Thursday, 13 September 2012

An obscure grave

I must have walked along Greyfriars many times when I was in Leicester in the mid 1980s, having no idea that a King of England was possibly lying a few yards away.

There is still much work to be done before it can be stated with any certainty whether the remains found at Greyfriars are those of Richard III. DNA testing, if samples can be recovered, isotope analysis, which can establish where someone lived as a child or young person, establishing the age of the bones, establishing the age of the man at his death, forensic examination of the head injuries already identified and any others that might be discovered and facial reconstruction are among the techniques which could be used.

Even when all possible investigations have been carried out, it may still not be possible to say more than that there is strong likelihood that this is Richard III.

The intention is that  the remains will be re-interred in Leicester Cathedral, close to where they were discovered. Commenters on the BBC website and elsewhere have suggested that York Minster might be more appropriate. That is where Richard himself hoped to be buried. The citizens of York remained loyal to Richard to the last.

Others suggest Westminster Abbey, where Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, is buried.

Of course, neither of these would be an option if it cannot be conclusively proved that the remains are those of the King.

I have mixed feelings about this story. Obviously it is exciting to watch it unfolding. But is it right to disturb the remains of someone who seems to have had a proper, if simple, burial, merely to satisfy curiosity? Even if the remains are positively identified, it’s very unlikely they’ll reveal anything new about Richard’s personality or  the events of his reign, despite the assertion by the University of Leicester that the discovery 'has potential to rewrite history'.

The archaeologists have also uncovered information about the Greyfriars, but that was not the object of the dig.

Reading comments on the BBC website and elsewhere, I have been surprised at the number of people who seem not to know that the present Royal family is descended  from both York and Lancaster. One would think that anyone interested enough to read and comment on the story would know that.

I was also interested to see commenters expressing surprise that that the present street plan of Leicester is the same as that in the eighteenth century map used by the archaeologists. Apart from modern redevelopments and road ‘improvements’, most towns do retain their original street patterns which might date back to the early Mediaeval or Anglo Saxon periods.

Even the streets of nineteenth or early twentieth century greenfield suburban developments can sometimes be shown to follow much older tracks and field boundaries.

Perhaps the real value of discoveries such as this is not in the story of the lost king,   but in the incidental things that people learn about the history of their own towns and the people who once lived there.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Minding your manners -

- or those of your characters.

The practice of using first or Christian names almost universally is a relatively recent phenomenon. My first job was a temporary one in a bookshop in the early 1970s. The manager addressed all the staff as 'Mrs' or 'Miss'.

My grandmother, born 1887, and the woman who was her next door neighbour for many years, called each other 'Mrs Surname' to the end of their lives.

Aunts and uncles were known by their surnames - the Brontes and their Aunt Branwell, in fiction the Bennets and their Aunt Gardiner.and Aunt Philips.

Holmes and Watson used surnames throughout, although they shared rooms for many years and there are hints in the stories of the deep affection which they felt for each other.

Writers of historical fiction sometimes have their characters using first names even when it is anachronistic or inappropriate for them to do so. This is presumably to establish a mood of informality or intimacy.

However, if people in the past did not need to resort to first names in order to be intimate, the writer should not need to either.

Topics of conversation and tone of voice can establish intimacy. So can physical proximity - walking arm in arm, for example.

Setting too can create an atmosphere of intimacy, for example an enclosed space such as a carriage or a small room. In a crime or adventure novel, the lady and gentleman might be trapped together in a cellar or secret passage.

Conversely, two people can be intimate in a public place where everyone's attention is elsewhere.  On a dance floor, perhaps, where the music prevents their conversation being overheard by others. Or the parlour of a busy inn, or the drawing room of a country house. Jane Austen's novels  contain many examples of characters having private exchanges while surrounded by other people.

It is the historical novelist's job to establish the mood while remaining true to the period in which he or she is writing.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

I do like to be beside the seaside...

On Monday, the BBC reported that public transport in London was less crowded than had been anticipated during the Olympics. Many people are working from home, or have rearranged their journeys.   But there would in any case have been fewer people travelling to and from work in London this week. This week is traditionally the beginning of the peak holiday period in England. In the past many families went away for a week or two weeks at the seaside.

The seaside became fashionable in the eighteenth century, competing with spa towns such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells. Sea bathing was recommended as a remedy for a variety of ailments, including scurvy, jaundice, the King's Evil and leprosy.  Initially, visits to the seaside were for the aristocracy and the well to do. Royal favour contributed to the rise of  Weymouth and Brighthelmstone.

