Saturday, 23 May 2015

How could YOU have stopped it? by Leslie Wilson

photo: German Federal Archive
Here are Hitler's Storm Troopers, marching triumphantly after he was made Chancellor of Germany on the 30th January, 1933. That evening, the young man who became the distinguished writer Sebastian Haffner, (his real name was Raimund Pretzel), read the headline: 'Cabinet of National Unity formed - Hitler Reichschancellor.'

His first reaction was 'icy horror'. Then he sat down with his father to discuss it. 'We agreed that it had a good chance of doing a lot of damage, but not much chance of surviving very long.. Even with the Nazis, this government would not have a majority in the Reichstag.'
In fact, only three members of the cabinet were Nazis, and Hitler could be dismissed at any time by the Reich President. So though opponents of Hitler were dismayed, they could see reasons for optimism.

Hilary Mantel has observed that we tend to see history backwards, ie, we know how the story ends, and cannot imagine how the people concerned could fail to see it. But history at the point of unfolding (if you can call it a point, since it is always unfolding) is murky, confusing, and uncertain.This observation is particularly relevant when people look at the Third Reich, an area of history where the desire to exhibit moral correctness frequently trumps objectivity.

What I mean by that is that there is an emotionally-motivated tendency to simplistically divide people into goodies and baddies, even now. I am the last person to dismiss the reality of feeling when looking at the Nazi period and its crimes. My family was too deeply involved and scarred. At the same time, the desire to apportion blame (and therefore somehow to achieve the moral high ground onesself) can distort one's comprehension of those events - and even historians all too often exhibit this tendency.

Looking back now, it seems to me that the four weeks following the 30th January represented a tiny window of opportunity (maybe more of a cat-flap of opportunity) when Germany could have averted Nazi rule. The normal judicial processes were still technically intact; Hitler did not have a majority in the Reichstag, as Haffner and his father observed. Goering had yet to perfect the apparatus of repression, and leftist leaders were still (just) alive and free.

Nor did Hitler have the majority of Germans on his side. The Nazi share of the vote had actually fallen, from 37% to 33% in the November 1932 election. In fact, the Social Democrats and Communists together had 37% of the vote, and could easily have trumped the Nazis, if they could have worked together. But the Communists had their own aims and parliamentary democracy was not one of them.
To the right-wing, aristocratic and elitist parties, typified by the Reich President, the ageing Paul von Hindenburg, the Communists were a horror, and so they plumped for Hitler, believing they could neutralise him. It has to be said that, looking at the near future, civil war was a very alarming possibility; the Nazis and the Communists were already fighting it out on the streets, and so the right wing decided that to take the Nazi leader into the government, under their control (as they believed), was far the safest option.

Sebastian Haffner: Wikimedia Commons
'How could things turn out so completely differently?' Sebastian Haffner reflected, writing in 1939, when the catastrophe of war was already on the doorstep. 'Perhaps it was just because we were all so certain that they could not do so' (ie turn out as they did) '-and relied on that with far too much confidence.'

This is not to say there weren't signs of what was to come. In what the Nazis called 'the national uprising' the storm troopers attacked their opponents, in particular the Left and Jews, and this began on the night of the 30th January, after the torchlight procession.

Berndt Roesel, 1925
I wonder what my grandfather, a young policeman in Silesia, felt on the 30th January 1933? I'd have thought that 'icy horror' would be about right. He belonged to a Social Democratic police association and had refused to join a Nazi one; he had freely said that he couldn't understand how anyone could belong to the Nazi party, least of all a policeman. He knew exactly what the Nazis were, and what they were capable of; brutal thugs, whose riots he'd had to try and keep in order, and if he stopped his men from joining in and beating them up, it was only because of his respect for the law. Immediately post 30th January, though, he still had enough faith in the law to argue with a Nazi-inclined colleague  that a Communist demonstration that had happened locally had been authorised and legal, and should not have been stopped just because there was now a Nazi chancellor.

The issue of legality is maybe why there was no effective resistance to Hitler during those weeks between the 30th of January and the Reichstag fire of the 27th of February, after which terror was unleashed. Hitler was in power as part of Parliamentary process; he had been appointed by the President. To take up arms against him, if you weren't an extremist, would have meant civil war. Ordinary, law-abiding people had had enough of the pitched battles on the streets, the attacks on passers-by, the smashed windows and flying bullets. The last thing they wanted was to escalate the disorder.

