Of Ephemera, And Death, and Jumble Sales

– which sounds an unpromising combination – but hearken.

We were dropping some things off today at a jumble sale. (Yes, Akela, I will man a stall next time *slinks away apologetically*) The joy of delivering things is you get to see the goodies. Mum – who is the demon knitter, in sobriety, even if she makes up in zeal with what she lacks in accessories – found a lovely box full of knitting needles of all shapes and sizes.

Accompanying it was a bag with a half-finished pullover. Sadly the wool was beautiful, but unbranded, and there wasn’t enough knitting to work out what it was going to be.

And in the box, under the stitch holders and the counters and the needle caps and all the ephemera of a lifetime of knitting, there were seven or eight beautiful crochet hooks – engraved, tiny, delicate, shapely crochet hooks, sized to craft butterfly wings and carved with flowers and curlicues.

It was the collection of someone who had spent a lifetime making things – probably of the vintage we don’t see any more, of crochet doilies and tray cloths and itchy knit mittens. A bygone era. And, I think, a bygone knitter, who had laid down her needles one day on a half-finished pullover and never picked them up again. A competent craftswoman, judging by the variety of accessories and sizes and their assorted ages.

I hope someone is going to buy that jumper and finish it and love it.

I think someone owes it to that unknown craftswoman, who collected her needles and tools from the engraved iron days of her girlhood through enamel and shiny smooth grey metal and space-age plastic, to the day she finally set it down unfinished.

And now I just need to learn to crochet….

 

All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

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So if anybody is wondering I am still alive, still writing, still re-enacting, still making things.

To be fair, at the end of last year and the beginning of this year I had lost my mojo more than a little. The lupus was crappy, I had too many things to do and not enough time to do them in, and – you know that thing where you go it’s never going to get any better and life is going to be a horrible chaos forever? – or that may just be something that the children of alcoholics do, we didn’t cause it and we can’t cure it but before God we’re gonna try like hell to control AALLLL THE THINGS…..

And so I stopped. I stopped writing for about a month, I stopped being a fabric fiend, I stopped planting things and I think probably for a few days right about the depths of midwinter I stopped being hopeful about anything at all.

Well, midwinter passes. (Do I think it’s seasonal? Damn’ right I do.) Things start to thaw out, and the world turns. I read a book, the other day.

That actually is a thing. I read a whole book. That’s not something I’ve wanted to do for months. (I’m currently reading the new Shardlake book and finding it bloody tough going, but it seems from the Amazon reviews that I’m not alone in that, so I may curl up with the much livelier “In This House of Brede” as a lovely comfort read instead. And really, Mr Shardlake, if a book about a woman becoming a nun in the 1960s is more exciting than your current adventure, you want to give yourself a stern talking to…)

I practice gratitude. The two nesting blackbirds currently under my window. Big hugs from my boys (the big one and the little one) The cats – all the cats, even the hideously noisy Obelix aka the Tank, who is built like a Jack Russell Terrier and likes to share the love while you’re having a wee. Sunlight, and growing things, and the ability to create, again.

I’m excited about re-enactment again. I’m excited about textiles again – my lovely man has built me a two-beam loom, I mean, how much better a present can you get than a Roman two-beam loom scratch built? – I’m excited about weaving and Roman cooking and I’m starting to get a little bit excited about writing again.

I’m back, I think. Maybe not all the way back but some of the way back….

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of the Plain Russet-Coated Captain (or, Why Historical Fiction Needs Anti-Heroes)

I was reading a review of a Bernard Cornwell novel this morning and once again I am inspired to set fingers to keyboard (around the cat, who is demanding cuddles with menaces)

Once again, you see, I cannot do the dashing white knight on his trusty steed thing.

Sharpe. Let’s take Sharpe. (Please, someone, let’s take Sharpe.)

You know when you open a certain genre of book, or a book by a certain author, pretty much to the last semi-colon what you’re going to get. You’re going to get an infallible hero, who may be wrong-footed but never fail. He will come good in the end – he will get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the entire planet. Laughing in the face of doom, and clearing tall buildings with one bound.
And, you know, that’s kind of nice. It’s all soft and comforting and cosy. No nasty surprises.