However, costal towns which could be easily reached by water from London soon became popular with people from all walks of life. First by sailing vessel, then from the 1820s by steamer, Cockneys went in ever increasing numbers to resorts such as Gravesend and Margate. By 1850 steam boats were carrying over 87,000 passengers a year to Margate. Fares were as low as one shilling on some boats.

Steamers also took holidaymakers from Merseyside to North Wales and from Bristol to North Devon.

The spread of the railways from the 1840s brought the seaside within reach  of every part of England. A holiday in a quiet, respectable seaside town was considered a highly suitable way for a Victorian middle class family to spend its leisure time. There were opportunities for healthy pursuits such as walking and sea bathing, and educational activities such as collecting seaweeds and seashells.

Resorts competed to attract visitors. They  promoted their natural attractions such as sunshine or sandy beaches.  They provided promenades and piers, regattas, concerts, libraries and gardens. Developers bought land to build houses for visitors and permanent residents. The population of Folkestone, the fastest  growing resort in Kent, increased from about 4,500 in 1841, just before the railway arrived, to 31,000 in 1901.

Most Victorian and Edwardian seaside holidaymakers stayed in boarding houses, where meals were provided by the landlady. After the First World War new types of holiday became popular - camping, caravanning and of course the holiday camp.

In fiction, especially historical fiction, sending characters on a trip to the seaside can be a means of developing character and moving the story along by placing them in an unfamiliar environment.

Charlotte Bronte’s first sight of the sea at Bridlington was a highly emotional experience. Her friend Ellen Nussey wrote that  'she was quite overpowered ... she could not speak till she had shed some tears ... for the remainder of the day she was very quiet, subdued and exhausted.'

Charlotte wrote later to Ellen 'have you forgot the Sea by this time? Is it grown dim in your mind? Or can you still see it dark blue and green and foam-white and hear it – roaring roughly when the wind is high or rushing softly when it is calm?'

And to Ellen's brother Henry she wrote 'I will not tell you what I thought of the Sea – because I should fall into my besetting sin of enthusiasm. I may however say that its glorious changes – its ebb and flow – the sound of its restless waves – formed a subject for contemplation that never wearied either the eye the ear or the mind.'

In Persuasion, the trip to Lyme produced drama, heightened Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s regret at their estrangement, yet placed further obstacles in the way of their reconciliation.

There is scope for conflict between visitors who have come to the seaside for pleasure and those for whom it is their place of work.

And, especially before modern technology, the seaside presents many opportunities to place characters in danger; cliffs, caves, tides, shipwrecks, even smugglers and wreckers, all offer the possibility of drama and peril.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Horse Power

It’s not possible to write contemporary fiction without, sooner or later, mentioning motor cars.

It’s not possible to write historical fiction without, sooner or later, mentioning horses.

For a writer who, like me, doesn’t know much about cars or about horses, this can present difficulties.

These can be circumvented to some extent by having a central character who doesn’t know much about them either.  But at some point over the course of a writing career, a central character will be in a position where he or she has to deal with a car or a horse, depending on the setting. Or there will be a secondary character whose job, or personality, requires that he or she knows about one or the other.

Cars and horses are possessions, and like other possessions they can be revealing of the characters of their owners. A man who owns a flashy, expensive car in a contemporary novel would own a flashy, expensive horse in historical fiction.

Horses were everywhere in the past. In 1695 it was estimated that in England about half a million horses were used as cart and plough horses. There were probably at least as many again employed in private ownership, in the carrying trades, in industry and other uses, making a million horses in all. The human population of England at this time was perhaps a little over five million.

The expanding industries of the eighteenth century used horses in increasing numbers. In 1726 a coal mine at Jesmond used more than seven hundred horse drawn wagons to move coal from the pithead to the quayside on the Tyne

In 1766 two thousand horses a week were used (or two thousand horse journeys per week were made) carrying lead from the mines at Nenthead to Penrith.

In 1835 one coach operator employed 1800 horses.

The arrival of the railways ended long distance stagecoach travel, but overall  probably increased the number of horse drawn vehicles on the roads. There were frequent complaints about the congestion caused in London by the railway companies’ vans transporting goods from the termini to their final destinations.  

In 1893 one writer estimated that there were 25,000 horses employed in the carrying trades in London. When omnibus, tram and cab horses, and brewers’ horses,  were added, that brought number up to 75,000. There were also horses kept for private carriages and by small tradesmen.

All those horses had to be stabled. One railway company had stabling for five hundred horses and one stables near Paddington. Large numbers of men were employed in caring for horses, large quantities of leather were used in making saddlery and harness. 

Horses had to be fed; fodder was shipped along the Thames to London in large quantities.  The amount of land that had to be devoted to pasturing, and growing fodder for, horses gave cause for concern when the human population was growing rapidly and needed to be fed.

