Monday 30 September 2013

September Competition

Open to UK residents only, we're afraid.

If you read Robert Low's post yesterday about rules for writing historical fiction, you will be well primed to answer this question:

"What is your favourite rule to be followed - or broken - in writing historical fiction?"

We have five copies of Robert's latest novel The Lion Rampant to give away to those who respond with the best answers.

Closing date October 10th, as our administrator is away till then.

Leave your answers in the Comments below.

And Good Luck!

Sunday 29 September 2013

The Magnificent Seven by Robert Low

Our guest this month is Robert Low. His Oathsworn series is about Vikings but the Kingdom series, completed this year, deals with the Scottish Wars of Independence. How topical is that?

Robert Low

This is what he says about himself:

I am the wrong side of older and I have been a journalist and writer since the age of 17.

At 19, I went to Vietnam on spec to try and cover the war in the firm belief that I could not be any sort of writer until, as Hemingway put it, I had been as drunk as could be, suffered a broken heart and experienced war. Naturally at 19, I believed I had the first two under my belt and just needed the third. After 18 months of it, I swore I would never do anything as stupid ever again.

Since then, I have earned a living as a writer, with occasional lapses of judgement taking me to Sarajevo, Romania Albania and Kosovo.

To satisfy a craving for action, I took up re-enactment, joining The Vikings group.

The Oathsworn Series began in 2007 and runs to four titles: The Whale Road, The Wolf Sea, The White Raven and The Prow Beast, all available from HarperCollins. A new one, called Crowbone, was released in Oct 2012. The Kingdom Series, which I am also writing now, is set in the time of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace - the first title is The Lion Wakes, the second The Lion At Bay and the last, The Lion Rampant, has just been released.

For us, Robert Low, very much tongue in cheek, has outlined some rules for writing historical fiction

From the moment we are old enough to start bumping into things, we begin to be told The Rules.

As we get older, they become more specific and complex and some of them start to make you wonder.

As a journalist, The Rules became more complex still, but this is where I began to rebel – and sift. Never gave up a source seemed self-evident to me. Get the facts right and tell readers who, what where and when. If you can’t tell the story in 25 words, you haven’t found your focus.

Others seemed more, well … serving suggestions. Think short – write short sentences in short paras. If you can find some infographic that illustrates your story – forget the story. A journalist is only as good as his/her sources (an over simplification. Sources lie and even good journalists get caught out. We’re back to accuracy on this one – check it, re-check it and THEN get caught out).

By the time you decide to become a real writer of something longer than a 3000-word article, you find a whole slew of The Rules. Already they conflict with The Rules of journalism and you have to begin spiking the latter – there is no way, for example, anyone can sustain 140,000-plus words of novel by writing short sentences in short paras.

But there are loads of people eager to tell you The Rules of writing. Entire businesses are made from it and if I see one more book, from some author I have never heard of, telling me how to be a successful writer, I may hurl it at him/her, with the cogent observation that, if they are so bloody smart, why aren’t they Dan Brown or JK Rowling?

So here are the Magnificent Seven Rules I was given, by different folks at different strokes. They are all good people and firmly believe that they all work and, in concert, cannot fail.


Authenticity is everything in historical fiction. The reader has to smell the smoke from 19th century factories, taste the sewage in the rutted gutters of a medieval street, hear the sounds of Elizabethan England all around. This is a new world and readers can’t understand it unless you feed them movies in their heads.

Broke it almost at once.

It is sometimes enough to say that your character walked down a street. Sometimes you might want to add a dash of colour, but readers are not idiots and if the plot is starting to shift into a higher gear, you will only whip the feet from under it by suddenly going into the origins of the London Underground, or what street stalls look like in the Middle Ages. Besides, no matter how you try, you will inevitably start recycling scenes from period movies. However, if a great deal of your character’s time is spent in a 16th century country house, or a longship on the Baltic Sea, it is essential to find out all you can. Not, I hasten to add, because you want to use as much of it as possible, but just so you can avoid getting what you do use hopelessly wrong. There is no point in having your 11th century heroine spring into the saddle of a feisty mare when the reality is that most 11th century women rode side-saddles so perilous and lacking control that they had to be led by a servant. The Tudors TV series was an astoundingly inaccurate portrait of Henry VIII et al, a cologne-ad view of the characters – yet the history underpinning it was spot-on.


This is because agents and editors hate it, runs the popular assumption. I don’t know why – it is the finest, surest way of seeing whether a writer is any good or not, because starting with a line of dialogue is hard. If a writer pulls it off, you know they are good right from the off.

SF classic Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card begins with talking heads and no reference to who they are or where they are. Goes on for half a page or so and it won a Nebula. Someone I said this to once sniffed that not all Nebula winners are great examples of how to write and I agreed. They are brilliant indications of a bloody good story, though.

And who can argue with ‘Where's Papa going with that axe?’ from the beginning of Charlotte's Web?

The hard fact is that most writers’ don’t actually want to bodyswerve opening with dialogue and the people who tell you not to do it are the ones who are too backbone-yellow to try.


