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Monday, 28 June 2010

The Butterfly Collector


The subconscious is a child, and like an angry child must be kept locked in its room. — Fred McGavran

After a quick search through Google there are two things I can tell you about Fred McGavran: he writes a lot of stories (and gets published) and he enters (and makes money from) lots of competitions. After reading a few of his stories I can also tell you, although after reading the above this will come as no great surprise, the man knows how to tell a story. He ought to; at 67 he’s no youngster, and he’s clearly been honing his craft for many years.

Fifteen of his stories are to be found in his first collection, The Butterfly Collector, which is published by Black Lawrence Press. All of the stories bar one take place in the New York Tri-State Region which, roughly speaking, encompasses the populated areas in the states of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut that are within a typical commuting distance of Manhattan. ‘The Deer’ takes place in Hyde Park which is a town located in the northwest part of Dutchess County, New York.

Butterfly1 Most of the stories have a peculiarly American feel to them and I don’t simply mean he uses ‘lawyer’ when I would use ‘solicitor’. If I changed Hyde Park to Hyndland, Glasgow I couldn’t see the action transferring neatly. You might see the odd fox in Hyndland but I’ve only ever seen deer from my living room window. I live on the very edge of the Glasgow City Region and when you look out of my living room window you see the countryside. That said I still can’t envisage deer wandering through the streets here munching on the neighbours’ daffodils. But that’s what happens in ‘The Deer’ and the locals have had enough:

"I have a client in the suburbs who uses a crossbow," the lawyer said. "From up in the trees. It's perfectly legal."

"How horrible!" exclaimed Dawn Martin, a frazzled platinum blond with a flair for Jaguars and bathrobes during car pool. "What if the children saw?"

Derek smirked; he would love to watch someone shoot a deer with a crossbow.

"Then they've won," George Harancourt concluded, slapping another steak on the grill. Tall, hard eyed and brutally fit, the biggest developer in the city didn't like to lose. "The laws protect animals, not us."

I caught the edge in his voice, the driving, inconsiderate power that had shoved his wife aside and driven his son to drugs. Lacking his father's cunning and cruelty, Derek could only escape through cocaine.

"What about spears?" I said to turn it all into a joke.

Only Derek takes it seriously and sometime later reports:

"They're here!" he exclaimed. "Dad and Eddie are waiting. Come on!"

"What are you talking about, dear?" Louise asked.

"The spears, Mrs. Elliot. Come on!"

This story, and ‘Breaking Cover’, are the only two stories in the collection that concern hunting. I can’t say I enjoy reading much about hunting but hunting is only the arena in which the real stories play out. In ‘The Deer’ the arrival of the spears, and their subsequent use (and inevitable misuse), could easily have been something reckless like drag racing or a poker night that gets out of hand. The preposterousness of these urbanites running around like the kids out of Lord of the Flies is what makes this such an effective story. You can read the whole story online here and see what you think.

Butterfly2 If the two hunting stories were the hardest reads for me then the two most pleasurable ones (and the one I imagine would have the most universal appeal) would have to be ‘The Butterfly Collector’ and ‘Lillian’ both of which deal with senile dementia, which you might imagine would be also a hard read, and they are in their own way, but they are also very touching and have a gentle humour. Both — wisely I have to say — are written in the first person from the perspective of Walter who is quite a character. In the first Lillian, his wife, is still around but in the story that bears her name he’s in a home and it’s only his daughter that visits him during the course of the story.

How many butterflies do you need to become a collector? Walter has one. But it’s a start. Albeit a late one. He ‘collects’ it on a trip to “the butterfly exhibition at the conservatory”:

After thirty-seven years of marriage, we spent Sunday afternoons seeking some diversion that Lillian and Mother’s feet and nerves and bladders could endure. While they were distracted by the orchids, I slipped away on a concrete path through the imitation rain forest, steamy with drizzle from overhead pipes. We had been there so often that I recognised the overfed goldfish in the jungle pool and many of the family groups pretending to share grandma’s interests in exotic flowers. Just another three hours, I thought, and Lillian will think of dinner, I can open a bottle of wine, and the evening will merge with all the others in the soft gauze of forgetfulness and boredom.

