I was on holiday in the Ardennes, where it rained every day and our campsite turned to soft mud that the driving rain spattered a foot high up every surface. Thinking every day that the end of the month deadline for the story was drawing near, and here I was in this muddy place not doing any writing. On the way back to Calais, a town now bound in everyone’s minds with the refugee crisis and the grievous human costs of war, we had arranged an overnight stop near St-Omer. We passed Armentières; the name stuck in my mind. We passed Hazebrouck, where one can glimpse the graves from the bypass. On the Michelin map one can trace the Western Front in a scatter of crosses that mark the WW1 cemeteries. The story came into my mind in a jumble of fragments and dialogue, typed into my iPad at odd moments. I had an idea that the jingoism of that period would fit with the ‘Hype’ theme.
When I got home to my desk I googled ‘Armentières’ and the song ‘Hinky-Dinky, Parlay-Voo’, one form of which begins ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’, struck me as one of the most irritating tunes ever written. And there we have it.
If we understand attitudes to the poor in 19th century England it sheds light on our attitudes to the poor today. Being richer has not made us kinder. History still has much to teach us. To quote Donna Taylor: “PLEASE SUPPORT OUR ARCHIVES, CURRENTLY UNDER THREAT AS A RESULT OF CUTS TO THE LOCAL FINANCES – ONCE THEY’RE GONE, THEY’RE GONE FOREVER.”
Those who have been fortunate enough to visit the Birmingham History gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BM&AG) will be familiar with the wonderfully presented ‘Freeth’s Coffee Shop’, where it is possible to take a step back in time and hear the words of Birmingham’s famous balladeer, John Freeth and read a little of his place in local history. If you’ve not been, I can highly recommend a visit (and better yet, it’s free entry!). Freeth was proprietor of the Leicester Arms, on the corner of Bell Street, in the latter years of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth. He died in 1808. The pub was also a coffee house and it became generally known as Freeth’s Coffee House when he ran it. At this time, coffee houses had become important centres for debate on national political issues of the day, as well as local affairs…
No, I’m not the pro, but Noah Lukeman is. Lukeman is the author of The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. As an experienced literary agent based in New York City whose clients include Pulitzer prize nominees and New York Times bestselling authors, Noah Lukeman knows a thing of two about finding top-notch manuscripts to represent. And he presents his advice simply and succinctly, using lots of examples to illustrate his points.
I’ve been revising Time & Regret so a book designed to help writers stay off the rejection pile seemed an excellent one to reread. I thought some of you might be interested in the notes I took as a result. Today’s post will be part one of two.
Overuse of adjectives and adverbs – avoid the use of common adverbs or adjectives and the use of adjectives or adverbs when a stronger…
#amwriting The Telegraph Creative Writing Group July Competition has ‘Ocean Crossing’ as its theme. ‘The Immortal Lavoisier’ is based on the connection between E I du Pont, the founder of the famous American chemical company, and Antoine and Marie Lavoisier who were his mentors as a student of chemistry in Paris, at a time when the sciences of chemistry, applied chemistry and chemical engineering were just coming to life, only to be tragically interrupted by the French Revolution. Lavoisier was at that time an acclaimed scientist, the Einstein of his day; his wife had considerable experience in the chemistry laboratory, and in writing and illustrating scientific papers.
I have used as much as I can gather from historical sources and imagined conversations that might have taken place between du Pont and the Lavoisiers. He kept no record of these, although the Lavoisiers are often mentioned in the family correspondence. But it is certain that he printed the Memoires de Chimie at that time and that he also printed the defence of the Fermiers-Generaux. Lavoisier was of great importance to him and his family, and his original idea for the gunpowder mills at Brandywine Creek was to name them the Lavoisier Mills. So it is not unreasonable to imagine that he would have visited Lavoisier during his imprisonment, or the kinds of conversations they may have had.
The link between the story and the month’s theme is du Pont’s emigration across the Atlantic, and the reasons for his journey. The decision to emigrate is never taken lightly; what courage or desperation must it take to leave behind a familiar world to seek one’s fortune in an alien land? It takes ability and self-belief. We should respect the immigrants who seek shelter with us – amongst them may be the du Ponts of the 21st century.
For part of my thesis I’ve been finding out about some of Birmingham’s early 19th century administrators, the Street Commissioners. Last year I spent a wonderful summer in the Wolfson Centre at the Library of Birmingham, reading through fifty years of the commissioners’ minute books. This year I’ve spent a lot of time analysing the information from the notes and this has formed the basis of a chapter. One of the things I wanted to get across was that the body of commissioners were representatives of the local community and not some shadowy elites confined to the county seat over in Warwick. So, using my notes, I carried out a survey of commissioners’ occupations over the period 1812-1832. This proved quite time consuming work and I also discovered I’m not very good at counting! I ended up with a list of 255 street commissioners, who had held office during the…
1. What drives Lunch Ticket? What are the plans for its future?
Lunch Ticket is Antioch University Los Angeles’ literary magazine, and as such is bound to uphold AULA’s mission to promote social justice by publishing without hesitation meritorious work written by underrepresented and underprivileged voices with the hope that getting their words out into the world will help enact change. As for its future, we’ve been tasked by the university to be the best magazine we possibly can while maintaining that mission. As a relatively new publication though—we’re only just entering…
My short story for the TCWG June competition is on a theme of ‘Heaven Sent.’ This was a hard theme for me as I don’t like stories with a ‘deus ex machina’ type of plot. ‘Out of the Blue’ is a story about a brief passion and its consequences. The rosebay willow-herb symbolises for me a brief flowering that comes out of nowhere, and takes root in the most barren ground.