This, plus the classic ‘show, don’t tell’ are pretty much the bedrock of creative writing classes everywhere. It is so carved in runes on a big, sod-off stone that it is difficult to argue against it – but here goes anyway. By ‘write what you know’ creative writing gurus mean ‘use personal experience’. If you have first-hand knowledge of something, then not only will your writing be more accurate, it will be more immediate. So runs the accepted wisdom and it is … bollocks. I know war-reporters with a wealth, a lifetime, of experience of conflict zones who could not write a novel about it that would as good as some housewife with a vivid imagination, a flair for turning a phrase and access to Google. I know geek wargamers/paintballers who could make a better fist of penning an Andy McNab adventure than the famous Mr McNab. In short – knowing isn’t nearly all of it. Feeling it is – and no HF writer I can think of (thank God) has actually claimed to me to be writing about a life they once lived themselves. No historical novelist writes about what they know!


This is up there with Never Write Scenes Involving A Character Looking In A Mirror and Never Use Dreams. I was told this by a few people after my first novel, The Whale Road, used a flashback sequence to start a chapter, then bring it round to the present. I kept it in anyway – hey, its my Nielsen ratings we are screwing with here!

I argued – successfully – that the analepsis is as old as writing. If it good enough for the Ramayana and Mahabhrata (where the main story is narrated through a frame tale set in a later narrative) then it is good enough for 21st century readers.

If Omar Khayam thinks it fitting to use in Arabian Nights, then it can’t be bad. His tale of The Three Apples begins with the discovery of a murdered woman. After the murderer later reveals himself, he narrates his reasons for the murder as a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of her dead body at the beginning of the story. Flashbacks are used in Sinbad The Sailor and The City Of Brass, too. By Ford Madox Ford. By Robert Graves. By Thornton Wilder in The Bridge Of San Luis Rey – and, if that isn’t enough, by the sainted JK in Harry Potter. Though, to be fair, she creates a magical device that converts the flashback into a current narrative whose characters can actually be questioned by progenitors.


You have a responsibility to history and real characters if you are using their real names in your novel. Otherwise – use a roman de clef , as Justin Cartwright did in The Song Before It Is Sung, changing Adam von Trott into Alex von Gottberg and his close personal friend Isaiah Berlin into Mendel.

Very coy and it did nothing to improve the story, in my opinion, which stumbles in fits and starts and lacks focus.

Famously, Antony Beevor climbed on a very high horse when he took Kate Pullinger to task over her historical novel about Lucie Duff Gordon, 19th century traveller and writer on Egypt. Lucie happens to be Anthony’s great grandma and he got peeved by Ms Pullinger’s historical novelist perspective, suggesting it might have been better if she’d changed the name. Personally, I think he has a mountain of huff and lousy arguments to boot. He promptly shot himself in the lip by stating that theatre is somehow exempt from playing with historical facts but no other creative medium. So Shakespeare is off the hook, but neither you nor I? Away, as my granny used to say, and bile your heid.

The bottom line in writing historical fiction around real characters is that you are almost certainly going to have to fill in a lot of gaps; even if you know where they were and what they did, you will never know, for sure, the why. It’s the ‘why’ that makes the difference and at that point you have to ask yourself if you are getting it close to right, doing a disservice to the character, or being downright vindictive. Once you have answered that to your satisfaction, you can then say: sod it – and write the damned character anyway. Dead people don’t sue.


We live in the 21st century with certain shared disapprovals of sexism, racism, chauvinism and provincialism. I broke this very early on by having Norse raiders go a-viking and, horror of horrors, commit acts of barbarism, rape and enslavement. I got emails of outrage from people about my ‘treatment of women’ and even had to grit my teeth at face-to-face attacks in literary readings and signings – not just from women, but from men. It seemed folk liked the writing style and even the adventure, had no problem with the odd swear-word or the gore, but could not detach themselves from 21st century finer feelings regarding sexism. My worst mistake was in pointing out the plethora of Historical Romance tales which have shaven-chested Vikings rushing up to a swooning female, all L’Oreal hair and caring, brandishing a bouquet instead of an axe. I find that sort of mock-rape an affront to history and women both.

The bottom line is – don’t pass judgement on ignorance and barbarism just because it makes you, as a writer in the 21st century, wince and recoil. If that also makes you avoid the issue, don’t write about the past; you are wasting everyone’s timeline.


It is self-absorbed, I was told and no-one likes a narcissist smart-arse. Unless you’re writing in the form of letters or journals, make sure any first-person character has a good reason to be telling his story. I mean – no-one likes a real person is they are constantly banging on about what they wear or did, do they?

Call me Ishmael is my reply to that. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like is my second comment. Lolita, Rebecca, The Adventures of Huck Finn, Tipping The Velvet, Trainspotting. Stick that in your Word documents, creative writing gurus.

And, more modestly, four Oathsworn novels of my own. When I came to write the fifth, with a spin-off character called Crowbone, I used the third person, just to differentiate. Fans of the first four books liked it well enough, thank God – but I’d have had another half-star on Amazon if I’d only stuck to first person.

Finally, like all Rules, there is One Rule To Bind Them. This is one I follow assiduously.


Saturday 28 September 2013

Getting into the Olympic Spirit? Biographer Clare Mulley is fascinated by the stories behind the Winter Olympics of 1936, and their resonance today.

The twenty-second Winter Olympic Games, and the 2014 Winter Paralympics, will be held in Sochi, in southern Russia, next February. So far thirty-eight nations have qualified to send athletes, including Great Britain. After all the excitement of the Olympics here last year, I will certainly be tuning in, watching the spectacle as much as keeping tally of the medals. By focusing the world’s attention on the host country, the Olympics always seems to provide a fascinating insight into how that nation perceives itself, and how it would like to be perceived. 