And horses produced manure, which had to be disposed of. A horse might produce fifteen to thirty-five pounds of manure a day. This was not a problem in the countryside where manure could immediately be put to good use and even had a monetary value. It did create difficulties in the towns.

Overall, I think I would rather write about horses than motor cars. Stables and horse fairs are more attractive locations than garages or car showrooms. The weather or the landscape can be used to greater effect in  an account of a journey by horse than in an account of a car journey.  And a fictional horse can more easily be given a name and a personality than a fictional car.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Before divers witnesses…

July, August and September were the plague months.

The eyewitness accounts of men such as Samuel Pepys; the orders to shut up infected houses; the numbers of deaths, are well known.

Occasionally, a story emerges from the archives that allows us to se into the lives of some of the ordinary people caught up in these great epidemics.

Mary Binge and Christopher Reade were household servants to Peter Waite, a tanner, of the parish of St Mary Northgate, Canterbury. While they lived in Peter Waite’s household, they ‘did beare much love and affection each to other and did promise each other marriage.’

Christopher Reade fell ill and was believed to be in danger of dying. While he was ill he made a will leaving all he had to Mary Binge.

Christopher recovered, but in the summer of 1665 the house of Mary’s father, John Binge, in Longport, just outside the walls of Canterbury, became infected with the plague. Mary was shut up there along with the rest of the household.

Christopher went to the house to see Mary.

‘Mary Binge, coming to a low window next to the street before divers credible witnesses with an intent to make her will speaking unto the said Christopher Reade said that all shee had shee gave unto him and shee told him  that shee would have him goe and gett her said will put into writing which hee accordingly did and afterward repaired unto her and afterward shee did publish the same written will for her last will and testament in the presence of divers witnesses.’

About nine days after making this will Mary Binge died, on or about Saturday the 29th day of September 1665, between the hours of two and three in the morning. Her father John had already died.

After Mary’s death her mother Joan and sisters Anne Ayres and Susan Harris, who had been at her deathbed, said that before her death she had made a verbal, or nuncupative, will, revoking any former wills, ‘in their hearing and that of other credible witnesses.’ 

Mary had £16 in money plus some personal possessions.
She left £10 to her niece Mary Ayres.
Mary’s sister Ann Ayres was to have Mary’s best wearing apparel and a gold ring.
Her mother Joan was to receive twenty shillings and the remainder of her wearing apparel. 
Walter Joanes, whose relationship to Mary is not stated, was given a ten shilling piece of gold ‘and a Phillip and Mary sixpence.’
Twenty shillings were left to the poor of the parish of Northgate.
Christopher Reade was bequeathed a five shilling piece and a silver spoon.
There are several more minor bequests to other people, including Mary’s sister Susan Harris.

Christopher Reade and Mary’s sisters disputed as to which of the wills should stand. The whole matter came before the courts in May 1667.

I don’t know the outcome of this case. These papers were misfiled at some point and turned up among the documents I actually wanted to look at.

Perhaps Mary really had changed her mind. Perhaps, in her illness, she forgot that she had already made a will.

But it’s hard not to suspect Ann and Susan at the very least of coaching her through this new will. It’s unlikely a young woman who was dying would know, or remember,  that she needed to revoke all former wills.  It’s unlikely she would be capable of apportioning so many minor legacies in such detail.

The sisters might have acted with the best intentions. They might not have known that Mary had already made a will. They might have thought that Mary and Christopher’s love affair was not serious and would have come to a natural end if the plague had not intervened, and wanted to keep her money in the family.

The court’s decision might be found among the probate records of the Diocese of Canterbury, but we‘d probably still be none the wiser about the motives of those involved. We are free to speculate.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Work in progress

The aim of a writer is usually to see the wordcount going up. Sometimes, though, it can be a good thing to see it going down.

Today, I've been editing a piece of work, prior to moving on to the next big plot development.

I've cut a whole section of one scene because I decided that it wasn't working as I'd written it. I eliminated a character that I'd introduced for a particular purpose because I decided that he was unnecessary.

I then had to go back and delete a few sentences in an earlier chapter where he was first mentioned. Since he now won't appear at all, there's no point in having any of the characters refer to him. I've also had to rewrite a later scene so that the information this gentleman was going to pass on is revealed in a different way. 

Elsewhere, I had two other characters having essentially the same conversation in two different chapters. One of those conversations has now gone.

However carefully one plans (and I don't!) wrong turnings and repetitions are bound to occur. Deleting words one has spent time and effort on is discouraging, but the end result should be a more tightly written, faster paced piece of work.  

