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Can we talk about that cover for a moment? It’s probably my favourite cover out of all my books and is by the inestimable Kanaxa

We worked hard on getting this cover right – by which I mean that Kanaxa worked hard, and I kept saying things like “can you make that helmet look more like a spangenhelm,” and “can we make it a round shield please?” But as a result of that unflinching back and forth we ended up with a cover that is not only beautiful but is also a kind of microcosm of the book itself.

Say “Early Medieval England” or “Viking Age England” and most people will think “Dark Ages.” It conjures up visions of grim horsemen, battleaxes, snake-prowed Viking ships running up the beaches, disgorging angry armoured men. Burning villages, looting, rapine, war. A bit like the Vikings TV series where everything that isn’t bloody is brown.

That would naturally make you think of dark colours, maybe some battlements, flames against a lowering sky and an atmosphere of oppression and threat.

And that was exactly what I didn’t want for the cover of this book.

I understand why so many people who write books set in this period focus on the battles between Saxon and Viking, the war and terror that that implies. After all, they tell you as a writer to focus on conflict and what more obvious conflict is there than two bunches of people trying to kill each other with swords?

But I wanted to do something that was a bit less obvious.

You see I love the Anglo-Saxons. I have done ever since I discovered that they were the closest thing to the Rohirrim you could get in the real world. I studied Anglo-Saxon art and archaeology at university and did a Masters degree focussing on the Saxons’ pre-Christian beliefs in magic, medicine and the gods. As a result of which I read most of their extant literature (in translation.) I even learned to read Old English, although I have thoroughly forgotten it by now, so that I could begin to appreciate the way they used their beautiful language.

For the last twenty years, I’ve been a member of the Saxon, Viking and Norman reenactment society Regia Anglorum, which has certainly helped me when it came to getting the small details of this book right. For example, here I am by the fire playing the same kind of bone whistle that Leofgar carries up his sleeve in the book:

And yes, I know exactly what it’s like to sit in a longhall on a cold winter’s night with your eyes streaming from the smoke, smelling like you’ve been kippered, and hearing the wolves howl outside. Even the wolf part is true – Regia has a longhall in Kent, just outside a nature reserve on which there are wolves. Close enough to hear it when they sing.

I love the Saxons’ art, the amazing colours and brightness of their illuminated manuscripts, the gold and glitter and garnet of their jewellery. I wanted some of that sense of light and colour in my cover and by Jove I think I got it.

I love the thoughtfulness and romantic melancholy of their poetry. They felt that they lived in a diminished age, that great things had happened in the past and nothing now lived up to it. They built their wooden halls in the shadows of Roman walls and made songs about “the ancient works of giants.”

They had a cooperative and really quite egalitarian society – much better for women’s rights, social mobility and the treatment of peasants and slaves than the Norman culture that replaced them.

So what I wanted in this book was to show that society working, in the last years before the Viking raids began to turn into a Viking invasion. I wanted to show that society at peace, so that I could look a bit closer at the kinds of things that war doesn’t leave time for: music, magic, gender and the social construction of masculinity.

We know very little about how the Anglo-Saxons treated gay men, so I’ve had to borrow from what we know of the Vikings’ attitude. I feel OK about this, as the Angles were essentially the same stock as the Vikings, they shared the same gods and many of the same words. They shared a past. It’s not a stretch to think that their beliefs about sex were similar.

It’s both good news and bad news. On the one hand no one is thinking same sex relationships are unnatural, illegal or damned. On the other, it’s a proof of your masculinity to be the top, but woe betide the bottom. He is the object of ridicule and the same kind of contempt that Victorian society dealt out to fallen women.

So there’s a conflict. How the hell do you negotiate a relationship of equals in a culture that’s preoccupied with the assumption that one of you must be the bitch? If you’re a well respected, high born, dangerous warrior, can you ever dare to be some man’s boy? And if you’re poor and beautiful and dependant on charity from your local warlord – like an itinerant bard – how do you get him to accept that you will never submit to him because you’re just as much of a man as he is?

These questions and many more are answered in the story, which does in fact contain numerous sword-fights, fist-fights and other types of conflict both magical and mundane. War, after all, isn’t the be all and end all of everything. Even a society at peace is not necessarily free of bandits, backstabbers, supernatural horrors and men with lethal levels of entitlement.

~

Alex Beecroft is an English author best known for historical fiction, notably Age of Sail, featuring gay characters and romantic storylines. Her novels and shorter works include paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary fiction.

Beecroft won Linden Bay Romance’s (now Samhain Publishing) Starlight Writing Competition in 2007 with her first novel, Captain’s Surrender, making it her first published book. On the subject of writing gay romance, Beecroft has appeared in the Charleston City Paper, LA Weekly, the New Haven Advocate, the Baltimore City Paper, and The Other Paper.

She is represented by Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Literary Agency

You can find her at her website, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Ah, mothers. Every hero has one—or does he? It’s a sad fact that for most of the time in which historical fiction is set, it wasn’t uncommon for mothers to say a final farewell to their sons rather sooner than we’d hope in today’s world of antibiotics and modern hygiene.

And as if childbearing itself weren’t perilous enough in less enlightened times, there’s the further danger of narrative demands—after all, where would Harry Potter have been, if his parents had lived? Not, one suspects, the star of seven ever-more-bricklike tomes. In fact the number of fictional orphans is so suspiciously high, one might be tempted to suspect some sort of juvenile murder ring going on.

But never fear. The fictional historical mother isn’t extinct, merely somewhat endangered. And often, due to the smaller circles in which people moved in former times, rather more closely involved in her son’s life than might be the case nowadays, both in happy times:

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Mam came bustling down from upstairs, looking bright herself in her Sunday best. “Oh, that’s a beauty, Danny. Will you stay for supper with us now?” There was a furrow in her brow as she said it, so Danny reckoned he knew what the answer had better be. – Keeper’s Pledge

And also in times of worry:

“Mam, you know me and him have been, well, close?”

She nodded, tight-lipped. It wasn’t something they ever spoke of.

“I think it’s over, Mam. I can’t risk my job, not when like as not he’ll be looking for a reason to fire me. What’d we do then?” He tried to keep his voice steady, Lord knew, but the pain was too great not to let it show a little.

“Oh, Danny.” Mam put down her sewing and rose to lay a gentle hand on his arm, then gathered him to her. “Oh, love. Hush now. Don’t you worry. I’ll not say another word about it. You just do what you think is best.” – Keeper’s Pledge.

And maybe this close involvement, with children staying in the area their parents had grown up in, helped sons see a fuller picture of their mothers. Including the astonishing fact that mothers were once young themselves. Here’s Danny from Poacher’s Fall and Keeper’s Pledge talking to Philip about his mother:KeepersPledge_postcard_front_DSP

“[Mam’s] always loved having a bit of mistletoe in the house come Christmas. Says it reminds her of how she met my da.”

“Oh? That was at Christmas? At a dance, I suppose?”

“There, sir, you’d be supposing wrong. See, she was the second chambermaid here, back when old Mr. Luccombe was alive, God rest him. Maybe you’d remember her? Right pretty she was, by all accounts. Helen Braithwaite, as was.”

Philip shook his head absently. He’d never really paid much attention to the chambermaids.

“Any road, she’d been sent to ask the men to cut some mistletoe for the hall, here. And it happened it was my da sent to get it for her. Now, Da being Da, he tells her she’s to come with him to get it. So he takes her out into the woodland, out to that very oak tree I came a cropper on. ’Course, I reckon it’s grown a bit since then,” he added, grinning.

It seemed to be infectious. “So I suppose he shinned up the tree and fetched the mistletoe, whereupon she was duly impressed and agreed to let him court her?”

Costessey’s grin had turned wicked. “Well, she never did go into detail, mind. But they were wed the following Easter, and I was born in time for harvest that year.” – Poacher’s Fall.

Which leads us on to another aspect of mothers. One of the perks of having grown-up (or nearly grown-up) children is, of course, being able to embarrass them and/or anyone they bring home to meet the parents. Here’s the reserved George meeting his friend Matthew’s mother for the first time in Dulce et Decorum Est:

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Matthew’s mother was an unusually tall woman, thin as a beanpole and as energetic as a whippet. She greeted her son with a kiss that left him with powder on his shoulder and a faint lipstick mark on his cheek. She then proceeded to bestow the same honor upon George, rather to his discomfort. “Welcome to our home, dear. So glad that Matthew’s found such a good friend in London—a mother does worry so, particularly when—”

“Mother!”Dulce et Decorum Est

***

JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

JL Merrow is a member of the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.

In False Colors John Cavendish’s relationship with his mum, although off screen, is a big factor in the way he approaches life. It’s one of the many things he has to work through in the process of allowing himself to fall in love.

~*~*~*~

As everything paused on a high note, clear and perfect, John’s delight escaped in a gasp of breath, and at the sound Donwell’s eyes snapped open.  With a convulsive heave backwards, he drew the flute to his chest as if to protect it, slamming his heels into the sea-chest and scrabbling to rise.  “Oh!  Oh, I’m….  I’m sorry sir, I didn’t know you were there!”

 “No need to apologize, Mr. Donwell.”  John smiled, not only the music making him radiant.  It was pleasing to have the upper hand for a change; to wrong-foot his over-bold lieutenant.  “Rather I should ask your pardon for disturbing you in the middle of a performance.  I have a most untutored reaction to music.  What was it, may I ask?”

