Sunday, 8 December 2013
‘Writer,’ I answered.
‘Sorry that’s not coming up on the computer,’ the young man said. ‘It’s suggesting underwriter.’
‘A slightly different occupation,’ I told him. ‘Try author or novelist.’
‘Sorry the computer doesn’t recognise either of those as occupations.’
‘It’s obviously been talking to some of my relatives,’ I said.
‘What about journalist?’ he suggested.
I considered the label. I do delve into the scandals, crimes, murders and wars in the past, if not the present, so you could call my work investigative journalism. But then I remembered a friend who was turned down for travel insurance because he’d given his occupation as journalist. Presumably they were afraid that if they ever refused his claim for a broken ankle on the grounds he’d failed to declare that in 1978 he was treated for a verruca, he might write a damning article about them in the nationals. Better not to use journalist then.
‘What sort of novels do you write?’ my interrogator asked.
‘We could put you down as an historian.’
We could, but last year I attended a talk given to a local history group by a guide working in one of the stately homes. I fell into conversation with the lady sitting next to me, who was raving ecstatically about her favourite historical crime novelist, saying how thoroughly he researched the books, what detailed knowledge he had about local history and how she’d learnt more history from his novels than from any non-fiction book. Later that evening, she mentioned the group needed more speakers.
‘Why don’t you invite that novelist,’ I asked. ‘He’s an excellent speaker.’
She looked scandalised. ‘But this is a serious history group. We don’t invite novelists to speak.
I know that most History Groups don't take that view. I have given talks at a number of different history groups round the country and am booked to give more in 2014. And many history festivals now include a mixture of fiction and non-fiction writers, but sadly that lady's view of historical fiction writers is still prevalent among some readers - if history is presented in the form of fiction, it can't be 'serious'.
Having gained a doctorate in a different subject, I can say from experience that most historical fiction writers, have carried out enough original historical research for their novels to have more than earned a PhD in history. Of course, I know that writing medical romances doesn’t qualify the author to be a nurse and writing crime novels doesn’t make the author a forensic scientist. And I also know that academic historians do far more than simply research facts. But I am fascinated that while many people say they read historical fiction to learn about history, if that same information is presented in a non-fiction book, the author is regarded as an historian, whereas the fiction writer isn’t. The exception is those authors who write novels based on the lives of royalty or the famous. Why is that?
'Better not put historian,’ I said glumly.
‘So what do you actually do when you’re writing?’ my interrogator asked.
‘I sit in an office at home – actually it’s a large cupboard – and type on a laptop.’
‘Ah,’ the young man said with relief, ‘then we can put you down as clerical. The computer likes that one.’
I was sorely tempted to ask if I was now clerical, should I be wearing a dogcollar, but I had a horrible feeling that would then set that wretched computer off on another round of questions about whether I was a bloodhound or a sheepdog. So I quietly I slunk back to my cupboard and started typing again. I know my place.
Next time I'll just keep the money in a piggybank.
Saturday, 7 December 2013
Fellow History Girl Caroline Lawrence appeared at Roedean School as part of their Classics Week a couple of days before I was there, and led the way. The girls and staff were still talking about her when I arrived, so she was a hard act to follow. But follow her I did, at the invitation of Sue Blood, the librarian. I stayed in Brighton the night before with some good friends in a splendid flat on the front at Hove, and on the morning before setting off for the school, we walked around town. I love Brighton. I love the literary associations, I love the slightly faded glamour of a resort out of season, and I love the Royal Pavilion, which is very beautiful and in the words of Sally Prue, also "BONKERS." I would have put up a photo of it, but then I saw a knitted version, which adds a whole new level of bonkers to the story, so I'm showing you that instead. You can, of course, always Google the Royal Pavilion.
