Thursday 1 September 2011

Timelines and Peter Ackroyd

When I still lived in London, there was a term when I was Writer in Residence in five Primary schools in a North London borough. I was trying to get children to find their way back into the past. One year was easy; ten years took them back to babyhood. Even a hundred years had some resonance for them because the schools were Victorian buildings which had recently celebrated centenaries, with children and teachers dressing up.

But five hundred years?

Tudors, Vikings, Romans - even dinosaurs were offered. They simply had no sense of how different periods of history fitted together, even English history. OK, they were only ten. But I actually wanted to take them back thousands of years to the people of pre-history. I was specifically trying to get them to imagine a time before houses, cars, electricity, books, in order to think what stories such people might have invented to explain the phenomena of the Sun, Moon and Stars, as they sat round their fires at night.

We got there in the end and their ideas were wonderful. What they were doing was inventing their own myths, which was what I had hoped for. But I kept remembering those contemporary Vikings and Tudors. For me, a timeline of history is the framework into which I slot each new piece of research and detail of knowledge. If you don't know that Tudors came after Plantagenets, it's hard to fit in each new fact or date or fascinating story.

This is a "ruler of rulers" of which I used to have one which  I seem to have mislaid. It was a very useful quick fact-checker for someone who finds it hard to remember dates. But it also exemplifies what those who spurn timelines hate most: it implies that History, particularly English History, is all a matter of the dates of the reigns of monarchs. Which, of course, it isn't.

But the reaction to that perceived view of the subject has brought about the kind of topic-based teaching that makes it difficult for students to link things up.  And in fact, the man or woman on the throne does have an enormous effect on ordinary people. If you are being subjected to a Poll Tax or having to give up the profits from selling the wool from your sheep to finance an expensive war with France, it really does make a difference to your daily life.

And as a novelist I find timelines make an enormous difference to mine. I make one for every novel, just to avoid things like having children in school on Sundays or parents going to work on Bank Holidays. If it's a historical novel it's even more important; there will be two simultaneous timelines - the one of what is known to have happened as events in time  and the one I have invented for my fictional characters. The two will entwine and inter-connect and I make much use of the Net to find out what the phases of the moon were in any given month of a specific year in the Middle Ages, for example, and when there were eclipses.

So I've been thinking about how to bring timelines back into fashion and then along comes Peter Ackroyd. He is releasing this month a book called Foundation, which is the first in a six volume series of the History of England (published by Macmillan).

Foundation begins where I wanted my Primary school children to travel back to: tens of thousands of years ago. It finishes with the death of Henry Vll, the first Tudor monarch. That's a lot to cram into 450 or so pages but it does leave roughly one century for each of the remaining volumes.

There are no actual timelines in the book, nor any family trees - indeed there are not even any notes, though there is a chapter by chapter bibliography. Ackroyd is approaching History not as a Historian but as a writer, perhaps the first since Macaulay wrote his History of England in the late nineteenth century . "The first historians after all were poets," Ackroyd reminds us.

First and foremost, his book is wonderfully readable. There are enough dates and monarchs to satisfy traditionalists but chapters about the Hundred Years' War or The Wars of the Roses or intercalated with ones on feudal customs or how other countries viewed the English.

Birth and death rituals, the role of the Parish church and all sorts of domestic details are here. What people wore and ate and drank, their animals, their cooking pots, their weapons. It's like finding small archaeological digs in between all the gorgeous detail of what kings spent their money on: £4,784 on clothes and furs in the case of Edward lV - in 1461!

"He draped himself in cloth of gold and crimson velvet, in tawny silk and green satin. He owned hundreds of pairs of shoes and slippers, hats and bonnets; he wore amethysts and sapphires and rubies in abundance."

(The pedant in me wants a footnote and sources but the reader and writer just says "ooh!")

And then there is the odd statement that resonates long after the book is shut, such as that the invention of the clock marked the demise of the feudal and seasonal world, as did the longbow and the decline of the serf.

Reading about the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, we hear a contemporary chronicler say that the teenage Richard ll, after reneging on the deal he had made with the rebels, who had been rioting and looting in the street, told them, "You seek equality with the lords but you are unworthy to live. Give this message to your fellows: rustics you are and rustics you will always be. You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example to posterity."

That has an awful topicality about it.

I can't wait for the remaining five volumes and Ackroyd is such a workhorse that we might well get one a year. I hope so; it will really help with the timelines.

Update: We have two signed copies of Foundation to give away (UK only, I'm afraid) to the commenters with the best answers to this question:

"What is your favourite period of history between 15,000 BC and 1509 AD (the time covered in Foundation) and why?"

Deadline September 16th


Unknown said...

AAAGH another book on my must-have list that's not slated for publication in the States. Thank goodness for the Book Depository.

And competitions. Looking forward to this one!

catdownunder said...