“Surely you know Telemann, sir?” Donwell’s dark brows arched with surprise as he straightened up, freeing space enough for John to walk in.  In his new mood of confidence, John did so, and found it pleasant to revert to the comradely visiting he had done on board the Admiral’s first rate.  There, they had been in and out of one another’s cabins all the time, borrowing books and stockings, taking a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with each other.  It had been, indeed, a little too sociable for John’s tastes, but now, after a fortnight of solitude, he thirsted for company. 

“It is not possible to underestimate what I know about music.”  The canvas partition wall creaked beneath John’s weight as he cautiously leaned against it.  A small part of him quailed at opening the details of his family life to such a stranger, but Alfie’s honest, good-humored amusement encouraged him.  Whatever else he felt—this itch of over-awareness which made every conversation a little too intense—distrust was not part of it. 

Indeed, the desire to put Donwell on the next ship to China weighed equally against the desire to tell him all and keep him close.  If it puzzled John which instinct to trust, he thought he should probably choose the more humane.  “My mother did not approve of it.  ‘Snare of the devil,’ she said.  It was not played in our house.”

“Your mother did not approve of music?”  Donwell had clearly been very startled indeed; his face only now began to change from boyish openness to the urbanity of an adult.  In all the layers thus revealed, John was startled to see pity. 

His temper flared instinctively. “Why should she?  Is it not used to set the scene for debaucheries?  Balls, where young people may lose their innocence.  Theatre and opera and dancing that dazzle the senses and make the heart forget true morality?  It would be a more steadfast, sober world without music.”

In his zeal, John stepped forward.  Donwell did not retreat, but stood there, apparently relaxed, his thumb moving gently over the curve of the flute.  “And a poorer one.”

Fists tightening almost against his will, physical fury swept through John, clear and glorious as the music.  Breathing hard, he could almost feel the smack of his knuckles into Donwell’s mouth, where a small, startled smirk turned in the end of the man’s lips.  Infuriating!  How dare he?  How dare he laugh at me?  They stood so close he could feel the warmth of Donwell’s shin on his own calf.

Watching that little knowing smile light up Donwell’s smoky amber eyes, John breathed in sharply and turned away, fighting down the urge to wrap his hands around the other man’s neck and choke some reason into him. 

What the…?  Where had that violence come from?  Shame flooding him, he stepped back, head bowed, appalled at himself.  It wasn’t even as though he didn’t agree.

“Forgive me.  ‘And a poorer one, sir.’”  Donwell too retreated, hopping up to sit on his cot, ceding John the two paces of floor and the sea-chest seat. 

For a man who has given in, he looks altogether too triumphant, John thought, sitting down on the chest with trembling legs and a tender conscience.  “You might be right.”  As his racing heart slowed, he attempted a reassuring smile.  God alone knew what Donwell must think of him!  He himself had no idea.  “Though it shows a filial impiety in me to allow it.”

John’s mother disapproved of many things in which he himself could not see the harm.  Had the music not – only a moment ago – made him feel closer to God?  Prompted him to worship?  How then could anyone say it was a snare?  It disturbed and grieved him that she made her life more unhappy than it needed to be, but at times it was hard to avoid the thought.  “I do sometimes fancy it is ungrateful—in our quest for purity—to disallow ourselves the things which were created to give us joy.”

7-December 1855
Dear Hohenheim,

It seems that a vast period of time has passed.  Another vision ensues.  I see myself in youth, curled into the hard windowseat that looks down into the Hauptmarkt from my room, and occasionally the front door rattles  as a customer enters or leaves.  It is my birthday, and I am ten years old.  Held in my hands is the too-difficult text of Byron’s Manfred, not yet available to me in German, and so I labor over the English original.  Why must he be so metaphorical?  Can he not, for my sake, use less flowery words, so that I am not constantly jumping up to the dictionary?  As I study, a sound comes to my ears.  It is my mother, singing.  She must be brushing her hair, now.  I am drawn away from the puzzling beauty of Byron’s verse to the irresistible beauty of her voice.  She does this because she knows I am listening.

I wander down the main stair, toward the singing voice as it grows louder and more compelling to my ear, and as I do, I realize that something impossible is happening.   It is I, indeed, and I am yet ten, but the angelic voice of my mother is singing “Der Gärtner” which I did not compose until 1842! nor publish until 1851.  Then – the singer cannot be my mother, else she herself composed it in 1820 or before,  and I took it down later from memory.  But this cannot be, because I, here in the finalized Present, know that my mother never composed a tune nor invented any single piece of music, and she learned anew only what I wrote, and then only my student compositions; for my true work did not come until later.  So it cannot be.

By the time I reach the bottom of the staircase I behold the beautiful newness of the paint, the grand doors that lead into what is no longer my father’s shop but is now a concert hall!  Just as had been done to Ha’s library in the Future!  This is my house, indeed, and on what is now a stage, where once lay stacks of cartons of books and Zeitungen, there stands in slimmer guise, with wildly loose hair running free, my mother!  Practicing with a chamber quartett!  She never wore such a seductive coiffure in 1820, certainly!  This is my birthday indeed, for I see she is rehearsing this concert as a gift to me.  I enter the room, and milling about are others, dressed for the concert, listening to the rehearsal as they arrange flowers near the stage, and set the chairs in the hall.  It must be some hours beforehand.

I stand rapt, listening.  The casements are finished in beautifully polished blond wood, the walls shine with bright stucco, new-applied.  The Flügel on the stage shines with a rich sheen.  This Future is wealthy beyond the dreams of the greediest composer’s avarice! And this room, yet another shrine to chamber music.

Do you vouchsafe for me this vision as answer to the pages of bitter regret just past, Hohenheim?  For what could touch me more deeply, or move me more joyously than to see my mother once again, so radiant?  In voice, perfect, sweetly singing a piece I had composed specifically in her memory?

There is a joy in me difficult to contain, now, for I love her utterly.  She is the incarnate presence of the Angel, to me.  Despite her moods and petulances, she never said single word of harshness to me.  She loved me unrelentingly, constantly.  She told me once that she had prayed in song to God to send her an angelic child, to bring her inspiration to sing, and she knew when she was confined with me, that she had Song within her.  During that pregnancy she sang continually.

She, my Beloved, was my first Song, and I ill tolerated parting from her.  Oh joy, mixed with sorrow!  For here, again, she stands.  No more than five and twenty years old, and if possible, her voice more brilliantly colored.  And standing at the door, invisible in the Ghost Realm, I weep for the soul-stirring vision of her..

It is my birthday.

The moment chimes, the audience – a hundred, more! pack into the room, some with flowers in hand, with smiles, greybeard men, grey-haired women, youths, and here and there a serious-faced child – a violinist the one, another a pianist.  I can read it in their faces.  Students at the Konservatorium.

Since when has this dull town had a musical Konservatorium, I wonder?  Oh dear, it is named for me! I learn.  The house, the plaza, the school… how incredibly embarrassing.  To go from obscure neglect to a cult-like fame in death.  A man should never live to see himself become a figure of reverence.  It is not me, it was never me… erect monument instead to the faceless Angel of the Wellspring!

I am rather ashamed to realize how few of my characters seem to have mothers! But here, from Captain’s Surrender, is Peter Kenyon working through his grief at apparently having lost his lover, while remembering to reassure his mum that although he’s a prisoner of war, he’s still doing fine.

~*~*~*~

“May I write to my friends in Bermuda?” Peter asked after another pause in which both men felt they should be saying something but neither knew what. “I…there is unhappy news to tell to many, which I would wish them to hear from a more sympathetic source than the naval gazette.”

His calm began to fracture at that sentence; he could feel the cracks spreading out from it, as they spread from an incautious foot stepped on thin ice. He was fragile at present, but beneath him the cracks were widening above the plunge into icy depths. He tried to ease away from the flaw but could not. It spread and spread beneath him, and he tensed for the sudden final break.

“Of course. Just go on into the drawing room. I’ll have Nancy bring you paper. I heard about the fight, of course. Don’t let my wife hear me say this”—he shook his head at the thought, his eyes shining—“but that must have been something! A French ship of the line and a little, tiny thirty-two? Hoo! I don’t mean to be unpatriotic, but that was a brave man.”

“Yes.” Peter was startled into a small smile. “Yes, he was. He was my particular friend, but I had no idea he intended anything so rash or so…so glorious.”

“Your friend, was he?” Ward rocked back on his heels. He wore no wig, so to Peter he seemed always informal, but the look in his pale eyes was unmistakably kind. “Well then, I won’t say that all this could have been avoided if Westminster had chosen to treat with us like civilized men. How they ever thought they could beat us into submission is probably as much a mystery to you as it is to me. So go and write your letters, son, and mourn your dead. You won’t be the only man doing the same.”

 

Peter considered the justice of this rebuke as he worked his way through the letters of condolence. His handwriting grew progressively shakier as his grief insinuated itself under his guard.

He had never failed in anything, and yet when had he ever done anything but what was expected of him? He had great sympathy for the colonists’ desire for self-rule, but when had he ever said so? When had he ever stood up for those things that really meant something to him? He had not. He had chosen always do to what everyone else thought was right, not what his own heart told him.

And in doing so—he put the pen down, rubbed his stinging eyes, telling himself it was fatigue that made them burn—he had rejected the one thing in his life that had ever made him completely happy.

He looked out at the sea, the ships in the harbor visible and yet so far away, and wondered if he could pray. He wanted to pray, “Oh, God, please, don’t let him have done this because of me, because I hurt him, because I put an end to something that he said must end.”

Pulling a fresh sheet of paper towards himself, he took up the pen again and began to write. My dear Mr. Summersgill, I am happy to inform you that I am alive and well, though confined. I am under house arrest in the dwelling of a worthy gentleman of Boston named Mr. Ward. I am quite comfortable and lack nothing but my freedom.