I went up to Roedean just before lunch and the taxi was early so I walked around a bit beforehand, outside. The first thing I noticed was that the colour of the whole place had changed. It used to be grey and forbidding, stony, rather dark against the skyline but now all had been painted butter-yellow, which looked much more welcoming. When I arrived here in January 1955, just short of my 11th birthday and expecting Malory Towers, it was snowing and the lights shining from all the windows dotted the darkness. It was cold and I can't remember being scared except in retrospect. I can now imagine the scene from the point of view of my mother and understand how she must have been feeling. Nearly sixty years later, here I was again and the sun was shining and the place looked terrific.
I was very happy at school. I am naturally gregarious and enjoyed living in company all the time. I took this picture standing outside House Three, which was my house. Miss Ratcliffe, my House Mistress, saw more of me in those years and knew me better than my own mother. She was also my wonderful Latin teacher and I remember her with enormous affection and respect.
I felt like a kind of living historical relic. It was really wonderful to be back. Everything felt completely familiar even though so many things had changed since my day. In a way, it was like going home, mostly because during most of my childhood, I didn't have a "home" to go to in the holidays but visited relatives, friends most of the time. My parents were abroad, and I saw them in the summer holidays, though my mother did visit as often as she could, taking a small flat in London on several occasions. But there was nowhere that you could rely on to be the same day in and day out, except for Roedean. I made lots of friends there and apart from maths and anything sporty, loved my lessons and got on with the staff. It occurred to me that the main thing Roedean instilled in us without even trying was the idea that women were the equals of men. The women who taught us and looked after us simply assumed that the whole world was available for us to live in on exactly the same terms as if we'd been men, and that we could follow whatever path we chose. I'm closing this nostalgic post with a picture of thing I loved most in the whole school: an Art Nouveau-ish carved stone inset into the space above the fireplace in the House Mistress's drawing room. I always thought when I was at school that it represented Sleep and I used to think it was most beautiful. I still do.
Friday, 6 December 2013
Read it for:
King Richard's fabulous horse.
Christian view of the Crusades.
Click here to buy LIONHEART from amazon.
Thursday, 5 December 2013
I may have mentioned before that one of the driving forces behind my latest book, The Last Minute, and the website that goes with it (www.eleanorupdale.com/minute) is the laziness of the way disasters are reported. Too often, cliches of language, format and tone cheapen the suffering of those involved, reducing them to stereotypes, and inoculating us against horror. There's one BBC correspondent, often sent to bloody or desperate locations, whose reports are all so similar, and so bathed in an apparent enjoyment of gloom, that I'm ashamed to say I have to suppress a giggle at the very mention of her name. But she is simply the extreme. I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels uncomfortable about the how images of warfare, and the way they are packaged for us, have become so routine that any shock is short lived - or, worse still, replaced with a feeling of impotent despair which can too easily drift into indifference.
It shouldn't be possible to watch reports from Iraq, Egypt or Syria and continue with what you were doing before they came on screen, but I can, and do, day after day. And I'm ashamed of myself.
I was in the news business for many years. I know some of the reporters, and I'm certain that they care desperately about the events amidst which they bravely work, but even the best of them can't always get though the screen.
When it comes to TV history, violence is often glamorised or used as wallpaper - with am-dram extras staging sanitised reconstructions to keep our eyes open as the pop professor yacks on. The pain is no greater than in a children's cartoon.
That's why I was overwhelmed by a fictional account of an event in wartime London which suddenly made me realise what it must be like to be caught up in one of today's episodes of random, merciless killing.
At this point, I had better introduce my late ancestor. He's about my height but even broader. This is almost exactly what he looked like.
He was the mighty pillar box behind which my father took cover when a German V1 landed on the Aldwych in London on 30th June 1944. It saved his life.
From Edwardian times, he stood on the south side of the Strand in London, not far from St Clement Danes Church.
Now, as I think I've mentioned before, my father spent his entire childhood in institutional care and hadn't a clue who his parents were, so I grew up rather short of forebears. As a result I have a (possibly rather unhealthy) attachment to some objects, and this pillar box (my 'grandfather') was one of them.
