Monday, 27 April 2015

Dancing in the Asylum

It's been a long time since one of my occasional random blogs about tango. Some of the reviews I wrote of tango venues in Buenos Aires remain amongst my most popular posts, so I thought I might risk something similar today.

Some people think that tango aficionados treat their dance like a religion. A famous venue in Buenos Aires is called La Catedral, but it is not, in fact, a cathedral. (Actually, it's an old power station.) Only in London, as far as I know, can you dance tango in an abandoned church.

The Asylum Milonga is held in the chapel of an alms house complex in Peckham. The Licensed Victuallers Benevolent Institution built the almshouses around 1830 for the benefit of  poor and aged members of the licensed victualling trade and their wives or widows. The chapel was burned out by an incendiary bomb in the Second World War and remains semi-derelict, but it has been made safe as a place for parties and performances. And there, on a Sunday afternoon, we gathered with other dancers to listen to music and dance.

I only had my camera phone with me, but the place is so amazing that I wanted to share the photographs. Somehow, the stained glass windows survived the fire.

TheAsylum Milonga (The photo was taken very early on, before most people had arrived. It gets quite busy.)

There was something surreal about spending Sunday afternoon dancing in church, a band where the altar used to be. And something poignant about the boards listing the Ten Commandments, still scorched from the blaze of over half a century ago.

It is good to live in London, where the 19th century that I write about constantly impinges on my world today. And good, too, to live in a city that brings together so many different people. It was through tango that I first made Argentinian friends in London and that led to me visiting Buenos Aires and eventually writing Burke in the Land of Silver.

If you're ever in Peckham, have a look at the almshouses: they're worth a visit. And if it's a Sunday and you hear music coming from the chapel, take a peek. It really is rather special.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Why the fuss about Waterloo?

I'm just back from a two day conference on Waterloo. It was held at the Royal Miltary Academy Sandhurst, home of the British Army officer corps, and itself a product of the Napoleonic Wars. This was not officially a military conference (although most of those attending were retired Army officers), but the final presentation was by a serving Major-General, who was looking at the lessons of Waterloo for the Army of today. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Waterloo still looms large in the minds of the British military.

Old College, Sandhurst. A nice place for a conference.
There were civilian speakers at the conference too: men (they were all men) who had devoted years to the academic study of the defence of La Haye Sainte or the role of the Prussians at the climax of the battle.

What is it about Waterloo that resonates so strongly with the British? (It is just the British. At the weekend I spoke to a French officer who said that the French army prefers to concentrate on Austerlitz.)

Of course Waterloo was a huge battle and a significant victory. But there have been other victories, before and since, that have been more significant. Stamford Bridge, Agincourt, D-Day, Goose Green - all of these battles decided campaigns and shaped the history of the UK. (You can mock at the inclusion of Goose Green but, for better or worse, do you think that there would have been Thatcherism without it?) Even within the Napoleonic Wars, it is almost certain that Wellington's Peninsular War victories were more significant to European history than the sad coda to more than two decades of Total War when a dilapidated army finally forced a once-great man to face the reality of his defeat the previous year.

Conference participants take coffee beneath a painting of the Battle of Waterloo
Waterloo, though, has a special significance both to Britain as a nation, and the Army as an institution.
Although Britain in the 18th century was clearly one of the Great Powers, the idea (common amongst Empire enthusiasts) that the British Empire was pre-eminent in an era of colonial expansion is by no means clear. The Napoleonic Wars saw Britain emerge as a leading (in British eyes the leading) European power. Britain was the only country to resist Napoleon throughout the period of conflict. British diplomacy was central to the formation of the many coalitions against France and British money had financed the wars. Yet direct British military involvement had been mainly limited to the Peninsular campaign. While this had been of crucial strategic importance, it was never the primary focus of the war and Britain was not among the Powers that fought their way into Paris in 1814. Napoleon's escape from Elba enabled Britain to take centre stage with the final defeat of Napoleon at a cataclysmic battle fought under Wellington as the Allied Commander-in-Chief. Waterloo left the British convinced of their pre-eminence in Europe, a conviction so strong that it generated its own reality.

Britain never looked at itself in quite the same way again. Waterloo was a powerful symbol of national unity at a time of Corn Law riots and political unrest. The sight of Scots troops fighting so decisively alongside the English led to a new view of Scotland. The Scots had so recently been considered a threat to the Union that the Scots Greys were officially the North British, lest they get ideas about nationhood. Suddenly it was acceptable, even fashionable, to be a Scot. Wellington, now the greatest of British military men, went on to become Prime Minister. There were to be ups and downs in the decades ahead, but Waterloo had both strengthened the unity of the nation and allowed it to accept some of the differences within it.

Waterloo also changed the image of the Army. During most of the Napoleonic Wars, and the wars that preceded them, it was the Navy that was, in every sense, the Senior Service. It was the wooden walls that had defended England and saved us from French tyranny. Now, suddenly, the Army took centre stage. The British had long distrusted the standing army, but after Waterloo every soldier was a hero. (It was the first conflict to be commemorated with a medal awarded to all the British participants.) The modern Army has been built on the heritage of Waterloo.

Twentieth century notions of the quintessence of Britishness - coolness under fire, holding firm in the face of overwhelming opposition, even, dare it be said, making a virtue of cobbling together a solution from the limited resources available instead of properly planning ahead - all these things started with images of the Iron Duke and his men at Waterloo and in the days preceding the battle.