I am including here my wish that you should have power of attorney over my small estate in Bermuda and beg leave to ask you to see that my servants are paid and are not in distress in my absence.

Peter wondered if he should express some conventional sentiments of attachment to Emily, but his disordered thoughts rose up against such base hypocrisy. When the world lay at his feet, it had seemed natural that every prize should be his, but now he wondered if she even liked him, and more, he wondered if—beyond a basic physical appreciation of her charms—he even liked her. How much did he know about her? Not half so much as he had known about Josh, and he had cared not half so much to know.

Please pass on my love to my mother, and the reassurance that I am as well as it is possible to be, though I may not be able to send her the bird-of-paradise feathers she asked for in her last. My regards to Emily, and I remain, sir,

Your most obliged servant,

Peter Alexander Kenyon.

A Pseudo-Medievalist’s Guide – to Fire.

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Clearly there are many advantages to reading bad books. One of these is the inspiration to write blog posts in an effort to make sure it never happens again.

There are several aspects of medieval life which are easily researchable, but which sometimes writers think they can make up on the fly. I can hardly blame a writer, who has grown up with movies and TV series in which the pseudo-medieval people sit round a blazing fire of leaping yellow flames, which comes on and goes off as if at the flick of a switch, for thinking that that’s how it really is.

 But you know what, kids, it really isn’t, and writing shows up your ignorance more than any brief glimpse of setting in a movie ever could. Worse, more than enough of your readers will have dealt with camp fires, will have open fires at home, will be blacksmiths, reenactors and twisted firestarters to know you got it wrong and to laugh at you for it.

Here, then, is a cheat’s guide to the common camp and hearth fire.

First of all, to address the scene in the book I just read, if you stumble into a clearing where someone has had a fire which has been left to burn itself out and is now cold, and you want to light one yourself, do not try to set fire to the ‘powdery stuff’ which is left. That stuff is called ‘ash’. Ash is the waste product of fire, and while good for tanning leather and making soap it is not flammable.

So, how do you relight someone’s fire (sounds like a romance plot)?

First of all, you rake the cold ashes out of the place where they made the fire. Ash forms a fluffy, inflammable barrier which prevents air getting to your fuel – so it actually chokes the fire. You want a nice clean start on which to build, because making a fire is hard, and unless you give it the best chance you can, you will fail to get it started at all.

 First of all, consider your terrain. Are you in a very dry place? What’s the soil like? If you start a fire on top of an unprotected soil largely made of dry peat, you may end up setting fire to the ground under you. This is a bad idea.

Check, therefore, to see if the previous camper lined the firepit with stone or clay, or whether the ground is wet enough to reduce the danger of roasting yourself and the county you sit in. If not, find stones or clay yourself and make a floor of that to start the fire on.

 Next, sort through the raked out mess of the previous fire. There are some parts of a burnt out fire which will be helpful – any largish chunks of wood which are partially but not wholly burned are likely to be slightly more inclined to catch alight than completely unburned wood would be. These don’t go on the hearth (technical term for the floor you’ve made for your fire) yet, though.

 Now you want to give the infant fire some baby food to help it grow up strong before it can move on to the solid food of big logs. You cannot just drop a spark on a log and expect fire to result, unless you’re in ‘hello forest fire’ conditions, in which case do not light a fire at all!

 Ideally, your sensible pseudo-medieval traveller is carrying a carefully protected bag of dry hay, small dry twigs, and a half a dozen larger dry split sticks. (This is a job for the evening before – drying out enough wood to start the fire next day.)

 Arrange the small twigs in a lattice arrangement (any shape you can manage which leaves plenty of space for air to get through, and a hollow in the middle into which you will insert the fire. Arrange the larger twigs on top of that – still carefully preserving the air-flow. Support the larger dry sticks and partly burned pieces on top of that.

 Make sure there is a good pile of further wood already gathered and preferably cut up into hearth-sized lengths waiting to go on when the time is right.

 OK, so that’s the easy bit done. Now, the prepared pseudo-medieval traveller takes out her tinderbox. The tinderbox contains a small lump of flint and a steel strikealight. It also contains a piece of pre-prepared tinder. This can be a kind of dried fungus, or the fluffy seed of bullrushes, or several small pieces of linen that have been cooked in an airtight box until they’re black.

 I’ve never used fungus or bullrushes, but this is how it goes with linen. When absolutely everything is ready, you hold one piece of linen and the flint in the same hand. Strike the steel against the flint until a spark falls on the linen. The spark will hopefully catch and create a little glowing red spot of slow burning on the linen. When this happens, you put the flint down, keep the spot glowing by blowing gently on it, pick up the straw. Place the glowing linen into the centre of the straw and blow hard into the centre of the ball of straw and linen.

 Hopefully the straw will catch alight. Encourage it by further breathing on it. Not too soon, but not so late that you burn your hands off, push the burning ball of straw into the hollow you created for it in the lattice of what will become your fire. Get your face as close to the fire as you can and breathe air into the flames – gently and steadily.

 Hopefully, the twigs will begin to burn before the straw burns out. Hopefully the larger twigs and pieces of branch will begin to burn before the smaller twigs burn out. If so, the careful lattice will slowly settle into itself and begin to create glowing embers.

 You cannot walk away from the fire at this stage. It needs another hour or so of feeding it larger logs while being careful not to crush or smother the air out of it before it’s self-sustaining enough to be left for a short period. But even then, you will need to check on it every quarter of an hour or so to make sure it isn’t running out of fuel and threatening to go out, or alternatively to make sure it hasn’t ventured out of the side of the hearth and decided to explore your whole campsite.

 Fire needs to be cosseted and nurtured and tenderly nursed, and watched relentlessly to be sure it isn’t going to make a break for it. Fire is not an electric light or a space heater, controllable at the flick of a switch, and it’s a tricky, sneaky creature on whom you have to keep a careful eye.

 But, you may say, my pseudo-medieval traveller was robbed of all his equipment and is stumbling through the forest naked. He starts a fire and…

 How’s he going to do that then? I say. Naked, eh? So he’s got no flint or steel to create a spark? And he’s got no knife to create a fire-drill? Um… Is there flint or rock around he could knap into some kind of cutting tool? More to the point, is he the kind of character with the survivalist knowledge necessary? Does he know which kinds of trees to make his fire-drill out of? Could he recognise the right kind of fungus for tinder? Is it the right season for the bullrushes to be in seed?

 And I really hope it’s not raining, because even if he has the ability to make the spark, if the fuel it ends up on is wet, it will put the spark out.

 Your average pseudo-medieval peasant is likely to know how to start a fire at home, using dry everything under optimal conditions, just as you are likely to know how to start a fire using matches and a couple of firelighters. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any better than you at lighting a fire in the wild without matches/tinderbox and kindling.

 Your naked forest-wanderer may still be saved if he stumbles over the remains of someone else’s fire. But – here is the key bit – he must do so before it has completely burnt out. If he gets to the fireplace and the ashes are still warm, then there is a chance that there are still small embers alight in the ash-bed. Then, if he can find dry tinder (straw, dry pine bark, paper etc), small dry sticks and larger dry sticks, he might be able to find an ember in the ash which will take the place of that elusive spark (another good romance title).

 It still has to be not raining, though.

~

Alex is only intermittently present in the real world.She has lead a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone. You can find more of her blogging and all of her books at her site: http://alexbeecroft.com

“Oh!” Don put the Sunday paper on the coffee table and got up. As soon as Rick had entered the living room he saw something was wrong. “What’s the matter? Bad news.”

Rick put his mobile beside the paper with a peevish little click. “The boss. I’m going on a training course.”

“What?” Don shook his head. “But why?”

“Some new computer programme we all have to use. As if that’s going to make an already shitty job any better.”

Once they had decided to move in together, they had managed to find the perfect flat to rent, nice and close to the school where Don was head of Physics. But Rick had had to take what he could get in the way of employment – data processing for some faceless international corporation. Sure there was a gym in the basement of the building were he worked, but no discernable soul amongst the middle-management.

“Apparently I have to have the bit of paper before I can go up to the next grade where I might do something that requires a brain,” Rick elaborated with a wave of his hand. “So it’s the course for me. Thursday.”

“That’s short notice,” Don scowled. “But at least it’s just one day. What?” Rick was shaking his head.

“Thursday first thing through to lunchtime Saturday.” He shrugged. “I’ve got no choice but at least it’s all expenses paid and the hotel should be a good one.”

“London?” Don asked.

“No, down on the south coast.” Rick grinned. “You could come with me. I’ve opted for a double bed with no sharing.” He patted his belly. “Claimed I need my space, see.  Some of the other guys are taking spouses so there’s no reason why you can’t come.”

“And what would I do while you’re doing whatever? I’d sooner stay here. Make ready to give you a really warm welcome when you get home.” Don raised his eyebrows suggestively.

“You could keep me warm down there,” Rick protested. “Come on. It’s a nice place.”

“Where?”

“Bognor Regis.”

“Bognor? No, I’m not going.” Don folded his arms with a scowl. “God awful  place that’s stuck in the 50s. Walk down the street holding hands and corseted matrons have the vapours and call for the Peelers.”

“Exaggerating much,” Rick said. “Oh please yourself. This crap job hasn’t got many perks so excuse me if I make the most of this one.”

Don went to make supper, feeling guilty but not yet prepared to apologise, while Rick sorted the laundry with more force than necessary. Neither job was improved by sulking.