So Walter is reasonably compos mentis at the start of this story. Six pages in he’s had an epiphany and they've called in Dr. Morris and a couple of pages after that he’s stopped talking completely and is being put into care.

In ‘Lillian’ Walter has obviously been in the residential home for some time and he’s living quite happily in his own head:

Her name, I think, is Lillian. At least that's what I call to her in dreams. She is not so much a person as a presence, a warmth that awakens me when I try to touch her. How strange to feel such longing for someone who may never have existed. She is like a name that you recognise but cannot place, a thought detached from words.

The rest of my life is very organized. A young man in a puffy blue gown and large white gym shoes awakens me at seven. It is more like a game we play. I am always awake wondering what has happened to Lillian and just pretend to be asleep when he opens my door. There are always such loud noises in the hall, carts and trays and funny smells, and large, happy people in puffy blue gowns calling greetings to one another.

If I have had a good night, he helps me out of my plastic wrappings and to the toilet and then the shower, where he sprays me with warm water. If I have had a bad night, well, we do the same things, but he sprays me first and talks to himself about why he gets all the nasty ones. When I tell him about my dreams, he says, "At your age? No way!"

Butterfly3 The story works perfectly well without having read ‘The Butterfly Collector’ but seeing where Walter has come from does add an edge to the piece. He’s not forgotten Lillian, of course, but she slips in and out of his memory. I don’t think Fred presents an unrealistic view of senility. Take this scene when his daughter visits:

The days now pass quickly, like waking moments in dreams. A middle-aged woman came to see me, but she could hardly speak. She just sat beside my bed, sobbing quietly. She looks like someone I might have known once. Why has she ventured into the Sibyl's cave?

"Have you seen Lillian?" I finally asked to break the dismal spell.

"Oh, Daddy, you know she's gone."

Of course I know she's gone, but where? Outside? Is there still an outside? If I can find a tear in the screen, I will slip away and find her. But then what? Will one of the people in puffy blue gowns catch us in a net, dip us in chloroform and pin us in a glass case? No, I shall never go outside again.

The middle-aged woman showed me pictures of a young man in a black cap and gown. So they still have graduations. I wonder from what. Perhaps he is skilled in medicine, or law, or Slavic languages, or how to align the burial chamber in a pyramid with the North Star.

"You really must behave, Daddy. This is the last place in town we could find for you. Please don't cause any more trouble."

To show her how passive I am I stop breathing. When I turn blue, she runs to the nursing station, and a large woman stalks in with an injection.

So, all the horrible things that one associates with dementia are there; the only difference is that Walter is nothing if not philosophical about them all. Anyway, you can read the whole story online here.

About halfway through the collection comes ‘Memories of a Family Vacation’ which is another Walter and Lillian story, a flashback to their younger days, when, during a holiday by the sea in the early 2000s (we know this because of a reference to the Iraq War), what appears to be a German submarine appears mysteriously in the harbour, sixty years late, and Walter has an encounter with what he assumes is a German spy followed by a meeting with a couple of FBI agents – or it might have just been the drink. A Lillian also appears as the proprietor of Lillian’s Wine Bar in ‘Embracing the Inner Child’ but the narrator there is a Mel so maybe ‘Lillian’ is just a name Fred’s fond of.

In a short interview Fred had this to say about his attitude towards his readers:

You have to respect the reader. If someone is going to spend even five minutes with this you have to make it worth their while.