I recently inherited a box of beautiful old German books, among them the official commemorative album of the 1936 Winter Olympic Games held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, high in the Bavarian Alps. The cover of this inky-blue cloth bound volume is embossed with a golden bell, inside of which the German eagle perches on the Olympic rings above the legend, ‘ich rufe die jugend der welt!’ – ‘I call upon the youth of the world!’ This was of course an exaggeration. Hitler was the Patron of the games and the Nazis had no wish to embrace young Jewish, Black African, Gypsy, Jehova Witness, gay, communist or disabled people. Nevertheless, just as for the infamous Berlin Olympics held later that year, the winter sports host town was cleared of anti-Semitic signs before the international community arrived, and teams from twenty-eight countries, then a record number, were made welcome.

The glossy photographs in the book, each individually stuck in place, provide a wonderful record of athletes launching into the air on their heavy wooden skis, crashing into ice-hockey goals, and bob-sleighing in matching woolly jumpers. The weather seems glorious and everyone is terribly well-dressed. Canada’s Alpine skier, Diana Gordon Lennox, enjoys a break leaning back on the slopes wearing mittens and a monocle, while the British figure skater Jack Edward Dunn sports a white trilby while competing on the ice.

Canadian Alpine skier Diana Gordon Lennox

British figure skater Jack Edward Dunn

But not everything is quite so jolly. The only picture printed directly into the book is the frontispiece, showing Hitler and Goebbels cheerfully signing cards for the winning athletes. Hitler had announced that he would be pleased to give his autograph to every medalist - sadly it is not recorded how many athletes took up his offer. 

Of the hundreds of faces caught on camera here, only two are black, both in the American Olympic team shot, and there are many more stories hidden behind the pictures. Cecilia Colledge, a Brit who won silver in figure-skating, later drove ambulances during the Blitz, and Czechoslovakia’s beautiful Vera Hruba would escape to America with her mother just two years later when the Wehrmacht entered Prague.

Czechoslovakian figure skater Vera Hruba

Perhaps the most striking photograph in the book, however, shows the three ski-jumping champions on the podium. Norway’s remarkable Birgur Ruud is on the highest step, flanked by two fellow Scandinavians, all smartly dressed in lounge jackets and plus fours, and looking straight ahead as the Norwegian national anthem is played. Ruud had dominated ski-jumping in the 1930s, winning three world championships and the Olympic gold medal in 1932 as well as in 1936. To the three medalists’ left is the rather less-athletic-looking President of the International Olympic Committee, and beyond him the German President of the organizing committee, Karl Ritter von Halt, whose right arm is raised in the Nazi salute. ‘The German people honoured all the winners’, the accompanying text tells us, ‘with the raised arm as a symbol of peace’. Just four years later Germany invaded Norway and, having criticized the Nazi occupation of his homeland, Ruud was incarcerated in Grini concentration camp. In 1944, after his release, he joined the Norwegian resistance. Surprisingly perhaps, he survived the war, and won silver in ski-jumping at the 1948 Olympics in Switzerland.

Gold-medalist Norwegian ski-jumper Birgur Ruud, with fellow Scandinavian medalists and (far right) the German President of the organizing committee, Karl Ritter von Halt

Earlier this month 4,000 people demonstrated in Berlin to protest against Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda law, and call on the German government and all Winter Olympic 2014 sponsors to demand an end to homophobic legislation in Russia. In Britain, Stephen Fry called for a boycott of the games on the same basis and, when this was rejected, he suggested that participants protest silently by crossing their arms over their chests to show solidarity with LGBT campaigners. Three times US national champion figure skater Johnny Weir is against a boycott. In a September interview, while wearing Russian military uniform, the gay American athlete said that he hoped his presence would help empower the Russian LGBT community. However more recently he decided not to register for the US national championships this year, the event at which the US 2014 team are to be chosen, so he will not be competing in Russia. 

Stephen Fry, demonstrating his symbolic protest

US Figure skating champion Johnny Weir, in Russian military uniform

Perhaps, then, rather different arm symbols may be caught on camera during the forthcoming Olympic coverage, gestures of freedom and solidarity. And may be some of the medalists will be able to proudly talk about standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the podium and making their support for human rights clear without fear of reprisals. 

Friday 27 September 2013

The oldest floating ship in Africa . . .

... is named after a vicar. Here he is, on the left: Archdeacon Chauncey Maples, with his friend and fellow missionary William Percival Johnson, in 1895 :

The year this photograph was taken was the year the Archdeacon died. He was 43. At 24 he had left the UK for Zanzibar, where he had set up schools for freed slaves. He was on his way to start work as the Bishop of Nysaland when his ship capsized on Lake Nyasa (as it was then called - Lake Malawi, now). Eighteen Africans on board survived, but Maples and a fellow missionary, Joseph Williams, drowned. He was dragged down by the weight of his cassock.

And here is the ship: SS (now MV) Chauncey Maples, four years after her launch, on Lake Malawi.

She was designed by IK Brunel's son Henry Marc Brunel, built in Lanarkshire, and then dismantled again into kit form. There were 3481 parts, weighing 150 tons, to be shipped to Lake Nyasa in vast packages, by cargo ship to Portuguese East Africa, and then towed in barges up the Zambezi. 

The last 350 miles were overland. The parts, including the 11-ton boiler, were hauled and carried by Ngoni tribesmen, at an average of 3 miles a day. 