Also, nothing quite like Nazi rule had happened before - or not for a long time, at least.The monarchical Prussian/German state, whatever criticisms one may make of it, was largely a state of legality, and even the monarchs were subject to the law. Many Germans - including many Jewish Germans - felt that Hitler would be tamed, his excesses muted, by the responsibility of government and the sheer weight of state structures.

And during those all-too short four weeks between Hitler's rise to chancellorship and the Reichstag fire, people had their own lives to get on with, that tangle of private worries, personal exhaustion, busyness, confusion, and often powerlessness. They had no idea of how short the time was, perhaps never even knew what the opportunity was that they were losing.
I think history is the slow movement forwards of trillions of moments in the lives of the human race: babies are born, fed, cleaned up and winded, washing is done and hung out to dry; a million men and women come home from work, having spent a day servicing the machinery of a world that is maybe heading for disaster; documents are signed that will put thousands of people off their traditional lands (or expedite the deaths of six million Jews), and then the cleaners move in and exhaustedly mop up behind the 'important' people. . You remember something you need for tonight's dinner and get in the car, thus adding your mite to the carbon already in the atmosphere. Or, on a more cheerful note, you decide to walk or bike instead, and thus you don't.
The history of the world is the story of real life in all its mundanity and unclarity, when what is happening to you, what you hear on the news has happened to other people, has not yet got its name and been assigned a page in the history books. It is raw and new. I think novelists and biographers have a unique opportunity to portray this, since we write about how individual humans live history.It's certainly what I tried to do, when I was writing Last Train from Kummersdorf.


This is a first instalment; next month I'll be writing about what happened after the Reichstag fire.


Friday, 22 May 2015

Josa Young's 'Sail Upon the Land' by Kate Lord Brown

And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following,--her womb then rich with my young squire,--
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.

William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream

"The mysterious death of a young mother damages the precious, protective bonds of family love" is the tagline for Josa Young's new novel, an ambitious multigenerational, multicultural exploration of the lives of four women in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Young has said: "For me, writing fiction is instinctive, a rag bag plucked from life lived and books read, of memories, ideas, impressions and thoughts about love, relationships, parenting, society, class and history, goodness and the opposite". This gives some hint of the richness of this novel, and the themes that Young tackles with an unflinching eye with all the clarity of cut crystal.

This is above all a story of maternal love - of Sarah, a nurse during WW2, her daughter Melissa, her granddaughter Damson, and her great-grandaughter Mellita (Leeta). It's not a frothy novel by any stretch, exploring tough topics - rape, abortion, birth defects, abandonment, through the lives of the women. Each reader will have their own favourite of the characters - for me the prologue bonds you so firmly with dear, decent Damson it was her story I was most curious to see unfold.

A House in Ooty, India

Young's previous novel 'One Apple Tasted' was also set in India and the UK. This new story begins in India, at the ravishing home of dastardly Ronny, with poor Damson's ordeal. The narrative then flows seamlessly backwards and forwards through the generations. The novel may deal with tough topics, but Young writes with a deft, conversational style which brings the challenges each woman faces vibrantly to life. She has a great ear for upper-middle class dialogue, which feels charmingly authentic: "'Darling, I think we shouldn't risk a pregnancy. Do you mind?' He dealt with the French letter".

VAD Nurse - inspiration for Sarah's character

The relationships feel real, and the women are fully fledged individuals. For example, a wounded Sarah, stabbed by an SS officer says "Oh, it's nothing much, just a puncture ..."

Schutzstaffel (SS) dagger, motto: "My honour is called loyalty"

Very much of the 'kind of women who built the Empire' ilk, Sarah's stiff upper lip only wobbles in the darkest moment any woman could face. Sarah kept the dagger she was stabbed with as a wartime trophy, and it reappears later in the book during this moment of unimaginable grief. Details such as this are extremely good in this novel, weaving between the times and linking the characters and events.

60s fashions - lovely, frail Melissa

From the 1930s, with Sarah and Arthur's wartime love affair, to Melissa's battle with depression in the 60s, Damson's struggles in the 80s and on to Leeta's story, Young develops characters you can't help caring about. It's fascinating seeing the women grow through the life stages which face us all, and particularly learning how each deals with childbirth and motherhood.

