Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Living with history

A few weeks ago I blogged about Marble Hill House and English Heritage’s plans for the property. I'm coming back to this because I think that the way that we fit historical buildings and landscapes into our modern world is important. This post provides a bit of an update and some more detail on the issues that "heritage" can raise.

The essence of English Heritage’s plan is to carry out improvement works in the park and to develop significant parts of the park back toward more what they might have looked like in the 18th century. They have done detailed archaeological work and the plans are not fanciful, but based on the best possible evidence that they can gather. For those (and there are many of them) who believe that heritage is about restoring our historic past, the proposals are an exciting opportunity to restore grounds which were significant in the development of the English garden. For many local residents, this is a bunch of historians messing with a much loved park in order to rebuild something that may or may not have been there two and a half centuries ago.

Marble Hill Park

I leaned rather toward the second point of view and drafted a post attacking English Heritage and their plans for widespread tree felling. The words “Jane Austen theme park” may have appeared. Fortunately, I sent the draft to English Heritage for comment and John Watkins, their Head of Landscape and Gardens came to talk me through the plans and explain where I had got them wrong.

I learned a lot about the history of the park and quite a bit about the trees, but mainly I learned how the planning system is hardly the best way forward in moving projects like this to a satisfactory conclusion.

Woodman spare that tree

Marble Hill House is set within a small area of woodland (described as “wild wood”). The vegetation is mainly self-seeded. There is a lot of holly, ranging from small bushes to large trees. There is a thick canopy and little light reaches the ground, which is largely covered with ivy. A few animals – mainly squirrels and foxes – live there, but the density of the trees and the amount of ivy means that it is not an especially helpful habitat in terms of biodiversity. There are strong arguments that from the point of view of maintaining the grounds and improving the health of the trees generally, some clearing and coppicing would-be a positive step.

The house from the north

So far, so uncontroversial. Unfortunately, Richmond Council, in the interests of ensuring that no trees were unnecessarily removed, asked for a survey that counted every individual tree or shrub in the wood and a note of each one that was to go. The result was headlines like this one on Twitter.

A petition has been set up and, at the time of writing over 2,800 people have already signed it.

It’s a petition I would once have been happy to subscribe to, but two hours of looking at the site with Mr Watkins has made me see it in a somewhat different light.

Firstly, the majority of the 300+ "trees" are small, damaged, or near the end of their life. Anybody interested in the health of the woodland must appreciate that the current density of trees and uncontrolled undergrowth is not a healthy eco-system. The woodland floor gets little sunlight and is covered in ivy. It does not support wildlife. Some of beautiful trees in the area are difficult to see because of the scrub surrounding them and all of the trees suffer because they do not they do not get the light or nutrients they need to grow. Removal of many of these "trees" would not worry anybody who has been in and looked at them up close.

There are trees in the area which should be preserved. It's possible to argue about the merits of individual trees. For example, we looked at a yew that is scheduled for removal because of damage to the trunk which, it is argued, means it is not a healthy tree. However, looking at it with Mr Watkins he agreed that there is certainly room for disagreement on the point. There are several trees where it's not really possible to make a final decision on removal or retention at this stage, but the planning process means that all the trees that might be removed have to be listed. It would clearly be better if the planning consent was in two stages – one for the smaller shrubs that are definitely coming out and then a careful consideration separately of the larger trees that may or may not be removed later. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the way that planning applications work.

This oak show significant storm damage but is structurally sound and will be retained

More seriously, the details of the trees that are to be removed have been released ahead of the details of the trees that are to be planted. My concern that the current blocks of woodland will be replaced with a much more open view containing a few neatly laid out trees such as may have been planted in the 18th century turns out to have been mistaken. Yes, some trees will be removed and there will be a small number of trees planted in neat rows very unlike what is that at present. However, the northern margins of these blocks will be built up with additional planting to maintain the same sort of appearance from the north, whilst opening the area up to visitors. At present, the whole area is fenced off as the vegetation is thick and the ground-cover not conducive to walking.

Butcher's broom in the woodland. So called because it was traditionally used by butchers to clean their blocks

Some people will still be unhappy with the planned changes, but many people will be reassured if they only knew what they were. In any case, whether you like the proposed changes or not, it would surely be helpful if they were clearly explained ahead of any planning decision. The idea that the planning consents could be given in stages is surely worth looking at.

Butcher's broom again. This is a female plant (with berries)

Restoring the original gardens

Some of the problem with the discussions of what is planned for Marble Hill is that there are two distinct aspects to the work. Part of it is essentially about woodland management but this is being done in the context of attempts to restore the original 18th-century garden plan. As I explained in my previous post about Marble Hill, the gardens are important in tracing the development of landscape gardening in England. Henrietta Howard’s plans seem to combine the strict formality of gardens from the 17th century and before with the more informal approach to landscape that was, arguably, to find its finest expression in the works of Capability Brown.