I always used to give him a loving stroke as I passed by. You could still see and feel where the shrapnel hit. I assumed that he would be there forever, so you can imagine what a shock I got on Monday when I went to photograph him for this blog, only to find that he had gone. A massive building project is underway, and it seems he has been a casualty of redevelopment.
|'My' postbox was where the envelope sign is, by St Clement Danes church at the right of the map. The other double box is marked by the envelope by St Mary le Strand at the bottom left.|
There's another box, a little further down the Strand, near King's College and St Mary le Strand.
As you'll have gathered, I always thought of 'my' pillar box as a rather jolly thing, and of the bombing as a minor event at the fag end of a long war. As far as I could tell on Monday, there is no memorial anywhere nearby. The attack is unmentioned in St Clement Danes church (which had already been bombed in the earlier Blitz). There's no memorial at the building on the corner of Kingsway which took the worst of the blast, and in which many died (it was then the Air Ministry, and later - as St Catherine's house - the registry of births, marriages and deaths. Now, it's a rather austere office). For me, my father's V1 was the bomb that didn't kill, and my mother's story of him staggering into a pub in Essex street caked in dust seemed rather comic. I didn't know they were protecting me from the truth.
It took a fictionalised account of the blast, in the novel The Secret Fire by Martin Langfield, to bring home what it was really like to be in that London street just a few weeks after the exhillaration of D-Day. Of course, The Secret Fire is a novel, and you don't have to read far to realise that much of the plot must be pure invention, but when it comes to the framework in which that fiction operates, the feel seems to me rock-solid, and the more official records I've looked at since finding the novel bear this out. The stark facts (at least 48 - perhaps 200 - dead, hundreds more injured, tremendous damage to buildings) bear out the strategic significance of the strike, but Langfield's account of the human consequences is compelling.
Here are some extracts:
The Air Ministry’s 10-foot-tall blast walls, made of 18-inch-thick brick, disintegrated immediately, deflecting the force of the explosion up and down the street. Hundreds of panes of glass shattered, blowing razor-sharp splinters through the air. The Air Ministry women watching at the windows were sucked out of Adastral House by the vacuum and dashed to death on the street below. Men and women queuing outside the Post Office were torn to pieces. Shrapnel peppered the facades of Bush House and the Air Ministry like bullets...
Part of the casement of the bomb lay burning at the corner of Kingsway. The dead and dying lay scattered in the street. Groans and cries of pain filled the air, though many could not hear them, deafened by the concussion. Some of the victims were naked, their clothing blown from them by the blast...Banknotes blew in the breeze...
People walked around dazed, blood pouring from wounds some didn’t know they had, the crunch of broken glass under their feet ubiquitous. One woman walked down seventy-nine steps of an Adastral House stairwell to the street, not realizing her right foot was hanging sideways, feeling no pain, stepping over bodies...
One man stepped from a doorway after the blast and was sliced vertically in two by a sheet of falling glass.
A news editor of the Evening Standard who came upon the scene couldn’t take his eyes off the trees. Their leaves had all been replaced by pieces of human flesh...
At the end of the book, Langfield describes his sources for this passage. He has done his research, just as any serious writer would. But there's something in the writing that gives his account a charge that is lacking from the 'official' sources.
You can read more in the book, or visit http://secretfire.wordpress.com/the-aldwych-v-1-blast-june-30-1944/
There are some photographs (not used here for fear over copyright) at this site: http://www.westendatwar.org.uk/page_id__10_path__0p28p.aspxhttp://www.westendatwar.org.uk/page_id__10_path__0p28p.aspx
And there are better pictures at http://www.flyingbombsandrockets.com/V1_maintxtd.html though sadly on this (and only this) page of that site, the date of the attack is wrong.
When I knew my father (who died more than thirty years ago) he was passionately opposed to the glamorisation of conflict. I always assumed that was because of his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Now I wonder whether it wasn't, at least in part, due to what he saw in his lunch break in London on that summer day in 1944 - horror he never spoke about In detail.
This chimes in with the immediate reaction of the poet Danny Abse, who was also in the street when the bomb hit.
...the Aldwych echo of crunch
and the urgent ambulances loaded
with the fresh dead...