Crumbling English Gothick inspiration for Castle Hey

Young said "Ideally, good writing should eliminate friction in the reader's mind", and this is the great strength of 'Sail' to me - it weaves the family history of Sarah, Melissa, Damson and Leeta together, seamlessly creating a rich tapestry from their lives. There have been comparisons to women writers of the C20 - Macaulay, Kennedy, Wesley, Howard, Pilcher. If you enjoy such multigenerational family stories set in the upper middle classes, this is one for you.

About the author: Josa Young was born on a chicken farm in Kent, England, the fourth of five children. With poet John Donne, pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, writer Virginia Woolf, and Archie Cameron, the last Jacobite, to be hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, in her family tree, she always expected to do something interesting.

At Cambridge University she studied English Literature, wrote abysmal, derivative short stories, went to lots of parties and danced on the Edinburgh stage in red camiknickers.

In her last year she was a finalist in the Vogue Talent Contest and worked for Vogue magazine after graduating. She has been a features writer and commissioning editor for Vogue, Country Living, Elle Decoration and The Times.

Her first novel, One Apple Tasted, was published in 2009 by Elliot & Thompson. Her second novel, Sail Upon the Land, was published in December 2014.

Sail Upon the Land is currently a bargain 99p

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Music while you work by Imogen Robertson

The fronticepiece from John Playford's 
"Musicks recreation on the lyra viol"
There are writers who can’t write without music, and those who can’t write with it. 

I like to have music playing as I work - it tends to quiet down my non-writing brain. You know the bit I mean; the bit that, just when you are crafting a particularly beautiful sentence starts wondering if there’s anything to eat in the fridge, or suggests you check your email in case some really important message has arrived.

It needs to be shushed and it seems to like classical music. While writing the 18th century Westerman and Crowther novels I listen to Boccherini and Bach (JS. and CPE.), when I wrote Paris Winter there was a lot of Chopin going on, but the current novel is set in the mid-17th century and all of a sudden my late baroque is just way too modern, so I have gone back a hundred years or so and found, to my delight, the work of William Lawes, Matthew Locke and John Jenkins.

Lawes was killed during the civil war, Locke survived it and went on to be composer for violin to Charles II. He was followed in that post by Henry Purcell. And then there is John Jenkins. He was the son of a carpenter and apparently a remarkable player of the lyra viol, a beautiful sort of bass violin but with more strings and it was designed to play chords as well as single melodic lines. Jenkins too survived the civil war, and during the Protectorate he composed an extraordinary amount of music for amateur musicians while living in East Anglia. It’s that music I am listening to now, and it has such elegance, delicacy and range of feeling, I hope something of it will seep into my prose. 

You can hear the consort music composed by Lawes, Locke, Jenkins and Purcell for viols beautifully played by Fretwork on this collection. Enjoy. 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Counter Armada and Historical Forgetfulness - by Ann Swinfen

Why do we remember certain episodes in our history and teach them in our schools, while we conveniently forget others?

When I was a graduate student, I shared a room in the university with a French girl from Poitiers, also studying for a postgraduate degree. We became good friends, and one day I asked her (tactfully!) if there was any archaeological evidence remaining of the Battle of Poitiers. She looked at me in total mystification.

It seems that schoolchildren in Poitiers are taught nothing about the Battle of Poitiers.

For those who aren’t familiar with this bit of the Hundred Years War, the Battle of Poitiers took place on 19 September, 1356, and was one of a series of victories by Edward the Black Prince over the French. An English army of approximately 6,000 inflicted a massive defeat on a French army of approximately 11,000 – in other words, nearly double their number. There were a few hundred English casualties. The French suffered around 2,500 killed and wounded and 2,000 prisoners. Poitiers schoolchildren, it seems, are not encouraged to remember the battle.

A short walk from our home stands Broughty Castle, guarding the mouth of the river Tay and thus a major ancient naval route from the North Sea to Dundee, Perth and the heart of Scotland. In the mid sixteenth century the merchant communities of Scotland’s east coast had important trading links with the Low Countries and the German states. Like them, this part of Scotland had become Protestant. The government of Scotland, however, was in the hands of the Regent, Mary of Guise (French and Catholic), during the minority of her daughter Mary Queen of Scots.