The ship took two years to reassemble (the part numbers had been printed before galvanisation, so they were difficult to read) and was launched in June 1901. 

She cost £9000, and her job was to be a hospital ship, a missionary school, and a temporary emergency refuge from slave traders. 

During World War One she was a troop carrier and gunboat; in 1953 she was sold as a trawler. Here she is in the 1950s: 

In 1967 the Malawian government bought her, to act as a passenger and cargo ship. The lovely comedian, singer and cleverclogs Kit Hesketh Harvey, who was born and brought up in Malawi, remembers her well from the 1960s.

And then she went into a decline, laid up in Monkey Bay, with a low-down bar on the bridge. My cousin was having a drink there one night and thought, 'Wouldn't it be marvellous if . . .?'   Her motto, nb, is: 'With ordinary talents and extra-ordinary perseverance, all things are attainable' - (Thomas Fowell Buxton, 1786-1845)

So, the Malawian government has contributed, and a huge amount of money has been raised - half a million for example just from The Big Row this month, sponsored by City firm Thomas Miller. 

A recent examination found that Chauncey Maples' tough Victorian steel hull, though single -skin not the modern double-skin, is better and stronger than those of many younger boats. 

Work has begun to fit her up to do her own old work - a travelling hospital for the communities round the lake who have little or no access otherwise. 

Life expectancy in Malawi is under 50. 

I know this isn't the place for fundraising, so I won't give a link to that,  but it's easy to find the appeal on the web.

Thursday 26 September 2013


When you mention the town of Tolentino, few know of it beyond perhaps that it has a clock tower with three clock faces and is in the heart of le Marche in Italy. But from the 16th to the 19th February 1797, Napoleon slept here.

In the course of the Italian campaign, Napoleon had occupied Ferrara, Bologna, Ravenna, Imola and Faenza. Pope Pius VI begged for peace and the armistice of 23rd June 1796 was signed at Bologna whereby the Pope undertook to pay 21 million francs, give up Ferrara and Bologna and surrender 500 codices from the Vatican Library and 100 works of art, which were to go to the Louvre in Paris. The French commissioners reserved the right to enter any building, public, religious or private, to make their choice and assessment of what was to be taken to France.

But the Pope violated the terms and when he found Napoleon was on his way to Tolentino, sent a papal delegation to draw up another Peace Treaty. They resided at the very quiet and peaceful monastery of St Nicholas while the forces of France arrived… the French General Victor and 15 000 men and the following day, Napoleon himself with General Berthier. Napoleon established his quarters in a suite of rooms on the first floor – the piano superiore – of Count Parisani’s Palazzo in the centre of town.

One has to imagine the scene. I’ve tried to find accounts but am not sure of their accuracy. One has it that a house had to be knocked down in the narrow street to accommodate the throng of people who accompanied Napoleon to this small walled city. One can also imagine the upheaval in the Parisani household. The rooms still retain part of the furniture and wall paintings of this period along with the desk where the treaty was signed and Napoleon’s red damask-swagged bed.

What I have, are my photographs of these rooms that I found unexpectedly one day as I wandered around the narrow cobbled streets of Tolentino, looking for a kitchen shop. What struck me was the intimacy of the rooms, despite their grand finishes and the beautiful light that came through the shutters of the open windows. It was an unexpected jewel of a museum totally empty of another person.

First in Napoleon's suite at the Palazzo Parisani Bezzi, is a sitting room with a ceiling finely decorated with faux marble, the upper walls finished with a frieze of ribbons and floral motifs.

The room next door where the treaty was signed has walls completely covered in the original gold damask with two lavish consoles, a large mirror and the table where the treaty was signed. The rafters have wood panel finishes with floral motifs, while the strip beneath shows biblical scenes surrounded by garlands, cherubs and scrolls. 

Next is the bedroom used by Napoleon, the walls finished in red damask and towering over the room, the massive canopied bed also in red damask.

Then there is a washroom with a Tuscan styled vault, reminiscent of a garden pavilion with lavish decorations of ribbons, flower garlands and allegorical figures. 

Beyond is the chapel with rich paintings on the walls from Biblcal scenes like Jacob's ladder shown here, and a plaster relief of VM – the Virgin Mary – the same motif as on the headboard of the bed.

Negotiations began on the morning of the 17th and Napoleon apparently, to intimidate the Italians, went so far as to theatrically tear up several pages of the treaty and knocked over an ink well – the stains of which can still be seen – and threaten he would not be able to hold back his troops should the papal delegation fail to sign.

On the afternoon of the 19th the Treaty was signed. Added to the regions that the Pope was forced to give up to France, were Avignon and Romagna.

Ironically in May 1815, eighteen years later, the Palazzo Parisani Bezzi hosted Baron Federico Bianchi, commander of the Austrian troops, who defeated Joachim Murat, brother-in-law of Bonaparte, at the fort of the La Rancia on the hills just outside Tolentino, just a few weeks before Waterloo. This has become known as the Battle of Tolentino and is seen as the first battle fought for the unification of Italy.

Odd that Napoleon gained his Italian spoils and lost most of them again at Tolentino – a little known Italian, walled medieval city in le Marche that has remained unspoilt since those times and which one enters by passing over the ponte del diavolo – the bridge of the devil – built in 1268 (and a town which also has a marvellous high-design kitchen shop called Casa Oggi)

Totally off at a tangent... but writers and mothers will understand the need to share the news announced in the Bookseller this week – Penquin has made a pre-emptive bid on my son's first YA novel. Can't stop smiling.