Waterloo was - despite its strategic inconsequence - the decisive battle of its age. It defined Britain, it enabled the development of the modern Army and it marked the start of the British Empire. It is doubtful that, as many people claim, it had a significant impact on the future of Europe. However those seven hours in June two hundred years ago had an enormous effect on the future of Britain.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Another cute lamb and a cat on the Internet

There's no proper blog post this week because I'm off to a conference on Waterloo at Sandhurst. 'Burke at Waterloo' is just finishing editing, so there's still time to make changes if a room full of experts can highlight the mistakes.

While I'm away, for those who missed the cute Easter lamb picture on my Facebook author page, here's another one.

Some people have suggested that I don't understand how the Internet works. Apparently, it's more usual to post cute cat photos. So here's a cat photo - but I guess it's a bit more ghoulish than cute. It was taken at a cemetery in Buenos Aires which has rather a lot of cats in it. Best not enquire too closely about what they're eating.


See you next week.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015


I’m going to a meeting of the London Chapter of the Historical Novel Society this weekend. (If you’re interested in historical novels and you live near London, I recommend it.) The topic for discussion is historical research.

This is a subject dear to my heart. I’ve blogged about it once or twice before, and Jenny Kane has chipped in with her own perspective as an archaeologist turned novelist. So why am I struggling so hard to think of anything that I might say on Saturday?

I think part of the reason is that research is always, in the end, a matter of judgement and, indeed, personal preference. There are some purists out there who seem uncomfortable with any fiction at all in their historical fiction. An author who dares to admit that sometimes they just make stuff up can infuriate this kind of reader/writer. At the other extreme, there are authors who will cheerfully ignore any historical details that get in the way of their stories which can often seem hardly "historical" at all.

We all have different amounts of knowledge and different ideas of what is important. I have just been reading a discussion about historical inaccuracy in which one contributor is furious about the misrepresentation of Finns during World War II. She ridicules an author's ignorance and points out what she sees as blatantly obvious errors. However, it turns out that she is a Finn herself. Her irritation is perfectly genuine and justified, but it is unlikely that any of the English readers that this story is clearly aimed at will be aware of many (if any) of the mistakes. They are still mistakes, of course, and anyone who relies on the story to inform them about the historical facts will end up feeling foolish. But, in fairness, this isn't what the author was doing. Non-fiction accounts of the Eastern Front are available. The novelist is using this as a setting for a work of fiction. If the period detail is accurate enough to carry along the reader, does it matter that it is not exactly right?

The problem here is that what worries one reader will not necessarily worry another. Moving away from historical fiction for a moment, I once read a thriller in which a key element was that a computer memory stick that held a lot of data would be larger than one which contained very little. This is an error so egregious that it is difficult to understand how someone whose novels seem generally well based in the 21st-century could possibly have made such a mistake. However, I was able to overlook this and enjoy the book. My son, on the other hand, found this impossible to ignore and considers this book one of the worst he has read by that author. Returning to history, I recently read a book in which a sharpshooter in a British Napoleonic regiment wore a green jacket. Because this is something that I am writing about (in Burke at Waterloo), I am all too aware that the green jackets were not awarded to individuals within regular regiments but were worn by specialist rifle regiments. This was one of several details in this novel that left me feeling that the writer did not understand his period and that much of what he said had to be viewed with considerable suspicion. When, in the same story, someone threw fivepence (not five pennies) to a beggar, I decided he had pre-empted decimalisation by a century and a half and I almost gave up reading. Others, though, have praised the same book.

Personally, I like history in my books to be accurate. But I'm not a professional historian and, even if I were, I would not necessarily be writing about the period that I'm an expert on. I was very conscious when writing Burke in the Land of Silver that, as an English writer, I was likely to make mistakes with Argentinian history. In fact, Argentinian friends who have read the book have been perfectly comfortable with my interpretation of their history and I am delighted by that. I suspect, though, that they are being generous and that there are errors that they are not pointing out to me.

Getting caught out in straightforward mistakes is something that I think most historical fiction authors do worry about. Fortunately I have an excellent editor who is very good at catching this sort of thing. For example, I had somebody using a Bowie knife in around 1807 which seemed perfectly uncontroversial. She pointed out that the Bowie knife refers specifically to a design by popularised by Jim Bowie who was not born until around 1796. That kind of thing can always catch a writer out and having a second pair of eyes, especially eyes that are familiar with the period, is really useful. Mistakes will still creep in, though. When I was researching the story of James Brooke for The White Rajah, I rather overdid my reading of contemporary source material and, as a result, I was able to pick up small but real mistakes in one of the definitive biographies of his life. Given that the biography was a detailed and well footnoted academic tome, I am sure that the writer would have been embarrassed at the error, but to suggest that anyone can write about historical figures in depth without having a single mistake is, frankly, unrealistic. To insist that my novels (or anybody else's historical fiction) have no mistakes is just silly. Apart from anything else, if I checked every single “fact” in my stories, the stories themselves would never get written. In Cawnpore there is a reference to a regimental colonel. I searched for an online history of the regiment; I looked through the (very long) list of the names of the dead at Cawnpore; I read contemporary accounts; and I checked the definitive modern account. Hours later I still didn't have the name. So you know what? I made one up.

I'm a novelist. I tell lies for a living. The best I can hope for is that the lies aren't too obvious.