Impending Doom

My wife and I were recently in Italy. It was a last minute thing, taking advantage of the fact that our daughter was away with her school. So at short notice I found myself standing on the worn streets of Pompeii, somewhere I’d always wanted to go without believing I ever would. Like most people, I was amazed at the scale of the place; it’s a sizeable town. It seems that the Roman Empire wasn’t made up after all.

 Of course you can’t help but notice Vesuvius, rising over the bay of Naples like a giant health warning, but then, historical fiction writers aside, we are a species of the present. Rich volcanic soil, close to the sea; what could possibly go wrong? We found our way to the Garden of the Fugitives, looked at the casts of the victims: men, women, children, dogs. I switched my electronic guide to listen to Pliny the Younger describe the horror of the eruption for maximum voyeuristic effect.

 

Approaching midday we’d reached the far end of the site where there’s an arena that used to seat 20,000. Incredible. As we stood on the ground where the gladiators fought there was a low rumble and the wind freshened. A black monster of a cloud crept around the side of Vesuvius and came straight for us. As the rain started, we found what shelter we could and counted the seconds between lighting strikes and thunder. At noon the church bells sounded in modern Pompeii as if to say it was time to run again.  My tourist imagination glimpsed AD79; the deafening eruption, the near darkness, the pumice stone raining down until it was metres deep. Some escaped: those that ran early and fought their way through the crush to one of the Pompeii’s seven city gates and then fled by sea or land. Many more died, clinging to the false security of home or gods. Some were found curled next to their money. I don’t know what warnings there were. Perhaps tell-tale quakes and or a trickle of smoke foreshadowing what was to come. It got me thinking on how poor humans are at dealing with impending doom.

  

The US Civil War was a long time coming. For decades before, tensions built as America expanded into the West and argued over whether slavery should follow the frontier and be adopted in the new states as they entered the Union. There were many attempts at solutions to head off conflict, most of them morally abhorrent schemes to coral the idea of freedom by geography or law. None ultimately worked since the contradiction on freedom was written into the constitution itself and vested interest wasn’t about to budge. Like the people of Pompeii they clung to their wealth. After the John Brown raid in Virginia, his clumsy and violent attempt to incite a slave revolt, few people believed war could be avoided. The ground was rumbling and smoke was in the air. War followed eighteen months later. 650,000 died.

 

It’s easy to patronise the past, to assume we’d have fled our homes at Pompeii, that we’d have told everybody to just calm down as the skin was tightened on the war drums in 1860’s America. Yet I’ve read enough to know that there were some smart people trying to avoid civil war; that the political classes of that time were better versed in philosophy and the rule of law than the soundbite politicians of today. It didn’t help. Maybe we have averted or escaped disaster in the past; history doesn’t shout over much about things that were quietly sorted out.

  

When we came home from Italy it was to hear that carbon in the atmosphere has spiked and reached a new high, as if the wildfires across the world and record storms hadn’t told us that already. News of catastrophe vied with political scandal and the release of the latest iPhone. Head for the gates people, if you can find them. 

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Beneath the Bronze

 

The American Civil War statue debate seems to have dropped below the news threshold, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Unless there’s a full blown confrontation, guns and placards on show, madmen reversing cars over people, then it’s not worthy of our collective time.

I shouldn’t really call it a debate: it’s more a shouting match. Being part of the unheard mass of people in the middle who take a historical interest in the Civil War, you are thoughtful about putting your head above the parapet, liable as you are to be shouted down by both sides. From friends in the US, or through Civil War blogs, I hear of less sensational cases that don’t make the news outside of their county, let alone country; a re-enactor pepper-sprayed in South Carolina, statues removed in the dead of night by the authorities in Baltimore.  Weirdest of all, protestors turning up to jeer an Ohio re-enactment regiment, one that had a noble history of fighting for abolition. Hard to figure that one out; presumably they were protesting history in general.

 

That there are some statues that need to be moved seems indisputable to me. It’s all about context. A statue outside city hall or the law courts projects its values and history inside by association. The wording on a plaque may be inappropriate or downright offensive to some. That matters. New statues alongside the old can be used to change the context; redress the balance, show the other sides to the story. But in some cases they need to find a better home for our times.