But history is full of nasty surprises.
After the battle of Naseby, the godly Army of Parliament hunted down and massacred over a hundred Royalist camp followers for the unpardonable sin of speaking their own native Welsh language, and therefore being suspected of being either whores, witches, or dangerous Irishwomen.
After the siege of Bolton, the Royalists massacred anything between eighty and two thousand people, both soldiers and inhabitants including women, making it reputedly the worst massacre on English soil.
That’s not nice stuff. On either side.

My Babbitt is anything but indestructible. He spends most of the books wrong-footed, miserable, irritated, wishing he was anywhere else but tagging on the back of the Army of Parliament. Periodically taking a pasting and then, being middle-aged, hurting. Not being irresistible to the fairer sex, even if he wanted to be. Missing his wife and wanting his supper, mostly, and wondering when he’s next going to get paid. And how he’s going to manage to run a troop till Parliament gets round to paying them.
A superhero, he is not. (He had a cape when he was seventeen, bought for the express purpose of impressing his first wife, but he never got the trick of not catching his sword hilt in its swirliness and Margriete told him he looked a tit in it, so he never really took to cape-wearing after that.)

Hollie’s a decent man, fighting a war he doesn’t want for a cause that’s shafted him fairly thoroughly, and committed to it for the sake of six troop of horse who expect him to stand their corner because he’s the only bugger stupid enough to open his big mouth in company.
Luce is a ditherer, a dreamer and a romantic. Luce is a nice boy who ought not to be let out of the house without directions. (Luce is not, bless him, officer material. But you work with what you got.)

Russell – well, Russell’s a bipolar functioning alcoholic with anger management issues, and certainly not someone you want to be on the wrong side of.

The Army of Parliament had a bad habit of not winning glorious victories. Powick Bridge – lash-up. Edgehill – no-score draw. Naseby – not the finest moment in Parliamentarian history, gentlemen. No glittering triumphs. No moral high ground.

No heroes. No villains.

Ordinary men – and women – on both sides, people of honour and principle, as well as ruffians and rogues: people fighting to defend their freedom of conscience, or just to stay alive from one week to the next. People not too dissimilar to me and you, standing up for what they thought was fair. A good cause, fought by good men, badly.
Now I ask you. Sharpe and his like – men of honour, or principle? Sexy, maybe, if you like that kind of thing. Love ’em and leave ’em, almost certainly. Daring and gallant and swashbuckling, probably.

Believable – maybe not.
Surprising, amusing, appealing, poignant, gripping – almost certainly not.

So, meh. More people read the adventures of Sharpe et al, knowing what they’re getting, than read the misadventures of one plain russet-coated captain of horse circa 1643, where believe me, they do not.
Be nice if millions of people read the Babbitt books. I’d like it. (He’d like it, the smart-mouthed Lancashire bugger. Be thrilled to bits, he would. In a sort of not-admitting it kind of way.) But…. Would I rather write books that make people laugh out loud on public transport, and three chapters later make them cry?
Where people tell me off because it can’t end like that?
(Google Burford, 1649, and work it out.)

Ah, hell, yeah, I would. Because Hollie Babbitt is real. He’s all the lads in 17th century history whose names never made it into the books, the ones that did their duty and stood their ground, that weren’t glamorous or poetic or noble or well-connected. He is what he is and God willing, the lad will remain a joy and a sweary, scruffy, appealing maverick from now until the end of the Civil Wars.

As you were, gentlemen.

The Alchemy Of Memory – remembering Diana

I had meant to write a blog post all about the way music entwines itself with my writing, mostly inappropriately and unhelpfully.

And instead I received news that I lost a dear friend, and one of the longest-standing and fiercest fans of my books. So I’m going to write about Diana instead.

She’d fallen in love with Thankful For His Deliverance Russell a couple of years ago, in the days when he was no more than a rather prissy young lieutenant in the New Model Army, and she loved seeing how he grew up through the books into a mostly-competent officer in his own right. I was just reading back over our messages on Facebook and she really did love that boy. She particularly loved – and shaped – the awkwardness and the kindness and the desire of his early courtship with Thomazine, when he wasn’t sure most of the time if he was coming, going or been, and how far it was appropriate to do any of them with his old commander’s daughter. She’d been there, she knew whereof she spoke, and she wasn’t backwards in telling me when I’d got it right. (She wasn’t always tactful about it either, I might add. If I got it wrong, I got it very wrong.)