English Heritage will argue that the restoration of parts of the 18th-century gardens in the apparently incongruous environment of a modern municipal park is actually very close to the original concept which saw different kinds of land-use sitting alongside each other. Whether the hidden pathways and wooded areas of an 18th-century garden actually make aesthetic or practical sense next to a 21st-century rugby pitch is a serious question and one which I think deserves to be seriously addressed. It does go to the whole question of how we protect England’s historical heritage within the context of the modern world. I'm not sure that the planning process is the best place to be having this discussion.

Self-seeded elm in the woodland. English Heritage at looking at possibly reintroducing elms to the park
I was very sceptical about the whole idea, but I must admit that John Watkins makes a convincing argument. When you explore these blocks of wild woodland in detail, sometimes stepping over the fence into areas that are not generally open to the public, a surprising amount of the 18th-century plan is still visible. Unfortunately, you really do have to be there together with an expert. The sheer quantity of vegetation means that photographs, whether taken at ground level or from the air, basically show lots of leaves. It's only when you stand with a guide you can see the gaps in the trees where open rides would have led through the woodland area all that time ago. One of the blocks has a more open area hidden at the centre. There is lots of ground-cover but no larger trees. The 18th-century plan shows that there was a secret flower garden at this point and English Heritage intend to restore it. A surprising amount of Lady Henrietta Howard's landscaping is still preserved, although it is visible only to a landscape archaeologist.

Living with heritage

It seems that everybody locally has a view on whether or not their favourite tree should be chopped down. (In at least one case, sadly, it must be, because the roots are beginning to attack the foundations of the house.) They all care about whether the whole of the park should still be open to dog walkers – a substantial element of the park using community. They care about the playing fields and the children's playground and the future of the local cafe. All these issues are being aired, but there doesn't seem to be any forum for a serious discussion of the heritage issues.

English Heritage are trying hard to engage with the public, as evidenced by the amount of time that they have been prepared to give to me, but this appears a dialogue of the deaf. English Heritage are only now learning just how deeply people feel about a park which many of them have been using on an almost daily basis since they were children. (The number of people who stood up at a public meeting and presaged their remarks with the statement that they had been walking their dogs there for over 40 years was eye opening.) Local people, on the other hand, know little, if anything, about the historical importance of the grounds and see only vandals who want to attack treasured woodland. How this mutual incomprehension is ever going to resolve itself into a plan generally acceptable to everybody is not clear. I would love to think that this blog might be a starting point. If anybody does want a conversation, you could begin by posting in the ‘Comments’ below. 

Valuing heritage

Any discussion of English Heritage's plans for Marble Hill – and, indeed, for many other sites – can't ignore the financial constraints that English Heritage works under. In this country we claim to be very proud of our heritage and it brings in a lot of money from tourists as well as giving much pleasure to the many people who visit heritage sites every year. Yet English Heritage has moved from being a government-funded organisation supported by taxation to being a charity which will soon be expected to raise the money that it needs to maintain England's heritage by charitable contributions.

Realistically, people are not going to put enough money into collection boxes for them to keep places like Marble Hill properly maintained. (If you do want to support English Heritage financially, you can join HERE.) The result is that many sites are now expected to generate income to cover their costs. Hence the plans for an on-site cafe, which have raised many complaints locally. Despite concerns that trees will be felled and the nature of the site will be changed, the cafe will not have any significant effect on woodland or on the park’s landscape. This is not to say that it's necessarily a good thing, but it does seem to be a necessary thing unless we are to accept that the park should not be properly maintained.

If the cafe doesn't raise the sort of money that English Heritage are hoping for then the plans could leave us with an elaborate exercise in landscaping that will soon become overgrown, dirty, and (given the number of hidden spaces in the woodland) potentially squalid and dangerous. Alternatively, English Heritage will have to make up the shortfall from its other income, leaving other properties short of resources. 

Of course, if this really is our English Heritage, one solution would be for the government to fund improvements to the landscaping from taxation, but while politicians can find money for their pet vanity projects, heritage funding is a victim of austerity and likely to remain so. English Heritage’s plans are therefore defined almost as much by the financial realities as by any ideal view of how the park should be presented. 


Whilst I'm not sure that I share English Heritage’s vision for Marble Hill, I do acknowledge that they are doing their best to meet what they see as their remit. English Heritage put significant resources into what is essentially a municipal park that they never asked to take responsibility for but which they were landed with as a result of the political changes discussed in my previous post. The park is, as I hope my photographs show, an amazingly beautiful place, free for anybody to enter and enjoy. Just because I may not agree with their future plans, doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the efforts that they are making.

I'm particularly grateful to Kate Pitt and John Watkins of English Heritage for giving me so much of their time and answering some very ignorant questions, and to the on-site archaeological team for explaining to amateurs like myself how they know so much about what the gardens would have originally looked like.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Red Room Tango

“I met her in a tango bar …” It’s the stuff of stories, plays and films, these tango bars where dancers pivot between the tables and dangerous liaisons form in the clouds of cigarette smoke. Sadly (or maybe not) the tango bar is almost entirely a product of fiction. Yes, there may be a bar at a tango club, but when the dancers are dancing they tend to take over the place, and, after the first couple of collisions, dancing round the tables is less fun than it sounds. But the idea still has a romantic appeal. What if you retreated from the rain and found yourself in a bar where people were just getting up and dancing. Can you imagine it?