 

I’m still saddened to see them go. Statues tell more than one story if you look hard enough. Not all history is digital – yet. I once visited a Confederate prison cemetery on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. Rebel officers were held there for many years during the war and a bronzed southern soldier keeps watch over the two-hundred or so graves. He’s positioned to look south, across the lake to the mainland and his far away home. He’s an easy statue to like, carrying some casual and romantic aspect I’ve have come to associate with Southern soldiers. The incongruity of a Confederate statue this deep into Yankeedom was interesting in itself. The information board in the cemetery car park told me the statue was erected in 1910, forty-five years after the war by the Cincinnati chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. I was surprised that Cincinnati, a Union city, had a chapter back then. It encouraged me to look into it more, to understand how widespread organisations like the DOC were at that time. Part of the plinth was donated by the Grand Lodge of Mississippi and as I walked the graveyard there were masonic symbols on many graves.  So the statue taught me little about the Southern cause in the Civil War, but led me to understand much more about early 20th century social attitudes and interest groups in the long shadow of the war. Monuments often tell us far more about the people who funded them than the figures they aspire to immortalise.

 

Some might say it’s not even my history, an Englishmen with no dog in the fight. Maybe so, but go carefully, America. Move the statues that need moving, square up the history so all the suffering is on show. The present outranks the past; on that there should be no debate. But we should tread gently on history, lest we lose sight of the paths that lead to today.

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Hindfulness

The battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, just across the state line from Chattanooga, was principally fought on the 19th and 20th of September, 1863. I could barely say the word Chickamauga five years ago; now it’s a place to which I feel strongly attached. I wrote about it in my masters’ dissertation and it is the main set piece battle in my novel, Whirligig. I frequently query my connection, how an interest in the Civil War and then in writing conspired to bring me to that place. But beyond that, I often ask myself why I had that interest in the first place?

Depending on which account you read, it’s estimated that around 28,000 men were killed or injured at Chickamauga. It was a huge battle and the Union’s loss checked their advance until the following spring. It was the very first battlefield to be established as a national park and was dedicated as early as 1895. Since then, the Park Service has laboured to re-establish the site as it was in September 1863. The small number of scratch farms caught up in the fighting have been rebuilt, the lines of the trees and the fields are the same as they were, even the flora is as close as they can make it. Everything has been done with the thought that we need to have things as they were. Individually and collectively it seems that we have a need to preserve the past.

 

The practice at Chickamauga, as it was on many of the major battlefields in the decades after the war ended, was for regiments from both North and South to gather as re-joined countrymen on the anniversary of the battle to remember fallen friends. They raised funds for statues and markers, placed them at places they charged or defended. Over time, Chickamauga became pinned to those two horrific days by the monuments, like some specimen in a museum.

 

It’s really two things that combine to allow us to reach back and imagine – no doubt poorly – what must have been endured: the preserved place itself, and words; words from the men who fought and from historians since. My guiding tome was Peter Cozzens’, ‘This Terrible Sound’. When I pitched up in 2013, I knew the battle through the great care with which he had understood and recounted it.  And with the place preserved as it is, I was able to step into the woods at the exact spot where my adopted regiment, the 125th Ohio, went into battle on the first day, walk along the line of their charge on the second, and sit to contemplate on Snodgrass Hill where they had been part of the Union’s final stubborn stand.

 

An aunt of mine passed away last month. Mrs Joyce Sayer. She had worked at Bletchley Park, Bedfordshire, during WWII decoding Nazi radio signals. She became a hut leader before she was twenty and kept this to herself for fifty years until it was no longer an official secret. Mixed in with my sadness at losing her I discerned my regret at not having counted as she did. She made a difference when it mattered. Perhaps that is a clue to my fascination with America’s great Civil War, a time America’s future, when the very definition of freedom, was on the line.

 

But Cozzens’ book is named as it is to remind us we should not, even for a moment, wish ourselves back there. The ‘terrible sound’ he refers to is the cry of the wounded soldiers who were unable to crawl away from the fires that swept the woods in the night. The sights and sounds of the day would have been equally grim. I remember I took myself to sit on the battlefield at dusk, alone with the monuments, trying to edge a little closer to the past. Ironically the great battlefield of Chickamauga has become a place of peace in a busy world, a place for reflection. People find it so hard to cope with modern life. Some of my friends have read books or taken classes in ‘mindfulness’, a means of focusing on and appreciating the moment: the present. It has its value. But I think we also need places like Chickamauga, places we can contemplate the past: ‘hindfulness.’ I certainly do. 

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A Room Without a View

 

36 ° 6’ N, 4 ° 44’ W. This is where I was when I finished my second novel, The Copper Road. I always like to know where I am. My first degree was in geography so perhaps that’s why. I finished the book on August 28th. For me, the when is not quite so important, although I do like a good milestone.