England proposed a marriage between Henry VIII’s young son Edward and the child queen Mary, and sent a mission, backed by a strong navy, which came to be known as ‘the Rough Wooing’. Such marriages were not unknown, the most recent having been that of Henry’s sister Margaret to James IV of Scotland. (English Margaret was thus the child queen’s grandmother.)

Now, at this present time of rampant Scottish nationalism, it may be dangerous to mention something which – like the Battle of Poitiers – tends to be conveniently forgotten. The fact is, the English were welcomed along this Protestant east coast with open arms. Broughty Castle was handed over to the English in the autumn of 1547 without a shot being fired. Sir Andrew Dudley, brother of the Duke of Northumberland, took charge of the English garrison, and sent for a supply of Tyndale’s Bible, eagerly sought by the locals. All the area, including the city of Dundee, joined an alliance with the English and supported the marriage.

Mary of Guise and her French Catholic party, however, had other ideas. They shipped the child queen off to be reared up in the French court (where French became her mother tongue), betrothing her to the heir to the French throne. It was part of the power game being played by the Guise family.

I doubt whether many in this eastern half of Scotland choose to remember that warm alliance with England together with the opposition to the Scottish government and the attempted French take-over of Scotland (for that is what lay behind the French marriage). Another case of selective forgetfulness.

France and Scotland are hardly alone in forgetting inconvenient past events. Few in England have heard of the Counter Armada. (Even my husband, a professor of history, though not a specialist in the Tudor period, admits to not having heard of it until I wrote about it.) Of course, every English schoolchild knows about the glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the (possibly apocryphal) story of Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls before embarking. What they are unlikely to know about is the misconduct of Drake during the battle, which went on for several days. During the darkness of one night, Drake was supposed to be leading the fleet with a lantern in the stern of his ship. Instead, he slipped away on a little looting expedition of his own, which might have had serious consequences.

However, the great Spanish fleet was defeated by a combination of English seamanship and fighting skills, the incompetence of the Spanish commanders, and weather which favoured the English. The winds which blew the Armada out of the Channel into the North Sea also prevented the launching of the barges which were to carry the experienced Spanish army, then fighting in the Low Countries, across the Channel to invade England by land and march on London. A tactic to be adopted in the opposite direction nearly 400 years later with the D-Day landings in Normandy.

The Armada, a glorious, resounding, never-to-be-forgotten victory!

To understand what happened in the period of euphoria afterwards, we need to remember events over the previous decade or so in Portugal. In 1580, Spain invaded Portugal and drove out the king, Dom Antonio of the House of Aviz. Dom Antonio was now living in England as a guest of Her Majesty, who was always on the lookout for useful tools in her on-going struggle with Spain. For some years many from the Portuguese Marrano community had been fleeing to England. Jews forced to convert to Christianity, they were persecuted by the Inquisition even before the Spanish invasion. It grew much worse afterwards.

With much of the Spanish fleet destroyed, a number of interests came together to propose a ‘Counter Armada’. Elizabeth and many of her advisers saw it as an opportunity to destroy the rest of the fleet before Spain could rebuild. Dom Antonio saw it as the chance to regain his throne. Leaders of the Marrano community in London – including notably the queen’s personal physician Rodrigo Lopez – dreamt of regaining their homeland and rising to positions of importance in the new government. Drake, of course, saw it as an opportunity for his favourite pastime: looting Spanish treasure ships.

Coat-of-Arms of the Aviz family

Funds were raised from the queen, from London merchants, from the Marrano community. The queen, however, tied up her support with such conditions to Dom Antonio and his future government that Portugal would have been financially crippled and effectively a colony of England.

Early in the spring of 1589 the English fleet gathered at Plymouth. A call had gone out for soldiers to join the expedition and a ragtag crowd assembled there. These men had no military training whatsoever. Supplies for the expedition were bought and stored in warehouses in the town. Then everyone waited. A contingent of trained and experienced soldiers was to be shipped over from the Low Countries, where they had been helping the Dutch fight the Spanish invaders. Once again, the winds were unfavourable. Days passed. Weeks passed. The restless recruits broke into the warehouses and stole the food and drink. Some simply went home. Eventually the experienced men arrived and the expedition set sail, with Sir Francis Drake in command of the fleet and Sir John Norreys in command of the army.