Imagine no longer, for such a bar exists – and conveniently to hand near London’s Liverpool Street station. Theatre Delicatessen is at 2 Finsbury Avenue, EC2M 2PA. It’s a regular cafe bar, serving coffee, sandwiches and both alcoholic and soft drinks. Prices are what you would expect in this part of the world, but the toasted sandwiches are good and the staff are friendly. So far, so normal. But at 7.30 on a Tuesday night, the lights go down, tango music starts playing and gradually people get up and start to dance. By nine o’clock the dancers outnumber the drinkers, but it remains a regular bar with people sitting and watching. There are studio rooms off the café space, so every so often, as one sort of class or another ends, people flood into the room and stop and stare. There is even someone wheeling a bicycle across the dance floor. It’s a milonga (tango dance party) but in a space that is definitely not reserved for dancers.

Somewhere around ten o’clock, Alfredo Martin Espindola starts singing sad country tango songs to his guitar and the dancers pause and then translate his singing into movement and the people come and go and the bar staff serve, quietly but efficiently, and Spaniards explain the lyrics and, outside, it starts to rain. It’s a tango bar. It’s definitely worth a visit.

For me, the atmosphere was quite a change from the rather intense milongas that I’m used to. There was rather more talking and rather less dancing. The place is open until 11.00, so there’s no rush. Have a chat. Have a drink. Take a turn or two around the floor.

As far as dancing goes, the place works well. Tables are pushed back, so you have room to dance. The floor was usually busy, but not over-crowded. (The photo was taken at the end of the evening as it got quieter.) The sound system is good and there wasn’t too much background noise from the bar. In fact, if anything, the place was on the quiet side, without the buzz you often get at a milonga. It was definitely a chilled Tuesday evening rather than a lively weekend feel. Inevitably, but with some justification, women complained of a shortage of men.

The floor is some sort of lino-type tiling, easy enough to move on, but you have to take care where the tiles are not perfectly level, so you can trip on the joins. The dancers all knew what they were doing and the line of dance moved easily round the floor.

Red Room Tango is never going to be the highlight of the week, but for an after-work venue on a Tuesday, it hits the spot really well. And if you fancy watching some dancers while you enjoy an early-evening beer, it’s somewhere you should definitely consider. It’s a tango bar (but without the cigarette smoke). What’s not to like?

Friday, 6 October 2017

A book review that has nothing to do with history

I don't think I've ever reviewed a horror novel before. It's a completely random change from the historicals that feature here fairly regularly, but it's by a lovely author from New Zealand who spent her summer digging up Roman remains on Hadrian's Wall so there is a sort of historical connection. And it lets me say 'archetype', which is my word of the month.

Here we go.

Painted by Kirsten McKenzie

If you are going to see just one horror movie, I recommend Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods. It’s a horror movie that deconstructs horror movies and then sends the whole genre up while remaining a horror movie and with, arguably, the most horrific ending of all horror movies ever. It’s both terrifying and hilarious.

I mention this now because Whedon’s explanation of what makes a horror film fits so wonderfully to Kirsten McKenzie’s venture into the genre: Painted.

According to Whedon, the archetypal horror story takes a group of people to an isolated location. On the way they will meet the Harbinger, who will try to warn them away. McKenzie’s Harbinger is a local farmer, who warns her heroine to flee the isolated old house.

“If … you knew what was good for you, you’d not stay here. Place isn't right. Never has been.”

There will be five people in the house: the scholar, the jock, the idiot, the whore and the virgin. McKenzie’s five characters fit these archetypes without too much of a stretch. One by one, they will die. In Whedon’s view, the virgin is always the last to be threatened and her death is optional.

McKenzie’s characters die one by one as their souls become trapped in the portraits painted by a ghost of one of the previous owners of the house. Additional creepiness is introduced by assorted other ghosts, spectral dogs howling in the darkness outside, and the crying of dead children trapped on an island in an iced-over pond. Did I forget to mention that the house has been cut off by a blizzard? It’s fair to say that every horror-story trope features. This is not a criticism at all: Joss Whedon throws all the standard horrors into The Cabin in the Woods and that’s what makes it so good. Horror needs to be full-on if it is to work and, though McKenzie holds back on the gore, Painted doesn’t let anything pass that it can get away with.

If I have any complaints about the number of extra twists packed in, it is that sometimes they become a little over-complicated. Some, dare I say it, don't entirely make sense or are just a little too tortuous for me to be able to follow late at night (and what better time to read a book like this?). Still, it is a ghost story, so a strictly logical plot isn’t an absolute requirement.

