Historical fiction is not just about Regency heroines, Knights of the Round Table, and the tribulations of Henry VIII’s wives. Anything set 50 or more years ago qualifies as historical fiction; apart from including my childhood and first employment in the Bahamas and Libya, that also takes in World War II and its aftermath.
Rosalind Minett writes beautifully about that time and, right now, her biggest and best book is on special offer. Impact can stand alone, but is the third book in a trilogy about a fateful rivalry between sturdy, well-meaning Bill and his frail, artistic and manipulative cousin, Kenneth. Their adolescence is spent in a London experiencing post-war austerity and what readers get from this book is not just a personal battle between two young men (and I know whose side I’m on) but also an insight into a world I remember but that is rapidly being forgotten.
That’s what you get from good historical fiction: a believable sense of what used to be. Right now, the Kindle version is on sale for 99p (there’s also a paperback that will cost you rather more). It’s a good book and I recommend it strongly.
Those whose eBook preference is not for Kindle will find the book at:
THE historical fiction debate
Should we write about kings or commoners? About nobs or nobodies? I know where I stand on that question — and you can hear my side of the argument here.
The book I talk about in that video is here.
A Just and Upright Man is a crime and romance novel set in the northeast of England in the 1760s. I’m in the process of recording the audiobook version and you can listen to Chapter 2 here.
That’s my voice you’re listening to; the reason I chose to record my own book is that I was brought up in the northeast of England, so I know the accent is authentic 🙂
A Just and Upright Man is the first in the five book James Blakiston series of romance and crime novels set in northeast England in the 1760s. The second book in the series, Poor Law, should be published by September 2015; in the meantime I’m recording the audiobook of A Just and Upright Man and you can hear an extract by clicking on the link above.
If you’d like to be informed when the audiobook is completed and available for purchase, email me on email@example.com.
Preparing A Just and Upright Man for publication as an audiobook – an audiobook in which I, the author, am also the narrator – has brought me closer to the people behind the text than I’ve ever been. Sometimes I empathise; but sometimes they make me laugh. Take this passage, which is part of what I dictated today:
Blakiston stood in the dark looking out of his window onto the silent, deserted road outside and thinking about the day. The dreadful sight and smell of Reuben Cooper’s burnt body. The strange interview with Martin Wale. Claverley’s account of so many children, all to be investigated if the death turned out not to be the work of malign fate. A man wandering the roads, who might be Irish or might not, and might be a killer or might not, but who at any rate must be found and questioned. The looming shadow of enclosures. A drunken farmer and an idle one, both to lose their livelihoods if he had anything to do with it.
And, underlying all, the painful recollections that never quite went away, of the woman he had expected to marry and the hurt of his loss. He would never allow himself to love again. Of that he was certain.
So, James, you’ll never love again? Listen, mate, this is a Romance. Capital R. Which I am writing. You, my friend, will love whoever I tell you to love.
That Kate Greener’s a nice girl – don’t you think? What? Not your class? Get outta here.
I read today in one of the historical novelists’ Facebook groups I belong to that the one constant when we write is how people felt in the (sometimes distant) past. We have to research the food they ate, the clothes they wore and the kind of social relationships that existed but the one thing we can be sure of is that the emotions we experience today are the same emotions as our forebears felt. I didn’t argue with the thought, but I’m just not sure that it’s true.
For a lot of years now, I have spent a good deal of my time in the Middle East and when I wasn’t there I was in other places – Africa, South East Asia and the Americas, North and South. When I started writing the James Blakiston series set in the north-east of England in the 1760s, I needed a way to show the religious views held by many of my characters. England already had no shortage of atheists but the majority of people would express Christian thoughts and you just don’t hear that in this country any more. You do still hear it in places like Saudi Arabia (though, of course, the religion being expressed there is Islam and not Christianity) and I quite shamelessly put that Islamic way of speaking into the mouths of eighteenth century English Christians. I found it worked quite well because I was reproducing a mode of speech with which I am familiar.