Oohh it sounds like another must have of his work! Thankyou - if my pocket money will stretch that far!

adele said...

Couldn't agree more about the necessity of timelines. And the putting together of the whole historical progress,so to speak, for children. We had a wonderful timeline up on the classroom wall which laid it all out for us. Does anyone even publish such a thing for schoolchildren these days? Excellent post and the book sounds terrific.

Penny Dolan said...

Wonderful post, especially about the historic timeline and the books timeline.

I see timelines up on the walls in school halls and classrooms occasionally but I am not whether they have just become wallpaper, rather than an actively referred to resource. I am now itching for the Akroyd book - and the rest of series. (Maybe I should watch out for the competition before
bounding out to shops?)

H.M. Castor said...

What an interesting piece, and I totally agree. I have it in my head that I somehow ended up doing the Romans 3 times at primary school, and certainly was left with a very topic-based sense of history. There are some good children's books currently around which try to give a sense of timelines. For example, my nephew loves 'The Story of Britain' by Patrick Dillon (Walker) which goes through chronologically, telling stories along the way, and crucially includes Scottish, Irish and Welsh as well as English history. I need to read it too!

Linda B-A said...

Peter Ackroyd's works on London have been an inspiration. His latest venture sounds unmissable (and hugely ambitious!). How interesting about your use of timelines. If you've not seen it, there is a book written by an historian I admire, Anthony Grafton, and Daniel Rosenberg called CARTOGRAPHIES OF TIME (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) which might interest you. It is full of beautiful illustrations and is a history of the timeline.

Juliette said...

This sounds like a great book - though I'm a little sad that the series as a whole is priviliging Tudors, Stuarts, industrialists and Victorians again. English (and Scottish, Welsh and Irish even more so) medieval history is seriously neglected in our education system and in popular histories (plus obviously I think the Romans should have plenty of space too!)

Mary Hoffman said...

There is plenty of medieval content, Juliette. It ENDS with Henry Tudor.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I love the fact that you refer to the phases of the moon on a precise date Mary. I happily write about the moon but generally only work out I'm at the correct phase for the length of time of my story not the specific date. Marvellous to be so specific... like esoteric knowledge that no one else need know is absolutely correct but YOU know! And often I'm sure it marks a turning point in the story or is a stepping stone to something.

@slangular said...

The books sound wonderful - how long will it take him to get to the 19c I wonder. Really interesting.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Wonderful blog, Mary. I too find timelines essential when writing a novel. Mine are frequently hand-written and by the time the book is done, they are almost illegible with crossings-out.
As an admirer of Peter Ackroyd, I look forward to reading his latest book.I think it will be a must-have on the bookshelf.

Eve Edwards said...

In answer to your question, my favourite time period is not neatly enclosed in a time period - some say early Medieval, old fashioned folk say the Dark Ages, but the dates are about 790 to 1066 AD. Why do I like it? For all sorts of funny reasons. As a writer it offers very similar pleasures to Tolkienesque fantasy (swords, horses, dragonships, hoards, bards). The names are just wonderful - Aethlered, Edwy, Egbert (what a fabulous name for a king!). The spiritual life of the church is fascinating with St Columba's Celtic influence still being felt and the hermit monks sailing off into the unknown on the one hand, with the gaining of temporal power on the other, and the drama of Viking attacks/invasion. Oh yes, and one more reason - Michael Wood - my teenage heart throb going in search of the Dark Ages *sigh*

none said...

I saw this book in Waterstones and yearned...but I was there buying presents for someone else. Not myself.


Mary Hoffman said...

Well, Buffy Squirrel, now is your chance! Just answer the competition question and you might win.

Mark said...

Italy in the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries may just be my "favourite", though saying I have a favourite slice of history is a bit like trying to define which chunk of a bar of chocolate I like best (the very last bite, I think).

It was, without doubt, a place of vibrant change, in which pioneers in a huge number of areas, from art to travel to learning are all leaping into the unknown, and countless geniuses in innumerable fields, from Petrach to Machiavelli, emerge. Of course, this is happening all over the know world, but Italy seems to distill and focus this innovation and sense of adventure.

In terms of national identity, the plots and alliances, wars and treaties that take place between the various principalities and republics (not to mention the way each shuffling of the dice in Italy reverberated all across Europe as the great powers played chess, with the city states as mere pawns) each deserve way more than a brief mention here.

I should also add that the fact that I'm Venetian is a big reason I find this time hugely exciting - For a century or more my ancestors can genuinely claim to have been part of the greatest superpower of the age, and I voraciously devour histories and biographies of the most unique city in Europe.

Everywhere we go, in everything we do, we are still surrounded by the echoes of this age, in art, architecture, thought and philosophy, and perhaps that's the greatest appeal of all: just how closely what history teaches me can be reflected in my life, today.