There is no room here to tell the full story, which is the subject of my third Christoval Alvarez novel, The Portuguese Affair, but here is the bare outline.

The intention was to sail straight to Lisbon and restore Dom Antonio. His supporters would flock to join the English, and by acting quickly the Spanish could be defeated before they could move more of their army into Portugal. On the way to Lisbon or afterwards, as many Spanish ships as possible would be destroyed. A third objective was to conclude the expedition by driving the Spanish out of the Azores. However, before the English ships could reach Portugal, they had run out of food, owing to the raids in Plymouth. The decision was therefore made to attack Coruña on the north coast of Spain, seize provisions and carry on.

Here was the next blunder. The undisciplined soldiers went berserk in Coruña, and the leaders decided to stay and attack the garrison there. Several fruitless weeks were wasted, while news reached Spain of the expedition and every Portuguese believed to support Dom Antonio was executed.

Eventually the expedition moved on down the coast of Portugal, where they were joined by the queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex. He had been expressly forbidden by her to join the expedition, but slipped away, with his usual pig-headed arrogance believing he could pacify her and win glory for himself.

Next blunder: the fleet put in at Peniche, where the gallant Essex leapt out of the ship into deep water, causing many of his followers to drown. The local people welcomed Dom Antonio warmly, but soon grew tired of providing for the English army and fleet. At this point the leaders made their fatal mistake – the army and the fleet would part company. Drake would sail the fleet down the coast to Cascais, then up the river Tejo to Lisbon. Norreys would lead the army by land to Lisbon, about forty miles across unforgiving countryside with no provisions, unless they could be begged from the locals.

The English army on  more successful campaign

It was a disaster. The men died like flies, of starvation, heat exhaustion, thirst. When the ragged remnants of the army reached Lisbon, there was no sign of Drake, who was busy looting treasure ships on the coast. No supporters of Dom Antonio joined the English, even if any were still alive. Essex shouted a challenge at the gates of Lisbon – let anyone meet him in single combat for the honour of Queen Elizabeth. Laughter from within. The desperate and dying soldiers made one last march of nearly twenty miles to meet Drake and the fleet.

As for Drake’s final betrayal . . . well, you’ll need to read the full story!

It is not known just how many men died on the expedition, but estimates are that something like 15,000 to 20,000 perished, possibly more, mainly on the march from Peniche to Lisbon. The whole expedition was a shameful failure, due to appalling leadership.

Is it surprising that we remember the Armada, but the Counter Armada is conveniently forgotten?

Ann Swinfen

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

'Amy, wonderful Amy...' - a homage to my aviatrix heroine

With the 85th anniversary of Amy Johnson’s record-breaking flight from England to Australia having passed a couple of weeks ago, and the 75th anniversary of her death coming up next year, it seems an opportune moment for me to attempt my own ‘homage’ to the great aviatrix, by taking to the air myself. This, you understand, was in the spirit of research, since I’m currently midway through a novel - Time of Flight - which is set in 1931 and which deals, amongst other things, with the era’s craze for flying. And so, donning an imaginary leather jacket and flying helmet, I climbed into the cockpit of a decidedly modern version of the Gipsy Moth in which Amy flew the 11,000 miles from Croydon Airport to Port Darwin.

My own flight would last no more than an hour, all told - of which I would take the controls for only a few minutes. But I can honestly say that at the end of it my admiration for my distinguished predecessor had increased a thousandfold. Not for her the luxuries of a closed-in cockpit and state-of-the-art modern technology. She did her flight in a machine made of wood and canvas, with a cockpit open to the elements, and very little in the way of instruments to guide her - not even a radio. She crossed oceans, and battled sandstorms, fog, and Monsoon conditions - as well as surviving several near-fatal crashes. My own flight, though it felt just as daring to me, was a tame affair by comparison.

If I can claim one thing in common with my heroine, it’s that I’ve always believed in taking on challenges - whether it’s white-water rafting on the (very turbulent) Orinoco River, or giving a talk on the Modern Novel to a packed audience at a literary festival with no more than twenty minutes to prepare. So I like to think that - even though I’m nowhere near as brave or as resourceful as Amy Johnson - I can now tip my hat to her remarkable spirit, and feel I’ve experienced something of what she felt, as she took to the skies, that May morning in 1930.

