Sunday, 24 October 2010

Book No 2

As you might have guessed from the first of my 5 books, there is a vogue at the moment for narrative history rather than what you might call expository history (or some might call dry, factual history). I wonder whether it's the printed word responding to the dynamic way television has started bringing history to life?

Years ago, for my own pleasure - if that's the right word - I read Philip Ziegler's The Black Death – pretty much the standard popular work on the progress of the plague in the thirteen forties – and I was looking forward to reading it again as preparation for TB&TW when, in Foyle's of Cambridge, I came across John Hatcher's The Black Death: An Intimate History. The hardback (it was newly published) has a pretty forbidding skeletal grim reaper on the front and its title isn't as explanatory as the paperback which is sub-subtitled The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis 1345-50.

To almost-quote a well-known advert – it does what it says on the cover.

Hatcher takes us to Walsham-le-Willows in Suffolk, one of the almost unbelievably well-documented Suffolk villages that medieval social and economic historians love so much. In those days it was just Walsham, the 'le Willows' being applied in a later century, and if you were expecting a cluster of hovels with underfed scraggy people wandering disconsolately about muttering about how they were done down by their lords (which some recent novels set in the medieval period might have led you to expect) then think again. Walsham, which was home to the people of two manors – Walsham itself and the smaller manor of High Hall - was home to over a thousand people and some of them were pretty well off. The families at the head of the village pecking order held more than twenty acres which made them hugely more than the kind of subsistence farmers most people imagine medieval peasants to have been (and which – to be fair – the village was actually full of).

[I actually bought a book on the villages of medieval Suffolk (not one of my five, not because it's not excellent but because it turned out to be less than ultra relevant to TB&TW) thinking that what was true of Suffolk must be true of most of the country (the current BBC series, The Story of England is taking exactly this line with its in-depth look at the archaeology and records of the Leicester village of Kibworth) but I soon found out that I was wrong. The system of inheritance in Suffolk, was different from the more familiar system of primogeniture practised in most other places – in Suffolk, as in modern France, land was divided between all the heirs which led to all sorts of social difficulties that I don't need to go into here as they don't form the substance of the book. As my main protagonist comes from Gloucester, this kind of thing would have been outlandish to him. Just another example of not knowing what you don't know until you start reasearching your book...]

Anyway, back to An Intimate History. John Hatcher is (I gather) an economic historian but he has the instincts of a novelist. Before he even starts on the main body of his work, he outlines the whole social fabric of Walsham briefly, succinctly and evocatively, in his introduction. Before you're introduced to a single individual in this 'intimate history', you already know what kind of place they live in and which stratum of society they're going to fit into. And a medieval village had as many strata as any town today, believe me. If I hadn't already learned that from Ian Mortimer's book (see previous post) I'd soon have worked it out from this one.

And it's the people – rather than the economic life of the village - who are the mainstay of the book, as the jacket copy leaves you in no doubt:

Agnes sat up with John all night, intermittently mumbling prayers and falling into fitful and troubled short naps. And when she did doze off she was confronted by a crowd of grinning demons striving with their infernal claws to snatch away her husband's soul.

John did not regain hs senses, and soon after sunrise he stopped breathing.

Agnes arose and looked vainly around the bare room. She lit the candle that the priest had sold her and recited the Placebo as best she could. But the words of the prayer which she had known well since she was twelve kept slipping from her mind. As she washed John's body she was shocked to see that much of his skin was now blotched and blackened, and that there were a number of swellings as well as a carbuncle in his groin. She folded him into a clean sheet. Then she fetched some sticks of wood that she washed and dried, and placed them at the edge of the embers in the hearth and waited till the ends blackened and burned to ash. Taking them up she allowed them to cool, and then carefully traced a cross on the shroud, and smoothed and shaped it with her fingers.

We see quite a lot of Agnes in the book, along with many other village characters, all of whom Hatcher has drawn from the astonishingly detailed Walsham manor court rolls.

We follow the progress of summer 1349 when, as Hatcher says, the population of the village was 'scythed in half'. Life, which had consisted of the same ambitions, fears, petty rivalries and major disagreements for as long as anybody could remember, was utterly turned upside down in a way that the villagers could neither comprehend nor, initially, cope with. And, through it all, they are supported by Master John, the iconic 'good parson' of the middle ages; he is the first character we are introduced to and he is with us, almost, to the last. And it is partly through his contacts outside the village that we are introduced to the England beyond Walsham, from the new religious guilds that were springing up in the mid-fourteenth century to the state of medical knowledge shared with Master John by his friend the infirmarer at St Edmondsbury.

This marrying of the intimate history of the village with events in the wider world – and indeed with expository writing on the progress of the plague – is managed by a brief foreword at the beginning of each chapter that places its subject-matter in a wider context. From the inexorable spread of the pestilence to the church's reaction to it; from the role of the monastic infirmarer to contemporary descriptions of the plague (not for the faint hearted) we are given an overview of the progress and effects of the Black Death on Great Britain as well as the more up-close-and-personal account that is the meat of the book.