Monday, 18 June 2012

Kicking myself a bit -

- because if I'd looked at the calendar before posting yesterday, I'd have realised that today, 18 June, is of course Waterloo Day. It would have been a much more appropriate date for my post about Georgette Heyer, in recognition of An Infamous Army, arguably her best book. It combines romance, social comedy and meticulously researched history, with a large cast of fictional and real life characters. Her description of the battle is supposed to be one of the best ever written; at one time it was recommended reading at the Royal Military Academy  at Sandhurst.

Georgette Heyer used the Battle of Waterloo again years later, to provde a plot twist in A Civil Contract, another book which is rather different from her normal light hearted romance and comedy.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Queen of the Regency

I've just finished the new biography of Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester. I'd been looking forward to reading it, but I came away decidedly disappointed.

The early chapters, on Georgette's family background and childhood, were well researched and interesting. It's worth picking up the book in a shop or library to look at the many photographs of Georgette at different stages of her life; apart from anything else, they are a fascinating record of the changes in women's fashion in the twentieth century.

The book is a detailed factual account of the events of Georgette's life, her various homes, what was published when, and her relationships with her publishers and the taxman.

But I found it sadly lacking in any critical discussion of Georgette as a writer. What were her strengths and weaknesses? Which were her best and least good books, and why? (Leaving aside Georgette's own opinions on the subject, which are well known.) How did she hit on the hugely successful Regency formula (which did not happen until she was already established as a writer of historical fiction and contemporary detective stories)?  What was the process by which she conceived and developed the plot and characters for each book?

Georgette did not keep any notes of work in progress, and she destroyed her manuscripts once the book was published - but Jennifer Kloester  acknowledges the assistance of Georgette's son, the late Sir Richard Rougier. He could surely have provided some insights, and Jennifer Kloester herself might have attempted a detailed analysis of at least one book to demonstrate why Georgette was so successful.

In order to write a biography of a historical novelist, it's probably necessary for the writer also to be a historian, to interpret both the period in which the writer lived and the period in which she set her novels.

Jennifer Kloester isn't, and she assumes a similar lack of knowledge in her readers. She finds it necessary  to add a footnote to tell us that it was 'typical' for a woman of Georgette's class and generation to call her parents  'Daddy' and 'Mummy'.

She discusses Georgette's use of  'in-law' for step relationships without appearing to be aware that it's used by Jane Austen - after which no further justification for Georgette's use of it should be necessary. 

There are some odd interpretations of Georgette's character.

Wanting some feedback from her publishers about what they liked or disliked about a manuscript - or indeed some indication that they had actually read it - is seen as a need for praise.

Leaving it to her agent to handle difficulties with her publishers, rather than dealing with them directly herself, is a dislike of confrontation and ‘not a courageous stance’. It is in fact part of an agent’s job to mediate between author and publisher; it‘s what he‘s paid for.

Refusing to be a ‘Celebrity’ and preferring a social circle of close friends is ‘reclusiveness’.

And - a final nitpick - the name of Georgette’s recurring detective, Superintendent Hannasyde, is spelled wrongly throughout.

Jennifer Kloester had unlimited access to Georgette Heyer’s letters and papers, but overall I don’t think this book adds greatly to the account of her life given in Jane Aiken Hodge’s earlier work.

In her Regency romances, Georgette Heyer created a whole new genre, which is still enormously popular today. Every so often, a new writer is hailed as ’the successor to Georgette Heyer.’  Unfortunately, these authors often do not have the lightness of touch, the command of language and of period detail that contributed to Georgette’s success.

Their books tend to fall within the limits of the genre as established by Georgette Heyer,  so there is novel after novel featuring dashing young aristocrats, spirited heroines, curricle races, balls at Almacks,  and occasional references to French spies or Waterloo.

Clearly there is a continuing demand for this type of book. But it would be refreshing if a writer with a talent equal to Georgette Heyer’s could establish a new voice and style, push the boundaries a little and redefine the Regency genre.  

Thursday, 7 June 2012

'The tumult and the shouting dies -

- the captains and the kings depart.'

There's little left to say about the Jubilee that is deeply profound.

It's perhaps worth mentioning that the processions, the heraldry, the ceremonies, the rituals, are not mere 'pageantry' or 'fairy tale', put together because they are colourful and give the crowds something to cheer at.

They all have meaning and say something about the evolution over the centuries of the United Kingdom and of the monarchy, and about the monarch's  relationship with his or her subjects.

Before widespread literacy and mass media, these visual signs and ceremonies told people who was who and how they related to each other and to the crowds who watched.

Much of the ceremonial reinforced the fact that the sovereign, in England, has never had absolute power. The ritual whereby the sovereign formally requests the Lord Mayor's permission to enter the City of London reminded everyone, not least the sovereign, of how dependent he or she was on the goodwill of the City.