I’m hoping to follow up my ‘maiden flight’ with a slightly more authentic experience - piloting (or at least co-piloting) a 1935 de Havilland Hawk Moth, which is a somewhat more sophisticated version of the plane in which Amy first achieved fame. Here’s a photo of me sitting in the Moth, looking much more cheerful than I suspect I’ll feel when we eventually get off the ground… The things one does for Art.


Monday, 18 May 2015

Roundheads and Cavaliers - Celia Rees

When I was a child, as a change from playing Cowboys and Indians, we would charge about the woods and fields being Roundheads and Cavaliers. I was always a Cavalier, a choice based entirely on feathered hats,  swashbuckling outfits and Captain Marryat's The Children of the New Forest. A book I absolutely loved. I couldn't imagine a more wonderful life: living in the forest, hunting deer, feasting off venison and hiding from pesky Roundheads who were obviously The Enemy.

As I grew older and wiser, I changed my allegiance. I became a Roundhead. I first encountered the Putney Debates when I was studying history at university. I was struck most forcibly by the radical nature of the ideas being discussed and that they were being debated openly by men from all walks of life, from gentlemen landowners to labourers, button sellers and shoemakers, all with a voice that would be heard.

Sir Thomas Fairfax and the General Council of the Army
The debates took place in St Mary's Church, Putney in the Autumn of 1647. This was at the end of the first Civil War period. The forces of the King had been defeated. The New Model Army had triumphed. So much so, that when parliament voted for the army to be disbanded, they refused to go. Instead, the rank and file elected their own representatives, 'agitators', to resist any moves to send them home or to Ireland. A General Council of the Army was established which was made up of not just senior officers but also the agitators, elected by the rank and file, and junior officers from each regiment, so that ordinary soldiers would be heard, their opinions, respected,  alongside 'grandees likeSir Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell.

The General Council of the Army met at Putney to agree terms with the King which they set out in The Case of the Army Truly Stated but discussion of this submission led to a much more radical paper: An Agreement of the People.

The radical ideas in the Agreement were the subject of the Debates that subsequently took place at St Mary's Church. Ordinary soldiers, sent as the delegates from their regiments, sat alongside junior and senior officers. Even civilians, Levellers, were allowed to participate in open and free debate. No army has ever behaved like this, before or since, and the ideas that emerged from the debates were quite extraordinary for their time, or any time. Colonel Thomas Rainsborough expressed the core of the matter most memorably.

Really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a Government ought first to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under...

These words call to us down the years, sounding modern to our ears, as simple and clear as on that day in October 1647 when they were first expressed.

The voices that argued so fiercely for freedom and equality on those Autumn days in Putney were soon stifled and repressed. The Debates fell out of history, the transcripts only discovered 250 years later in the archives of Worcester College, Oxford. Not long, ironically, after the franchise demanded so fiercely and eloquently all those years before was finally granted with the Representation of the Pepole Act 1884, and still not every 'he' was included and certainly not every 'she'. Universal adult suffrage was not achieved until 1928.   .  

Those voices might have been stifled, but they were not silenced. They joined a chorus of radical dissent that ran beneath the surface of British history like an underground river, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, but always there, deep and strong, reaching back to the Lollards and on to the Known Men of Tudor England, the Dissenters and Puritans of Elizabethan England, the Levellers and Diggers, the Quakers who would bow their heads to no man and on to the American Revolution, to the Corresponding Societies in London at the time of the French Revolution, given open expression by Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecroft, running on to the Luddites and Dark Lantern Men, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists and finally emerging with the ILP when Keir Hardie took his place in the Parliament that had denied the demands of the New Model Army all those years before. The work was not finished, the cry was taken up by the Pankhursts and the Suffragettes until every she was given her representation.

Standing in the quiet of St Mary's in Putney, surrounded by the passion of the past,  I thought it ironic  that, after the most recent exercise in democracy, we should find ourselves governed by a small clique from a wealth and privileged elite, most of them closely linked to the aristocracy. Roundhead or Cavalier? Do we have to even ask? You get what you vote for, I suppose.

Celia Rees

Sunday, 17 May 2015

WRITING TIME? by Penny Dolan

Most of my writing is for children and when I’m asked "When's your novel set?", the easiest response is to name a historical period, such as The Victorian Age.