By the next morning they were at ease with each other and when Rick asked again Don had an answer that couldn’t possibly cause offence.

“You know we’ve been meaning to give the hall a coat of paint. I can do that Friday night after I get in. You wanted that soft green, didn’t you?”

“Okay.” Rick smiled, kissed Don good bye and went to catch his bus.

Rick asked again on Monday evening just after they had gone to bed. “Are you sure you won’t come?”

“I think I’m bound to if you keep doing that,” Don replied with a gasp.

“No,” Rick snickered. “I meant Bognor?” But he didn’t stop and he didn’t get a sensible answer either.

Don assumed that the matter had been dropped. Rick made the occasional comment about ways and means. He was getting a lift with a colleague. Ellie would pick him up from the house at 6.30 on Thursday morning which should give them plenty of time to be there by ten. The hotel was a modern one – Rick had checked it out online – very plush.

Don provided satisfactory responses but was still adamant. “I’ve just got too much on,” he said. “Between the office and home – no, I can’t spare the time. You get your sleep.” He raised his eyebrows. “You’ll need all your energy when you get back.”

“I thought I might go out on the town,” Rick said.

“In Bognor?” Don snorted. He too had looked it up online. “Good luck mate. I can recommend the music hall. Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd, Nosmo King and Hubert are still playing down there.”

“Exaggerating,” Rick sang out again but this time he was laughing.

Thursday morning,  Don got up early to see him off on the doorstep. “Take care,” he said and drew him close for a farewell kiss.

Rick sighed. “I’ll miss you,” he said. “Last chance? You could come down by train?”

“You don’t give up do you,” Don said and gave Rick a squeeze. “Off with you. I can hear a car.”

Ellie came to the door – a bright twenty something in impossible heels that didn’t seem to slow her down at all.”

“Ready?” she asked. “Got your glad rags?”

“Hardly,” Rick said. “I plan to do a lot of reading.” He waved his Kindle.

Ellie snorted. “Silly man.” She rolled her eyes and grinned at Don. “Didn’t they tell you that the venue had to cancel? They rang last night. Dry rot or salmonella or something. We’re not going to Bognor. We’re going to Brighton instead.”

“Brighton!” Rick and Don’s voices meshed perfectly in yelps of delight and disbelief.

Rick turned to Don. “Changed your mind?” he asked.

“You betcha, big boy,” Don replied with a grin.

Bugger Bognor. Brighton was more like it!

~

Elin is fairly new to official authordom; Alike As Two Bees, her historical gay romance, was only published in March. Links to her work can be found here.

Tripped up by words. 

In my one Regency story I have a charcter talking about how hard the snow is falling; he calls it a blizzard. Nice, traditional English word, I thought. Imagine how cross I was to recently discover that not only is “blizzard” a late nineteenth century word as applied to weather, it’s American in origin. What right had it to trip me up like that? 

Trouble is, it’s too easy to just assume things about language. Yes, I look up brands to see if they’re contemporary for my heroes (that’s why Orlando can’t snaffle jelly babies) and I check out phrases, too (which is why Helena couldn’t say “Goodnight Vienna”) but some words seem so obviously “old” that I don’t bother. Perhaps I should, but when to stop? 

I guess for most of us there’s an internal sort of check which means we’re fine if we’re writing post 1700. If the word/phrase is in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, then we’re safe.  So I can use punk, “eye for an eye”, ‘’beggars description” and the like to my heart’s content. Plumber, spectacles,  barricade, shuttle; they’re all nice safe words.  Some are surprises, too – skyscraper goes back to the Age of Sail, and was then used as a nickname for things like tall hats. Dunce, admiral, stationer – all these words can be traced back a surprisingly long way.

Clearly there are some obvious words which a writer could never use in a story set earlier than the twentieth century – bikini, Quisling, green in the sense of concerned for the environment, gay in the sense of sexuality., tank in any sense other than a storage receptacle. But there are some phrases which could catch you out. “The cat’s whiskers” comes from the days of radio, so couldn’t be used to describe something really good in Regency days. Nor could your Victorian spy be brainwashed. He could, however, have gone to see a floodlit rugby match, although they weren’t necessarily called floodlights then. 

Aren’t words confusing, or is it just me getting old?

I’m hugely indebted to Lee Benoit for mailing me with some pictures she noticed in an archive for the athletic departments at her old university.

These lovely – and very modern looking lads – appear to be the 1870 baseball team. The guy sitting down, second from right, looks just like Steve Borthwick.

And this lad from 1880 looks like he could just have stepped out of my Sky Sports screen!

I picked up the book British Greats at a charity stall; it’s a real gem. As I flicked through, I came across this picture – the bloke second from the left at the back really caught my eye. “That’s Mallory! I had no idea he was so striking!”

The story of Mallory and Irvine’s bid to climb Everest is the stuff of which British history is made, especially the attitude that using oxygen to aid climbing was somehow unsporting! Did they scale the mountain three decades before Hilary and Tenzing? How did they die? The haunting account of them being last seen disappearing into cloud as they attempted the summit has me welling up even as I type.

Andrew (Sandy) Irvine, even if he’s traditionally more handsome, doesn’t cut it for me.

Mallory’s my boy.

Lytton strachey thought he was pretty hot, too.

My hand trembles, my heart palpitates, my whole being swoons away at the words — oh heavens! I found of course that he’s been absurdly maligned — he’s six foot high, with the body of an athlete Praxiteles, and a face — oh incredible — the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an imaginable English boy. I rave, but when you see him, as you must, you will admit all — all!

Maybe the picture featured here is the reason. Mallory seems to have had a hankering for being in the nude – how cold must he have been doing this?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years reading books and poetry by and about the WWI poets. I’ll start by saying that I’m not going to be extolling either the beauty or the virtue or Rupert Brooke or Siegfried Sassoon. Despite the way that women raved about their looks, I find neither particularly attractive physically and the more I read about them the more I dislike their personalities.

Instead, let me squee about these lads:

Ivor Gurney is one of the almost forgotten poets of WWI, in comparison to Brooke, Sassoon, Graves and Owen. He seems to have had some sort of mental disorder, not just the almost inevitable shell-shock, and died tragically young,  leaving behind a legacy of such poems as “To His Love“.

is body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

And then there’s my favourite, Wilfred Owen

I have on my computer cart a WWI Manchester’s cap badge, ourchased solely because Owen was with one of the Manchester regiments (the seller gave me a discount because I mentioned that). Complex, charming, a touch immature, shy, talented, Owen comes across wonderfully well – better, indeed, with everything I read about him. There’s something so gentle and wistful in that gaze, something to make me go weak at the knees.

He’s retained his place in the heart – and the English curriculum – of the nation, although I do wonder what some teachers would think if they knew he’d written about rent-boys as well as life in the trenches. I’d recommend that anyone who wants to understand WWI, and early twentieth century Engalnd, reads his work. I’ll go back to sighing…

At the Macaronis authors’ group we were discussing handsome men (par for the course) and got onto hotties from days gone by. Some of us will be sharing our favourite historical hotties over the weeks ahead.

I’m starting with some sporting heroes (well, there’s a surprise!) I like men’s tennis, so I was astonished to discover that there were two British players who dominated Edwardian tennis, worldwide, and I’d never heard of them!

Laurie and Reggie Doherty between them won every Wimbledon singles tournament from 1897 to 1906, bar 1901. They had wins at the US championships, won doubles titles in the US and UK and garnered Olympic gold, including in London 1908. And they were gorgeous.

Then there’s Ronnie Poulton-Palmer. He scored four tries in an international against France (shades of Chris Ashton and Italy!) and was killed in the trenches, his last words apparently being, “I shall never play at Twickenham again”.

His death inspired a poem, by Alfred Ollivant, in The Spectator:.
‘Ronald is dead: and we shall watch no more
His swerving swallow-flight adown the field
Amid eluded enemies, who yield
Room for his easy passage, to the roar
Of multitudes enraptured, who acclaim
Their country’s captain slipping towards his goal.
Instant of foot, deliberate of soul -
All’s well with England, Poulton’s on his game.’

I’m off to have a lie down and a weep.

No – the title isn’t misspelled. (However – warnings for plot spoilers of Mere Mortals)

One of the things I wanted to explore in Mere Mortals was the sheer disposability of human life. I remember that Dickens’ expose of the terrible treatment of orphans in Oliver Twist helped to start the authorities to look at them, and to improve matters–and Kingsley’s Water Babies highlighted the plight of chimney sweeps, which again led to reform.

I’m a bit too late to reform the Victorian Age, though, but I did want to explore some aspects of life that make our modern hair stand on end.

Orphans were pretty much human detritus–we see that in Oliver Twist, of course. Boys from the orphanage are simply objects, not humans to be raised and cared for in the way they are today. When Oliver plays up, asking for more food (the cheek of it!) he’s sold off to a local tradesman–which would have been a step up, if he’d managed to keep the job. He certainly had more chance surviving out of the workhouse.

Greediest Boy In The School

In Mere Mortals, the three young men, Crispin, Myles and Jude, are a little more fortunate, at least in some respects. They are obviously natural sons of well-to-do men, and better still, men who (in the absence of DNA testing and the authorities we have today such as the Child Support Agency) who feel that they should provide the minimum of decent education for those sons. But that’s as far as it went. Once those orphans left their preparatory schools, there would be no money for further education–or apprenticeships. One of them dreams of being a barrister, and that would have been impossible without funding. They might, if fortunate, be placed in an office somewhere as a clerk, or perhaps in a shop, or even–like Jane Eyre–as a tutor, but without more education than they have (two of them didn’t even take their final exams) even this last was an unlikely option.