Wednesday 25 September 2013


We all know about the Bayeux tapestry: a masterpiece embroidered to commemorate the Norman Conquest.

It has endured for nearly a thousand years.

For the past few months, I''ve been involved in the production of a modern narrative tapestry:  The Great Tapestry of Scotland.  At over 500 feet, it's more than twice the length of the Bayeux.  It's the result of about fifty thousand hours of work by over a thousand volunteer stitchers all over Scotland.  Small groups of women (and some men) each tackled a panel depicting an incident or theme from Scottish history. Miraculously, it's finished, and it went on display at the Scottish Parliament this month, before setting off on tour. 

The project was the brainchild of the wonderful Alexander McCall Smith - a serious contender for the title of Nicest Man In the World.  The herculean task of writing the narrative went to the historian Alastair Moffat, and the 160+ panels were designed by the artist, Andrew Crummy.  You can see and hear more about how the tapestry was made at this website:

The tapestry tells the story of Scotland from the very earliest times to the present day.  This panel is five episodes in:

All the things you would expect are included in the story (Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of  Scots,, Bonnie Prince Charlie, etc) but there's lots more, with a firm emphasis on the lives of ordinary people.
Here's the panel depicting the Black Death in the fourteenth century:

The picture below shows part of the panel I worked on (with a group of authors and publishers, including fellow History Girl Elizabeth Laird).  It commemorates the foundation of the ancient universities.

Although some of the stitchers were very accomplished, many of us had very little experience of embroidery, and had to learn as we went along.  We stitched everywhere: at home, at book festivals, at work. I 'watched' all eight episodes of Broadchurch through one long night, without looking at the TV screen (and I guessed whodunnit in Episode One.  Maybe that's the answer).

As the tapestry approaches the present day, it covers the birth of the Edinburgh Festival, the production of the Hilman Imp, and the establishment of the Parliament at Holyrood.  People had to stitch TV cameras, computers, factories, scientific instruments, and bridges.  Not all the episodes are set in Scotland itself.  This is how one group interpreted the Scots' impact on India:

Do try to catch the tapestry if it comes your way.  Seeing it assembled for the first time at the Parliament was a truly moving experience.  As a bit of a dunce on the subject of Scottish History, I found it a very palatable educational tool, too.  I am honoured to have been allowed to play a  part in something that will, we hope, be enjoyed by people for centuries to come.

I've only been able to give you the tiniest taste of what the tapestry is like.
You can see a news reports on the exhibition here:

We are all hoping that eventually a permanent home can be found for the tapesty in a place where Scottish people and visitors to Scotland can get to it easily.  So if you happen to know someone with a very big hall they want to fill, just get in touch, and I will pass the word on.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

It Ain't Necessarily So.... by Elizabeth Chadwick

When I embarked on my novel about Alienor of Aquitaine, The Summer Queen,  I wanted to know what she looked like, so I checked around to see if there were any sources that described her physical appearance.  If there were any, I didn't want to commit a faux pas by giving her the wrong physical attributes at the outset.
As a less experienced author, influenced by other writers of both fact and fiction, I had in the past given her long, raven-black hair.  But now, with a three book contract under my belt and Alienor centre stage rather than peripheral, I felt I needed to nail the truth if it was out there.  After all, even in the medieval period, primary sources do yield hints and descriptions.  There are vivid ones of  Alienor's second husband Henry II that portray him as a choleric red-head with sparkling grey eyes, his height just above average but not tall, and his build chunky.  Women tend to be less well represented in primary sources beyond stock phrases about their beauty or nobility (or perfidy) but personal physical attributes are rare.  However, I embarked on my search and hit the many biographies and histories produced about her and her family to see if there were any pointers.  The research told me plenty, but not quite what I was looking for...

W.L.Warren in his biography of Henry II calls Alienor a 'Black-eyed beauty.' 

Frank McLynn in Lionheart and Lackland: 'Eleanor of Aquitaine had a dark complexion, black eyes, black hair, and a curvaceous figure that never ran to fat even in old age.'

Desmond Seward  In Eleanor of Aquitaine the Mother Queen: 'She was a beauty - tall with a superb figure that she kept into old age, lustrous eyes and fine features (it is likely that her hair was yellow and her eyes blue).'

Douglas Boyd  in Eleanor April Queen of Aquitaine: 'Her face was humorous and alert, framed by long auburn hair flowing freely from beneath the coronet.  Her eyes according to legend were green and fearless.

Alison Weir  in Eleanor of Aquitaine, By the Wrath of God Queen of England: 'It is more likely that she had red or auburn hair since a mural in the church of Sainte Radegonde in Chinon which almost certainly depicts Eleanor and was painted during her lifetime in a region in which she was well known, shows a woman with reddish-brown hair.'

Marion Meade in Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography: 'Eleanor, exceptionally beautiful at fifteen, had matured into a saucy, hot-blooded damsel, and perhaps he (her father) feared that, unproperly chaperoned, she might grant excessive courtesies to some ardent knight...If she conformed to 12th century Europe's ideal standards of feminine beauty...she must have been blond with grey or blue eyes set wide apart.  Her nose would have been straight, her skin white, and she would certainly have had a long, slender neck, firm breasts, and perfect teeth.'

