Tuesday 17 November 2015


Not long ago, I spent a most enjoyable and interesting time at the Harrogate History Festival, a long weekend that is run by the Historical Writers Association., hearing a host of speakers, both “history girls” and slightly more “history boys”.

Among the speakers was Neil Oliver, talking about his first novel, The Master of Shadows, set in the fifteenth century at the siege of Constantinople. What follows is my account of the question and answer session.

Why did you chose Constantinople as the setting for your book?
Oliver had always been fascinated by the city. The Emperor built the city because he was concerned about the power of Rome in the region, Constantinople was both a dream and a physical entity and it seemed throughout much of that time as permanent as a mountain range, lasting more than a thousand years.  A great white edifice, the Wall of Theodosius, defended the city and port across most of its area. Although the city had been besieged on twenty occasions, at the time it was unthinkable that Constantinople could fall.

However, the fall had been predicted by the Prophet, who had said of the downfall that “it will be so when God wants it to be so.” We are still dealing with the ripples dropped into that pond at the time: look where the seat of modern trouble is today, there where the tectonic plates meet. History teaches us that no empire lasts for ever. Does America know this? The wise King David, commented on his reign: “This too shall pass.”  Oliver had been reading about the subject of Constantinople ever since he was 15, so that when he came to writing his novel, it only took him about four months to complete.

What was a siege like?
It was as bad as you would expect. There were rules to a siege: if the city gave up, there would be three days of sacking. However, because Islam had been denied this apple for so long the entire population of Constantinople was killed or taken into slavery to lead anonymous, desperate lives. The conqueror, the Sultan Mehmet, was an educated man, interested in science and engineering and more, and he made sure that the city itself was preserved, especially the great church of Saint Sophia.

This particular siege redrew the map of the world as it was known. In the months leading up to the siege, the Emperor had pleaded with all the leaders of Christendom to come to Constantinople’s aid. His please fell on deaf ears. Not only was the conquest unthinkable, but the churchmen of Western Europe considered the Eastern Christians to be almost heathen. The Pope, no friend of the Emperor, refused the request and no help arrived. When the city fell, it shifted the centre of Christianity and redrew the map between Europe and Asia.

How scary was life like in Britain and Europe at this time?
This was when great areas of Britain were known as the Debatable Lands, and it was the time of the Border Reivers. The ordinary people got no comfort or help from the existence of kings, who were almost mythical beings. Security for most people lay in being protected by powerful local war-lords, and most life was nasty, brutish and short. When asked if, assuming a Time Machine was available, he would go back there, Neil Oliver said no.

He pointed out that, throughout history, the people of Scotland have travelled to other lands in search new destinies. His novel, The Master of Shadows, is about a young man, John Grant, whose unique abilities carry him from his home in Scotland to Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine Empire, just as the siege gathers force. John Grant is searching for Lena, a girl whose life was saved by Prince Constantine, although that story is far from simple.

Oliver’s thinking about his character, John Grant, was influenced by Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s book about what makes some peoples successful, particularly the Scots communities who travelled to America in Jacobite times. The Wild West, he suggested, was created by largely Celtic peoples: immigrants of Scottish descent who were used to the owning and stealing of livestock and cattle and were as tough as wild animals themselves. Even the name for these people - red-necks – is an apt description of how the Celtic complexion and colouring reacts as the sun. 

What made you so interested in history?
History was my best subject at school, said Oliver, because it was always taught through stories. He always had a sense of being connected to history because his family were people who had survived. Both his grandfathers had come through the First World War, one as the single survivor in his own community. As a child, he had sat on his grandfather’s lap and felt a metal edge behind his ear, under the skin. His father explained that the ridge was the edge of a part of a shell still lodged in his grandfather’s skull. He was amazed. How could this old man ever have been a soldier? There was also a scar, a clock-shaped mark on the old man’s arm, and ligament damage had curled the little finger and ring finger inwards. Oliver the child noted that his grandfather’s hand looked exactly the same shape as the hand on his Action-Man toy, and was duly impressed.

How do we encourage children to relate to history? For example, do we read history aloud enough?
Fiction plays a large part in encouraging children. He has three, and they learned about history through stories. His middle son has enjoyed books such as The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Prydain, and already wants to know about the Dark Ages.