Thing is, that orphanages and workhouses were good places to find workers for employers, scrupulous and otherwise. Today there would be a national/international uproar if you walked into a school or orphanage and said “I’ll have three, please,” and took them off, no questions asked, but back in 1847 it was a real possibility. Especially if the owner of the establishment was unscrupulous too. If he was being paid for a boy’s education–but no-one had ever checked on that boy–why not let him go, continue to take the education money and pocket the difference?

If they were taken away, no-one would bother to check up on them once they had gone. Perhaps a schoolfriend might write, if he knew where his friend was going, but the headmaster was unlikely–once rid of his responsibility–to ensure that his ex-charge was being treated well. Look at Becky Sharp, you can be sure that her headmistress, once having got shot of the acid-tongued girl, couldn’t have cared less if the girl ended up as a white slave or white slaver.

And then–if the person who HAD taken these orphans got tired of them? Or they didn’t work well at the job they were given? Or didn’t suit in some way? It’s quite likely that their future would become a little less than rosy–and if they did disappear–who’d care? Who’d check?  All the employer/abductor had to say was “Oh, they ran away, ungrateful wretches, I’ll give another boy the opportunity he obviously didn’t want.”

and in the days before Social Services, phones, email, TV…Who’d know? Who’d care?

A short but fun one today:

Passed along by Syd McGinley, this interactive Victorian role playing game will allow you to see if your character would have been welcomed at the Gentleman’s Club or cruelly cut at the Ballroom.

http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/keys/games/game_0/

 

Recommended by Erastes, a very nice vintage book blog

Bali Hai’s Blog

and two links found at physorg.com

“Gay rights movement born in 19th century Germany, scholar says”
http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-02-gay-rights-movement-born-19th.html

“Eighteenth century writings of first gay activist discovered”
http://www.physorg.com/news96733007.html

And in keeping with this week’s more entertainment-based theme (what, we’ve got games and everything!) but for Brits only, I’m afraid, unless you can get your browser to conceal your location, a moving TV programme about Frankie Howerd – “Rather you than me.”
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b009s7gv/Frankie_Howerd_Rather_You_Than_Me/#recommendSource=tv_episode_page

Drama starring David Walliams as the comedian Frankie Howerd, looking at the relationship with his long-term, long-suffering manager and partner, Dennis Heymer.

~

If you have an article which you think fits with our subject matter (gblt and historical and/or writing) and you’d like us to share it with our readers, just send it along to alex@alexbeecroft.com

“Historical” by our definition means pre-Stonewall, so pre-1969.

From Pieter in the North to Sebastian in the South (from Cane and Conflict)

14 February 1861

I’m lying here in bed, not ‘my’ bed because that is wherever you are and we are many hundreds of miles apart. I know it was my choice to leave as I can’t fight for the South if war does come, but that necessity doesn’t make me miss you any less or my wish any greater that we were lying in each others’ arms.

It’s only by chance that I discovered today is Valentine’s Day, but it matters not; I love you with my whole heart each and every minute of each and every day.

I will come home as soon as it may be possible; months – years, I will come, I swear. I pray you will still want me when that day finally dawns. Know I will always love you, always.

Piet

Richard to Julian (from Smoke Screen)

14th February 1802

You were restless last evening and you got up and went to the balcony. You thought I was asleep but I missed your warmth almost immediately. I lay there and watched you, entranced as the moon slipped from behind a cloud and bathed you in its light. You’re always beautiful to me but in that moment you were ethereal and I had the insane idea that perhaps you weren’t of this world, that you were but a dream that visited me when I needed to know that love was real.

Then this morning I awoke to find you in my embrace, your arms wrapped around me. Then you opened your eyes, smiled at me, and whispered, “Happy Valentine’s Day, my love.”

If you are but a dream then I am happy to forever share it with you.

I love you.

Richard

 

"..through rain and snow you stand alone by the water's edge..."

Seeing Poems Written by Yuan at the Blue Bridge Inn

On your return last spring
you stayed in the Blue Bridge Inn;
wen the wind sweeps down
from the Qinling Mountains, I head
the other way; each time I
come to an inn I dismount first
eagerly looing on the walls to see
If you have hung any poems there.
 

In Rewi Alley’s book, “Bai Juyi-200 Collected Poems,” there’s this intriguing note:

“Durng the early part of his official career, Bai made close friends with Yuan Zhen, young scholar and poet also in his twenties… the two poets’ relationship was most intimate.  Their friendship was famous in literary history, and it was said taht whenever the two went out riding together, crowds gathered to watch them pass…”
 
and yet.. many of their poems vanished, and
“whereas it had been the custom for outstanding poets to be granted a posthumous title, this hoour was denied Bai by the emperor.”
Alley believes this was because the poet wrote verses criticizing the government, and that might be true.  But I wonder.

 

Sending Summer Clothes to Weizhi(one of Yuan’s courtesy names)

Upper garment white in colour
woven fine as mist
cotton cloth for trousers
thin as a cloud; don’t think that
these are too light; please
wear them, for I fear you
will suffer from the heat at Tongzhou.

The two poets planned to live together as Taoist recluses after they retired.   Yuan Zhen died before this could happen.  Juyi wrote dirges and songs for the funeral.

Night deep–the memorial draft finished;
Mist and moon intense piercing cold.
About to lie down, I warm the last remnant of the wine;
we face before the lamp and drink.
Drawing up the gren silk coverlets,
Placing our pillows side by side;
Like spending more than a hundred nights,
To sleep together with you here.

By permission of Alex Broughton, whose works these are.

Discalced
 To Mr HH on the sweet privilege that is his unclothing.
 
Discalce? Your feet, by habit shod and neat,
I loose to run with mine on sea-damp sands.
I both address and undress you, and meet
prevarication with a kiss, the while my hands
further with gentle and determined skill
 their appointed course to divest you. Heart
and head as much as garments fall, yet will
you yield me all your glorious self? No part
reserved, recalcined and remote? I see
With every limb revealed, the gift of grace
and suddenly am still, awed; just to be
here, now and stripped of artifice. Your face
is mirror true to mine. Then two are one
and  love lies open, and envious is the sun.  

AK,  Sandy Bay, Gibraltar, 1797
 

Demi -paradise
 To Mr HH, co –creator of the demi- paradise
 
Not yet Arcadia, not yet Eden bright;
not far from both , as we both love and love.
Paradise is here, held within the sight
your beauty brings, the heart whose all you give
to mine. Though both are bruised and shy of trust
Love has within it faith , and ours is love
enough to shape a world new-made, which must
raze past harm to dust, and yet may move
grief’s mountain, levelled by honest open
speech. There is in you such strength of will, in
me of hope. Together much is spoken
of how we change the world. For us to win
each other is to win the whole. Your heart,
my world, mine yours, elation every part.

 AK,  Sandy Bay, Gibraltar, 1797
 

Laid up in ordinary
A phrase heretical when used of you.
Lying with you, in confined space and dark
Constrained by circumstance to silence, do
What fate will with us, still remains the spark-
Your alchemy- that makes of every bed
narrow, thin or mean, a holy ground, fit
haven both to body and to soul. Led
by love and lust and laughter , I would sit
beside you, singing in a wilderness
for, were you there, the barren earth would
turn to pillowed  rest, arid sand to gold, less
desert than harbour,  where for my every good
I sail within. Laid up in warmth, in love
In extraordinary you, I move.

AK, Indefatigable  st sea, off the Biscay coast.

When I was little, we were always told to put butter on a burn to soothe it. Of course, if you do that, it fries the skin, so you end up with a worse scar. Cold water and lots of it is the best first aid. I also remember the advice about putting a key down your back for a nosebleed, or sitting with the head forwards. Not sure about the former, but the latter puts extra pressure on the blood vessels and hampers clotting. Head straight upright is best.

Old wives and their tales, eh? Some of them may have proved to be excellent – red sky at night really does mean you’re likely to have good weather the next day, it’s been meteorologically backed up – but some of them are a positive menace. Wrap up a fever patient. Well, yes, I suppose you sweat the infection out (it’s part of the body’s reaction to bugs) but you might perilously overheat the poor patient in the process. And where the heck did the ‘wisdom’ come from that it was dangerous to wash your hair during your period? Anyone else remember being told that little gem?

Not just the medical stuff has changed, though. What was presented as ‘fact’ (or what I remember as fact) is not longer factual. Dinosaurs don’t have two brains, one in their heads and one in their pelvis. White spots on your nails aren’t due to calcium deficiency. There are no canals on Mars and, despite what my granny told me, I won’t get the smit if I rub my face against a cat. No wonder I’m bewildered.

I guess one of the problems is that some of these pronouncements (like the Martian canals) come from scientists. Cool, objective, logical, infallible (or so they like to present themselves) scientists. Except, of course, scientists can make as much of a cock-up as the rest of us. They get things wrong, sometimes because they’re so besotted with their pet theory they can’t or won’t recognise anything which contradicts it. Clearly knowledge moves on, so we can look back at scientists who pronounced that rail travel couldn’t work as people would be suffocated if they travelled at speed and laugh. We wouldn’t be so silly! Or would we…

Take eggs. When I was younger, they were good for you. Experts said so, the egg marketing board told you to go to work on one (an egg, not an expert). Then they were bad for you – experts said so. Then they were good for you again because…you get the drift. Now I don’t know if they’re bad for me or good for me, although I do know they’re delicious. Almost weekly there seems to emerge a new bit of research that contradicts another recent bit of research; if I’m struggling to keep up (and I’ve got a degree in applied Biology) how does everyone else cope?

Maybe we don’t try to. Maybe we just go along and do our own thing, relying more on old wives than New Scientist. Now, what colour’s the sky today?

Well, I could argue that it’s fairly vital for defending yourself against an aggressor, but that’s not an argument I want to get into at this time.  From a writer’s point of view the thing it’s best for anyway is as a background and setting for fiction. 

It’s easy to see why this should be the case.  Put your heroes in uniform and send them off to fight, and immediately the stakes are raised – people are actively trying to kill them all day long.  If the war is a total war like WW2, they will be facing the risk of death from bombardment even in their places of safety. 

The author has the benefit of characters who are already facing the horrors of death and the worst that humanity can do to itself.  If those characters are heroic, or even simply decent, if they can manage the smallest acts of kindness, then those things will stand out against the darkness of the background like lights, and love will blaze like a star.

War too has its own strange fascination.  I will admit to being in love with my great war machines.  I began writing Age of Sail fiction because of two vivid moments in the cinema – the appearance of the two-decker HMS Dauntless out of the fog in Pirates of the Caribbean, and the magnificent, heart stirring sound of a cannon ball fired from the Acheron at the frigate HMS Surprise in Master and Commander.

master-and-commander3

A line of battle ship was the greatest weapon of mass destruction the 18th Century knew.  Its broadside of cannon fire could level citadels and forts on the shore line from a mile away, and I won’t deny that that stirs my heart.  There is definitely a part of me that would love to have the power to sail up to my problems and literally blow them out of the water. 

I got into World War Two the same way.  I thought it was too modern for me to feel any poetry in it, too much like real life.  But then I discovered the Lancaster bomber, and once more I fell in love with a machine of war, and by extension with the men who flew it.  As with the crew of a tall ship, the men of a bomber crew suffered great hardship, endured terrifying experiences, kept going through situations where you would expect frail human flesh to fail.  And in both what resulted was friendships and loyalty more intense than could have been created by the strains of normal life.

I’ve been reading a book called Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two by Daniel Swift, and he obviously doesn’t share my slightly worrisome ability to rejoice in destruction, because he says that one may write poetry about a sword, but that there is something too obscene about the killing power of a heavy bomber to permit a person to feel the same awe and admiration for it as one would feel for a blade.

I think that’s rubbish, for a sword too is a thing designed with only one purpose in mind – to kill people.  A Lancaster merely does it on a larger scale.  If a sword can be admired for its beauty, despite being created to deal death, so can a Lancaster.  Both are implements for the exercise of force – the same power that we admire in an alpha hero taken to its logical extreme.  The power to stop what you don’t like, obliterate it, burn it to the ground; to run terrible risks, face and conquer fear and adversity, and to triumph.

Lancaster-bomber-004

But of course, what comes arm in arm with this heady, glorious violence, (or what should come with it) is an awareness of the horror of it.  Of how -yes- how obscene is the ability to rain fire on old men and women and children sleeping in their beds.  On how the men you can’t help admire for their courage and their self-sacrifice, their kindness to their friends and their willingness to die to ensure that we, their descendants, could live in freedom, are the same men who bombed towns until the pavements melted and the fleeing inhabitants sank into the liquid tarmac and were horribly burned to death.

War is not simple, and it is hard to separate out the good from the bad.  There’s much talk about there being no glory in war, but to my mind that’s as false as saying that it’s all glory and no horror.  A man climbing out of his plane while it’s under attack by fighters, clawing his way along the wing without a parachute in order to put out a fire in the engine and save his mates’ lives… Don’t tell me that’s not glorious or heroic.  The Germans offering to safely escort a plane flying a replacement artificial leg to Douglas Bader – even though they must have known he’d try to escape the moment he got it.  Don’t tell me that’s not so humane and chivalrous it warms your heart.

It’s like every day life turned up to the maximum volume, confusing and morally gray, full of ugly things and also full of some beautiful ones.

And that – although I hesitate to say it, because it seems disrespectful – is another good reason why it is such a blessing for a writer.  It is full of emotions and all of them are cranked up to an intensity unavailable in peace time.

I am grateful that it’s there to be written about.  But I’m even more grateful that it’s something I haven’t had to live through.  I have the armies that have protected my country from invasion for a thousand years to thank for that.  And that’s another good reason to write about them as heroes.  But for Nelson’s navy, but for Harris’s bombers, I might not have the freedom to write at all.  The moral ambiguity of war is a gift for a writer, but a degree of fannishness helps too.  And it’s far safer for everyone involved if I spend my time imagining what it would be like in a gun turret with four Browning machine guns at my command than it would be if anyone actually provided me with them in real life!

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was an extraordinarily talented painter of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Ken Craigside has recently written a play about her being commissioned to paint likenesses of Ben Franklin, the Chevalier D’ Eon, and Marie Antoinette.

He’s had to cut out this wonderful monologue (in rhymed couplets) he wrote for a portrait of George Sand to be delivered over a piano piece played by Frederick Chopin while Elizabeth paints. It celebrates a woman who, taking on a male name and mode of dress, dashingly succeeded in what would be viewed as a man’s world. As Ken says, “And many Macaronis have also done that, at least in terms of name (and skill).”

Etude Au Nu

You’ve painted, he’s played,
For most of this week,
Yet I’ve heard every word
That you two did not speak.

The slap of your brush,
And the plunk of his keys,
The sigh as you paint,
His cough…and his wheeze.

You asked for my silence.
Let him play, let you paint.
But I itch to scratch silence,
With a spoken complaint:

Of the fact that his music
Can say more with a phrase,
Or you with a line
And a daub or a glaze,
Than a writer could write
Were he writing for days.

Delacroix painted us,
Monsieur Chopin and me.
Dear Frederic played music,
While I sat at his knee.

Chou-Chou had the light.
I sank in the shade.
Mere woman enraptured
By a glow quite man-made.

But now I have the light,
And you paint in the shade,
While He plays out of sight,
As MY portrait is made.

My gender engendered in such gentlemanly ways.

He plays.

You paint.
And I…repose.

He hears.
And let’s us hear love songs.

You see.
And let us see loveliness.

But I feel…everything…and try with all my heart to craft those feelings into words.

Delacroix, in the mode,
Paints society’s cream,
Just as you did, my dear,
For the Ancient Regime.

You might wonder, Elisabeth,
Why I chose you to portray
Madame George Sand
Dressed up in this way.

With Delacroix handy,
Why take you off the shelf?
Well, remember the portrait
Which you made of your self?

I can still see that girl
In a white cotton dress,
Uncoifed, unaccoutred,
In a way that says “yes,
If a portrait needs doing,
I’ll do it the best.”

You crafted your image
In paint with a frame.
While I crafted mine
With clothes and a name.

And you wrote, in your memoirs,
Which I’ve avidly scanned,
That your sitters’ apparels
Were most carefully planned.

That a face and a posture
Could give keys to one’s soul,
But the subject’s own costume
Might best speak of one’s goal.

So…my cigar and top hat,
My long pants and strong nose.
Can you paint truth, my dear,
Of such items as those?

Women’s clothes
Are our virginal fortress.
Bodice guarding our breasts,
Skirts girding our loins,
Veils shrouding our manes.

Donning our dresses in hopes of addresses
That change Mademoiselle to Madame.

Men’s clothes
Allow them to climb mountains.
Allow riding astride;
Legs grabbing the saddle,
Hands grasping the reigns.

At my Grandma’s chateau,
Every girl that I knew
Wore her brother’s old pants,
When out riding she’d go.
It wasn’t risqué.
Just the smart thing to do.

For we found, as we rode
With our legs round the horse,
As we raced up each hill
With the wind in our hair,
That we might, that we could,
That we would, that we will!

And then, as a woman,
When Paris I’d visit,
I found it constraining
To be so exquisite.
Ladies lounged in the loges,
Or the boxes above;
Restrained from the stage,
With its passion and love.
Décolletage camouflaged,
And hands hid by silk gloves.

Men’s clothes
Were a ticket of entree
To the pit and Parterre,
To a world without care
Where no one dared to stare
At a man’s somber coat.

Knowing Monsieur is Monsieur is Monsieur
Despite one’s vocation in life

Men’s clothes
Were a sort of a passport
To anonymous treats,
And the life of the streets,
Where a person might stride
` Rather than float.

So I fled from our fortress
Garbed in top hat and pants;
Free from the censure
Of propriety’s glance,
Free for life’s pleasure
And danger…and chance.

Masculine is a Mask.
That is all, just a mask.
But it says, no it shouts,
In a plain-spoken way,
That he might, that he must,
That he can, that he may!

Now you should understand,
There was never a plan
On my part, to dress up as a man.
Just a logical change,
Increasing the range,
To allow for the strange and the new.
To investigate life,
To observe human strife,
And do all that a writer must do.

Oh Elisabeth, I wanted an author’s name
There for all to see on a title page.

But it had to be, as it always was,
A man’s name inscribed on that page.

First I wrote with a man.
Jules Sandeaux was his name.
Not a lover. Those were others.
Just a hack on the wane,
But a way to give credence to covers.

When I split with Sandeaux,
Then I split Sand from eaux,
For a name I might groom,
With a George for his Jules.
Thus George Sand, give a hand
For my proud Nom de plume!

My new name.
My top hat.
My cigar.
My success.
My career!

All my books, all my plays,
Read by those who will pay.
My town house, my chateau,
And my life, with Chopin.
That I might, that I could,
That I would, that I will.
That I dared, that I did,
And I have, yes, I have!