So, after my trawl, I had her as a curvy, hot-blooded brunette, an insatiable gorgeous blond teenage sex-pot, and an alert, good-humoured green-eyed red-head.

These are all 'factual' secondary sources, and it's interesting what a variation of opinion there is, the more so because there is NOT ONE SINGLE description of Alienor of Aquitaine in any written source and there are no proven visual sources either despite Alison Weir's 'almost certainly' remark. Her opinions of the Chinon mural portrayal is optimistic to say the least when studies now tell us that the clothing on the crowned figure is male and it is probably her eldest son Henry the Young King. Which makes total sense given that the mural shows Henry II riding out followed by four people and he had four surviving sons by Alienor. When he made his will, he left John the youngest, to be cared for by the Young King, which also makes sense of the more child-like figure riding beside the crowned one. The scholarly interpretation immediately stymies the green-eyed red-head theory.

click to enlarge.  Photo courtesy of John Phillips.  Henry and (most likely)
his four sons in the chapel of St. Radegonde at Chinon

Marion Meade's comment about a 'saucy, hot-blooded damsel' is astonishing as there is not one iota of proof that Alienor's early personality tended in this direction.  It's all assumption built on incorrect understanding of medieval mindset and primary sources.  For example, Alienor is often stated to have been louche in her attitudes because her grandfather led a scurrilous life, writing very explicit crude poetry and running off with another man's wife, making her his mistress and refusing to give her up even when excommunicated for the sin.  But Alienor was only around 3 when he died, hardly old enough to have been corrupted.  There is no evidence that her own parents were as flamboyant as the generation before.  Then, when one looks at the wider field, one finds that scurrilous rude poetry was the norm of the day everywhere. One only needs to look around at  works such as The Fabliaux, to see that William IX of Aquitaine was operating within the cultural flow, not outside it.  When one looks at Alienor's first husband, Louis VII of France, who was in later life renowned for his piety, then one also finds a scurrilous grandparent in Philip I, who guess what... ran off with someone else's wife, made her his mistress, had children with her and was excommunicated for refusing to give her up.  Obviously such decadent relatives in the family line, didn't prevent Louis from treading a moral path, so why should the same turn Alienor into a 'hot and saucy damsel?' 

With reference to the hair colour again, I was interested to find in Alienor's ancestry, a Duke of Aquitaine called William 'L'Etoupe' meaning 'towhead' i.e. he had blond hair.  So that is how I have protrayed her in The Summer Queen because at least it's one proven genetic marker amid all the rampant speculation!

It fascinates me how historical non facts become historical facts and how writers supposedly producing factual works can get the details so utterly round their necks. Do they crib from earlier works?  Do they make it up as they go along?  Have they read the 'fact' so often that they believe it?  The myth and the made up are so often repeated that eventually they become the truth.  Having made Alienor a blond, I was taken to task by one reader who said that it was genetically impossible for Eleanor and Henry II (a red-head) to have produced dark-haired Prince John.  Now, I know that the reader's grasp of genetics might have been slightly off kilter as it is possible for a red-head and a blond to have a dark-haired child, but the point I am making here is that yet again, we don't know what colour Prince John's hair actually was. That he's almost always portrayed in films and novels as a saturnine type (probably in keeping with the vagaries of his nature)  has sunk into people's notion of his appearance and has become accepted fact.

King John hunting, 13thC.  He's a blond here!

The above examples are just localised,  based on my own trawling of a subject during research. There are many more abounding throughout the centuries and far less trivial than physical appearance. I'm sure people could cite examples from their own delving into particular historical passions.  History is not just set of opinions seen from different angles, but is often made up how we want it to be or how we have imagined it, and often becomes a false fact because we don't have the necessary awarenesses ourselves to view the fully rounded picture.

Gershwin was right in Porgy and Bess.  It ain't necessarily so!

Monday 23 September 2013

The Hitler Routine, by Leslie Wilson

Source: Bundesarchiv no 102-13376
I read it first in the Metro newspaper, which I picked up on the tube. 'Brand's Hitler routine leaves a Nazi taste' the headline proclaimed. I sighed, then read it, wondering why I bothered. On Saturday, the affair appeared on the front page of the Guardian. For anyone not now privy to this story, Brand used his acceptance speech at the GQ Men of the Year Awards to remind Hugo Boss, who sponsored the award, of their Nazi past. The original Hugo Boss, who died in 1948, was a Nazi party member, and supplied uniforms to the Brownshirts, the SS, etc. The firm employed slave labour during the war, and was finally forced to cough up reparations to their victims in 1999. They did, however, set up the Hugo Boss Prize for art in conjunction with the Guggenheim Foundation, who seem not to have felt queasy about this association.

I am not writing this to attack Russell Brand, or to defend Hugo Boss or GQ magazine (especially not since the awards host apparently made his own deeply offensive 'jokes' about Stephen Fry's recent attempted suicide.)

It will always be a source of deep pain to me that the Holocaust happened; at the same time, the fact that I am half German, and therefore know that the horror was perpetrated by ordinary people, has made me think long and hard about the human condition and the way people can be brought to do evil. This has not been comfortable, but it has given me some insight.