Abse, then a medical student at Kings College, carried on with his day, walking though the mayhem to get to the dissecting room. It was nearly fifty years before he felt able to analyse his response to the event in his poem Carnal Knowledge, which you can read here.
Martin Langfield's image of the body parts in the trees, and the sense of an 'ordinary' day transformed will colour the way I watch and listen to news reports now. That scene could be a street in Baghdad or Damascus. Just as constraints on reporting during the war meant that the true horror of 30th June 1944 was not widely known at the time, our sensibilities limit what can be shown on the screen now. The panting reporter, often taking up much of the frame, tells us an event is shocking - and we may even be warned in advance of distressing scenes before a news item starts- but sadly I have to admit that it took a fictionalised picture of an event almost seventy years ago to make me realise how numb I had become to the horrors of our own day. That's just one reason why it's worth reading, and writing, historical novels.
I'll be back with you on Christmas Day - and I promise you something more cheery.
Wednesday, 4 December 2013
For years and years when I lived near Skipton, we used to take the local paper, The Craven Herald, which I believe was the last newspaper in England to cover the whole of the the front sheet in advertisements - for sheep sales, cattle sales, farmers' markets and local businesses. Sadly, no more. The last time I was up in Skipton and bought the the paper, I found it had at last conformed to the modern norm. The front page is now like every other: a news page with big headlines and photographs.
There was a certain charm in the old ways. The Craven Herald of only a very few years ago was little different from the one pictured above: The Berwickshire News of Tuesday, October 18, 1881 - full of small and large advertisements - for boot shops, milliners, coachmakers, coal agents; for hotelliers, gas-fitters and drapers. W. Charles of Dunse 'begs to call particular attention to the WATERPROOF 'K' BOOT, as advertised in The Field newspaper' and 'ordered by the Admiralty for the ARTIC EXPEDITION' (sic: missing the 'c' out of 'Arctic' was clearly as easily done then as now.) An 'Establishment for the Board and Education of Young Ladies' offers its prospectus. John Brown calls attention to his Thrashing Machine:
William Graham advertises a somewhat intimidating list of health drinks (what is Khiss Hi Ke Pani?) and follows it up with a variety of sheep-dips:
While, tucked away at the bottom of the page, is this modest advertisement for a monumental mason:
A lot of people may have been looking at this one. Because almost the entirety of the inside of the newspaper - two whole sheets of closely printed columns - is taken up with the story of the 'Fearful Loss of Life' caused by the tremendous gale of October Friday 14 1881 - now known as the Eymouth Disaster after the tiny fishing village of Eyemouth which lost 129 of its men. In all, the gale cost the lives of 189 men, but Eyemouth suffered worst.
"Eyemouth" the reporter writes, "is a scene of unutterable woe. Many families are bereft of husbands, fathers and brothers, while there is hardly one in the village who does not mourn some relative. ...The town is full of heartrending scenes."
There follows a list of the lost, extremely touching even today, with the names of the boats in which they made a living:
The Radiant. lost in Eye Bay (7) - John Windram, married...John Fairbairn, married, 3 children; William Gray, married, 3 children; David Fairbairn, single; Alexander Fairbairn, single; John Burgeon, single; and James Crombie, married, 3 children.
That's just one boat. Then there's The Harmony, The Wave, The Blossom, Forget-Me-Not, the Press Home, Lily of the Valley ("Thomas Miller, married, 5 children; Robert Lough, married, 5 children; David Ritchie, married, 4 children, Robert Lough, married, family partly [grown] up; Alexander Swanston, jun., and James Dougal, single"), The Onward, The James and Robert, The Invincible, The Good Intent, The Myrtle, The Enterprise, The Economy and the Fisher Lasses.
All those from one little village - although, in those days of slow communications, the story is amended with a footnote to say "By telegram we learn that the Fisher Lasses has arrived at Shields with the loss of of one of the crew - Wm, Young - the rest are all safe."