Other, lesser, conventions of protocol and etiquette also have meaning.

Too often, journalists refer to the Queen being introduced to Mr or Mrs Somebody.

The Queen is not introduced to anyone. People are introduced to her.

Referring to the Queen being introduced to someone implies that the person to whom she is introduced doesn't know who she is, which is nonsense.

A gentleman is introduced to a lady.
A lower ranking person is introduced to a higher ranking one.
A younger person is introduced to an older one.
Among reigning kings and queens, the one who has reigned longest is considered senior to the others.

Going by these rules, there is no-one on the planet who outranks the Queen. 

The proper form of words is
'Mrs Jones, may I introduce (or, more formally, may I present)  my friend Jack Robinson?'

This, theoretically, gives Mrs Jones the opportunity to decline the introduction if, for example, Mr Robinson is a young man of dubious reputation whom she doesn't want anywhere near her daughters.  

Having been introduced they would continue to be 'Mrs Jones' and 'Mr Robinson' unless or until Mr Robinson did become Mrs Jones's son-in-law, when less formal forms of address might be adopted.

Ignoring the conventions did not necessarily make for a pleasantly informal atmosphere. It could cause embarrassment by forcing people into a degree of intimacy they didn't necessarily want, or cause relationships to be misinterpreted - if, for example, Miss Jones and Mr Robinson were addressing each other as 'Maisie' and 'Jack' when they were barely acquainted.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many guides to etiquette were published, on their own or as part of guides to household management.  They advised people  what to say or write in any conceivable situation - a servant giving notice, a housewife complaining to the milkman, a father asking a young man's intentions towards his daughter, a young woman declining a proposal of marriage, a man applying for a job. They used to be easily obtainable in secondhand bookshops.

The BBC should acquire some - and give the first one to the reporter who referred to Her Majesty the Queen as 'Her Royal Highness'. 

Friday, 25 May 2012

Keep writing!

There are many completed novels in bottom drawers and on hard drives. Many are unpublishable. Many might be publishable if the author was lucky enough to approach the right agent or publisher at the right time.

There are even more unfinished novels. The novelist Emma Darwin says that many writers stall at about thirty thousand words.

Why do so many novels remain unfinished?

Since I began to write seriously, I’ve only deliberately decided to abandon one piece of work (well before I‘d reached thirty thousand words). I decided I didn’t like either of the two main characters. They were a pair of humourless prigs. If I didn’t like them, how could I expect readers to like them?

Some novels are never finished because the writer’s circumstances change and he or she no longer has the time or inspiration to write. A new baby, a serious illness, family difficulties, are all reasons why the novel might be put on one side indefinitely.

A piece of writing might be abandoned because it becomes clear that the plot isn’t substantial enough for a full length novel. That’s not a problem in the digital age. A story that wouldn’t make a hundred thousand word novel might do very well as a fifty thousand word novella on Kindle, or even as a freebie on the writer’s own website. So don’t abandon it - keep writing!

A writer who (like me) doesn’t plan in detail before beginning to write may reach a point where he or she doesn’t know what happens next. The solution can be to skip ahead to a point where you do know what happens, or to a scene you’ve been looking forward to writing. Or write a scene in which your characters talk about what they think they should do next to get themselves out of the difficulties you’ve put them in. Or think of the most dramatic thing your main character could do in the situation you’ve created, and have him or her do that.

Whichever solution you choose, keep writing!

Perhaps a piece of research or new information comes to light which means your plot won’t work in the way you planned. If you can work the new information into the story, it might be all the stronger for it. You might present your characters with an even greater challenge to overcome. Keep writing!

You might be held up because you can’t find a specific piece of information you think you need in order to move the story forward. Research can be never-ending if you let it. You might be focussing  too much on minor details which don’t affect the overall plot. Find a way to work around the missing piece of information and keep writing!

For new (and old!) writers, the stopping point might come when the first rush of enthusiasm is over and it begins to be hard work. (And it is hard work.) You reach the point where you are convinced that your plot is nonsense, your writing is pedestrian, and no-one will ever want to read it.

But the only way to be a novelist is to write a novel, and the only way to do that is to keep putting words on paper. The finished novel might not be  anywhere near as good as you hoped. It might not be publishable. But at the end of it you will have learned a lot about the process of writing a novel, and about yourself as a writer. 

If you have written thirty thousand words, you have written a third of a full length novel. Why give up when you have come that far? Keep writing!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Advice to writers

There is an enormous number of 'how to' books for witers. There is an infinite number of online discussion forums, blogs and writers' websites which give advice to writers. One could spend all one's time reading these and never get any actual writing done.