As the author of two novels about the time, I can hardly complain about the interest people show in that period; but I do deeply dislike the facility with which Nazi Germany is too often trotted out, and cheap 'jokes', snap judgements, etc, are made. The 'jokes', like Rob Brydon's intrusive crack about Stephen Fry, are no joke if you are at the receiving end. If you then fail to laugh, you are, of course, accused of being lacking in a sense of humour. I've been in this situation myself, when people have said this kind of thing - and I do not exaggerate: 'You're half German? So do you keep a pair of jackboots in the cupboard?' (ha, ha).

picture by Brian Solis www.brian
via wikimedia Commons
What I have also had said to me is that the things done in Nazi Germany are 'different' from, and should not be compared to any human rights abuses carried out by governments or commercial corporations nowadays. Yet I think this shows one of the dangers of history. It has been said that the past is another country: Nazi Germany, and the Germans, can doubly become that other country, that place whose evils are so much worse than our own are perceived to be, that one can make onesself feel righteous by condemning them.

Actually, there are immediate and dreadful concerns in today's clothing industry - not only the horrific conditions in the garment factories where our clothes are largely made up. Consider the production of cotton. Adults and children are employed for long hours at derisory wages, often as bonded (or slave) labour, kept hungry, working with dangerous machinery and exposed to chemical pesticides, nearly half of which are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation (source: Enviromental Justice Foundation). This idea of 'difference' can mean that we can in on the one hand condemn (rightly, of course) Hugo Boss's use of slave labour in Nazi Germany and the fact that ordinary people at that time failed to prevent that horror, to say nothing of the murder of Jews - but on the other hand consider it inconsequential that the people who supply the cotton we wear impose similar conditions on their unfortunate workers. And to come back to Russell Brand - maybe not all the cotton he wears is solely fairtrade or organic.

Picture courtesy of Environmental Justice Foundation;
see link below.

Not only can we sleep at night; we can sleep comfortably on cotton produced at the cost of human suffering. Egypt is one of the countries who employ child labour. What price the lovely Egyptian cotton towels you can get in John Lewis? I keep meaning to write to them about it, and keep forgetting. I am too busy. I guess people in Nazi Germany were too busy, especially once the war got started. And they were in danger if they asked the wrong questions about what was going on. The worst thing that will happen to me is that John Lewis ignore me, as they did when I asked about human rights issues and pineapple juice.

Bundesarchiv picture no 183-R99542 : the Jewish
Michael Siegel forced to walk barefoot carrying
a poster that says: I will never again complain to
the police
As the robber Macheath puts it in Brecht's Threepenny Opera, 'How does a human live? Just by hourly/Tormenting, stripping, attacking, throttling and devouring humankind.*' This was the condition of life in Nazi Germany (my grandmother went mad thinking about it; was haunted by it, and the accompanying sense of guilt, to her life's end.)Alas, Macheath's observation still holds good nowadays - however true it is that the horror of the Holocaust has not as yet  been paralleled. We are frequently told that it is squeamish to complain; we need arms exports, low-cost labour, environmental destruction etc etc as a necessary prerequisite to economic success (and imprisonment without trial, torture and mass surveillance are 'unfortunately essential if we are to defeat terrorism).

Now as then, human beings ignore the horrors that are perpetrated in their names, or only give them a fleeting glance, and get on with their lives; some don't care, some feel powerless (or too busy), some are intimidated or made to feel uncool. But every time they focus, without reflection, on the evil committed out there in Germany, back in history, and believe its perpetrators to have been utterly and satisfactorily different from themselves, what they come away with is a set of blinkers, not any useful insight.

*Brecht's words do, of course, sound much better in his original lyric, 'Denn wovon lebt der Mensch? Indem er stündlich/ Den Menschen peinigt, auszieht, anfällt, abwürgt und frisst.' Better still to Weill's music.)

For information about cotton and human rights, try
Uzbekistan Forces over a Million into Cotton Fields – Watchdog:

Sunday 22 September 2013

Dear Author ... by Kate Lord Brown

As a new writer, the novelty of receiving letters and emails from readers is still fresh and wonderful. My favourite message to date came from a gentleman of a certain age, who wrote to thank me for the considerable pleasure my book had brought him and his beloved during the 1960s. I had to break it to him gently that I am not Sir Richard Burton, the 'fabulous lover, daring explorer' and translator of the classic erotic text The PerfumeD Garden, but a mother of two whose new book about the Spanish Civil War was named The Perfume Garden by my publishers after its original title 'The Perfume Box' was - ironically - deemed too suggestive. He was quite charming, and promised to read the novel.

Perhaps you've had similar experiences with both good and tough feedback? I've come to the conclusion that two readers can read the same passage and find completely different things. Leaving aside the gladiatorial online review arenas, the trolls and sockpuppets, for every reader who takes the time to send a handwritten note to say they liked the book, and yes, your fictional version of the person they knew was bang on, there is another telling you that you got it horribly wrong. 

How do you deal with this? Do you engage? Argue your case? One of the most common complaints about my debut 'The Beauty Chorus' was that people didn't eat that well during WW2. This was my fault entirely, and I've learnt a good lesson. The food, in fact, had been researched religiously. All I needed to add was something to the effect of 'mmm this beef stew is delicious, but it's not a patch on the stews we had before the war', or 'aren't I lucky that shellfish isn't rationed and Daddy brings me care parcels from the fishmonger on Chelsea Green'.

The academic in me wants the historical framework of the story to be watertight, and only a fraction of the research is used. Perhaps it is the same with your novels? I hope somehow that all that work is there, shoring up the story, even if worn lightly in the final book. As Hemingway said: 

'If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.'