He plays.

You paint.
And are almost finished?

I write.

My life,
Or should I say…I mold my mask?

Delacroix’s a Romantic
Who will paint what he feels
But your style, being antique,
Must concern what is real.

So here is George Sand
With her masculine mask.
And a writer’s illusion.
Is your new painter’s task.

To see past the façade?
Find the female within?
Show the mother, the lover,
The saint…and the sin?

I revere your self-portrait,
Madame Vigée-LeBrun,
Self filled with the thrill
Of heroic homespun.
That you might, that you could,
That you must and you will!

Your figure quite swathed
In that plain cotton way,
And your palette held out
Like a girl’s fresh bouquet.

But that too was a mask…
Of ambition t’would seem…
Whose viewer might bask
In the light of your dream,

Eyes aglow ‘neath the shade
Of that simple straw hat.
And I’ll hope that today
You’ve made…something like that?

That we might, that we could,
That we dared, that we did,
That we would, that we will,
That we have, yes, we have!
Oh my dear, we both have.

Cuchullain carrying Ferdia's body after their battle. Sculpture.

Sculpture in Ardee, County Lough, of Cuchullain carrying Ferdia's body.

Celtic culture was ever a warrior culture, no matter where and when they resided, and as such were part of the virtually global tradition of warrior lovers.

Celtic language, culture and traditions once spanned most of the continent of Europe, bringing it into contact with the classical societies of Greece and Rome for hundreds of years.  Celts at their widest expansion, that is, by 275 BC, ranged from the Ukraine west to Spain, France and, of course, the British Isles.  Rome sought to incorporate these peoples as they conquered their lands, but Germanic migration forced the contraction of Celtic language and cultures until they occupied only parts of the British Isles and Brittany.

Celts themselves relied entirely on oral tradition for perpetuating their way of life; so Classical scholars and military leaders recorded much of what we know about these peoples.  It is remarkable that coming from a culture that recognized and honored same sex relationships, the Greek teacher Aristotle comments in his Politics (II 1269b) on the greater enshrinement of warrior lovers among the Celts.  Coincidental with this was a sometimes-disputed tradition of warlike women, or at least greater liberty for women in and out of matrimony.  Brehon law, which governed Irish tribes, for example, permitted divorce initiated by wives.

In ancient Irish mythology, male warriors paired off much as the great male lovers of ancient Greece, such as Achilles and Patroclus and Alexander and Hephaestion.  They shared a bed and fought as a team.   Perhaps best known of these couples is Cuchullain and Ferdia.  Cuchullain was semi-divine, almost invincible and able to turn into a ravening beast in battle.    In the legend, the two lovers are forced to meet in battle to the death.  At the end of each day of hand to hand combat, they met in the middle of a ford to embrace and kiss three times.  When Cuchullain finally kills his friend, he mourns, singing over his body,

Dear to me thy noble blush,
Dear thy comely, perfect form;
Dear thine eye, blue-grey and clear,
Dear thy wisdom and thy speech.

(Quoted in “A Coming Out Ritua“l)

Even after the Christianization of Ireland the record in regards to acceptance of same sex relationships is ambiguous.  According to Brian Lacey’s new history of homosexuality in Ireland, Terrible Queer Creatures: A History of Homosexuality in Ireland,  St. Patrick traveled with a lifelong companion his that he is recorded as having great affection for and sleeping with.  In the famous illuminated gospel, The Book of Kells, there are numerous illustrations of men embracing.  In typical Christian revisionist manner, the Church has interpreted these illustrations as calling for the eradication of sodomy. 

One person in a chieftain’s household, the poet/bard called the ollamh was afforded great access to his lord physically, sharing his bed and demonstrating affection with him in public.  In songs or poems the ollamh  often referred to the chieftain as a beloved or even a spouse.  It is interesting in Dorothy Dunnett’s sexually ambiguous Lymond Chronicles the protagonist in the second volume, Queen’s Play, masquerades not as any other sort of bard but as an ollamh.  The tradition continued well into the Middle Ages. 

Ireland’s homophobia is now being confronted in its courts where it is likely the prohibition against same sex marriage will go the way of the ban on contraception.

 

Surely not?  Does anyone know?

One result of the publication of Brandy Purdy’s two excellent books, The Confession of Piers Gaveston and The Boleyn Wife (published as The Tudor Wife by Emily Purdy in the UK see link), is what I felt was a lot of undeserved vitriol at the portrayal of gay characters in the novels. For instance, this customer review of  “Wife” from Brittany“:

“The entire court seems to be made up of bisexuals, which would be highly unlikely since if this were the case there would be no court since the people making up the court would all be executed for their bisexuality. I complain about this on the grounds of historical accuracy and my own personal moral beliefs.

Not sure what Brittany’s personal moral beliefs have to do with historical accuracy, but for the record I take issue with the assertion that there would not be bisexual people in the Tudor court. Let me explain.

A number of surveys have estimated that five percent of the human population is gay, lesbian or bisexual and likely this proportion has stayed around this prportion throughout history. I am inclined to support that. Why that is is irrelevant. My own opinion, which I suppose is just as valid or invalid as said Brittany’s, is that the expression of human diversity is broad and beautiful, that love is love and love-making is love-making, and the more the merrier. (I actually believe that 100% of humans are born bisexual, but that is unlikely to be a popular opinion with the Brittany’s of the world.)

The particular point I want to address in Brittany’s remarks is her assertion that in the Middle Ages/Renaissance bisexuals “would all be executed for their bisexuality.” It is true that conviction for homosexuality was punishable by being burned at the stake or other equally grisly punishment, but I just don’t believe this was universally applied. There is a wonderful conceit that if all gay people woke up tomorrow morning with purple skin, we would be amazed at how many and who they were. I expect the same could be true in 908, 1208, and 1508 as well.

An act being against the law does not mean all who commit it are punished. In general I believe people are punished when they piss someone off who is in power or has influence. Certainly people in the upper castes of society, as are most of the bisexuals in Purdy’s books, will have far more liberty and relative immunity for “deviant” behavior. We tend to overlook class issues when we talk about historical fiction, but that’s a topic for a future essay. The average person tends to have to hide more since they don’t have the money or connections to fall back on, but nevertheless a discrete person would probably be able to go through life without being chained to a stake and burned. Then there was this whole career path where heterosexual practice was not only not required but actually frowned upon, that being the clergy. Not that heterosexuality was punished either depending on how high up you rose in the Church.

The people likely to be most at risk would be in three camps: male prostitutes or others who were indiscrete, people who victimized children, and people who got on the wrong side of someone with their own reasons to want to see them out of the way. My belief is that male prostitutes would have some protection from those who frequented them, at least in terms of whether they were out-ted and punished. Victimizers of young people, gay or straight, are another matter than simply gay people exercising their predilection to love adults of their own gender. As with tagging unpopular women as witches, denouncing someone as homosexual was a handy way to blow off frustrations of your own or to gain from their disenfranchisement.

Specific to Purdy’s books, the men and women who are gay or bisexual are for the most part the elite, with their own society and rules and immunity from most of the legal pettiness of their society. In the case of women, it is likely no one even credited them with sexuality or at least regarded it as a threat worth addressing. Remember that noblewomen in part of the Middle Ages lived in the women’s quarters, sleeping apaart from their menfolk unless required. And they tended to share beds. Are you thinking what I am thinking?  In Purdy’s novels, the characters are, in fact, punished, just not for homosexual acts.  All are punished for treason.  The treason consisted variously of corrupting a king, plotting against a king, or, in fact, bedding a queen.  Their gay sexuality was nover an issue.

In short, I believe there have always been gay people, throughout history, most of whom could fall in love or just have sex without anyone either being the wiser or taking any action about it. My own favorite pair of gay lovers in historical fiction are martin Werther and Ambrose the rebec player in Candace Robb’s Owen Archer mysteries. I can’t decide if I am more skeptical of their wholehearted acceptance by Owen and Lucy or impressed with Owen and Lucy’s socially enlightened attitudes.. but who knows. Infinite variety. All things are possible.  And… it is the realm of fiction to explore that possibility.

Nan Hawthorne

Reprinted from Nan Hawthorne’s Booking History.

Image: Sir Francis Weston

First of all, I apologize for the absence of the Friday links over the last fortnight.  Almost everyone in the Macaronis has been busily doing NaNoWriMo, and it’s hard to squeeze anything else in.  However, I’ve now finished my novel, so I hope that it will be business as usual here in future (at least until I get to the OMG, I must finish this right now stage of the next thing.)

As usual with our Friday links, the Macs are not responsible for the content of other sites, nor do we endorse any products or services they provide.  All the links prove is that we thought there was an interesting article here. (more…)

When I planned to write this article I thought I knew about the origin of ‘policing’ in this country, but my research showed me otherwise. There was a system in place much earlier than I had believed.

It seems the origin of the British police lies in early tribal history and is based on customs for securing order through the medium of appointed representatives. In effect, the people were the police.

The Saxons brought their system of  ‘tythings’ over to England with them.  This meant that each village divided the people into groups of ten – the tything – with a tything-man as the representative of each group; and then these men were divided into larger groups each of ten tythings under a ‘hundred-man’ who was responsible to the Shire-reeve – or Sheriff – of the County.

Then when the Normans invaded they developed the system. The tything-man system changed quite a bit after contact with Norman feudalism, but it was not wholly destroyed. As time passed the tything-man became the parish constable and the Shire-reeve became the Justice of the Peace, to whom the parish constable was responsible. Just as in Anglo-Saxon times, if a hue and cry was raised, everyone had to join in.