Butterfly4 So did I come away from The Butterfly Collection feeling respected? Pretty much, yes. I never felt talked down to, I didn’t feel I was reading by-the-numbers plots and I felt that everything he said to me was considered, in that Jane Austin way, perfectly pitched. I’m not a big fan of descriptions but if you’re going to have ’em then do ’em right:

La Ron removed her sunglasses, which had frosted up in the elevator, and wiped them on a silver rayon blouse that extruded from her stole. Her orange-blond wig was slightly askew, contributing to her dishabille. (from ‘The Forgiveness of Edwin Watkins’)

Some men can’t write women to save themselves and some women can’t write men. There’s only one story where a woman is the lead and that’s the delightful second story in the collection, ‘The Beautician’, one worthy of O. Henry himself. Cookie is called to the hospital to do the makeup for Marion in Room 3221. The nurse asks if he can help her:

“Sometimes they have a picture I can use,” I replied.

“Over here, dear,” the patient said.

If trees could talk, they would whisper to each other in voices like that.

Marion is in a sorry state when Cookie gets to her with her soft, “Let’s sees” and “Let’s try.” It’s a simple story, just a beautician reassuring her client as she does her best to make her client look her best:

“[L]et’s start with your hair.”

It was thin and broken and glued to her scalp with dried sweat. She started to cry.

“You don’t know how awful it is to be like this,” she sobbed.

“Let’s just see what we can do.”

I always try to be positive. It works pretty well with everybody except men.

But Marion is not all she seems and when the priest arrives Cookie gets the surprise of her life.

When Fred McGavran isn’t writing stories he earns a crust as a lawyer. He writes:

Fred_McGavran_web I was an English major at Kenyon College, served as an officer in the United States Navy, graduated from Harvard Law School, and have practiced with Frost Brown Todd LLC in Cincinnati for most of my career. I concentrate my practice on business cases and defending psychiatric malpractice claims.

My practice gave me the background to write about lawyers reacting, often poorly, to financial and personal pressures, plus the vocabulary to reflect sardonically about psychiatry, sometimes through demented characters. My wife, Liz, is a decorator, our older daughter Sarah is working on a Ph.D in Art History at Washington University in St. Louis, and our younger daughter Marian is a realtor in San Diego.

Although I have always been driven to write fiction, it took a long time to find the right voice and tone. I started writing Vietnam stories, then lawyer stories, then satires, then more whimsical stories like ‘A Descant for St. Simeon,’ where grace occasionally intervenes.

‘A Descant for St. Simeon’ isn’t a part of this collection but it’s available online here.

Butterfly5 Lawyers and judges appear in ‘The Resurrection of Nelson Campbell’ which deals with the consequences, both legal and ontological, of a husband’s miraculous resurrection after being cremated five years earlier. Needless to say no one is keen to tell him that his company is gone and the proceeds invested. They also appear in ‘A Gracious Voice’ and ‘The Forgiveness of Edwin Watkins. ‘A Friend of Bill Gillen’ is set in the world of real estate agents.

‘Not Until Everything’s Perfect’ has the flavour of a Ray Bradbury story. It’s not science fiction but then neither was all Bradbury’s output. The Ashleys have bought “the three story fieldstone house on the double lot cater-corner across the street” from the story’s narrator who, thinking he’s being neighbourly, goes over and asks them:

“When are you going to move in?

He lowered his clipboard, and she her illustrated arboreal guide, to stare at me. I had not thought it so difficult a question. Then Robert Ashley turned to his platinum-haired wife, who smiled pleasantly as if she were meeting a new masseur.

“Not until everything’s perfect,” she said.

The big question is: how far does ‘everything’ extend to? You see the Ashleys are not just looking to run over the lawn with a mower and maybe give the front door a lick of paint. Oh, no. Everything has to be perfect. And that includes the neighbours.

Not all the stories are contemporary. ‘Two Cures for Phantom Limb’ is set in “the good old days before movies, television and the Internet, when self-reliant Americans had to entertain themselves [and when] an amputation drew as large a crowd as a murder trial or a horse race.” So when it looks like the Brakeman’s leg is going to have to come off there they all are awaiting Frank, the doctor’s eldest son, who brought the leg out to the back garden for burial with all due ceremony . . . but not until he has entertained the assembled throng with the severed appendage. The garden it turns out is the final resting place of a large selection of body parts which were no longer of any use to their original owners.