And it is up-close. We watch people die. We watch family members trying, desperately, to ensure that their nearest and dearest don't die. We watch a village struggling to remain afloat as family after family after family is torn apart. It soon becomes obvious that nothing will ever be the same again.

And one of the things I liked most about the book was the way in which it gave us a small taste of life in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death. We see Walsham's surviving inhabitants understanding that the balance of power has shifted from their lords to themselves, that the balance preserved by too many people fighting for too little land has been upended by the need of that same land to be farmed by a very diminished population. While land is in demand, the power is with those who hold the land; once labour is in demand, well, guess who holds the power now?

I truly admired this book. It read like a novel and I kept forgetting to make notes as I went along. In the end I gave up and just raced to the end. But this turned out to be a mistake as the one failure of An Intimate History, in my view, is its lack of an index. If you can't remember where you read a particular detail, you just have to trawl through the whole book until you find it again.

But that's a small gripe. In general, I can do no better than agree with the reviewer from the Sunday Business Post:

'A compelling tale of ordinary people faced with a horror beyond imagining'


Monday, 18 October 2010

Five Books of Note

There was a great post on Juxtabook the other day about the Five Books blog on which, as its strapline explains, 'every day an eminent writer, thinker, commentator, politician, academic chooses five books on their specialist subject'.

It's the kind of site I could stay on all day but that's another story.

Now, I am not eminent but I thought it might be a wheeze to share with you the five books that have most informed my view of early fourteenth-century England and, therefore, the writing of The Black and The White.

So, today, Number One in the list.

I've mentioned Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England before; subtitled 'A handbook for visitors to the Fourteenth Century' Ian's book tells you everything you'll need to know if, unaccountably but thrillingly, you find yourself somewhere in England between 1300 and 1399.

He says in his introduction:

'As with a historical biography, a travel book about a past age allows us to see its inhabitants in a sympathetic way: not as a series of graphs showing fluctuations in grain yields or household income but as an investigation into the sensations of being alive in a different time.'

His chapter titles show that he is serious. There isn't a whiff of socio-politics or economics about them:

The landscape

The people

The medieval character

Basic essentials

What to wear


Where to stay

What to eat and drink

Health and hygiene

The law

What to do.

It could be any travel book about going to Malaysia or Ecuador or Chad. Except that all the people he tells us about in chapter 2 have been dead for about six hundred years, the landscape he describes has been changed beyond pretty much all recognition by modern agriculture, the growth of towns and mass transport and the advice on health and hygiene is – thank goodness – rendered obsolete by antibiotics and santitation.

But chapter 3 – the medieval character – is revealing. Whilst I agree totally with what he says in his introduction:

'...the very best evidence for what it was like to be alive in the fourteenth century is an awareness of what it is to be alive in any age, and that includes today...'

he is very good on how they were different.

Consider this thought:

'The word which best sums up the medieval attitude to the Devil, miracles, and everything in between, is superstition. People do not understand the laws of physics, or the nature of matter, or even how the human body functions. Hence they do not see limitations on how their world operates. Their sense of normality is thus somewhat precarious. Anything can happen.'

Well, all I can say is, thank goodness for that, because without that mindset, I wouldn't have a novel. Things which we wouldn't believe for a second in the rational, post-modern, cynical, twenty-first century are entirely plausible in the fourteenth – and one of my main characters relies on his fellow-countrymen's consequent gullibility.

But it's not just what people believed that was different – it was the makeup of the society that believed it. We're used to thinking of a society which is heavily weighted towards the older end of the age-spectrum which is why there is such a mistrust and suspicion of young people – they're a misunderstood minority.

Not in the fourteenth century.

Listen to how it was then. (Or is now in the voice of the book. Ian Mortimer uses the present tense for his narrative as if it really were a travel book for somewhere we could visit):

'between thirty-five and forty per cent of those you will meet are under fifteen... just five per cent of fourteenth century people are aged over sixty-five... Half the entire population is aged twenty-one or less.'

Just that, in itself, would make everywhere look and feel very different. Just imagine your street, your town, your village if that was the demographic spread. Our society wouldn't work – you can't have almost half the population in full-time education – there would be insufficient workers to create the wealth and make things happen.

But their society wasn't like ours. Precisely because of the weighting towards youth, young people grew up faster and were given responsibilities much more quickly:

'in some towns citizens as young as twelve can serve on juries'

'medieval boys.... can marry at the age of fourteen and are liable to serve in the army from the age of fifteen.'

'At the battle of Crecy (1346) the command of the vanguard – the foremost battalion of the army – is given to Prince Edward [known to us as the Black Prince], then just sixteen years of age.'

These are not just random facts I'm quoting at you here. The early fourteenth century demographic is entirely germane to The Black and The White because my two protagonists are fifteen and seventeen. But they are not boys, they are men. Young men, but men nonetheless. Nobody frets about them being out and about without parental permission, they fret about them being out and about at all, given that the Black Death is raging across England.

In my novels I tend not to go on a lot about what people wear – my concern is not to get it glaringly wrong rather than to describe every tunic and shoe – but if I had been keen to wax lyrical about the different styles of town and country, rich and poor, The Time Traveller's Guide would have put me on the right track.