The only piece of advice that no writer should ignore is to pay attention to grammar, spelling and punctuation. Most of the rest may be used as a basis for experimentation, to help each writer discover what works best for him or her.

Much of the advice given to writers is conflicting. To plan or not to plan; to approach an agent first, or a publisher. Some seems to be unrealistic. Authors who self  publish are told that they will need to spend two full days a week on promoting their work forever, not just at publication.

Self published authors, whether in print or on Kindle, do need to work hard to get their work noticed, as Roz Southey  has recently blogged. But anyone who can spend two full days a week on promotion and still find time to write must have no day job, no family responsibilities, no house or garden to look after, no shopping, cooking, washing or ironing to do, no other hobbies or interests to pursue and no friendships to nurture.

One piece of advice often given to writers is to ignore the phone, not look at e-mail and refuse invitations. Friends will still be there when the writing is done, it's said.

Obviously if a writer has a deadline approaching, then the social life needs to be put on hold. And any aspiring writer who is out pubbing and clubbing every night and so has no time to write should perhaps re-examine his or her priorities.

But writers can become isolated, especially those who do not have other jobs that take them out of their homes. Writing a novel in particular can be a long hard slog. We do need to take a break, get out, talk to other people (in real life, not via e-mail or Facebook or Twitter) and refresh and restock our imaginations.

Human nature is our business, after all, and we can't study it while huddled over our keyboards in our studies. We need to get out, engage in people watching, strike up conversations.

A walk is good. It provides fresh air and exercise and a chance to think about the next scene or chapter. But it  perhaps lacks opportunities for interaction with other people.

Buses are good for writers. From the top deck (where there are double deckers) one can see unfamiliar views. (The view from the top deck of a bus was a plot point in at least one crime novel.) If the bus is quiet one can think about one's plot while enjoying the ride.

If the bus is busy, there will be plenty of opportunity to gather material. The conversation going on in the seats behind might provide an idea for a short story. The elderly lady next to you might tell you her fascinating life story, or what your town was like sixty or seventy years ago.

So my advice to writers this week is - go for a bus ride!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

'No furniture so charming as a book'

Being both a historian and a writer, I suppose it's inevitable that I accumulate books. I'm quite good at getting rid of paperback novels that I know I'll never read again (although I do keep the odd few as Awful Examples). I probably should be more ruthless with the novels I've started but have never finished.
It's the non-fiction that piles up. I forget what I've got (and inevitably discover it the week after I could have used it). Or I have multiple copies of things, usually acquired because someone else was throwing them out. This afternoon I've had a cull and now have a large stack which will probably require two or three trips to the charity shop to dispose of.

Decisions have had to be made.

Do I really need two copies of Bede's History of the English Church and People, when it's available online? No, I don't, I decided. One of them is on the pile.

Do I need a hardback Dictionary of Quotations, when quotations are easily found via Google? Yes I do.  My Dictionary of Quotations provided the title of this post.  Besides, Winston Churchill advocated reading books of quotations to broaden the mind.

(Do I need two copies of My Early Life? One of them is falling apart, so yes.)

How many basic textbooks on nineteenth century British history does one need, given that more detailed information and more up to date interpretations can be found online? (And I can probably recite most of it my sleep anyway.)I've turned out a couple, but could probably get rid of a couple more.

It remains to be seen how many of the rejected books will actually make it to the charity shop. Last time I did this, about a year ago, a few found their way back onto the shelves, rather than out of the door.

I feel I've been quite ruthless, but I've still kept two copies of  several books. Perhaps I should go through the shelves again and turn out a few more duplicates.

But I'm definitely keeping all my three copies of W. G. Hoskins' Making of the English Landscape.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A pioneer of investigative journalism

Last week was the centenary of the death of William Thomas Stead.

When Stead became editor of the Darlington Northern Echo at 22, he was the youngest newspaper editor in the country. His innovative methods made the Northern Echo one of the leading daily papers in the north of England. He adopted the radical Liberal policies of the time: compulsory primary and secondary school education, universal male and female suffrage, repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, ‘social purity’ in politics, collective bargaining in industrial relations, the eight-hour day for coalminers, poor law reform and Home Rule for Ireland.

In 1883 Stead became editor of the Pall Mall Gazette in London. He promoted the Gazette using techniques such as bold headlines, illustrations and  special interviews

Chinese Gordon's arrival in London … having been announced in yesterday's papers, a communication was immediately addressed to him… asking him if he would consent to hold a conversation on the subject of the Soudan with a representative of the Pall Mall Gazette.

‘With characteristic modesty, General Gordon begged to be excused …. Our representative [Stead himself] left town by the next train, and found General Gordon at his sister's house …. He showed considerable disinclination to express his opinions upon the subject, but on its being represented to him very strongly that he of all men now in the country was best acquainted with the Soudan, and therefore was best able to speak with authority on the question of the hour, he consented to enter upon the subject.’