Religion and emotion are, of course, different things but I think you can extrapolate from one to the other. One of the things you realise in the Gulf is that the Enlightenment has not happened there which means that ways of thinking and of feeling that we take for granted in the West are far less common. I’m open to argument here, but it seems to me that a major legacy of the Enlightenment is that it makes the individual paramount. That is simply not the case in the Islamic Middle East and it seems to me that overlooking that fact is one of the most obvious mistakes made by our politicians when they formulate policy towards the region. We talk about western style democracy, in which the individual comes first, as something that everyone should have and, if they don’t seem to be asking for it, we should press it on them. For example, we completely misunderstood what people like to call the Arab Spring (and it’s questionable, in any case, how Arabic that “spring” really was since it was actually a Mediterranean phenomenon – the countries involved were Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and it’s easy from this distance to overlook the fact that those are all Mediterranean lands). We thought people were demanding the right to self-determination when what they actually wanted was to be sure of a roof over their heads, the ability to feed their families and educate their children and security from the knock on the door in the middle of the night.
One of the most interesting books I have read on English history is The Voices of Morebath. Christopher Trychay was vicar of the small Devon parish of Morebath from 1520 to 1574 and he kept a record of parish life in far more detail than most parishes can provide. The Reformation was, of course, a lot earlier than the Enlightenment and the glimpses this book gives us of what people thought and how they felt reveal an English people far from who we are today and much closer to what we still find in the Islamic Middle East.
For anyone who wants to understand who we once were and to think about how those people developed to become us, The Voices of Morebath is required reading. I recommend it in the strongest possible terms.
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Where does stuff come from? I mean, the stuff we write. I’ve written elsewhere about my puzzlement when I saw the first line of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper; what raised the question this time was a memory from sixty years ago that came back when I met by chance someone I hadn’t seen for almost that long.
In A Just and Upright Man, I wrote this passage:
It was simply the most modern and comfortable house Kate had ever been in. She knew Mistress Wortley to be a widow, and in Kate’s experience widows were always in want of money. There was no sign of that here.
Though the hovels of the poor – hovels like the one Kate lived in – had no floor coverings at all, she was familiar with the floor cloths better off people had. Sheets of canvas drenched in linseed oil and pigment, they gave some pattern and colour but, most of all, they kept the feet clear of the cold stone flags or beaten earth that constituted the floor of most houses. Here, though, were no floor cloths. This floor was smooth surfaced terracotta tiles, swept clean by one of the three servants who looked after this one woman’s every need; and on the tiles lay rugs of woven wool in intricate and brightly coloured designs. Kate stared in wonder.
‘I see you are looking at my rugs, Katherine. You are perhaps wondering why they are not on the wall, as you might have seen in, let us say, the Rectory?’
Kate nodded, though in truth she had never been further into the Rectory than the scullery, and the only hangings there were copper pots and pans.
‘This is the latest fashion, Katherine. Everyone in London is doing it. Hangings are coming off walls and going onto floors. And, see: the blue and yellow wallpaper. I had it delivered by James Wheeley in London. They sent their own men all this way to hang it, for I could not trust the local workmen. It is the newest thing. Would you really cover such a bright and beautiful paper in wall hangings?’
Kate was almost lost for words at such elegance. ‘No, miss.’
‘The people of Ryton do not know what beauty can exist in our world. Beauty is to be found only in Mayfair. And, of course, Paris, Rome, Venice.’
‘Lady Isabella goes every summer to Harrogate. We pray in church for her safe return.’
‘Yes, I can see that a provincial soul might warm to Harrogate. For me, Bath is not entirely without its compensations. And now, tell me. Why do you want to learn to read and write?’
All right, the main object of that scene was the same as the main object of all scenes – to move the story forward. There was something else though; I wanted to show that on the one hand we had Mistress Wortley, a widow of means with a high opinion of her own worldly sophistication and on the other was Kate whose idea of the unattainable would be a visit to Harrogate, 50 miles to the south and a day’s ride in the stagecoaches of the time. (Lady Isabella, by the way, is the rector’s wife). A little later, Mistress Wortley uses the word “provincial” again:
Kate’s reading was progressing well, and the time for her sixth lesson was here.