There is a more complex story in the relationship of the characters than at first appears. I'm not going to give it away, because the shock is a good one. If you're like me, it won't come as a complete surprise but you will have a growing sense of unease about one of the people trapped in the house and when everything finally becomes all too clear you will feel a definite frisson.

The five are there to value artworks and antiques ahead of disposal following the death of the house's owner. McKenzie works in the antiques business and the minutiae of the characters’ cataloguing efforts is convincing and surprisingly gripping, especially as they are regularly interfered with by supernatural forces.

[Possible spoiler in this paragraph.] McKenzie does break away from Whedon’s model when it comes to the ending. The advantage of this is that it provides something new and edgy and, in its way, far more horrific than the conclusion that Joss Whedon (and most readers) would have expected. Respect to her for daring to be different, but I'm not sure that it works. Whedon's point is that horror stories have been handed down through millennia, always following the same basic plot and are hence simultaneously terrifying and reassuring. Making them terrifying and then a bit more terrifying is, arguably, a step too far.

McKenzie has blogged about how she now writes very quickly and this produces a pacey style entirely suited to a gripping story. It's an easy read and will hold anybody who likes this sort of thing. And if you don't like this sort of thing, why on earth are you reading it? The cover surely told you what to expect.


Friday, 29 September 2017

Book Review: Fools and Mortals

I got sent a copy of Fools and Mortals, Bernard Cornwell's latest, by HarperCollins through NetGalley. If you're not a member of NetGalley already, I recommend that you sign up.

I was interested in reviewing this book, set in the world of Elizabethan theatre, because I'm a big Bernard Cornwell fan and reading Carol McGrath's The Woman in the Shadows has given me a taste for fiction set in the 16th century. Perhaps this meant that I came to it with too many preconceptions. In the end, though it is a pleasant enough read, I was disappointed.

Fools and Mortals is the story of Richard Shakespeare, William's younger brother. There was a real Richard Shakespeare, but given how little is known of William's early life it seems that Richard’s is likely to be even more conjectural. Although Cornwell provides a long and fascinating historical note, he doesn't say anything about the real Richard. The fictional Richard runs away from Stratford, where he has beaten and robbed the man he was apprenticed to, and throws himself on the mercy of William in London. William, in this account, is not a particularly nice person and seems to harbour a peculiar antipathy to his younger sibling. Perhaps there was some clue I missed, but I have no idea of why. Neither character seems that well-developed because this is, in the end, not a book about people but a book about theatre.

Bernard Cornwell is an enthusiastic member of an amateur theatre group and his love for theatre in general and Shakespeare's works in particular shines through this book. There is an awful lot of detail of what it would have been like performing in the Theatre (where Shakespeare's troupe performed before moving to the Globe), the Curtain, the Swan, or any of the other playhouses that were growing up on the outskirts of London. The political background is also well described.

There is a plot, centring on a stolen script, but that is really a vehicle to carry a story which is far more interested in the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The account of how Dream was written, and what the first performance (at the Lord Chancellor's mansion, rather than in a theatre) would have been like, is fascinating stuff, but it highlights the weakness, as well as the strength, of the book. In order for us to follow what the actors are trying to achieve and what is going on on stage, Cornwell provides a potted summary of the plot. As Cornwell himself admits (and as all the players in the tale know) the story of Dream makes no sense at all. When condensed to a plot summary it is even more ludicrous. So why bother with the plot at all? Clearly Cornwell is concerned that he needs to carry with him readers who have never met Titania or Oberon and never seen Bottom with his ass’s head. But if you are so totally ignorant of the play, why would you be interested in reading a book which is, essentially, about Shakespeare's life? And if you read it anyway, can you honestly have any idea of what is going on based on this sort of super-condensed Cliffs notes? It just doesn't make sense.

By Charles Buchel (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Once you start asking yourself who the book is supposed to appeal to, a lot of other issues arise. For example, Cornwell clearly explains that Elizabethan audiences were rowdy and boisterous and the plays were seen in a completely different atmosphere to that in which they are watched nowadays. But is there anybody interested enough to read this book who didn't already know that?

Cornwell's focus is very tightly maintained on the theatre. There is a lot about costume, the layout of the buildings, and the mechanics of a production. But this hardly extends beyond the stage. For example, we are frequently told that there is an orchestra and what instruments are in it, because this might well interest an actor and obviously interests Cornwell. But we aren't told anything about how the instruments are played. By contrast, when a character uses an old wheel lock pistol Cornwell, the writer of military history, gives an enormous amount of detail about how exactly it fires. The arbitrary concentration on those aspects of Elizabethan life that appeal and the disregard of everything else left me feeling that the story lacked the texture that I have come to expect from the Cornwell I met describing Sharpe’s life in the Napoleonic wars.

Perhaps I would be less critical if I hadn't just come from Carol McGrath's tale, set slightly earlier in the 16th century. What so impressed me about that book, which also uses quite a thin storyline to carry a lot of period detail, was just how much I found myself inhabiting the period. In McGrath's book I am with Elizabeth Cromwell as she lives her day-to-day life, while in Cornwell's I am detached, watching Richard Shakespeare moving across an imaginatively realised, but never fully three-dimensional, Elizabethan background.