Then the doctor receives two very odd requests, firstly, old Jack Townsed, the doctor’s very first amputation “at the battle of Chattanooga” is dying and wants to be buried as a whole man so he needs his leg back, and then the Butterfly6 Brakeman finds he needs his back too. The solution to both problems is not what I expected.

A delightful story as is the final one in the book, ‘The Annunciation of Charles Sears’, where a down-and-out Angel fills in at a children’s Christmas pageant. And by down-and-out I mean precisely that, “a refugee from the Alcoholic Drop In Centre, who came to the church for handouts after drinking up his disability compensation.” Both these stories come with a sly humour.

As an introductory collection this is a very well balanced book and provides a good range of stories that sit well together. They don’t cover his full range — no horror or war stories which I know he also writes — but this is still a good selection. But it’s not perfect. I had to read ‘A Gracious Voice’ twice and even then I didn’t feel I’d got it. In their review at A Write Place at a Write Time they put this down to “switching gears” and although I can see where he does that in other stories — I think of it more as misdirection, starting talking about one thing and then drifting into the story proper — I’m not sure that was the problem in this particular story. For me it had too many characters and I just think I prefer my lawyers more like those on Boston Legal than Raising the Bar.

A word or two of credit is due to the people who designed the cover for this one. On the whole Black Lawrence Books does a good job on its covers — they’re the kind of thing your hand is drawn to — but with all the butterflies on this one it really is the kind of book you want to send someone as a present.

The Butterfly Collector won the St. Lawrence Book Award in 2007. It’s an award run by Black Lawrence Press for an unpublished manuscript and publication is a part of the prize.

In addition to the aforementioned Fred McGavran has also won:

  • in 2008, an Individual Achievement Award from the Ohio Arts Council
  • in 2007 the Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest in the horror category
  • in 2004 the John Reid/Tom Howard Contest
  • in 2003 the Raymond Carver Award from Humboldt State University

He has placed in a number of other literary and screenwriting contests. His stories have appeared in Pearl Magazine, Rosebud, Gray's Sporting Journal, Dreams & Visions, Storyglossia, Third Order, and other literary magazines and e-zines. The following stories are all available online:

From The Butterfly Collector:



Thursday, 24 June 2010

How to write a sentence


Red Painting 450 The process of writing is something that fascinates me. I do it every day. I’m doing it right this minute. I wouldn’t say I even think that much about doing it. Mostly the words just flow. I take it for granted. Writing is more than just getting thoughts out of your head onto the paper though. That’s the first bit, usually the easy bit. Fine, get it out of your head so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it. Then read what you’ve written and ask yourself if what you’ve written is what you meant to say. But just what goes through our heads when we write?

I came home yesterday and wrote the following sentence in Word:

I will forever associate reading Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, with the colour red.

I then had my coffee and a . . . actually I forget what I had with it, probably a chocolate digestive, and then I went back and started to write the following article. The first thing I did was change that opening sentence:

I will forever associate reading Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, with the colour red; the colour red, so called. I say “so called” because although “red” is the term popularly used to describe the colour I have in mind it is not remotely accurate even though it falls within that section of the spectrum. I suppose there must be a single spectral wavelength that can be designated as “red”, perhaps the colour of fire engines or pillar-boxes, but the red I have in mind is a more natural red although not red like poppies.

Wavelength ~630–740 nm, Frequency ~480–405 THz 

The red I have in mind is redheadedness although I have never seen anyone with truly red hair that didn’t come out of a bottle. No, the redhead I have in mind had ginger hair. Even that is imprecise because ginger hair varies from a deep orange-red through burnt orange to bright copper; it can be russet, auburn, copper or even rust-coloured.

clip_image001[4] Chestnut
clip_image002[4] Dark Auburn
clip_image003[4] Light Auburn
clip_image004[4] Dark Auburn
clip_image005[4] Medium Auburn
clip_image006[4] Flame Red
clip_image007[4] Coppery Red
clip_image008[4] