and came under Austrian rule when the Hapsburgs conquered Bohemia during the 30 Years' War. The eagle with the crescent moon and cross on the emblem, is the coat of arms of the Polish Piast dynasty, and I saw it in the St Vitus Cathedral in Prague, though nowadays only a sliver of Silesia remains in the Czech Republic.

Initially, it was a thinly-populated land, and the Krkonosce mountains
Riesengebirge in German) in particular, but Italian miners arrived to dig for the precious and semi-precious stones in the mountains' depths. The mosaics of Ravenna and Venice are made of stones mined in the Krkonosce. On the southern slopes of the mountains, Walloon miners came, felled trees for charcoal, and became part of a nascent and very important lead crystal production industry.

On the northern side of the mountains, Duke Henry 1st of Silesia encouraged German farmers, miners, and monastic orders to settle in the region. The farmers brought advanced agricultural technology to work on hitherto wildnerness areas. Löwenberg (now Lwówek Śląski), which was my great-grandfather's birthplace, was one of the new, German-worked precious metal mining towns. New towns sprang up, designed on Germanic plans and using German law. Breslau (Wrocław), the Ducal seat, became a Hanse town.

In the eighteenth century, Frederick II of Prussia defeated the forces of Maria Theresia, Empress of Austria, and the subsequent Peace of Dresden gave Silesia to Prussia. This brought more German settlers, especially to the smelteries, but also Protestant Bohemian settlers who became farmers. Mining and heavy industry flourished, especially in Upper Silesia. My mother's birthplace was a smelly, filthy place, where children were kept indoors for days on end, sometimes, because of the great flakes of soot that fell like black snow. But productive. Before World War 2, England was importing brown coal from Silesia.

My grandfather came from Giersdorf (now Podgorzyn) Lower Silesia, from the Riesengebirge. That state was by then predominantly Lutheran and German-speaking. Here's a photograph of the 'little lake' high up in the mountains, above my great-grandfather's home.

According to the Silesian-born writer, Horst Bienek, Upper Silesians were devout, extravagant if they could manage it, enjoyed life, loved celebrations and alcohol, and got into fights easily. They also liked to cry. Lower Silesians bit their lips bloody before they'd cry; they were thrifty, sometimes miserly. Both halves tended to be religious and mystical, but the religion of the Lower Silesians was 'light and rational' whereas that of the Upper Silesians was 'dark and melancholy.'

My grandfather- pictured below with his parents and sibling, the boy with the poodle-bow - wasn't a believer, and was quite happy to have his daughter grow up a Catholic, though he was descended from Zillertal Protestants, who came to Prussia to escape from persecution in the Tyrol (but more of that in a future blog). He certainly was reluctant to express his feelings, hiding them behind a harsh exterior. His commanding officer, during the war, praised his powers of endurance and 'strong will.'

My grandmother had what was described as religious mania, and when we had family rows she'd get down on her knees and pray for us all. I think my mother inherited Omi's disposition - though she hated drunkenness. She adored celebrations, was a real drama queen, and though she didn't fight physically, was really combative. In my childhood, my home was a war zone.

As for liking to cry - I cry easily, as did my mother and Omi. I'd always wondered why my temperament was different from English people, but also different from the Germans I knew. When I read Horst Bienek, I realised. I think the intensity is probably a Slav trait, and I have a hefty dollop of that in my make-up.

Upper Silesians tended to regard themselves as Silesian, rather than German, and even 'ethnic Germans', like my grandmother, spoke Schlesisch and had Polish names. But I'm running out of space, so I shall continue the story next month.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Bloodied Hearts & 1950s Underwear - Emma Darwin

When hanging out with my historical fictioneering friends, I sometimes feel a bit inferior. So many of them spent their student years reading Defoe, Joyce and Greene, or Clarendon, Elton and Schama, at least when the pubs were closed. I've dipped into both myself, a little, but I got my degree by pretending to be a tree.

The theatre, like any performing art, is devoted to tradition in a way that written arts don't have to be, so in the Department of Drama at the University of Birmingham our trees were rooted in the soil of this classic Stanislavskian exercise. Mind you, quite how the experience of being a silver birch or a cork oak helped Stanislavski's actors to play Uncle Vanya I've never been sure, although perhaps it was more fruitful when it came to rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard. But the more I write, teach and blog about fiction, the more I realise just what a good grounding a Drama degree is for a historical novelist.

I wouldn't dream of suggesting that just because we set our novels in the past, they're all about heaving bosoms. But when you've had to wear full, period costume for anything from Hamlet to Strindberg's Easter, you discover that the only way to breathe is indeed for your bosom to heave. Corsets work better than a Wonderbra for showing off your assets, but at the cost of 90% of your lung capacity. Racing up the spiral green room staircase to make your entrance through the audience, or running into the arms of your stage lover, shows you exactly why all those heroines keep fainting: sheer lack of oxygen.

Directors need to know this stuff, but so do novelists. Then there was Wardrobe. I not only know how to wear a corset, I've made one. And a straitjacket (Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty). I've realised how much sewing it takes to make a bodice, how much cloth to make a skirt and the petticoats beneath, and just how much mending it takes when you tread on the hem (A Doll's House). Even  a twentieth century show should have not just clothes but underwear actually from the period; fabrics have changed and so have erotic tastes in breasts, bottoms, waists, shoulders and makeup. And that goes for men as well as women, as I must remember now I'm writing a novel set between the wars. And have you tried getting out of a too-low sofa wearing high heels, a 1950s roll-on, and not much else? I have, because in Albee's The American Dream they switched sofas between the last dress rehearsal and the first night. Now, which of my characters shall I do that to?

Stage Management? I know how to research period weapons (Peer Gynt) and nurses' uniforms (Testament of Youth). I know that hiring real scaffolding for a Constructivist set (Meyerhold) brings in more dust than you'd thought existed in the whole of the West Midlands. I also learnt that if you fling a bloody heart to the ground it bounces, and reduces the entire cast of The Duchess of Malfi to giggles.

Some of what I learnt is useful for any novelist. There's Pinter: what's between the words spoken is as important as the words, so how do you make that happen in your reader's head? There's learning Shakespeare by heart and speaking it, to develop your ear for how character-in-action is embodied in the sound and rhythm of words. And it's useful for an author: after all those years of acting, I'm not too fazed at an event when the sound system goes down or the coffee machine starts up.

I also learnt that I wasn't much of an actor myself. Years later, as a beginner-writer, I came across the bizarre suggestion that you should "cut all adverbs". This is the bastard, tyrannical offspring off a good regime: fiction is built of character-in-action, so keep looking for the perfect verb for that action and don't settle for a bland one spiced up with an adverb. At which point, I had... well, I was going to say a lightbulb moment, but it was more of an olive-oil-and-wick-lamp moment, which sent me back to my undergraduate copy of Aristotle's Poetics:
For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse...if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents.
He's talking about theatre, and Tragedy (Comedy got lost, and lost again in The Name of the Rose), but it could just as well be a snarky TLS fiction review, couldn't it? Action - actors - act-ors... I remembered working on Stanislavski's idea of "intentions", from An Actor Prepares, where for each speech you have to decide what the character is trying to do, in speaking it. Not, "he's in love with her", "she's furious with him", "they're bored"; your idea must be expressed as a verb: "to seduce", "to scold", "to destroy". As Aristotle says, there's no point in having a crystal-clear idea of your character and their thoughts and emotions, if you don't know exactly what that makes them do. It's all in finding the right verb.

Of course, we historical fictioneers have a particular relationship to this basic truth about narrative; we write about the foreign land of the past, and it's too easy for us to get caught up in the "qualities", the "diction and thought", of that foreigness. But it's how our characters act in their Then that makes the connection with our own Now. We wouldn't whoop at a bear-baiting, or happily die for our faith. But if I start thinking, "to cheer on the team", or "to save my soul" I begin to get it, and so can write it. And what about locking up a sister so she can't run away with her lover? Is that "to protect", "to control", "to possess" or "to prevent evil"? Now there's a story...

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Mood Music by Imogen Robertson

I came across a fantastic album this week that I want to share with you. London Reborn by Simon Mckechnie. It’sa collection of old
London songs rearranged for a dizzying variety of instruments from all over the world. I can see why Mckechnie has done this, the songs feel new and alive; reflective of London as a place where different cultures have always met and harmonized. The songs and the arrangements have a freshness and irreverence about them that seems very London to me too. So, loving the album but I have to save the tracks with lyrics for my breaks. Instrumental only when I’m trying to get words down.

In my entirely unscientific sample of writers I know and have asked, it seems that a lot of us listen to music as we write, though those that don’t shudder and say ‘No! How could you?’. It seems I’m certainly not alone in needing to have music with no voice to work to. I’m sure we all have more particular requirements too. I can’t listen to Beethoven for instance, or any of the romantic composers. Their works, with their range of emotion, sudden shocks and dramas, just demand more attention than I can give. Baroque music is perfect, I can tune in or out of it as I need; am rewarded when I listen carefully, and can let it sink into my mental background when I need to. It helps me concentrate, shutting off that part of my brain that can so offer interrupt me when working by coming up with continual to-do lists and reminders about hanging up the washing. Conversely when I’m having cello lessons or practising are just about the only times I manage completely to stop thinking about the work in progress. Makes for a satisfyingly symbiotic relationship with music.

Of course, music makes its way into the books too. When I was researching my first book, Instruments of Darkness, I made use of an English composer of the late 18th century called Stephen Paxton. I had played one of his pieces in my lessons, and my teacher Gwyn Pritchard, mentioned that little was known about his life, and that few of his compositions were now available. I found a wonderful article about him in the British Library by Brian Crosby, and copies of a lot of Paxton’s music, long since out of circulation. Some of those copies had his signature on them which gave me one of those thrills of connection that sometimes occur as you research. That work led, via some stunning serendipity, to me attending a recording of his works by the cellist Sebastian Comberti and writing some of the notes for the resulting album.

The character of Manzerotti in Anatomy of Murder comes from another conversation with Gwyn about the Castrati singers of the period and Manzerotti resurfaces in my new book which comes out in April, Circle of Shadows.

Gwyn is also a rather eminent composer as well as a teacher, and he asked me to write a text for one of his commissions. Here’s a link to the video of the result, and here are the words. Listening to it being played in St James’s Piccadilly, Paxton’s local church, was one of the proudest and most magical moments of my life. Come to think of it, Gwyn’s daughter also introduced me to my fiancé, so I suspect I’ve got rather more out of music than it has got out of me.

The book I’m writing at the moment is set in Paris in 1910, so I’ll have to abandon the Baroque for a while, but I have plenty of Satie’s piano music ready to go so I’m in good hands, and while I’m avoiding thinking about the washing, who knows where music will lead me next?

Friday, 20 January 2012

'Whether Weather Matters' by A. L. Berridge

I write historical fiction, which means I get paid for being an Anorak. People understand it’s my job to care when the sun set in Paris on June 15th 1639, what phase the moon was in, or the time of high tide. The only time they seem to stare is when I explain I'm trying to find out about the weather.

Captain Mercer in the rain at Waterloo (Cranston Fine Arts)
I can understand that. It somehow sounds so British to be writing about world-changing history and to care whether it was raining at the time. Yet weather itself is world-changing, and history would have taken a completely different course had its effects been otherwise. Who would have won the Battle of Waterloo if it hadn’t rained? Who would have won at Mons if it had? What would have happened at Trafalgar if the wind hadn’t dropped? Would Captain Scott have survived without that last blizzard?  Would we…could we…what would…? We’re talking Alternative History here, because History is what History did, and what history did depended hugely on the weather.

And that can be a problem – because surely it’s my characters and plotting that should determine what happens, rather than an outside force that’s completely beyond my control. It can also be extremely frustrating (in every sense) when a planned romantic romp in a cornfield has to be replaced by a grope in a dingy barn because of an accident of historical weather.

To some extent I can work round it by craftily scheduling scenes to occur in the right seasons, but we don’t always have that flexibility. For my hero’s return to Paris at the end of ‘In the Name of the King’ I wanted a bleak and leafless day to contrast with the hopeful sunshine of the beginning – only to find I’d boxed myself into a corner with the unmoveable date of the Battle of Rocroi, and that my Autumn Scene would have to be played in June.
But in the end it didn’t matter, and the time of year even gave me the final image I’d been looking for – the gleam of sunshine on the blade of a sword as it spun above the smoke of Paris into the blueness of the sky. The truth is that my first plan was dull and obvious, but being forced to deal with reality gave me something that was better than my own imagining.

