It comes as a shock to many people (it did to me) that AA Milne wrote a murder mystery. Just the one, published in 1922, but it was enough to earn him admission to the inner sanctum of crime writers.
Is “The Red House Mystery” a good book? I’d say it’s fair enough, and very much in the style of its time, which is fine if you appreciate the Golden Age of crime. It certainly has many of the classic elements – the country house, the house party, the locked room, the wastrel brother who reappears from abroad and, of course, the amateur sleuth, with his slightly dim sidekick. If the denouement draws on a plot line which is peppered throughout those Golden Age mysteries, it’s none the worse for that.
Of course, it’s a whole other discussion about whether the detective’s sidekick only really exists to fulfil the main purpose of allowing the sleuth to show off his or her genius and give fulsome explanations regarding his or her thought processes. In the case of Red House’s Bill, he appears to be at the dimmer end of the bell curve of intelligence and certainly hero worships his friend Tony, the man who solves the case.
Tony’s a really interesting character, a man of independent means, who takes on various jobs just for fun. He’d have been well served by further crimes to solve with his sidekick. I could envisage a whole series of cases in which our two heroes pop up at house parties and the like, solving crimes, causing chaos and generally having a whale of a time. Alas, those books were never written.
Somebody even suggested that Bill reminded him of Piglet, but Tony and Bill makes me think of Raffles and Bunny, not least because of the “slash”. I usually say if you’re not sure what slash is, get your mother to explain when you get home. This time I’ll give a definition, straight from Wikipedia. “Slash fiction is a genre of fan fiction that focuses on interpersonal attraction and sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex.”
Milne himself objected to love stories getting in the way of the detection, so he takes Bill’s love interest “offscreen” pretty rapidly, then – ironically – proceeds to give us an almost love story between his two leading men. If you picked up this book without knowing the author or context, you might think you were reading a romantic mystery, with a gay bloke (Tony) who pursues, and then is all over, another man.
From the moment Tony serves Bill, first in a shop and then in a restaurant, “Something about [him], his youth and freshness, perhaps, attracted Tony”. He arranges a proper introduction to Bill and they quickly become “intimate”. Yes, that word clearly didn’t mean quite the same in 1922! As the story proper gets going, Bill is flattered, delighted and proud to be liked (and needed in the cause of investigation) by Tony, who soon after tells Bill he’s wonderful for describing someone so well, at which Bill is happily embarrassed.
Should I mention how often Anthony takes Bill’s arm when they’re walking? I know that this practice was not uncommon between men in the early twentieth century, and nobody batted an eyelid, but they seem to be at it all the time. Then there’s the hand holding; Tony tells Bill he’s the most perfect “Watson” before taking Bill’s hand in both of his to say, “There is nothing that you and I could not accomplish together…” (That’s the sort of thing he says a lot.) Bill responds by calling him a silly old ass, and Anthony replies with “That’s what you always say when I’m being serious” which is very similar to a tense, flirtatious interchange between Laurie and Andrew in Mary Renault’s “The Charioteer”.
They even end up sharing a bed, although strictly in the way the characters share a bed in “Three Men in a Boat”. That’s another element which is hard to interpret innocently with modern eyes, although those of us who were brought up on “Morecambe and Wise” know that Eric and Ernie weren’t “at it” when the lights went off.
So what the heck was going on in “The Red House Mystery”? It’s terribly easy for us to look back at books written so long ago with our “slash goggles” firmly in place and see things which the author didn’t intend. Perhaps we see things which aren’t there at all. You only have to look at the volume of Holmes and Watson romances that have sprung up to find people interpreting old stories in a very present-day fashion. But gay men did exist in the 1920s (or at any point in history) and gay or lesbian characters can be found, thinly veiled, in classic books such as “A Murder is Announced”.
Maybe Milne was just being observational in his writing, basing Tony on somebody he had known, weaving in elements of conversations he had heard, as so many of us do. I have little doubt that he had no intention of giving us that romantic storyline, but he did so, nonetheless.
April 9, 2016
It comes as a shock to many people (it did to me) that AA Milne wrote a murder mystery. Just the one, published in 1922, but it was enough to earn him admission to the inner sanctum of crime writers.
June 11, 2014
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
March 10, 2013
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:
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:
“[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:
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.
March 10, 2013
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.”
March 10, 2013
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!
March 10, 2013
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.
January 7, 2013
A Pseudo-Medievalist’s Guide – to Fire.
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