Life is precarious, and our hold on it uncertain. That’s always been true, but it seems that people have forgotten it. We have medication that keeps people alive with conditions that, only a few years ago, would have killed them. It’s easy to believe that threats to life have been overcome; those in their teens today may even believe that they’ll live for ever. They won’t.
Life in the eighteenth century was a lot less certain
A lot of research went into my James Blakiston series, some of it to do with the ages at which people died and what it was that carried them off. Illnesses that we now know as TB and flu were rife. Here is a passage from the first book in the series, A Just and Upright Man:
On the fourth of February in a winter that was taking no prisoners, Blakiston might have expected to find everyone clustered around the fire – and that is exactly where the aged Benjamin was, being fussed over by his wife who was twenty years younger than he was. His two sons, however, were hard at work in the biting cold. Blakiston watched them, struck by the single-minded intensity with which both young men worked. Then he returned to the farm house to take a dish of tea by the fire with the old man and discuss how they would manage the change from a three crop to a four crop rotation.
As he prepared to leave, Blakiston said, ‘You have two good sons.’
‘Aye, Master. They’re good lads, both of them.’
‘It is a pity that both cannot inherit the tenancy. The younger boy…Tom, is it?’
‘Aye, Master. Tom is the second born.’
‘From what I have seen he would make a better farmer than many who are already tenants. But it cannot be. This farm is not large enough to divide. We need bigger farms, not smaller.’
‘Well, Master, God’s will is God’s will.’
‘Do you say so? Tell me, Benjamin Laws, have you any other children beyond those two?’
‘A daughter, Master. Henrietta. We call her Hetty. She is a scullery maid at the Castle.’
‘And how comes it that a man of advanced years has sons so young?’
‘Twas the influenza, Master.’
‘Ah. I am sorry.’
‘Aye, Master. I had a wife and five bairns before what you see me with today. And then the influenza came, in 1735 I think it was, and in three weeks all were gone but me.’
‘A sad story.’
‘It was the same for many.’
‘And that, too, was God’s will?’
Blakiston saw the startled expression in the old man’s eyes and realised he had better take this no further. ‘Well, Uncle, I shall keep you from sleep no longer.’
That was how life was, and the people knew it. Cholera and typhoid were other killers and it was not so many years before that that plague halved the population of England. And these killers did not respect rank – a king or a bishop had almost as much chance of dying as some farm labourer in a hovel.
Those 18th-century killers are still at work
That isn’t the case now, and it could be that the reason that Covid-19 is getting so much attention when tuberculosis (and, if it comes to that, measles) kills far more is that most of the people dying from TB are not white and not middle-class and have very little buying power and are therefore of little interest to our western media. If the virus serves no other purpose, perhaps it might be useful in bringing home to all of us a lesson that, once, did not need to be taught: that life is precarious and our hold on it tenuous.
Passing the time in self-isolation
If you are observing self-isolation, you may find that this is a very good time to spend with a good book. You’ll find the first in the James Blakiston series here and the second here. If historical fiction is not your bag, and you’d like to take a look at the way people live now, try this one or this one.
This is not “Where do you get your ideas?”
It can take a long time to write a book, but they all start somewhere – with an idea, an observation, something the writer wants to say. I’m not talking about the question every writer gets – Where do you get your ideas? I always answer that question by saying, ‘Honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea,’ and “honestly” doesn’t really belong in that sentence because I do know where I get them, but it’s just too complicated to go into. No, what I’m talking about is the moment we, the writers, start to move the idea out of our minds and onto the page.
The Making of Billy McErlane was unusual for me, because my first draft of the first sentence and, in fact, the first chapter was still there the day the book was published. Usually, those first few pages are the scaffolding that supports the book as it unfolds and they have disappeared by the time the file is laid out for the printer. In the case of Billy Mac, the first sentence I wrote was:
All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers
and that sentence, along with the sentences that made up the rest of the first chapter, made it into the finished book. But, as I say, that’s unusual.