Prostitution and the exploitation of women were among the concerns of social reformers in the nineteenth century. The age of consent for girls in England had been raised from twelve to thirteen in 1875. Campaigners wanted it raised further to sixteen; in 1885 Stead was approached to help publicise the issue.

Josephine Butler and Bramwell Booth helped Stead to acquire a thirteen year old girl, Eliza Armstrong. Eliza’s mother was paid £5, Mrs Armstrong (it was claimed) being given to understand that Eliza was being procured for prostitution.

Stead then wrote a series of sensational articles. The first was titled  The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, with subheadings ‘The Violation of Virgins‘, ’The Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper‘, ‘How Girls Were Bought and Ruined‘, ‘A Child of Thirteen Bought for £5’.

Many influential people praised Stead. Others denounced him, some for raising such matters at all in what was supposed to be a family paper, others for the sensationalist way in which he treated it. He was accused of  ‘peddling pornography’. W. H. Smith refused to sell those issues of the Gazette. Where it was available, the Gazette sold out rapidly. Second hand copies changed hands at inflated prices. 

There were demonstrations demanding that legislation on the age of consent be passed immediately. Initially the government and Parliament were unwilling to act under pressure from sensational journalism, but as demand from public opinion increased, the government had to back down and legislation raising the age of consent to sixteen was passed in August 1885.  

Rival newspapers carried out their own investigations. Although Stead had disguised Eliza’s identity, The Times tracked down her mother. It was revealed that it was Stead himself who had purchased her, a fact he had not included in his own articles. Mrs Armstrong said she had not, as Stead had claimed, known that she was (supposedly) selling her daughter into prostitution. Eliza’s father said that he had not consented to  Eliza being taken away.  Although the age of consent was thirteen, it was illegal to take away a girl under sixteen without the consent of her parents or guardian. 

Stead and others were charged with the assault and abduction of Eliza Armstrong. Stead and two women were convicted. The women were sentenced to six months, Stead to three months in prison.

Social issues continued to be a priority. In 1888, when writing about the Whitechapel Murders: ‘Here in London lie certain foul slums, which The Times describes as "the kitchen middens of humanity," in which the human being putrefies, and where tens of thousands of our fellow creatures are begotten and reared in an atmosphere of godless brutality, a species of human sewage, the very drainage of the vilest productions of ordinary vice…. Philanthropists have repeatedly, and in vain, called attention to their existence. The Bitter Cry of Outcast London has fallen upon heedless ears.

Stead’s methods alienated the majority of the press and many politicians, including hs former patron, Gladstone. He left the Pall Mall Gazette in early January 1890 and moved on to other journalistic and publishing ventures.

Stead had a lifelong interest in spiritualism. Over time this damaged his reputation, as he began to be seen as something of a crank.

He became involved in the peace movement of the time, advocating arms limitation and strong Anglo-American co-operation.

In 1912 he was invited to speak at a Peace Conference in New York. He sailed on the Titanic. After the liner struck the iceberg he was seen helping women and children into the lifeboats. One account (probably fictional), said that after all the boats had gone, Stead went into the First Class Smoking Room, where he was last seen sitting in a chair reading a book. His body was not recovered. It was believed that he would have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year. He had predicted that he would die by drowning, apparently having received spiritualist messages to that effect.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The problem with using pen and paper for first drafts -

- is that sometimes you can't find the pages when you want to type them up.

I did find them, the next morning, hiding under a pile of magazines. I must have shuffled everything together when hurriedly tidying my front room one day. I've now found a bright red document wallet to keep my handwritten pages in.

I was doing quite well at getting the sequence of events down on paper, but I wasn't satisfied with my main character. She was coming across as very sharp tongued and vinegary. It was realistic that she'd be like that, with the background I've given her, but I was worried that readers would find her too unlikeable, before I'd had a chance to show her more sympathetic side. However, if I tried to tone her down, she became bland, lacking any personality at all.

I decided to let her develop however she wanted, and worry about whether she was likeable later. I've now seen how I can tweak a secondary character, who appears early in the story,  which will strengthen my main character's motivation in a way that I hope will make her more sympathetic from the start.

Now I just have to get it down on paper, or on the screen.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Things I missed II

7 February this year was the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. He is regarded by many as the greatest English novelist. He was certainly one of the most widely read. The Old Curiosity Shop, first published in serial form, had a circulation of 100,000 in 1840-41. A Tale of Two Cities, first published as a serial in the weekly All the Year Round,  had an initial circulation of over 120,000 in 1859. Each copy sold was almost certainly read by more than one person, either in a family home or in the reading room of a Mechanics' Institute or other organisation.