I think Diana was probably about as delighted as both Russell and Thomazine when they finally got together. I sent her the first draft of the novella Entertaining Angels and she messaged me at some ridiculous hour in the morning to tell me that she’d just finished it, she was in tears and that the ending was Just. Right. He deserved his happy ending, she said. What next?

So I said, the usual pro forma is they get married and they live happily ever after.

Well, she said, I wouldn’t believe it, not with those two – Zee wouldn’t just put up with his funny moods and she won’t be shy in telling him either. And if he spends the rest of his career overlooking sheep in Buckinghamshire he’ll be bored to tears within the month. So it’s never going to be happy ever after, because those two are far too lively to disappear into domestic obscurity peacefully.

Had it not been for Diana, Major Russell would have been very lovely and very chilly and very proper, and he probably wouldn’t have been very much different from the literary ice-maidens who throng the pages of romance having their drawers melted by the Right Girl. And as it is, there was a Diana, and he became wry and very aware of the difference in their ages and rather embarrassed about being quite so keen on what he would tactfully call country matters, and Thomazine became fiercely protective of her darling (what scar?) and most enthusiastic about knowing all about the aforesaid country matters so often as she might contrive.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Thankful and Thomazine Russell know sometimes you have to get hurt before you can become real, and they are more real because Diana loved both of them.  I’m sad that she won’t be around to review the second one. I’m more sad that she won’t be muttering about the cover art and cheering the release. She’d have liked that he will be carrying on adventuring well into his sixties, with his other half continuing to pester him for sexual favours despite the fact that technically he’s supposed to be brooding and disfigured and all that. She’d have been delighted that there will be fat blonde Russell-babies and a horrible little black dog and a number of indispensable horses.

 An Abiding Fire is your book, duck-lady.

The Roaring Girls – some thoughts on women in historical fiction

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Aphra Behn, sketch from a lost portrait 

Isn’t it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren’t maternal, or meek, or submissive enough – that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees – they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better! 

Five hundred years ago – three hundred, two hundred years ago – women weren’t allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.

You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don’t get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, there are very few examples of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars – maybe that’s because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it’s because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it’s because many 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I’ll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman – as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll – and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…s

(An aside: Dr Mark Stoyle has done some recent fascinating work into the female soldier of the civil war period, covered in a recent Guardian article)

But it’s not really till the 18th century that we start to see the “mannish” woman appear – Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough’s Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts – what’s interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered – or undeclared – for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.

So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren’t permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…”Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”

And now, four hundred years later, we’re still seeing this denied in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old romantic favourite, who’s not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company – she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He “makes” her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)

All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right – they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
Seriously?

I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM a while ago (just thought I’d drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) – he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women’s freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men’s work, men’s equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too.

And that’s fine, if that’s what works for you, but it’s not right for everyone. We’re still promoting the idea of binary genders – of girlie girls and butch men – and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can’t have romance, you can’t have adventure, you can’t be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called “Flesh + Blood” in which Rutger Hauer’s mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other’s backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.
And it’s not relevant to the plot, it’s just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion – but it’s two men who are in love with each other.

Does that matter? Yes. They’re a pair of aggressive street bravos who’ve systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him.
Does it matter that it’s two men? No. Or it shouldn’t. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in “A Wilderness of Sin”, “There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of.”

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if you’re going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far.

We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.

Living In A Goldfish Bowl – what I love & hate about the internet

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As an author I’m expected to be all over social media and in a very real sense I mostly am: in a, literally, social capacity.

But I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late.
I prefer to deal with the real stuff – paying bills, meeting friends, shopping – in real life: going into a shop, engaging with a human being. The rest is a tool to facilitate that. It’s great having friends in lovely places like Turin and Malmo, but surely the idea in the end is that you meet in real life, rather than by private message?