‘You are glum, child,’ said Mistress Wortley. ‘What troubles you?’
‘The Overseers of the Poor came to see me,’ said Kate. ‘They wanted to know why I was learning to read when we are receiving money from the parish because my father is ill. They say this must be my last lesson, and I must be put to work.’
‘They say that, do they? And you? Do you want this to be your last lesson?’
‘No, Miss. I mean Mistress Wortley. But…’
‘Then it shall not be. You may leave the Overseers of the Poor to me. I shall send them about their business. Now take the old vellum sheet you will find on the table and cover it in the first four letters of the alphabet while I work at my sewing.’
Kate could not prevent herself from looking up from her exercise to watch the widow’s fine work with the needle. ‘That is beautiful cloth, Mistress Wortley. What is it you are making?’
‘A frock for my sister’s son. She has not had my good fortune in avoiding the more sordid aspects of matrimony, and she has three children already after only five years of marriage. The boy is three and I promised to make something for him to wear on Sundays when better weather arrives. But attend to your own work and not to mine. You will not form letters a lady would be proud of unless you pay attention to what you are doing.’
Kate bent her head to the vellum.
‘You are right about the stuff, though,’ said Mistress Wortley. ‘This is the finest cotton, from Galilee. The French have the Levant trade to themselves. They bribe the merchants in Egypt, and it is the Egyptians who buy and sell the cotton from the Holy Land. The most tiresome thing about being at war was having to buy cotton from the Americas and the Indies. Such coarse stuff.’
Kate smiled. She revered Mistress Wortley as a woman of great kindness and she loved hearing her talk about Society, fashion and the world beyond Ryton, but Kate was a girl of common sense and she knew that, sometimes, Mistress Wortley spoke the most complete tripe. Kate loved to tease. But how would her benefactress respond to being teased? Casually, she said, ‘Lady Isabella has fine cotton petticoats. I believe the cloth comes from Manchester, though I do not rightly know where Manchester is. But Rosina told our mam…’
‘Mistress Wortley, I am sorry. Rosina told my mother…’
‘Rosina told Mother that the cotton was from the Indies. Though I don’t rightly know where the Indies are, either.’
‘They are far from here,’ said Mistress Wortley, folding her sewing and putting it aside. ‘And I can see that colonial cotton spun by some Manchester jade as she sings to keep her six starving children quiet might be very fitting for ladies who holiday in Harrogate. One would not wish to see such provincials challenged by anything of excessive quality. Show me the vellum. You are doing well, Kate. I shall not let the Overseers of the Poor come between you and your wish to read. Take this book in your hand. Now. Let us see what you can make of the first sentence.’
Kate “doesn’t rightly know where the Indies are” and it’s clear that Mistress Wortley is no better informed, but she isn’t going to admit it. She is very conscious of the way Kate looks up to her for her broader knowledge of the world. And that brings me back to the question: where does this come from?
In 1954 I was in my first year at grammar school. I went into a shop to buy a chocolate bar (it would have been about three pence at the time, and by that I mean old pence which were worth less than half of the present coin, and you’d need about thirty of those to buy the same piece of confectionery). The mother of one of my schoolfriends from the year before (he had not passed the 11+ and was therefore not with me at grammar school) was explaining to the two women behind the counter (one of whom was my mother) that the behaviour of Italian men – their whistling after women and groping of female behinds – was something that anyone who had been to Italy would expect and think nothing of. “If it becomes too much, you simply give them an earful in Italian and they back away immediately. Mamma’s boys, the lot of them.”
My mother said nothing but I knew from the look on her face that she was not impressed. I hadn’t thought of that incident until the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, for the man I met after a gap of almost 60 years was the son of the woman in the shop who could tell Italian men off in their own tongue. The scene came back to me and I said, ‘What had your mother been doing in Italy?’
‘Italy? I don’t think she was ever there.’
‘But she spoke Italian.’
‘Is this the beginning of dementia? Or are you confusing my mother with someone else? She didn’t speak a word of anything but English. She might say “Pardon my French” when she swore, but that was about the extent of it.