It’s actually rather worrying how often that happens. ‘In the Name of the King’ has a horrible scene of an amende honorable, when one of my characters is forced to humiliate himself by parading in the Place de Grève dressed only in a shirt – but it was research, not imagination, that made me see how much worse it would be in the freezing slush of recent snow. My latest novel, ‘Into the Valley of Death’, deals with the battle of Inkerman – but it was reality, not my own idea, that the whole thing should have taken place in thick fog. Fog! The confusion of it, the muffling of sound, the moisture in the air and in the powder – could there be a greater gift to a writer? My story involves a mysterious figure whose identity grows more elusive as my characters try to hunt him down – and could there be a better setting for the denouement than the shifting of shadow into substance in the drifting of mist? Mess that one up, Berridge – I dare you.

From 'The Battle of Inkerman' by Louis-William Desanges
But even if the weather works against my story rather than for it, there’s still a pleasure in playing it for real. My characters aren’t my puppets, they’re real people at the mercy of the elements of their own time, and so (of course) are we. We have electricity to make us independent of sun and moon, and our shipping can ignore both wind and tide, but even the famous Weather Modification Scheme can’t really protect us from weather. Clever as we are, we’re still the ‘bare forked animal’ that Lear was when Nature decides it wants a storm, a hurricane – or a tsunami.

The novel I’m working on at the moment begins with that. This is the sequel to ‘Into the Valley of Death’, and picks up the Crimean War after Inkerman when the British forces were left encamped outside Sevastopol to endure the horrors of winter without proper clothing, shelter, food or transport, and with months to wait before relief could reach them. They were dying of cold, of cholera, dysentery, and frankly of starvation – and then the hurricane came. Weather isn’t just the background to this story – in this case it is the story, and if I care about history at all then that’s the one I want to tell.

But no-one would complain about my including a real-life hurricane in my story - the Nerd Factor only really comes in when I’m trying to find out about weather that had no obvious effects on the story. Yet I think that matters too. Weather always makes a difference. Consider even the wedding of Charles and Diana as a historical event – and see how different it would have been if it had rained. What about our own weddings? Our daughter’s graduation? Our first date? If the weather had been different, then the day would have been so too, and probably our mood right along with it.

That’s true of our characters too, and when I write a scene with ‘real’ weather then I’m that much closer to sharing what it was like. In ‘In the Name of the King’ my characters go on the march with an army – and how could I write this without knowing the weather? As the cavalry horses ride past, is that dust in my characters’ faces – or mud? Are they wet? Hot? Thirsty? Historical writers are expected to know what kind of food our characters eat, what clothes they wear and what homes they live in, so shouldn’t we know these other things too? Weather’s like any other part of research – it tells us what it was like to be there.

The problem, of course, is that it’s even harder to find out. There’s a terrifying lack of meteorological data available for previous centuries, and an internet site promising ‘historical weather’ might easily refer only to last week. A few show weather patterns of major significance (like this one on British Winters) but if anyone out there knows a good, reliable source of detail I would be desperately grateful to learn of it. In the absence of official records, scientists at Old Weather.Org are trying to recreate the past through examining old ships’ logs, but otherwise they have to work just as we do: picking up clues from the informal accounts of ordinary people – the letters, diaries, memoirs and court transcripts that tell future generations far more than their writers could ever have imagined.

Diary entries of Richard Hall, Oct 1784 http://georgiangentleman.posterous.com/77052293
As our own would. Looking back at my father’s diaries, I’m struck by how regularly he mentions the weather, and also by how immediately those descriptions recall the whole day. And that, to me, is another reason why I want to use weather in my novels. Readers don’t necessarily know what it’s like to be tortured, to fight a duel, to flounce around in a crinoline or make a fire with flint and steel, but we all know weather. If I read that my Crimean characters are wet and cold then I know how they felt and can make sure my readers know too. These are universal things, easily recognizable, and they can draw us together across the span of hundreds of years.

I’ll be thinking of that as I start writing the Crimean winter, and am rather glad I’ll be doing it just as the January cold begins to bite. Except that I’m not really an Anorak, or at least not a total one - and I intend to leave the heating firmly switched on.