What made me think about this was a conversation I had today with one of my favourite writers, Ali Bacon, about places to stay in Gran Canaria. The reason that’s relevant is that I wrote the original first chapter of my latest book, Darkness Comes, on holiday in Gran Canaria. I’d gone out for a walk immediately after breakfast and I didn’t get back until lunchtime (although I did stop for coffee twice, and on one of those stops I also had apple pie and ice cream). As I walked, I started to have an idea for a book about a theme that has been in my mind for as long as I can remember. And when I got back, lunch had to wait because I had constructed the whole of the first two chapters in my head and I needed to get them on paper before I did anything else. Just in case I forgot them.
I compose my best stuff while I’m walking
The book originally had a different working title. It took a long time to finish, and when it did come out (as Darkness Comes), those first two chapters were gone. I didn’t need them any more. They were on the writer’s equivalent of the cutting room floor. But they still – I believe – have something to say, and so I’m appending them here. Anyone who has read Darkness Comes will recognise what’s going on here. And that theme I mentioned is set out quite clearly.
Read it. I hope you enjoy it. If it makes you want to read the book, you’ll find it here.
The Original Opening of Darkness Comes
Elmore Leonard was a writer’s writer. When he died recently, he left some good advice behind him.
A number of readers have asked me just how accurate the historical detail in A Just and Upright Man is. Well, it’s a work of fiction. But that doesn’t mean it’s all invented.
It happens in a real place, but I made up the events and most of the people. The Greener and Laws families have been in and around Ryton for a very long time, but none of them did what their namesakes do here. A lot of other names were common in Ryton – Bent, Cowan and Saunders, to name only three of the more prominent ones – but they never did me any harm and I have left them alone. There was never a Rector there called Thomas Claverley. There was a Blakiston, but he was not Lord Ravenshead’s farm agent. If it comes to that, there was never a Lord Ravenshead – I have changed the name from Ravensworth (though the real Baron never had a son called the Earl of Wrekin). The Blacketts, on the other hand, really were the Blacketts. They did live at Matfen Hall and Hoppyland was one of their estates.
There really was a Sticky Bainbridge, and he really did get his nickname because he had a wooden leg, but I have moved him back in time 150 years and relocated him from South Moor to Ryton. The original provided the occasion for one of my Great Uncle Jot’s celebrated one-liners, repeated through three generations, which is how I first heard of him. Martin Wale was never Curate in Ryton. There really was a James Batey in Bolam and he really was a boot maker of repute as well as being my 4 greats grandfather; there was never a blacksmith in Hexham called James Meader.
The story of the disputed tithe on turnips is true. Ambrose Crowley really was the philanthropist described in these pages, though he was a businessman first. The Ryton Church bells really were cast and fitted when I said they were, the total eclipse happened exactly when I say it did, the Piper of Wall really did marry Jean Middlemas when he was ninety and she was twenty-five and the extravagant claims for his physical performance really were made. If someone could make their way here from the Ryton of the 1760s they’d find nothing to question in my description of the food they ate, the furniture they used, the houses they lived in or the clothes they wore. (I’ve actually had emails challenging the suggestion that women in 18th century England wore no underwear below the waist; I assure you, it’s true.
Oh, yes–and their really was a Kate Greener, too. If there hadn’t been, there wouldn’t now be a Me.
I could go on. What it comes down to is: If it is part of the story of murder, mayhem and love, I made it up. If it isn’t – if it is external to all that – it’s true. Whatever true means in this context. History is a fertile ground for the followers of every creed, whether political, religious or sociological. They’re all right, and they’re all wrong. There is a widespread belief that primary sources will take us back to ground zero and show us what really happened. Sometimes that’s so. And sometimes it isn’t. For example, “everyone” knows – and it’s certainly in all the text books I’ve come across – that there were no workhouses in rural parishes in the north east of England till after 1835. But go back to the primary sources and read Ryton parish’s Account Book of Overseers, including Assessments of Poor Rate, Receipts and Memoranda (Durham Registry Office, EP/Ryt 7/1). Woodside Poor House is there, starting in 1759, and the poor were given the choice of entering it or going without assistance. As so often, what everyone knows to be true is, in fact, wrong.
You can, though, read all the primary documents there are and still come up with differing versions of the truth. A Just and Upright Man is mine. Please. Feel free to see things otherwise.
If you want to discuss this, use the Comment space at the foot of this post. Or you can email me on email@example.com