However, on reflection, another answer might be “A historical time that I’ve found something to say about.” Which then leads into a slightly worrying question: “And quite how will the young reader read themselves into your intended historical world? How will they hear what you have to say?”

Children’s knowledge of history is often minimal. On school visits, I enjoy using history topics as starting points for writing workshops. Unfortunately, curricular pressure at Key Stage 2 has thinned history and humanities teaching so greatly that this doesn’t seem the rich ground it once was, alas!

 I’d be pleased to be proved wrong - and no doubt a visit to museum or from historical re-enactors and / or authors like Caroline Lawrence would help immensely. 

Therefore, given the young reader may well be on unfamiliar ground, how can they be attracted into this or that historical period? Where, exactly, should their young feet be planted for the journey? Should I stand them in "then" or "now", the "past" or the "present"?

Historical fiction placed firmly in the past gives reader the immediate experience of walking in another’s shoes, especially when written in the first person or diary form. Examples of “past history” novels for teens are Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, Geraldine McCaughrean’s Tamburlaine, Tanya Landman’s The Goldsmith’s Daughter or the first of Catherine Johnson’s Sawbones series. 

Each writer entices the reader onwards with strong plot and subtle historical information, creating a believable “platform” for the young reader to stand on. This kind of storytelling seems to come from the conviction that the past is an interesting enough place for its own sake. 

Another form -  the “slip back in time” novel - makes that historic distance explicit. The writer offers the reader a fictional step or still point to ease them into this particular historical journey. The young reader identifies with the “present time” hero/heroine and is then lured back into historic time. The “slip” need not be mysterious. Michael Morpurgo is an expert in the “I found a diary/ a letter / an object/ a photo and this was the story” approach.  My personal Morpurgo favourite is The Wreck of The Zanzibar about pilot boat crews on the Scilly Isles. 

Traditional time-slip novels have a slightly ghostly quality: classics include Tom’s Midnight Garden or The Children of Green Knowe, characterised by a circular structure and a mysterious link revealed at the end of the plot. Were those writers – Philippa Pearce and Lucy M. Boston – eager to tell the reader that history’s “past” and today’s “present” are deeply connected?
Then there are the complex time slips – time travel, in fact - when the book moves between the past and the future, with the reader’s own present world as a balance point between the two. Susan Price’s books, The Sterkarm Handshake and The Sterkarm Kiss, balance future greed against the culture of the border rievers. (Any fans out there will be glad to hear a third Sterkarm will soon to be published.) 

 Joan Lennon’s Silverskin takes her reader into an even more distant community: her “future character” travels back to the world of Skara Brae. It seems to me that such time-slips, aimed at the teen and Y/A audience, invite the reader to learn lessons from the past, to examine the consequences in the future and consider choices being made now, for good or ill.
Finally, there’s the joy of writing historically rooted fantasies, books like Katherine Langrish’s West of the Sun troll trilogy, Michelle Lovric’s Undrowned Child Venetian fantasies, or Mary Hoffman’s world of Stravaganza. Is the fantasy reader being invited to experience the possibilities of story, or explore “what might have been” or just to play – and not always in pleasant ways - with the whole idea of “past times”?


Such a range of historical riches!
 So how does one choose where to plant the reader’s feet? Historical fiction is many layered activity - inspired by a person, a place, an event, an object, a document or map or more – but how does one decide to tell about a true-but-fictitious historical world? Gut instinct? Maybe you don’t know until you’ve begun to scribble anyway? Or does the historical intention consciously supply the starting shape of your story? Or is it all a mystery anyway?

What do you think?

Penny Dolan

NB. Today’s post came into my mind after I’d read The Spirit of the Place, a book by Dennis Hamley, aimed at academic or adult readers. Originally written in 1993, this time-slip novel links the master plan of Nicholas Fowler - a fictitious minor eighteenth century poet, alchemist and grotto-builder - with Lyndsey Lovelock - a literature student, studying Fowler’s Pope-like poetry – and Rod, her suspicious boyfriend  who starts to investigate the secret research going on in Coswold, Fowler’s old house.

When the book was originally written, the human genome project was only just in the public’s consciousness and any effects were unknown. Republishing The Spirit of the Place twenty years later, Dennis Hamley could add to the novel, tell the 21st century  reader what had happened to Lyndsey and Rod and add a post-script to his original predictions. Now there’s time slipping indeed!