This is not to say that this is a bad book – just a rather disappointing one. Anyone looking for an easy introduction to the world of Shakespeare's theatres will probably enjoy it and anybody who knows that world already will find fascinating insights. For example, I knew that Shakespeare's troupe was called ‘The Lord Chamberlain's Men’, but I never understood that this was because they were the Lord Chamberlain's men. Perhaps I'm almost alone in my ignorance, but the role of the aristocracy in offering patronage and political protection to theatre groups was something I never understood before.

If you're not looking for a primer on Elizabethan theatre, this is a story with some evil villains, a cunning plan, occasional violence, a love interest and a happy ending. What's not to like? One of the messages of the book is that not everything that Shakespeare wrote was great art and that sometimes writers pad out their oeuvre with lesser works. We shouldn't hold it against Bernard Cornwell that he has written better stuff elsewhere.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Grumpy old writer

I was talking to somebody the other day who was telling me that they thought that the Internet had radically changed the way that books are sold. That's hardly a new thought, but the changes that the Internet has wrought on publishing are much greater than that. The Internet has dramatically changed the way that books are written.

Just lately I've been reading a bit more fiction than usual – some of it traditionally published and some of it from independent or small presses which publish only as e-books. What has struck me is the way that books seem to have changed from when I was younger.

Books have changed since the days when this was a furniture norm

Note that I'm talking about changes in books generally. I'm not picking on any particular author and these changes will have affected my work as well as those of people I know. My whole point is that the technology has changed the way that books are written, rather than that individual authors are writing better or worse books than they used to.

As is traditional when grumpy old people write about how things are changing, I don't think that many of the changes mark an improvement. Books I pick up nowadays are riddled with proofing errors, repetition, mixed metaphors and just passages of really rather awful prose. There's lots of really good stuff too and many more writers out there producing more books than ever before and that is a good thing. But there is an astonishing amount of rubbish and that is not.

Why is quality on the slide?

You know that old saying: you can have a quick, you can have it cheap, or you can have a good, but not all three? Well the way that books are sold nowadays means that, with rare exceptions, they have to be written quickly and sold cheaply. Inevitably, they aren't as well written as they might be.

If you look at fiction bestseller lists, you will see that they are dominated by books by well-known authors who write to a formula that has worked for them in the past – often as part of a series. With so many books around, people naturally turn to novels by authors they have read before. This is even more the case further down the charts. If you are waiting with bated breath (and I hope you are) for Endeavour to publish the fourth of my books about James Burke (provisionally titled Burke in the Peninsula) then you’ve probably already read at least one of the others. The best way to sell an existing book (unless you are famous or have an unrealistically generous marketing budget) is to produce a new one. Interest in a new novel should always raise sales of existing books by the same writer.

The demand for new books means that all writers find themselves under pressure to produce at speed. I produce, more or less, one book a year. (There's a bit of a hiatus at the moment because I've just changed publisher.) This is partly because I'm fundamentally lazy, but also because historical novels genuinely do take longer to write – there are so many details that you have to check if they are not be riddled with errors. A book a year, though, is now regarded as quite pathetic. Fortunately, I don't care that I don't make any money from writing (although if you all proved me wrong by buying my books, I would be quite grateful). If I did intend to generate even the minimum wage from my writing, I would really need to write a lot more quickly.

The economic imperative to put words down on paper ever faster is translating into a new approach to writing which is spawning its own self-help books and online support groups. The idea here is to simply pour words on paper ever so quickly. Don't worry about editing – just get the words down. Tidying up can come later.

There is a lot to be said for this approach. It certainly doesn't allow for precious nonsense about writers block. In fact, it puts writing on a par with any other artisanal craft. After all, if you throw pots for a living, you are expected to produce a fair number of pots. You can't – unless you are the very top of your game – say that you are only going to produce one pot this week, but it will be very, very good.

This approach can lead to great storytelling. When we are telling a story to our friends they want us to get on with the tale. There is nothing worse than the storyteller who keeps stopping and going back and changing some detail here or there. "It happened in Birmingham – no, Leeds. It was on a Tuesday – no a Wednesday." People just want the story and writing very fast can produce very good stories which can be improved by the paciness of the prose which is, in part, a product of the writing process.

What is lost, of course, is the quality of the actual writing itself. In theory, this might not even be a problem for the author. That, some will say, is what editors are for. Editors should notice the repetitions, infelicitous word choices, mixed metaphors, and all the rest of it. But, if you recall, we don't just want a quick, but we want it cheap.

Proper editing costs money and there just isn't enough of that around. Many self-published authors who do pay editors not only don't make any money out of their efforts but actually end up out of pocket. Of course, you can buy the services of a very cheap editor, but then it's unlikely they will be very good.