Facts are one thing, but getting the emotional timbre of your story right is more subjective. One lady in her nineties who read 'The Beauty Chorus' reported back that I was wrong - no one ever cried, even when their friends were killed in plane crashes. And yet during the research, from talking to other people, and reading first hand accounts the reminiscence that affected me the most was the woman who opened up and said that women would often go to the cinema alone so that they could weep privately in the darkness. This touched me - and said everything about the lack of privacy then, and the need to keep a stiff upper lip in public.

Historical fiction with its blend of fact and imagination is a challenging genre, and I hope to keep learning something new with every book. When I read that even the great Bernard Cornwell admitted to putting snowdrops in Arthurian Britain, it was comforting to learn that even the writers I admire most are human. What are your favourite letters from your readers - have you had any snowdrop moments? Or have any readers made your day by letting you know when you got something right? 

In the meantime, if you feel like rustling up a WW2 recipe for lunch, here is a lovely simple pea soup from 'War-time Cookery' 1940. Enjoy:

Pea Soup
1lb of mixed leeks, onions and celery
½ pint cooked peas [soak overnight with bi-carbonate]
1oz fat

Fry together, put in I pint of cooked peas, minced, and 1 quart of water. Boil until tender, thicken with rice or potato flour, sprinkle a little chopped mint on top.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Radical Chic by Imogen Robertson

First of all, if anyone missed Louise's post yesterday please go and read it at once. It's great and it's important. I'll wait. 

Secondly, my apologies if you are interested more in the history part of this blog rather than the writing bit. This post is definitely about the latter. Ok? I'll get on with it now.

Until I was 16 I went to Hummersknott Comprehensive in Darlington, then for my A-Levels I went to my father’s old Public School, Cheltenham College. As a result the first question in my first interview at Cambridge was: ‘So, Miss Robertson, you gained some radical chic by attending a comprehensive, then switched to the public school system when it really mattered, hmmm?’ Though the question had remained seared in my memory for the last twenty years, I can’t remember what my answer was. I’m sure though that it began with a certain amount of throat clearing.

My career as a writer (I love starting sentences like that, although we all know the word career has invisible quotation marks around it), began when I started going to poetry workshops run by Roddy Lumsden. The workshops started that very important mental transition between ‘Writers are all beloved of the Gods; it’s about innate talent and if I can’t write perfectly straight away, it means I can’t write,’ and the rather more useful: ‘Holy Hell, if I actually work at this and read widely and critically I can get better at it.’ 

I remember going to my first class worried that the other attendees were going to be pensioners writing about cheerful robins in rhyming couplets. Apologies to pensioners and cheerful robins, and rhyming couplets for that matter - I’ve nothing against any of them - but I was thirty and a TV director at the time so inclined to be a bit of an arse occasionally. Anyway, when I arrived in the strip lit grey classroom of destiny I found that I was the oldest and by far the least cool student in the room. After that life was full of little popping noises as my assumptions and presumptions exploded one after another. I went to  Roddy’s workshops regularly for more than five years, so from the time I started writing seriously to the point where I’d published three novels, thereby jumping the money fence from poetry to crime fiction. I’ll go back to the workshops, which are now at The Poetry School, as soon as I can find a brain cell that isn’t fried by deadlines and historical research. During those years I met, worked with, drank with and admired some brilliant poets, many of whom now have collections out in the big, bad world. I do admit though that those words, 'radical chic' have come back to me at various times; during readings in bars and warehouses, standing in crowds of whooping beautiful people, and admiring the panache and performing skills of many of the poets reading. 

One of the ‘younger and cooler than me’ people in the room in those first weeks of workshops was Wayne Holloway Smith. Wayne is a superb writer and one of the best readers I’ve ever heard. He also knows how to throw a very chic party and at the beginning of this year he decided to hold a series of salons with banjo playing, readings, mini-lectures, amazing food and exquisite hand drawn maps to lead the audience to his flat in the backstreets near Kings Cross. I suspect that I was invited because Wayne knew I was likely to turn up with some really excellent cheese, but he covered well by asking me to write a short story. As it was February, I came up with a 'to be read round the glowing embers, M.R. James' type thing. 

Now Sidekick Books, creators of some of the chicest books out there, have published an anthology taken from the readings given at Wayne’s salons. My story is in there too. The collection is called ‘Follow the Trail of Moths’ and is beautifully illustrated by Sophie Gainsley. Please buy it at once. Again, I suspect I’m in there because Wayne knew I'd bring cheese to the launch at his new spacious flat in the back streets near Limehouse. I did. The flat was heaving with beautiful and interesting people, the readings started late and while the buses and DLR trains passed in the background, we passed a bottle of whisky round the audience, listened and whooped.

There is though something rather unpleasant hiding in that original question from my Cambridge interview, which is, I think, the invisible suggestion that radical chic is all a comprehensive education is good for. There are also always plenty of people around happy to suggest the poetry world is meaningless and pointless once the chic is removed. Both suggestions are rubbish. The poets I’ve met and heard in the classes and at readings are the frontline troops of language. They use English with more bravery, imagination and inventiveness than any other group of writers I know. Working with them taught me what slippery and subtle creatures words are, always telling more than you think possible, creating impossible worlds out of the everyday and music that can rise up out of a page as a single voice or with the force of a massed choir. So what I got from Hummersknott and from the London poetry scene was not a touch of radical chic, what I got was a hell of an education.