Similarly the various kinds of dwelling people lived in are not hugely TB&TW's concern – my two young men spend most of their time sleeping under their cart, but Ian Mortimer rounds up and summarises a lot of what I had – laboriously and painstakingly – gleaned from elsewhere about the various habitations of men pre-Black Death.

Given that my book is essentially the novelistic equivalent of a road movie, the chapter on Travelling was one of the most useful to me. Who knew how scarce bridges were (very, especially the stone variety) or exactly how much woodland on either side of a highway had to be cleared (200 yards).

I knew that maps were basically as rare as hens teeth and, anyway, no use for directions but to be given an actual request for directions was amazing:

'Good people I go to [wherever]. At which gate shall I go out? And at which hand shall I take my way?'

A character in TB&TW remarks that his method is 'journey and ask, son, journey and ask' which is a slightly snappier version.

I could go on and on about The Time Traveller's Guide. Where else can you find out about underwear, about the games that people played, about the scandalous behaviour of some younger sons of the aristocracy, about female sexuality and remedies for sexual frustration?

If you're remotely interested in social history – or if you're remotely thinking of writing a book set in the fourteenth century – this is an absolute 5-star book.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Paper-trail

While I'm still on the subject of rewriting (as I had suspected, Prospective Agent is snowed under after the Frankfurt Book Fair and has asked for a fortnight's grace before I send TB&TW off to him) I thought I'd address the issue of the far-from-paperless process as it occurs in my house.

Though I try and do as much rewriting/editing as I can onscreen, there is a completely different feel about the printed page and I know that no part of my book is properly combed-through and appraised until I've done it on the page. Consequently, I have piles and piles of A4 printouts of various bits and drafts of The Black and The White hanging about the place. As of yesterday I decided to chuck them all in the recycling bin and just keep the most recent, clean copy.

What does everybody else do with printed-out drafts?

Monday, 11 October 2010


This, Blogger tells me, is my 300th post which seems auspicious because the news today is that my work in progress is finished. (For now).

Yes, after 17 months of research and writing, The Black and The White has reached a version I am happy to send off to my prospective agent.

I have to confess that part of me just wants to send it straight off to my editor, Will, at Macmillan, but the other, more strategic, part of me knows that I need an agent. So, agentwards TB&TW will go today. Actually, I'll probably just give him a quick email first to see whether now might be an appropriate moment to land a longish typescript in his inbox. (Just short of 144 000 words).

As ever, it's an odd sensation to have finished because 'finished' is a decision rather than a distinct state.

I know perfectly well that if I were to start working through it again I'd find other things I want to change but it'd be nitty-gritty, change-a-word-here, remove-a-comma-there stuff so I need to leave it and walk away. I need to look up from my laptop screen and remember what it is I do around the place when I'm not spending the majority of my waking hours with my head in the fourteenth century.

Apart from stuff around the house (anybody know a truly mould-resistant sealant for showers?) the biggest thing waiting to be done is the additional material our publisher wants for the autism book. The deadline for that is the end of October so I need to get a move on with that but I'm actually looking forward to it – it comes from a different part of my brain and is so much more under my control than the fiction that it's rather restful!

As well as that, I'll also be starting on the research and thinking for the next book.

It's a bit like 'the king is dead, long live the king.' The book is finished, clear the desk for work on the next one...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

BBC 4 History (or BBC4 history)

For reasons to do with topography and dodgy aerials we can't get Freeview in our house so I have been late in catching up with several things medievally-related on BBC4 recently.

First off, there is an excellent programme, still airing weekly, by Richard Taylor who describes himself as somebody who 'writes books about churches and the messages hidden inside them'. It's called Churches: How to Read Them. We're on episode 5 now (cued up on iPlayer waiting to be watched) which is going to deal with the churches of the Enlightement period but it was the first two or three – those episodes which dealt with churches from the Dark Ages to the Reformation – which particularly interested me. If you're into medieval history or the history of art and architecture, it's a fascinating and massively informative series.

Then there's The Story of England – historian Michael Wood's programme about how a popular project to excavate various bits of the Leicester village of Kibworth (roughly in the heart of England) can teach us about the history of the whole of England. As the first one was from Romans to Normans, it was fascinating for me. I now need to catch up with Number 2 – Domesday to Magna Carta. And the whole programme makes me want to get involved in archaeology. It's great.

Also waiting to be watched is the second installment of In Search of Medieval Britain – last week about a fourteenth century woman called Christina (which was weird as I have a character in TB&TW called Christiana) who lived through the Black Death, this week about medieval Wales which will be great for me as that's where I grew up. Not medieval Wales, obviously (though that would explain a lot!) just Wales, specifically the West - Ceredigion.

So, lunchtimes are being taken over by iPlayer-watching instead of novel-reading, which is unhelpful as I've got one book group meeting this week (Andrea Levy's Never Far From Nowhere, since you ask) and another next week (Mrs Jordan's Profession by Claire Tomalin).

So, thank you BBC4 – I love you!!

And please can the powers that be put a decent Freeview aerial somewhere in the vicinity of Canterbury?