You'd think that editing issues would not be a problem for major publishing houses, but it seems that they are. I am generally avoiding pointing the finger at particular books but E L James has sold so many copies of 50 Shades… that I think she can cope with some criticism of her prose. This is from early in the book.

Fifty Shades of Grey

I walk over to the bank of elevators and past the two security men who are both far more smartly dressed than I am in their well-cut black suits.
The elevator whisks me at terminal velocity to the twentieth floor. The doors slide open, and I'm in another large lobby – again all glass, steel and white sandstone. I'm confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman, this time dressed impeccably in black and white, who rises to greet me
"Miss Steele, could you wait here, please?" She points to a seating area of white leather chairs.

Leaving aside the fact that "terminal velocity" is not a synonym for "really quite fast" (and the speed is implicit in "whisks" anyway), note the overuse of "black", "white", and "sandstone". I’ve just quoted two and a half paragraphs. If I had quoted more, the same words would have come up over and over again (along with "glass" and "steel”). Ms James may have lively imagination when it comes to sexual behaviour, but her notion of what constitutes an exciting modern office building is depressingly limited. Does it matter? Arguably, it doesn't – and her sales figures would tend to support this. People are reading the book for its kinky sex not its architectural descriptions. A decent editor should have tidied this up. But in the end, it seems likely that Vintage Books (an imprint of Random House, no less) took the view that the book would sell for the smutty bits whether or not it was well written and economised on editorial input.

My limited contact with the publishing world suggests that more editorial work is now being contracted out to freelancers, who are unlikely to build up the relationships with writers that characterised great editor/author collaborations in the past. It's certainly cheaper, though.

Proofing has gone the way of editing. There will always be proofing errors that slip through, of course, but serious novels published by serious publishers seem increasingly to have spelling mistakes and punctuation errors. It's not fair to blame the authors. Everybody makes mistakes. That's why books used to go through several rounds of corrections with editors and proof-readers casting their eyes over the work independently to minimise errors. But every extra pair of eyes costs, and keeping the cost down is, for most publishers with most books, what it's all about.

An author writing for peanuts

The bottom line is that books are now absurdly cheap. Most writers want to write – nay, they have a pathological need to write. You can squeeze the amount you pay your writers until only the old and the rich can afford to write any more. But still there is pressure to get those prices down lower. The last book I bought on Amazon cost me 99p. If it has spelling mistakes and mistypes and the odd sentence that really shouldn't have got through, what did I expect?

There will always be books because there will always be stories. The need to tell stories is hardwired into the human brain. But if those stories are to be told with subtlety and wit and a nice way with words, we're going to have to accept that we will have to start paying for them. Sadly I see no evidence that this is going to happen any time soon.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Guest post: Jennifer Macaire

Frustratingly, I am in that gap between leaving Accent Press and having my books published by Endeavour. If you live in North America you can buy my stuff through Simon & Schuster – and I'd really appreciate it if you did. If you are in the rest of the world, though, you're probably going to have to wait another month or two yet. This makes the business of producing a weekly blog a bit strange, but I know that hundreds of you do read it every week (thank you!) and I don't want to disappoint. So right now I'm throwing my blog open to some other writers who I think have interesting things to say.

This week it's Jennifer Macaire. I hope you enjoy her post and that, at least until you can buy my books again, you go out and get her Time for Alexander series. It really is good.

Researching Alexander

Hi Tom, and thank you for inviting me back to your blog! As you know, I wrote a book on Alexander the Great. Well, it was a fiction book, and he was one of the main characters. I thought (smugly) that I knew a lot about him, because I'd read some biographies, a few of Aristotle's quotes, skimmed over The Anabasis of Alexander[1] by Arrian, and read several fiction books about him including the fantastic Mary Renault series.  Plutarch wrote the most fascinating biography[2] nearly four hundred years after the conqueror’s death, and his research seems to have been meticulous. But Plutarch was Greek, and for the Greeks, Alexander would forever be an upstart barbarian.

With that in mind, I started a short story. But I was not happy with the idea I had of Alexander. For one thing, there were many discrepancies in his biographies, and the biggest problem, for me, was that most accounts were written centuries after Alexander's death! I put aside my short story and started researching in earnest. Who was this person? Why did he go so far into India when he'd already captured the crown of Persia? Why go against his generals' wishes and drag (well, lead) his army across Persia to the Caspian Sea, into Iran and Bactria, into India as far as the Ganges, then down to the Indus Delta, along the barren coast and desert to Persepolis? It was as if he never really wanted to go home and rule, but go back home he did, where he died soon after. His character came to me by reading between the lines. A warrior, yes, but a dreamer as well. An eternal student and tourist at heart, charismatic but short tempered. A brilliant tactician and energetic, but prone to ill health. His friends loved him, his enemies hated him, but no one was indifferent. He was superstitious and religious, yet he defied the gods. He was a conundrum, and he made a wonderful fictional character.