Dickens' success as a novelist is the more remarkable given the variety of other roles or professions he  undertook - journalist, pamphleteer, editor, dramatist, producer, actor, public speaker.

Dickens could not have achieved all he did if he had lived at an earlier period. The railways and the postal service enabled the rapid distribution of his serials, and the railways also made it possible for Dickens himself to travel the country giving readings from his novels.

Levels of literacy were rising, even though there was not yet a national, compulsory system of education in England and Wales - that came in 1870, the year of Dickens' death. One estimate suggests that about 1860, about seventy per cent of the population could read  - although not necessarily well enough to read one of Dickens' novels.

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century there was a huge increase in reading material of all kinds aimed  at the middle and working classes - cheap fiction, weekly illustrated papers,  local newspapers.

For those who could not read for themselves, there was the Penny Reading. Dickens himself gave immensely popular public readings of his novels at which the admission fee was a penny. At the other end of the scale, the local schoolmaster or curate might give a reading in a hall or schoolroom. Some penny entertainments were held in theatres and had varied programmes including music. Books were published with chapters specifically intended for use at Penny Readings; shipwrecks and rescues were popular subjects.

If Dickens were to be transported to the present day, he would no doubt soon learn to use the internet and social media to his advantage. He would be much in demand as a commentator on social issues. And with his ability to create memorable characters and to write quickly and to a deadline, he would  no doubt have yet another successful career, as a writer of television drama and soap operas.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Things I missed

Other things have got in the way of keeping up this blog over the winter. There are several things I might have posted about. Now I have time to get back to blogging, I'll catch up on some of them.

6 February was the sixtieth anniversary of the accession of the Queen.  Normally the royal family does not celebrate this date,  because it is also the anniversary of the death of  the Queen’s father, King George VI.

George VI was a shy, unassuming family man who had no wish to be king. Following the abdication of Edward VIII, however, he took up the duty and performed it admirably, leading the nation, the Empire and the Commonwealth through the Second World War. 

’Personally, I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to,’ he wrote after the fall of France in 1940.  He and the Queen and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret stayed at Windsor throughout the war. The King and Queen travelled daily to London  or other areas that had been bombed. When it was suggested that the Princesses should be sent  to Canada for safety, the Queen is said to have replied ‘Our daughters could not go without me. I cannot leave the King. And the King will never leave.’

The King had served in the Royal Navy in the First World War. He very much wanted to be present, on board HMS Belfast, at the D-Day landings in June 1944. However, he was persuaded not to go by his advisers, who said that it would be too great a responsibility for Belfast’s commander to have him on board, and too great a blow to morale if he should be killed. The King then had the task of convincing Winston Churchill, who had also planned to be on board HMS Belfast, that he too should not take the risk.

The King was able to visit the Normandy beach head, and General Montgomery’s headquarters, ten days after the landings.

The stress of kingship during such a critical period is said to have contributed to the deterioration of the King’s health from the late 1940s. He died in 1952 aged 56. 

Sunday, 19 February 2012

'Mentioned in Domesday'

Many people take pride in the fact that their town or village is mentioned in the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086. However, that is not necessarily a sign of exceptional  antiquity, and neither does the lack of a mention in Domesday mean that a place did not exist then. Many, if not most, English settlements had been established before 1066; many had been established centuries before. The earliest written records of English settlements date from the seventh century. Some of the settlements themselves might have originated, and been given their names, in the late fifth or sixth centuries.

Celtic, Latin, Anglo Saxon, Danish or Norwegian and Norman French have all contributed to the making of English place names.  Thames, Derwent and Avon are all of Celtic origin. Chester, caster and cester all derive from the Latin castra, meaning a military camp.

Ham, ton, ley, stead, wich and wold are a few of the elements used by the Anglo Saxons in naming their settlements. They had many words to describe hills, woods, valleys and farmland.    

In the regions settled by Vikings - the East Midlands and the north of England - many place names are of Scandinavian origin. There - and nowhere else - are the bys, the thorpes and the thwaites. A gate is a street, not an entry way, in areas where Danes settled. Old Norse words for features in the landscape such as beck, fell and gill are found in the north west.  

All place names have meanings, even if some of those meanings have been lost over time. They can tell us who the original settlers were, about the landscape or what the land was used for.  A writer creating a fictional town or village as a setting for a novel might want to check the origin and meaning of the name he or she invents for it. That way the writer can avoid making the mistake the BBC made. While they are quite right to use Wyvern as the name of a fictional county in the south west of England, they are hopelessly wrong in using Holby as the name of a fictional city there.