 To save you finding a globe or a world map (what do you mean you weren’t going to?) this is just east of Gibraltar. If you don’t know where that is, then there’s no hope for you – geographically speaking. The reason I can be so precise is that channel 17 on our cruise-ship told me exactly where we were whenever I wanted to know, which was to say most of the time. I became a little obsessed with it. As soon as we returned from the bar, or the pool, or the bar, or the mini-golf, or the bar, I’d switch on the TV to see the digital slug trail that told me where the ship had been and where we were now. Somehow knowing that made me feel a notch safer. I’ve no idea why. It’s probably related to why I loathe outsourcing my whereabouts to car satnavs – I become untethered and I begin to panic. I’m all at sea. Having an inside cabin didn’t help: no view – no point of reference.

 

I can tell you where I was when I started The Copper Road, but I’d have to look up when exactly.  I was at Cumberland Falls, Kentucky, a beauty spot near the Daniel Boone Forest in the south of the Bluegrass State. I’d flown over from England for another research & inspiration road-trip. I parked my Cherokee outside the swish looking DuPont Lodge. I’d deliberately stepped out of my sequence of low-budget motels to stay somewhere special for a few days. This was going to be a milestone I told myself; before I left here, I had to have the basic plot outlined for the follow up to Whirligig. The young man at the check-in desk practically gasped when he accessed my booking. ‘Wow, you have room 311! That has the best view in the hotel.’

  

He was right. The hotel stood high on a bluff and the south facing room kept the sun all day. Below my window was nothing but the Cumberland River snaking away between picture-book hills painted with a fall forest. This was a great place. I had my A3 pad and coloured pens, I had my solitude; inspiration was bound to strike. I set to work.

 

My main thought in the first few hours was how nice it would be if my wife was here to share this beautiful solitude with me. Later, panic struck when I went down to join humanity in the restaurant only to find humanity had left at eight when it closed. Worse still I was told there was no bar and this was a dry county. I had to drive seventeen miles through the, now-very-dark, forest to get a pizza from a gas station.

 

Ultimately the solitude did pay off. Over the next couple of days there was little to do except walk in the woods and think and plot, though occasionally I was knocked out of my muse by the bear warnings. The room was safer. Strange, now, to think what I began there I would end in the middle of the Mediterranean.

 

The real Copper Road existed (a very small section of it still does) in Polk County, in the bottom right-hand corner of Tennessee. Of course I haven’t really finished the new book, just the first draft. Whirligig took around eight drafts, but it’s certainly a milestone. I remember Jason Goodwin, author of the wonderful Yasmin mysteries, telling me that finishing the first draft of a novel was like finishing a bridge. You could step back, take a look at what the hell it was you had built and make plans to put it right. I’m not sure that analogy really holds up; I’d like my bridge engineers to know what they are doing from day one. Maybe a book is more like a painting. You can step back and decide on some changes. Perhaps some of the people in the picture are not needed. Others may need more character. If you’re me, you may have overdone the background and have to lose some of it in subsequent drafts. And in writing terms, ‘stepping back’ generally means ‘putting down’. Getting away from your story so that when you come back to it you can see it afresh.

 

So that will be September for me. No Copper Road allowed no matter how much I want to crack and eye and peek. For now, I’m content to know where it started and where it ended: in a room with a view, and in a cabin without one. 

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Starting Point

 

As part of my US blog tour, Jenny Quinlan at ‘Let Them Read Books’ asked me if I had any real life inspiration for the main character in Whirligig. He is called Shire. I was happy to answer, involving as it does a connection to my father, but the question has stayed with me these last couple of weeks. I think I underestimated the gift my father left me.

For the year or two after he became a widower, my father collected together photos and notes about his early life in Bedfordshire. It was cathartic for him, missing my mother as he did. Once he was done, and because I’d shown an interest, he gave all his notes to me. Dad was ten when WWII broke out. His school in Bedford organised itself to teach local children in the morning and then the children evacuated from London after lunch. So for almost the entire war his afternoons were his own. He used them to earn money working on local farms, one of which was on the Duke of Bedford’s Estate. He was trained up in handling the Shire horses, feeding and harnessing them. It was obviously a happy memory for him because he wrote about it in detail and about the men he worked with. Modernisation was given extra impetus by the war; by its end, the great horses and the skills needed to work them were gone, but I realised that way of working wouldn’t have changed so much since the 1860s. So here was my Englishman for Whirligig. He would work the horses as my father did. I also had a nickname for him: Shire, to connect him to the Shire horses but also to the shires of England.