The character I needed was larger than life, (even Alexander's enemies admitted he was amazing). It wasn't hard, therefor, to create a sort of demigod. But Alexander's faults were important too. He was, according to Plutarch, 'choleric' and would drink excessively. The more I studied him, the more the idea occurred to me that if time travel existed, he would be one of the people time-travelers would be most eager to meet. And so the idea was born - a time traveler would go back and interview him, and then he'd do something that would inadvertently change time. Fun! I started writing but within a few pages I realized that my first idea of a male journalist would not work. For one thing, a man would not fall under Alexander's spell as easily as a woman would. Men, I discovered as I researched, were, well, a tiny bit jealous. It crept into Plutarch's work, it seeped out of Arrian's book - the only one who wasn't in awe of Alexander was Aristotle. Therefore, I needed a woman time traveler. And I needed someone who wouldn't be cowed by him and someone who would fascinate him. It wasn't hard to create the woman - what surprised me was how fast she fell into his arms. Well, it would be a romance book, then. But love isn't easy to write about, so they fell in lust first (that's more understandable). Love came slowly to this mismatched pair; the man from the past  and the woman from the future had a lot to overcome before their relationship could be based on mutual trust and understanding. And for that, she has to tell him who she truly is - not Persephone, goddess of the dead, but a woman from another time.

He's impressed - of course, and all the more so because he realizes that what he's doing will be in songs through the ages. Heady stuff, for a young man. So the book advanced, and as I wrote, I researched. The army, their route, their food, their weapons, his friends, his enemies, the weather, the horses...and toothpaste. I spent an entire day researching toothpaste. Did you know that people brushed their teeth very carefully back then? Clean teeth and sweetness of breath was considered essential. They used soft twigs, chewed until they frayed, or little brushes, and they had homemade toothpaste. So, herewith for your tooth brushing pleasure is the recipe for toothpaste circa 500 BC (it didn't change much for a thousand years...): Heat snail shells in the fire until they are white and grind them very fine. Add gypsum and honey, and grind into a paste. Add essential oils of mint or other herbs for taste. Other recipes included chalk mixed with wood ash and fresh urine (as opposed to pee that's been sitting around all day...) and sea salt mixed with pepper and powdered cloves – guaranteed white teeth, fresh breath, and bloody gums!

Research was important to me because I wanted the reader to feel as if they were immersed in another time and culture. Ashley feels disconnected from reality but it's the small details of everyday life: how bread was baked, how prayers were said, how the soldiers bathed (her favorite part of the day) - that anchors her to her new surroundings.  Hopefully, the reader will feel the same, not looking back across a chasm made of thousands of years but actually living, walking, and riding at Alexander's side.

Jennifer Macaire lives in France with her husband, three children, & various dogs & horses. She loves cooking, eating French chocolate, growing herbs and flowering plants on her balcony, and playing golf. She grew up in upstate New York, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. She graduated from St. Peter and Paul high school in St. Thomas and moved to NYC where she modelled for five years for Elite. She went to France and met her husband at the polo club. All that is true. But she mostly likes to make up stories.

Can you face the consequences of cheating the Fates?
Alexander the Great journeys to India, where he and Ashley are welcomed with feasts and treachery.
With their son, Paul, being worshiped as the Son of the Moon, and Alexander’s looming death, Ashley considers the unthinkable: how to save them and whether she dares to cheat Fate?

The first two books in the series are The Road to Alexander and Legends of Persia.

[1]          The Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian https://archive.org/stream/cu31924026460752?ref=ol#page/n7/mode/2up
[2]           Plutarch's Alexander http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/alexandr.html

Friday, 8 September 2017

Life and death (mainly death) in China

Marie Gameson has posted here before and I'm very happy to welcome her back with a piece about Chinese attitudes to death. I've visited China a couple of times and found their temples fascinating, but I did struggle with the layers upon layers of different belief systems that you could find embodied in one temple. And the elaborate paper objects that people buy to burn so that the dead will have them in the afterlife were quite amazing. I've just wasted a lot of time trying to find any photos I might have from all those years ago, but they pre-date digital cameras and if I ever took pictures I've lost them. Fortunately, Marie Gameson still has hers.

The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) – Marie Gameson

The main theme of The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) is grief, but not so much grief for the dead as for the living. The main character, Winnie Rigby, is exasperated that her conversion to Buddhism and attachment to the Orient is strongly resisted by her Catholic family, who make persistent attempts to drag her back to the person she used to be.

A subplot of the book is a quest to find out if ancestor worship is still prevalent in China: a practice that the Chinese Communist party (CCP) would love to eliminate. As this is mainly a 'History' blog, it gives me a chance to offer an amateur view on the changes to Chinese funeral culture and ancestor worship over the last century.

Traditional Chinese funerals reflect a range of beliefs, with elements of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Ancestor reverence, Feng Shui, and more. Even within one temple there could be a mixture of Buddhist, Daoist and ‘folk’ religious figures, with visitors to the temple calling on different figures depending on what intercession is required.  

