Thursday, 17 March 2016
A Little Bit of History
I once submitted a story that I was rather fond of, to an online magazine that had previously published my work. I didn't mind being rejected on this occasion - they were very nice about it, and it reassured me that they were genuinely discerning - but I was surprised at the reason. The editor felt it lacked authenticity as a piece of historical fiction. Since the story was a whimsical reflection on fundamentalist beliefs in science from Darwin's time to the future, I hadn't even considered it as historical fiction. But once it was pointed out to me, I noticed the period details missing from my account of the great Evolution debate of 1860; I amended the piece accordingly.
I didn't initially think of 'Echo Hall' as historical fiction either. After all, it begins in 1990 - that's not history, that's my life time. Even going back to 1942 didn't seem to be history either, because my parents experience is very real to me (as I mentioned in a previous post). In fact, it was only when I took the narrative back to 1911 that I began to think it had some historical elements in it - and even then because, I feel a strong connection to that generation, it wasn't like I was talking about the Victorians, Georgians, or Tudors and Stuarts. It didn't feel like 'proper' history.
And yet, when I sat down to write about the 1990's, I was startled to discover how much research I needed to do. I pride myself on having a good memory, but it's amazing how much you forget when you are older. I'd originally planned to start in 1988/9 which I remembered as being a particularly gloomy time filled with terrorist bombs, fires and train crashes. In my head, they all happened all at once, but in fact there was over a year between the King's Cross Fire (November 1987) and the Clapham rail disaster (December 1988). And whilst Lockerbie did happen the same month as Clapham, the IRA bombs at London Railway stations were actually three years later in 1992. None of this information actually made it into 'Echo Hall' as in the end, it was irrelevant to the plot, but it was an important reminder to me that I needed to check my facts rather than relying on my faulty recollections. I'm very grateful for being a writer in the age of the internet, as Google (despite its tax avoiding tendencies -grr) has been an essential tool for checking details such as what night certain TV shows were aired, who was popular in the charts, the date Nelson Mandela was released.
But the internet couldn't provide me with every answer, and I was particularly stumped trying to find a newspaper article by my favourite journalist, Robert Fisk. I remembered at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, he wrote a piece describing how the false peace would have ripples into the future. I wanted to use a sense of that in the book, but I couldn't find it anywhere, until I bought a copy of his magnificent book, 'The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East' where I found a brief reference to his having had those sentiments. The book was also helpful in another way, as his description of history as an echo chamber, is a perfect epithet for 'Echo Hall' which was even called 'The Echo Chamber' for a while.
Going further back required a bit more than Google though. For my 1940's section, I needed to have a feel for the language of the era, which meant rewatching some of my favourite films of the time('Brief Encounter', 'A Matter of Life and Death') and reading books such as 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying' by George Orwell, which is a fine contemporary account of scraping through life in 1930's England and 'The Night Watch' by Sarah Waters. I also read a couple of enormously helpful books. Juliet Gardiner's - 'Wartime: Britain 1939-1945' is absolutely brilliantly researched and provides immense amounts of useful detail about the period. Not only did it put some flesh on the bones of my parents' descriptions of the era, but it also reassured me that two essential plot elements were not melodramatic but were in fact commonplace. Meanwhile Nicolson Barker's 'Human Smoke' selection of government transcripts, newspaper articles and personal accounts of politicians provided a useful critique of the idea that the 'Allies' were forced into World War 2, as well as giving some background to Winston Churchill's very dubious record in Iraq. And, I was delighted to come across a CD of real BBC war reports, which were immensely helpful for scenes when characters were listening to the radio.
I really enjoyed researching the Edwardian era of the novel, drawing a lot from Roy Hattersley's 'The Edwardians' which introduced me to the fact that it was Britain that invented the concentration camp. That was so surprising a couple of early readers challenged me on it, and it was very satisfying to pronounce it was true. I also learnt a lot from Adam Hochschild's 'To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain' which follows real life characters on both sides of the debate. The book includes accounts of the marvellous pacifist Charlotte Despard and her brother Field Marshal John French, and the fall out between the Pankhursts over the war, confirming for me that wars result in family conflict too. My World War 1 knowledge was further augmented by stories of conscientious objectors relayed to me by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was particularly struck by the account of one friend's parents-in-law, separated by prison because of his beliefs. Her mother-in-law's struggle to raise three children, with the support of Quakers, had a big impact on me and influenced this section of the novel greatly. I'd have loved to have had access to the wonderful White Feather Diaries but sadly I'd finished the book by the time my friend Symon Hill had completed them.
Finally, on holiday in Wales one year, we came upon a wonderful country house, Scolton Manor, which has been painstakingly recreated to reflect Edwardian times. The green baize door, white marble kitchen sinks, and wooden panels, all helped add to my mental picture of 'Echo Hall' and although much of it is changed, it provided an incredibly helpful boost to my imaginings.
The vast majority of the research I've undertaken for this novel, lies in scribbled notes under my desk as too much detail always kills a scene dead. But, with any luck, I have used the information I've learnt in the right way, to provide an authenticity to the narrative, which will make you believe you are there with the characters, in the time in which they lived.