29 June, 2006

Mary Sharratt on writing goals

Mary Sharratt , whose latest novel The Vanishing Point is a historical set in 17th century Maryland, has posted this interesting article on long-range writing goals. I read it expecting to look on from a reverential distance - after all, the writing goals of an established author with three novels and a literary prize to her name are liable to be of limited relevance to the likes of me. Then I came across this paragraph:

Focus on your own writing. As writers we need to take back our power. If the book market is full of variables beyond our control, we need to focus on what we can control-namely our own writing. In her excellent book, Writing Past Dark, Bonita Freedman notes that our commitment to our own writing is our best weapon for banishing inner demons. "The antidote to envy is one's own work. Not the thinking about it. Not the assessing of it. But the doing of it. The answers you want can come only from the work itself. It drives the spooks away."

And later on:

Be happy with what you do achieve. [......] Behind our house is a vast sheep pasture. I tried to imagine that pasture full of all the people who have taken time out of their busy lives to read what I wrote while labouring alone in my room. This is the big picture and encouragement that will keep me going for the next forty years. Ultimately we write for our readers, no matter what the market does.

Amen to that, say I. The writing is its own reward, or it should be. One may not aspire to a "vast sheep pasture" - unless one lives in the kind of terrain where land productivity is measured in acres to the sheep - but for me there's something magical about the idea that someone, somewhere, has read something I've written and liked it enough to write to me and say so. That's what it's all about - a connection, the sharing of a story or image or idea, just by means of words on a screen. Magic.

25 June, 2006

The Paston Letters - radio dramatisation

The Paston Letters form the oldest known collection of private correspondence in Britain. Written in the 15th century and preserved by a combination of happy accident and enlightened archivists, they present a picture of a medieval family clawing its way up from the peasantry to the landed gentry in medieval Norfolk. Some of the letters are available full-text online, and a quick search on Amazon will turn up several modern editions. Now BBC Radio 4 has dramatised the Pastons' story for the Woman's Hour Drama, broadcast Monday-Friday at 10.45 am and 7.45 pm (UK time) from 19-30 June. Each 15-minute programme is also available on Listen Again for 7 days after broadcast - so if you're quick, you can listen to the first one in the series (Monday 19 June) today or tomorrow.

This came to my attention because of a comment made by Ali, observing that when studying formal history, "the impression you get is that either a) women didn't exist, or b) they spent all their time being victims." Well, the Paston Letters go a long way towards reversing that impression. The Paston women most definitely exist and are very far from being victims - particularly the formidable matriarch Agnes, portrayed in the drama by Rosemary Leach and guaranteed to have you shaking in your shoes.

Entertaining and educational. Click over to Listen Again and enjoy an opportunity to meet some remarkable historical women.

If you listen, or are already listening, or indeed if you've read the originals and/or the modern editions, what did you think?

21 June, 2006

Five historical figures

I found this via Martyn and Alex - "list 5 historical figures you'd like to meet and have a chat with." Now, I'd be terrified to meet any of these people, so I'll take a wider interpretation and list five historical figures I'd like to know more about. In chronological order:

1. Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, 1st century AD. Overshadowed in popular history by her dramatic contemporary Boudica, Cartimandua ruled the Brigantes (a federation of tribes occupying roughly the area of modern Yorkshire) from some time before AD 51 to AD 69. She handed the British king and guerilla leader Caratacus over to the Romans after his defeat in AD 51, an action for which she was still remembered and vilified in medieval Wales if the identification with Aregwedd Foeddawg in Triad 26 is secure. At some time after this, Cartimandua's husband Venutius rebelled against her. Cartimandua won the first round, then Venutius invaded with allies from another tribe and Cartimandua kept her throne only with Roman military aid. In 69 AD, Cartimandua divorced Venutius (one wonders what took her so long) in favour of his armour-bearer Vellocatus. Venutius rebelled again, reasonably enough in the circumstances, and this time he won. Cartimandua was rescued by the Romans but deposed from her throne. Her end is not recorded. Traitor, adulteress, or skilful politician - or indeed a mixture of all three - she successfully rode tribal and Roman politics for at least 18 years in a turbulent time. She must have been a remarkable lady.

2. King Raedwald of East Anglia, 7th century AD. Raedwald is one of the more likely candidates for the occupant of the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial, and Bede lists him among the Bretwaldas (approximately, over-king of Britain south of the Humber, although there is much scholarly argument over what the title meant in practice). Bede disapproved of Raedwald, who converted to Christianity in Kent, reverted to worship of the pagan English ('Anglo-Saxon') gods on the advice of his wife and councillors, and maintained a temple containing altars to both Christ and the pagan gods. So Raedwald is usually seen as a vacillator under his wife's thumb, a weathervane who tried to have his cake and eat it. I rather think there may have been more to him than that (although of course we will likely never know). His kingdom was very rich - the Sutton Hoo grave goods attest to that - and he himself was the most powerful king in southern Britain for a while (usually guessed to be from around 617 to the mid 620s). The legendary upper reaches of his genealogy list Caesar immediatey after Woden - did Raedwald have, or pretend to have, a dual heritage? And, given the popularity of alliterative naming in noble families, the king sequence Wuffa, Tytilla, Raedwald makes me wonder if there were rival dynasties contesting the throne of East Anglia. Was Raedwald chased out of his kingdom by a rival and his conversion was the price of Kentish political support? How did he regard the religious question? I have my doubts as to whether a pagan convert would necessarily have seen religious conversion in the same absolute terms as Bede does (More about this in a future post).