 

I never thought of Shire as my father, that would have made the writing quite stilted, I think. Dad’s notes were a starting point only. However, prompted by Jenny’s question, I’ve reflected on this. My grandfather (Dad’s father) ran a local infant school, as Shire’s father does. Shire has the same honest integrity that my father had, the same strong urge to always do the right thing, the same romantic outlook on life. So maybe my father snuck in when I wasn’t paying attention.

 

Dad had also given me a place. Place has always been important in my writing. Almost all of my short stories are born of going somewhere. I didn’t want to tread on the family history of the Duke of Bedford so I borrowed the name of a local village and invented the Ridgmont Estate. Of course it was still Woburn Abbey and its grounds (the ancestral home of the Bedfords) that I visited to gain background for the opening to the book. And as Ridgmont (Woburn) provided the opening scenes of the novel so, by default, it became the starting point for the plot. The matters of consequence, the secrets, the lies and the machinations all arise from Ridgmont and are transported to civil war America by Shire’s odyssey.

 

More than anything I think what my father gave me was an emotional connection to my story, something that is priceless for a writer. This wasn’t simply through my love of him (though I’m getting a bit damp around the eyes typing this) but through the place and through our wider family history. All four of my grandparents are buried in the village of Woburn Sands: two at the Catholic church and two at the Protestant church; part of me is of that place. The landscape has a resonance for me. As a very young child, I’d played in the same sandy Bedfordshire forests that Shire did. Dad gave me the landscape of Shire’s memory, the place his thoughts and emotions return to when he is most at need.

 

Thanks Dad x

 

You can read the full Whirligig interview on Jenny Quinlan’s website, Let Them Read Books.

 

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The Moving Past

 

A very different creative experience this week. Inspired by a couple of book trailers on Amy Bruno’s Historical Fiction site (on which I will be appearing in July) I decided I’d try my hand at a video. My hand pointed out it had never tried anything like this before so I roped in my friend, Steve Harris, who has all the appropriate skills and gadgets. By Friday last, we were sat together on location (in Steve’s study) in front on an unfeasibly large monitor and I got to do some creative back seat driving.

 

Before Friday, I’d already had to face up to some new challenges. Some were analogous to writing so I had a handle on those: brief is best, no history lessons and don’t give away the farm. I tried to think of the best movie trailers I had seen, but of course I had a big limitation: my video would be a sequence of stills. What’s more, they would need some connection in style otherwise the whole thing wouldn’t hang together. They also had to be free to use. A couple of searches later I was browsing through Civil War photos in the Library of Congress collection thinking, this’ll be great. But the more I browsed, the more my heart sank. At the time of the Civil War (1861 – 65) photography was in its infancy and the only pictures possible were stills. You could be forgiven for thinking that for most of the war the generals and soldiers did nothing but strike poses. You don’t even see many horses as they couldn’t be trusted to stand still (or not to blink). The only movement implied is when someone accidentally ghosts into the shot.

 

It made me think on how we perceive wars. WWI I always see in sped-up black and white, everybody in a hurry and kinda fidgety. Vietnam I imagine in overblown technicolour. For the Civil War, the classic piece of television is Ken Burns ‘The Civil War’ using the very stills I was looking at, set alternately to a sad lyrical fiddle or marshal band music. The effect is wonderful, but ultimately misleading. It’s too soothing. The irony is that the war was nothing but movement across half a continent. The recording medium of the time only matches the mood in retrospect because we’ve been trained to it.

 

My little project was saved by Alfred Waud, the Victorian equivalent of a modern day war photographer, but his medium was paintings – paintings that are wonderfully full of movement. Waud worked for the New York Illustrated News and later Harpers Weekly. He sketched the battles on the day, while the smoke was still in the air, and sent his results by courier for engraving and printing. The soldiers in his sketches have an almost Lowry like simplicity about them, but they are full of movement: a company of soldiers leaning into the slope as they head into battle, a sergeant half-crouched expecting a volley, an officer with his sword held high in forced bravado. All of this smudged into a gun-smoke forest. This was what I needed.

 

Steve and I synced Waud’s pictures with the accelerating pace of my chosen music and it was as good as a moving picture, better perhaps, as it still left some space for the imagination.

 

Please watch the video. It’s not half bad! Whirligig Trailer.

 

But please also take a look at the wonderful work of Alfred Waud.  Alfred Waud. Library of Congress.

 

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