Nicola Gauld is the Co-ordinator for Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its legacy. She is a historian, outreach worker and curator based in Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter @nicolagauld or on her blog.
In December 2014 Birmingham City Council announced drastic cuts to its budget for 2015 and beyond. The Library of Birmingham, opened in September 2013 at a cost of £189m and the biggest public library in Europe, did not escape and a saving of £1.3m is currently being implemented, resulting in around 100 redundancies to be made in 2015 and a reduction in opening hours from 73 to 40 per week. Further cuts to the service are likely to be made in 2016-2018. The city’s Archives, Heritage & Photography department, housed in the Library, will be dramatically affected. This will inevitably result in reduced access to documents and photographs…
The runaway success of Ali Smith’s How to be Both signals a new and original approach to 21st-century historical fiction. Its shimmering linguistic audacity has been rightly celebrated. Her Bailey’s award scoops a hat trick of prestigious prizes – she has already won the Costa and the Goldsmiths – and the novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker.
Split into two halves that can be read in either order, it evokes the passing moment with passionate intensity, and questions our ability to recall or understand such moments. It’s exciting to see such a playful and audacious novel given such accolades.
Thanks to Mantel, Cromwell has a new face.
But Smith is not alone in experimenting with the past. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies aren’t conspicuously experimental in the manner of Smith. Mantel’s territory is familiar: the terrible Tudors and their predilection for the block. Yet her revisionist portrayal of Thomas Cromwell – the courtier formally known as a Machiavellian torturer – is powerfully subversive. Not only is this a reappraisal of his character, but a formal experimentation with point of view. Time is slippery and disorientating in her novels, as it is in Smith’s, though in a more conventional context. Mantel conveys the consciousness of Cromwell as she darts forward and backwards: recalling, assimilating, plotting.
Out of time
Conventional historical novels are fundamentally anachronistic. Planting a modern sensibility in the past should stretch credulity beyond its limit, yet it’s one of the tropes of realist historical fiction that readers accept almost without question. “Factual accuracy” is highly prized – but how is this defined? All sources are biased, all experience is partial, even our own memories are flawed and confused. Facts aren’t reliable blocks of certainty that form the basis of true knowledge – historians know this just as novelists do. The past is malleable and mysterious.
Historical fiction also falls within the Venn diagram of literary fiction. (Historical novels have been awarded the Man Booker prize for the past three years.) It’s also fertile ground for experimentation – as demonstrated by the Goldsmiths prize for experimental fiction. The inaugural 2013 shortlist included historical novels by Jim Crace (Harvest); Philip Terry (tapestry) and David Peace (Red or Dead), while in 2014 Paul Kingsnorth was shortlisted for his first novel The Wake, which is set in 11th century Lincolnshire and has its own invented language.
How to be Both is a meditation on the passing and layering of time, and the way in which experience is lost or preserved in our consciousness or in the (perhaps misleading) artefacts we leave behind. Smith suggests in the novel that history is an energy rather than an accumulation of facts: “That shout, that upward spring.”
Novels like this are asking questions about history, but also about the nature of reality itself. How do we interpret external information, the partiality of human perception and the ability of language to engage with what is felt and lost in the passing moment?
Smith, Mantel et al are part of a tradition in experimentation in historical fiction that goes back to William Godwin and Walter Scott. In 1797, Godwin suggested that history is “other” and that even contemporary human experience is so inchoate that all attempts at clarification must fail. He was convinced that the deliberate artifice gave a “truer” account of lived experience than attempts to capture solid facts.
Virginia Woolf in 1927.
Scott’s Waverley – published in 1814 – is playfully self-referential and pokes fun at received versions of history. Edward Waverley, its naïve and misguided protagonist, owes much to Cervantes’ ageing buffoon Don Quixote. Both Cervantes and Scott had a sophisticated take on myth and chivalric romance.
Just over a century later, Virginia Woolf staked her claim for women’s place in experimental historical fiction. The eponymous protagonist of Orlando strides through the centuries unfettered by age or sex, and is a forerunner of Jeanette Winterson’s Villanelle in The Passion – and indeed Ali Smith’s Francesco del Cossa in How to be Both. Woolf mixed vividly deployed research about 16th and 17th-century England, her obsession with Vita Sackville-West and her experiments with the rendering of thoughts and consciousness to surreal effect.
History is not a finite resource. It is looming behind us: growing and morphing and consuming the space age and glasnost and Blairism; Britpop and 9/11 and the Arab Spring. The future experimental historical novel might attempt to encompass the millions of Facebook-users in 2015; the looking-glass world of celebrity and structured reality; YouTube executions and Islamic State. It may be digital; it may be post-digital; it may be unmediated by elites; it may be atomised or seek to give the impression of being atomised.
No doubt there will always be a market for tales of romance and derring-do and the cosy pleasures of heritage fiction. But the necessity for experimentation in this genre is the one certainty we have. The past is “other” and the future is unknown: historical fiction will need new modes of falsification to address this.