Medieval towns had curfews in place to maintain law and order. A bell would ring at about 8pm, warning residents (and inn-keepers) to finish working and stay indoors. Anyone caught outdoors – or “abroad” – after curfew had to be prepared to justify their actions to the night watch crew.

During the Middle Ages, coroners had numerous legal duties that went beyond investigating sudden, violent or suspicious deaths. In some parts of the country the coroner was responsible for investigating all felonies – crimes that carried the death penalty. Capital crimes included murder, manslaughter and the theft of any item worth a shilling or more.

The coroner had to record details of all deaths he investigated on his rolls. The process was so cumbersome and convoluted that it often resulted in errors. As a result witnesses and other people involved in the investigation were often fined. It wasn’t unknown for folk to carry a corpse by night to another village to avoid being burdened with the results.

In the towns the responsibility for maintenance of order was conferred on the Guilds and, later, on to other specified groups of citizens, usually made up of higher class citizens, as well as tradesmen, craftsmen and shopkeepers. They supplied bodies of paid men, known as ‘The Watch’ who guarded the city gates and patrolled the streets at night. It was also their responsibility to light street lamps and watch out for fires – a major concern in those days.

Throughout the medieval period it was believed that the only way to keep order was to make sure that the people were scared of the punishments given for crimes committed. For this reason all crimes from stealing to murder had harsh punishments.

Although there were gaols, they were generally used to hold a prisoner awaiting trial rather than as a means of punishment, which ranged from simple fines to being placed in stocks or the pillory – where one could be pelted with rotten eggs, squishy tomatoes, or a well aimed stone! – mutilation (cutting off a part of the body), or death were the most common forms of punishment.

Up until this point any disturbance that couldn’t be controlled by The Watch had to be dealt with by the military. The Justice of the Peace would ‘read the riot act’ and the army would be called in. But having a group of ill-disciplined soldiers, under the control of their aristocratic officers, billeted on the local community was often worse than the disturbance they were meant to control. The need for a more disciplined force, directly under local control became obvious. As far as the middle classes were concerned, rising crime and disorder were still to be attributed to the moral decay of the masses. There was a willingness to criticise the old criminal justice system as inefficient, both as regards crime control and the regulation of public order.

In the eighteenth century came the beginnings of immense social and economic changes and the consequent movement of the population to the towns. The parish constable and “Watch” systems failed completely and the impotence of the law-enforcement machinery was a serious menace. Conditions became intolerable and led to the formation of the ‘New Police’ in the nineteenth century.

There was an attempt in the middle of the eighteenth century to improve matters with the introduction of the ‘Bow Street Runners’. There had been other men who attempted to solve crime for a small fee, but the Bow Street Runners were the first official ‘thief takers’ as they were assigned to a Magistrate (Justice of the Peace). These men did not patrol but served legal writs and ‘arrested’ offenders, eventually even travelling nationwide to apprehend criminals. Often former constables, at the end of their year of service, were selected for the positions, after having some formal legal training.

The Police – as we know the term today – was the brainchild of Robert Peel, the Home Secretary from 1822. Building on the idea of The Watch, the Bow Street Runners, and the dock police in London, Bristol and Liverpool, Peel formed the London Metropolitan Police. (Though it should be mentioned that these older ‘forces’ continued for some time after Peel’s founding of the ‘Peelers’ because Peel’s New Police was focused on other things than simple safety of the streets and the protection of property.)

Sir Robert Peel

Peel argued in Parliament for his Metropolitan Police Bill in 1828 on the grounds that it would be more efficient than the existing systems. These he characterised as uneven: some boroughs had effective Watch patrols but they tended to displace crime into less well policed areas.

Peel addressed his reforms directly to the more general fear of the ‘dangerous classes’ in  society. While crime such as street robbery and burglary was a problem, it was only part of a more fundamental issue of public order which was seen not simply as the problem of riots but more generally the discipline of the lower orders: how to make the working class as a whole less of an unruly mob and more a sober orderly group who would behave themselves in public and go to work on time and obey their employer’s instructions.

The main theme was ‘crime prevention’ by the moralisation of the working class. The police targeted Ale houses and the streets where legislation such as the 1824 Vagrancy Act enabled constables to arrest individuals not for crime committed but for ‘loitering with intent’. The police aimed not at those who had actually committed crimes but on the poor as a whole who were seen as a ‘criminal class’. The main task of the New Police was not crime detection.

Detectives only appeared in 1842, and originally there were only a few of them. The modern Criminal Investigation Department (CID) did not appear until 1877.

 

I had 1914 in mind when I wrote this, but with DADT it could apply in the USA today.

It will not be the same

It will not be the same for us as for other lovers.

There’ll be no babe born when you’re nine months absent,
Six of them maybe spent under cold clay.

Nor will I share your picture with the men.
They’ll say, “This is Mary.
And young Tom.”
We’ll smile and say he’s the image of his dad.
“This is my Dora. We’ll be wed, soon as I’m home.”
We’ll toast them with watery tea, trying not to show
We don’t believe he’ll ever get back.
They’ll never hear,
“This is my Freddie. Isn’t he a peach?”

And yet our blood is just as red
And it’ll flow just as freely when the bullets fly

We’ll give our lives the same
For our country
For our families
For the sake of those who condemn us and want us dead
We’ll die to keep them safe,
Not to satisfy a god they’ve made in their own image.

It will not be the same for us as for other lovers.
But you are no less a man because of me
And I am not diminished because of you.

I love the elegant houses of Washington or Grammercy Square. And I have books of photographs depicting the buildings along Broadway covered with placards advertising coal merchants and cigar makers. I enjoy imagining the bustling streets with the street cars, pushcarts, wagons vying for space. Traffic wasn’t so noisy you couldn’t hear the vendors and newsboys shouting.

But never mind all the daily life of the good citizens. For some reason, I really enjoy all that antique crime. From a distance, of course.

(more…)

During the week, the members of the Macaronis yahoo group are forever coming across interesting things in the course of their researches.  We decided that it would be a good idea to share these interesting articles with the readers of the blog.  There is no particular rhyme or reason to these links, it’s just a tossed salad of fascinating things.  Dive in at will, and hopefully there will be something here to inspire or amuse you.

Threads of Feeling – an article about identifying tokens left with abandoned children at London Foundling hospital:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/oct/09/foundling-hospital-museum-threads-feeling

No sniggering now chaps, but this must surely fit into someone’s plot:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8015180/MI6-used-bodily-fluids-as-invisible-ink.html

Jeremy Brett in frogging.  Authentic military uniform or just an excuse to brighten up your day?  You decide:

Wonderful clip of a 1920’s polo match:

http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=21757

50 greatest works of GLBT literature?

http://www.accreditedonlinecolleges.com/blog/2010/50-greatest-works-of-lgbt-literature/

The medical perils of a life at sea in the 19th Century

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1316428/19th-century-Royal-Navy-medical-journals-reveal-perils-life-sea.html

Transgender Memoir of 1921 Found

OutHistory.org includes a main entry on the manuscript discovery at:

Earl Lind (Ralph Werther-Jennie June): The Riddle of the Underworld,
1921

http://www.outhistory.org/wiki/Earl_Lind_(Ralph_Werther-Jennie_June):_The_Riddle_of_the_Underworld,_1921

Additional entries about Lind are on OutHistory.org at:

Earl Lind: The Cercle Hermaphroditos, c. 1895

http://www.outhistory.org/wiki/Earl_Lind:_The_Cercle_Hermaphroditos,_c._1895

Ronald Sell: Encountering Earl Lind, Ralph Werther, Jennie June

http://www.outhistory.org/wiki/Ronald_Sell:_Encountering_Earl_Lind,_Ralph_Werther,_Jennie_June

I was never one to get excited about writing historical stories. I had an idea knocking around in my gray matter for years, but simply could not get any motivation behind it to actually develop the idea into anything substantial. WWII prisoner-of-war stories had been done and redone. Why do another one?

But then I came across John Toland’s The Rising Sun, The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire. It is a soup to nuts account of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and every major battle and military decision made until the surrender, all told from the Japanese point of view. I found it riveting. It literally changed how I saw history in a major way. In fact, I now believe that it was the boobs in Washington who were responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was in the pages of Toland’s book where I realized that the value, at least for me, in writing an historical novel would be to approach it in such a way as to bring a fresh perspective to history that hadn’t been done before, at least not in my culture. That was the key element that had been missing in my thinking.

Toland convinced me to develop my POW story with a voice that equally presented both the American and the Japanese sides, being sympathetic to both, understanding the motivations of each, unbiased.

As I began to map out the story that would eventually turn into my second novel, The Lonely War, I realized that with this balanced perspective, the enemy was not American, English, German or Japanese. The only enemy in my story is war itself.

In researching WWII for my story, I read over two dozen books, stories like Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance, Boulle’s Bridge On The River Kwai, and Clavell’s King Rat. The only book I read that came close to this balanced point of view was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quite On The Western Front. In that novel, war was the enemy, but even Remarque’s story only presented the tale from the German side.

The main thing I learned while writing the unbiased war story, is that when one goes about presenting history in a way that has not been done before, one grows beyond one’s own boundaries of thought. A new perspective allowed me to develop intellectually, and I suspect, at least I hope, that my novel does the same for my readers as well.

So now I try to apply that idea with all my writing, historic and contemporary, to stretch to find a different angle to tell the story so as to bring a fresh perspective. I suppose this idea might be simplistic to most fine writers of historical fiction, but I must confess it was a revelation to me.

Alan Chin

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