Don’t forget, he said, that History includes two words: Historicus, meaning enquiry and Historia, or story. History provides the context through which we can understand ourselves as otherwise it is as if we are on a random page of an unknown novel. He had been inspired by his parent choice of books for him, tales of derring-do, with heroes like Shackleton and Scott, and the story of the Aeneid. He suggested that such courage is burnished by the passage of time and buffed by the modesty of the people who were involved. It is others who notice the courageous acts, and great fame comes posthumously. 

Briefly, Oliver wondered what such stories would be like now, in these days of constant Twitter and Instagram: Not again! Pemmican. Sad face, sad face - along with a photograph of that very last meal, perhaps?

Modern media is changing how we do history, so what advice is there for the future?
The biggest change is how much we’re recording because in the past, very little was recorded and now we can record everything. The biggest challenge for the future will be to winnow the wheat from the chaff and to find what is important among all the stuff. He recalled the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the treasured Ark of the Covenant is hidden away in a gigantic room among many, many other apparently identical boxes. How will such a secret be found? How will we, in a thousand years, be known about? The role of the editor of all this information will be of utmost importance.

The internet is changing everything, both in a good and a bad way. In one way, it brings people together so we can find people who share our interests and opinions. Once we were defined by just or local and national boundaries but now we can select our identity from among people around the world. However, because of the way the internet works, feeding our preferences, we are in danger of creating an echo culture, where we only hear our own thoughts returned to us.

Neil Oliver spoke briefly about the joy of making television, and how it had allowed him access to places and people he couldn’t get to in any other way, which was perfect for someone who had been a journalist and was therefore nosy about people. 

He was glad that people were happy to see him or speak to him and had discovered that if you are on the television, you can ask people anything and they’ll tell you. He had stumbled into television as a last minute replacement on the Two Men in a Trench archaeology series, and really enjoys the opportunity to tell stories and pass on rare pieces of historical knowledge he hears to lots more people

Asked about the controversy over the Bannockburn site, Oliver said that he’d looked at the area twice as an archaeologist. The main problem is that 99% of the battlefield evidence would have been made of iron. Unfortunately, as the site is on the flood plain of the River Forth which floods in winter and dries up in summer, all the evidence and artefacts would be turned into dust. 

Remember, he said, the evidence of absence is not the absence of evidence. 

Besides, after a battle, the field would be full of scavengers. Within two or three days, most of the objects, artefacts and evidence would have been removed from the site anyway. He spoke about his work on Vikings, and his delight in the discovery of a burial that honoured a young disabled girl, surrounded by evidence of her high status in the community.

Had any history writers inspired him?
He admitted he did not read much historical fiction himself, but gave two examples. He knows and loves the books of Nigel Tranter, and also William McIlvaney’s Laidlaw series, He said that the Laidlaw books are testament to a time he knew but now recognises as the past. They are about a world that doesn’t exist now, not if fifty years ago has become the time before which history begins.

Neil Oliver’s talk was a pleasure (and he seemed even nicer in real life) so I hope you don’t mind me sneaking him into the History Girls blog  today. He does have swishy hair after all, doesn't he?

Thank you too, Harrogate History Festival!

Penny Dolan


Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting - I didn't know he'd written a novel. In four months!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this report - an interesting chap!

Celia Rees said...

Wish i'd been there - love Neil Oliver! Thanks for the report, Penny.

Sally Zigmond said...

I was there and, as your report suggests,Penny, Neil Oliver seemed not only a warm and witty man, what he had to say about his love of history was fascinating to hear. I was riveted. PS I recommend this event to all history lovers and writers. I've attended three of them andf will go in 2016, Deus Veult.

Penny Dolan said...

Glad we both enjoyed it, Sally. I'm hoping to blog about one or two of the other speakers sometime in the future as well, though there were so many and so different it is hard to choose.

Sue, I'm haven't a copy of the hardback novel, but I re-acted to those "four months" too! I think N.O. qualified it by saying that he'd already got all the "history knowledge". The implication was that he had developed an outline already, so the four months were pure writing time. He's also a journalist, which probably makes him fast at typing too. (Ah well. Back to one letter at a time.)

Joan said...

What an interesting article! I'm a great fan of Neil Oliver & all the docu's he has made....he's one of the most fascinating presenters I've experienced & appears to be the loveliest of persons. I'm eager to check out his books, so glad that you included them in this wonderful post. A big thank you!