3. Archbishop Wulfstan of York, 10th century. Between 939 and 954 AD the Anglo-Danish kingdom of York had seven different kings, in more or less constant warfare with the West Saxon kings further south. Archbishop Wulfstan was the central power broker in these troubled times; kings in York came and went so often one wonders if the citizens had a noticeboard proclaiming the incumbent of the day, but Archbishop Wulfstan remained. His lifestyle was that of a prince-bishop, riding with the army, leading York's witan (council), negotiating diplomatic settlements with foreign powers, making and breaking kings, languishing in prison and finally dying in embittered political exile.

4. Earl Thorfinn of Orkney, 11th century. To find out if Dorothy Dunnett was right in her novel King Hereafter and he was also the historical Macbeth.

5. Mirza Shuja, one of the elite group of Indian spies and surveyors who worked for the British Raj in 19th-century India and were known as 'The Pundits'. These explorers surveyed the Himalayas and the hostile lands beyond India's frontiers - Afghanistan, Turkestan, Tibet - in secret and in peril of their lives, often disguised as Buddhist pilgrims. They measured distances by taking paces of a precise length and keeping count on a modified Buddhist rosary, fixed positions using a sextant hidden in a false-bottomed travelling chest, and surveyed direction using a compass hidden in the lid of a prayer-wheel. Many were away for years. Some never returned. Mirza Shuja himself was murdered in Bokhara. Why did they undertake such hazardous work for a foreign imperial power? How did they cope with the strain of maintaining a false identity for months or years at a time? How accurate is the portrayal of their world shown in Kipling's Kim?

5a. Ulf the Unwashed, Leader of the King's Spies, 10th century Norway. I put him in as 5a because I don't know if he's actually a historical figure or merely a flight of fancy on the part of the unknown author of Njal's Saga. But how can I resist a name like that?

What historical figures would you like to meet, and why?

08 June, 2006

Tamburlaine Must Die, by Louise Welsh. Book review

Edition reviewed: Canongate, Edinburgh, 2005, ISBN 1 84195 604 X

Tamburlaine Must Die is set in London during the period 19-29 May 1593. Its central character is Christopher Marlowe, and other historical figures include Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Walsingham (cousin to Sir Francis Walsingham, head of the Elizabethan intelligence service) and the astrologer and alchemist Dr John Dee.

Who can fail to be entranced by the sheer romanticism of Christopher Marlowe’s life? Poet, playwright, rumoured spy, rumoured homosexual, he lived fast and died young in mysterious circumstances in the seedy underworld of Elizabethan London. Marlowe was Shakespeare’s contemporary and literary equal - some would say superior - author of Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus. He died from a stab wound to the head in a house in Deptford on the evening of 30 May 1593. The official records state that his death resulted from a fight over the bill, though conspiracy theorists ever since have insisted there must have been more to it than that. Tamburlaine Must Die is among their number.

It is 1593 and pestilence is ravaging London. Handbills blaming the pestilence on Dutch immigrants and inciting riot and massacre have appeared, posted by person or persons unknown and signed with the name of Marlowe’s most famous theatrical creation, Tamburlaine. A friend’s betrayal throws suspicion on Marlowe, who is summoned before the Privy Council and accused of treason and heresy. Marlowe has to find and kill the unknown Tamburlaine to clear his name and save his life, but there are deep undercurrents in high politics and more lives and reputations than Marlowe’s are at stake.

Tamburlaine Must Die is elegantly written in a style that echoes some of the rhythms of Elizabethan drama. Inventive turns of phrase and original imagery abound, such as, “....my mind, as busy as a late-night gaming board....” and “...like a father bestowing pearls on a daughter of whose virginity he is certain.” A series of vivid vignettes bring Elizabethan London to life in all its squalid energy, from the crowded street scenes to the booksellers in St Paul’s churchyard.

My chief complaint is that there wasn’t a lot more of this book. I estimate the length at around 25,000 words, a cross between a novella and a beefed-up short story. The plot promised much but in the end it seemed quite slight, even for a novella. I guessed the identity of Tamburlaine about two-thirds of the way through, and when I got to the end I thought, “Oh. Is that it?” Readers hoping for a crime novel or a spy thriller are liable to come away disappointed. I’d have liked to see this expanded into a full-length novel, with a more complex plot and a larger cast of characters, for an extended stay in Marlowe’s colourful world.

An elegant short tale about a most fascinating subject.

Has anyone else read it? Or heard it when it was serialised on Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime slot a few months ago (unfortunately, it’s disappeared from the Listen Again page)? What did you think?

01 June, 2006

Minor characters' perspectives

I recently noticed this on Petrona's blog (Maxine Clarke). Her daughter’s English assignment was to retell a well-known myth, legend, fable or fairy story from the point of view of a minor character. (How come I never remember getting anything as interesting as that when I was at school?). Contributions included:

- Penelope fending off the suitors while waiting for Odysseus, told by the tapestry (it was suggested that this might be a little repetitive)
- Lord of the Rings told by the Balrog (quite a short one, that, I should think. “Got summoned. Fought wizard. Fell off bridge. Fought wizard again. Fell off mountain. The End.”)
- The Pied Piper of Hamelin, told from the point of view of a rat

I can think of:

- Cinderella told by the fairy godmother
- Beowulf told by Grendel's mother
- King Arthur told by Mordred
- King Arthur told by Excalibur

It occurs to me that it could be quite fun to apply this to historical events. Such as:

- the Black Death as told by the plague bacilli
- Elizabeth I as told by Kat Ashley
- the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, including the Princes in the Tower mystery, as told by Elizabeth Woodville
- the Scottish War of Independence as told by Sir James Douglas (aka the Black Douglas)
- Boudica’s revolt as told by Catus Decianus (the rapacious procurator)

What myths, legends or historical events would you like to see retold by a minor character?