As in China, there is evidence of ancestor worship in Britain from Neolithic times. Quite why it faded in Britain is lost in the misty past (but we’ll come back to that later). Whereas with the traditional Chinese attachment to kinship, (strengthened by Confucianism, with its emphasis on filial piety as a pillar of social organisation), of the range of beliefs mentioned above, ancestor worship appears to be the dominant spiritual influence. The relationship between ancestors and descendants is obligatory, reciprocal, and very much about the male lineage: the character for filial piety ( pronounced xiào )  represents a son beneath an elder.

So the belief is that ancestors can intervene in the affairs of the living – but whether that intervention is positive or negative is dependent upon the correct performance of rituals, which is primarily ritual offerings of food, but can – more colourfully – involve the burning of paper representations of objects which ancestors can use in the afterlife. Apart from at funerals, these ritual offerings are most prevalent during the annual Tomb-sweeping Day (Qingming Festival ) when people visit the graves of their ancestors to pay respects. While this tradition goes back 2,500 years, today’s offerings mirror modern luxuries: in addition to the burning of ‘Hell money’, ancestors can now receive paper laptops, mobile phones, houses with swimming pools (complete with paper servants), cars, even helicopters:

Unsurprisingly, the CCP takes quite a dim view of these ostentatious displays, and would prefer people’s loyalty to be to the State rather than to family. They banned the Qingming festival in 1949, to discourage the very visible manifestations of kinship. (Though they reinstated it in 2008, re-packaging it as a day for celebrating revolutionary heroes, for example, encouraging visits by schoolchildren to certain graves).  More recently, the government has encouraged the phenomenon of online Qingming, and it is possible to ‘burn’ virtual incense and ‘sweep’ virtual graves – perfect for the time-strapped modern worker who is based some distance from the ancestral graves.

But people’s strong preference for burial over cremation is a continuing issue – cremation being viewed as highly disrespectful to forebears, and leading to unsettled spirits.  Burial directives by the government to force people to cremate their deceased (in some cases even disinterring illegally buried corpses and burning them) has led to strong resistance, with people being buried in secret, and
elderly people committing suicide so that they could be buried ahead of the ban; in 2014 there were even cases of grave robbing so that officials could meet their local cremation targets.

It is hard to disagree with the government’s perspective that coffins waste wood, and burials waste good arable land (see the photograph below), but the presence of a corpse and a grave to visit also keeps the focus on the family rather than the State.

Shanxi province: graves use up arable land

Since 1949, the CCP have taken increasingly radical measures to disempower families from giving their relatives a traditional send-off. Urban funerals now usually involve conveyance of the body from hospital to funeral parlour, where either there will be a simple memorial ceremony at which a relative or friend might speak, or — if the person’s status at work warrants it — a more elaborate memorial service at which members of the deceased’s work unit would speak, the family’s role having diminished to a peripheral position – and with little chance of getting hold of the body. Mourners wear normal clothes — though armbands are permitted. Following cremation, the family can opt to deposit the ashes at the crematorium or take them home. There are some cemeteries for burials of the ashes, but this edict is typical of Chinese cemeteries: [my translation]: “In the area of the grave it is strictly forbidden to let off firecrackers and indulge in feudal superstitious practices (…) it is strictly forbidden to burn paper and other sacrificial offerings”.

Although China aims to have a near 100% cremation rate by 2020, policies that counter tradition are always harder to enforce in rural areas. Just think of the resistance to the One Birth Policy established in 1979; it has been impossible to completely erase the Chinese concept of zhong nan, qing nu (literally: of heavy importance is the male, of light importance is the female).

So if you want to see a traditional Chinese funeral in an urban setting, you would have more luck in Taiwan, where there has been little attempt to reform traditional practices. A recent attempt to encourage temples to allow less incense-burning (which was met with howls of protest) was a genuine attempt to protect the environment, rather than a wish to interfere with traditional Daoist practices. However some temples do now play recordings of firecrackers (to scare away bad spirits) rather than allowing the real polluting articles to be set off.

Funeral procession in Taiwan

The musicians seated on the first vehicle play traditional instruments; behind them is a marching band, dressed in near-military uniforms. The family walk behind the coffin: the women wearing triangular hoods, the men wearing pointed white hats or white headbands. The clothing is black, white or blue, depending on familial proximity to the deceased

And finally, back to ancestor worship in the UK. Maybe the nearest we get to it in the UK is the relatively modern (well, medieval!) laws on primogeniture. The idea that our forebears still have a presence amongst us might have a certain attraction, but the concept of reciprocity across the living/dead divide is - I think - quite alien to us. Having said that, if you're a Duke and a proponent (or product) of primogeniture, and live in a long established country home, with portraits of your ancestors staring at you as you climb the stairs, I would love to know if you sense the wrath of your ancestors when having to sell the family home.

Marie Gameson

Marie is half of the mother and daughter writing team who published The Turtle Run as 'Marie Evelyn'. Her latest book, The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) was published this summer and is available on Amazon. You can find out more about her and her books at her website, www.marie-gameson.com.