I’m having a splendid set-to with an energy supplier currently, who really struggled with the idea that my name is not Ms T. Occupier but couldn’t respond to a physical letter in the post accompanying payments, requesting that it was changed. The idea of pen to paper blew their little minds. As a result of that, we couldn’t set up an online account and we couldn’t change our tariff from “Standard Overpaid” to “Online Cheap”. For twelve months.
Now, surely using the internet for paying your bills is a matter of choice: if it’s convenient, then yay. And if you don’t want to, it’s not obligatory…surely? Being penalised for preferring to engage with other human beings is disturbing.

It was a funny thing – I refuse to have a mobile phone, which some people find both unbelievable and inconvenient, but I actually don’t. And when I leave my iPad in my desk drawer – which I do, from time to time, quite deliberately – I am physically more productive. I bake more, clean more, play more. Read more books. Engage with more real people.
Some time ago I made a conscious decision to stop reading a certain kind of book, because it was making me unhappy. The worldview that genre presented was of a horrible, dark place, full of criminals and perverts and the occasional violent vigilante. It didn’t make me feel thankful that I didn’t live in that world: it made me identify with those characters, made me feel suspicious and aggressive. I feel like that a lot of the time on social media – she’s prettier than me, they’re having more fun than me, the world is a dark and dreadful place full of horrible people who just want to hurt each other.

It’s not. The media tells us these things because it makes us click through. We know that, in reality – it just doesn’t feel like it. And it’s not a matter of being Pollyanna – although, in my case it sort of is, because I think Pollyanna had a bloody good point: you cannot live at that pitch of fear and hatred, all the time. It messes with your head.
The internet’s very good at making people think and feel, but not so great at making people do. (Like the old somewhat counterproductive TV programme of the 1980s – Why Don’t You…. turn off your TV and go off and do something less boring instead? Because if you did the internet would be somewhat bollixed…) All that anger and fear and desire and anxiety, flicking our switches flick flick flick for as long as we’re glued to its screen. All that adrenalin – all those heightened emotions, all that arousal – where does it go? what do people do with it, when what they see and read puts them in that fight or flight by proxy situation?
Nothing, is what. There is nothing to respond to: no enemy to fight but pixels, and we’re left unsatisfied, a case of electronic coitus interruptus. Signing a petition after you’ve just been moved to tears – of fury or of pain – doesn’t release those emotions, it leaves you moving on still feeling angry or hurt.

It’s a lovely place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there…..

 

 

But Is It Authentic?

A sort of conflation of ideas whizzing about today.

A conversation about 17th century re-enactment over on Facebook – about being too authentic, becoming intimidating, becoming contemptuous of those who don’t count stitches, or who use wool-blend fabrics. Now for myself, as an author, I consider re-enactment as research for my writing and vice versa. Thomazine’s snapped stay-bone in Imperfect Enjoyment – I’ve done that. (I still have the scar, too: I had to wear the things for the rest of the day, and it didn’t half bleed.)

I haven’t belted anyone in the face with the guard of my sword, but I have considered it. I digress.

And I admit it: I’m one of the stitch-counters. And what I find is increasingly it fills me with a horrible inertia. I have linen to make s new jacket, but I need silks to embroider it. Embroidery silks aren’t good enough: I need silk thread. I need metal spangles. I need – I need – I need.

And till I have, I do nothing.

Actually, I made a conscious decision with my polychrome coif, and my spangled jacket – not to make them period-correct, but to make them touchable, holdable. Hundreds of pounds worth of metal spangles on a jacket, and I’m going to let strangers pick it up, stroke it, hold it up, try it on? Or keep washing my coif after a couple of hundred grubby little fingers have stroked the ladybird or opened the peapods? But that’s what they’re for – to be touched and delighted in, not just admired from a distance. That was what the originals were for: to be worn and used and to give pleasure to their wearer as well as the people who saw them.

It’s the same with my new wardrobe: I want wool, I want silk, I want…I want to not start till I have all the things, rather than to use things I have that are not quite right.

My first thought in the authenticity debate was that it’s necessary, because what’s it for, otherwise? But I’m not sure now. I think it’s more the desire of the moth for the star, than a desirable outcome. I think I could spend my whole life not wanting to do better, but wanting to do nothing. Waiting for the perfect set of circumstances – all the aces, metaphorically, in my hand – before the time is right to do anything at all.

And then you get to be dead, and all the time is used up, and it’s never happened. That book half-written in your head but never started, that jacket you loved…all gone.

Carpe diem.