Can you imagine with what anxiety this newspaper must have been perused on the day of its delivery? So many locals lost: so many friends, family, acquaintances. The relief of learning that the Fisher Lasses was safe at Shields; the agony for the family of William Young, the ongoing agony for families who yet had no news. No helicopters then: no search and rescue. Only the long wait. "Several bodies have come ashore at Berwick..."
How much attention, if any, was paid to the advertisments on the front page?
Well - life had to go on, even in the harshest and hardest of moments. Here was a local newspaper, dealing with an immense but still local tragedy, doing its best to bring the news, to report the disaster, to mirror the grief and to relay the attempts being made to alleviate some at least of the suffering..
The Berwickshire News was serving its community, as local papers did then and still do today.
|The Eyemouth Fishing Tragedy Memorial, St Abbs, from Flickr 1618699659.jpg|
All the newspaper excerpts are scanned from a facsimile of the Berwickshire News which I bought from Eyemouth Museum - where much more can be found.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
I suppose I should count myself lucky as a house down the road from us discovered a burial site when they had their basement excavated. The police were called and we all got a thrill seeing the blue and white incident tape (and it wasn't even due to filming for Morse). The bones turned out to be Anglo-Saxon so the police stood down and the archeologists moved in.
|Anglo-saxon burials in oxfordshire|
c. Ashmolean Museum
Television producers have clocked to the fascination we have to the past we can touch with a spade and digger. I nod here to the above mentioned Time Team who made dirty fingernails, home knitted jumpers and weathered faces archaeologically cool.
My teenage heartthrob, Michael Wood, took his crew of diggers to the little green outside my parents' house in Long Melford, Suffolk, a year or so ago. They dug up a Roman road that they had not known was there and revealed a whole layer of history in the village just by making a couple of trenches. To me that is akin to magic.
I can think of a number of writers who are good at doing the same thing with pen rather than shovel. One of my favourite children's books was Tom's Midnight Garden. Philippa Pearce caught that sense so many of us have of the different eras layering in the same place - think filo pastry rather than shortcrust. The John Gordon book, The Giant under the Snow, was another favourite. As a child, I lived near the earthworks that made up Boadicea's camp in Epping Forest and took idea of Gordon's earthen giant with me whenever I walked there.
|The edition I read as a child.|
Love this cover!
Scratch the surface anywhere in the UK and history jumps out at you jack-in-a-box fashion. I find that immensely exciting and use it to fuel my writing. You don't have to travel to see the past; you can just close your eyes and send your imagination down into the earth.
Monday, 2 December 2013
Last month, I gave a Sunday lecture there focussing on the importance of paper during the eighteenth century, but also on the broader themes of life in Georgian London. What makes a Londoner? How was that identity forged? And what part did paper play in it?
Londoners had always been financial animals, but they were becoming consumers on an international scale. For that, they needed a currency they could trust. The foundation of the Bank of England in 1694 saw the beginning of a move towards standardised bank notes; the first ‘modern’ ones appeared in 1725. That, coupled with recoinage to get rid of the vast numbers of brass fakes swimming around the system, helped to stabilize the pound and create confidence in it. As an aside, the most famous of the Wardens of the Royal Mint, Isaac Newton aged nineteen, made a list of his sins which, along with stealing, ‘punching my sister’, ‘falling out with the servants’ and ‘having unclean thoughts’ was ‘Striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne’.
International trade required that this money had a value not only at home, but when compared to other currencies, so, in 1698, a Huguenot named John Castaing began writing up a news-sheet called The Course of Exchange and Other Things. The sheet included stock prices, bullion rates and exchange rates. It was published on Tuesdays and Fridays and sent to the Hook of Holland the same day in bulk.