I laughed it off and turned the conversation to other things but I had the answer to my question. Mistress Wortley got her snobbery from Terry Malin’s mother. A writer’s mind is a fermenting hodgepodge of memories (some of which are false), quotations, sudden insights, old fights and old friendships, and things we may have read so many years ago that we have forgotten them. If we are lucky, they come together to form the soil in which something new can grow.
I’ll leave with one last extract from A Just and Upright Man. It comes immediately after the first one I quoted, which ended when Mistress Wortley asked Kate why she wanted to read and write and I think it shows very well the widow’s view of the correctness of the social order as it existed in north-east England in the seventeen sixties. And I know exactly where her ideas of what constitutes correct speech came from – they came from my primary school teachers, more than 200 years later:
‘Miss, I want to better myself. I want to read the bible for myself, instead of hearing only what someone else thinks is important. And I’d like to know what’s going on in the world.’
‘Very well. Estimable wishes, so long as you do not think to rise above your station. But reading and writing are not enough. You must also learn to speak.’
‘Speak, Miss? But, Miss, I speak every day. I am speaking to you now.’
‘That is not speaking. You have much to learn. For now, let us content ourselves with but a few simple rules. You must not say us when you mean me. You must not say our Mam, but my mother. Or, better still, simply Mother. You will not call people Man, whatever sex they may be. And never, ever, shall you address someone as pet. Is that clear? There will be more to learn, when you have mastered this. I shall call you Katherine. You will call me Mistress Wortley, or Ma’am. And now, let us begin.’
A Just and Upright Man was shortlisted for the Historical Novel Society’s 2015 Indie Award. I was so pleased when I heard that and I really didn’t expect to go further — didn’t expect to win — because I could see from the shortlist that I was up against some stiff competition. There were some damn good books there by some damn fine writers.
And now I know that I haven’t won, and even though that was the result I expected — and even though I know I did really well just to get this far — I’m not going to pretend that there wasn’t just a touch of disappointment there, too. I’m a salesman, and you don’t survive 40+ years in that profession unless you’re competitive. I’d rather win than lose.
Today, though, I was Helen Hollick’s Tuesday Talk Guest and I’m so delighted with the way she’s turned it out that I feel good. You can read it here; it’s more than compensated for the earlier bad news.
It’s 6.30 and I’m relaxing in my Heliopolis hotel room after a day showing Egypt’s largest road contractor how to make better, longer lasting bridge joints for less money. Relaxing in this case means reading the second book in the Beatrice Stubbs Boxed Set, which is turning out to be every bit as good as the first, while wondering which of the Fairmont restaurants I should grace for dinner. I am so glad to have discovered JJ Marsh; she’s taken her place at my writers’ top table. But I just came across this:
Beatrice allowed herself a small celebration. Exotic fruit, miso soup or a salmon bagel may well do wonders for the mind but on certain occasions nothing in the world can beat a bacon sandwich.
Yes. YES! No question about it. A bacon sandwich – yum, yum, pig’s bum. But wait – what’s this?
Large streaky rashers curling and spitting away in the pan. Two thick white slices warming in the toaster, a bottle of HP and the papers waiting on the table.
Thick white slices? No. No, woman, no. What are you thinking of? Two slices of Poilâne rye – the only thing. (If you really must, you can substitute Poilâne sourdough, in which case yes you will need to toast it, but ordinary white bread? Never!) (You don’t need to go to Paris for the bread; if you’re in Britain, Frenchclick.co.uk will deliver it right to your door). No butter. Spread one slice with mustard if that’s all you have (English – none of your foreign muck) but Bim’s Kitchen African Baobab Pepper Jam is better and then slather both slices with home made mayo. Sprinkle a small amount of celery salt on one side, lay the fried bacon (if you grill bacon you can bugger off right now) on one side, lay on top of it slices of ripe tomato you have already scattered with salt and black pepper, press the other slice on top, cut in half and eat.
That is a bacon sandwich. A bacon sandwich fit for the incomparable Beatrice Stubbs.
I pah on your white bread.
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