Owing to the power of commerce, literacy was rising fast. Parents and orphanages found that their children were simply more employable if they could read and write. This rapid rise in literacy was accompanied by a boom in print culture. Thousands of news-sheets, papers, ballads and broadsides were printed in London’s Moorfields, where Grub Street was a real place specialising in tabloid-type publications. Newspapers came to prominence in the reign of George I. They were key to London trade and social life, but politicians were becoming aware of how the press could be used to influence the electorate. Though the government was becoming increasingly aware that it could not control the press, it could - through the Post Office - control its distribution. It franked and sent out the newspapers which were most supportive and least inflammatory to those ‘who keep coffeehouses, that they might be furnished with them, gratis’.
Moorfields was not only the centre of production for the popular press, but it was also the home of many of London’s producers of pornography. Most of this was retailed south of the Strand, where two streets, Wych Street and Holywell Street were almost entirely given over to the sale of London’s saucier material. Samuel Pepys probably represents the average consumer: he had a copperplate print of a naked Nell Gwynn above his desk at the Admiralty; and in the early part of 1688, he purchased a copy of L’École des Filles from John Martin, his bookseller. On a February Sunday, ‘the Lord’s Day’, as he noted in his diary, he went to the office to do some work and have a little read of his new purchase, ‘which is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world’. Women also played a part in the production and sale of pornography: Elizabeth Nutt ran a cluster of shops in the Royal Exchange where she sold her more respectable stock, such as Swift’s Tale of a Tub. She was also listed as a ‘Mercury-woman’, printing cheap and often seditious or salacious ballads in Grub Street; in the 1730s, she was printing pornography there, aided by her daughters.
The rise in popular, accessible music was pioneered by John Walsh and his son, also John, from their shop the Harp and Hoboy in Catherine Street off Drury Lane. There, they held the monopoly on producing Handel’s work. Walsh started publishing in 1695 and was soon innovating: using cheap and quick-to-work pewter instead of copper and punches for notes to speed things up. He had instant success, but his real opportunity presented itself when Handel appeared on the scene. Handel came to London in 1711 with the ink still wet on his opera Rinaldo, which he had been engaged to write for performance in the 1710-11 season at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket. Aaron Hill, the manager, had decided upon an ‘Italian’ season, and Handel was the man to deliver, his reputation already known in the city. Opera was relatively new to London’s sophisticated set and attempts to establish an English style were damp squibs in the main. Rinaldo - a consciously Italianate opera written by a German - was an instant hit. The quick, cheap production of Handel’s music was key to his success. Hear it at a recital or on the stage, go to the Walsh’s shop, buy the sheet music for your instrument and go home and play Handel’s music.
But paper wasn’t only used for commerce and entertainment. It was also used for education and huge advances in medicine and science were recorded in ambitious manuals and treatises which went on to save thousands, if not millions of lives after their publication. The most important of these was arguably the collaboration of man-midwife William Smellie, surgeon William Hunter and artist Jan Van Rymsdyk. It resulted in two defining works: Smellie’s A sett of anatomical tables, with explanations, and an abridgement, of the practice of midwifery of 1754, and William Hunter’s Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, Exhibited in Figures twenty years later. These books are still regarded as the moment modern obstetrics was born.
No lecture on paper, print and the Georgians would be complete without the Romantic poets, and we ended with Keats, Shelley and Byron. Keats was the only true Londoner, described by Byron as a ‘Cockney’ and a ‘dirty little blackguard’. Both Keats and Shelley had backgrounds in medicine. Shelley in particular was interested in Galvinism and the reanimation of the body. The lectures he attended on it coincided with the beginning of his love affair with Mary Godwin and she listened, rapt, as he talked about them afterwards. Later, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, telling the story of a monster brought to life through reanimation and of a need for love that could not be conquered by death. I gave the last words to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose writings, both his poetry and private letters, gave his contemporaries a powerful insight into the dangers of addiction. He died in 1834, in the lull of the reign of William IV. The Georges had gone, and Victoria was still to arrive, but London had changed immeasurably. Coleridge wrote from a small room in his doctor’s house in Highgate, where he was treated for addiction. The view from the window was of the ‘ocean of London, with its domes and steeples definite in the sun, big Paul’s and the many memories attached to it hanging high over all...Nowhere, of its kind, could you see a grander prospect on a bright summer day.’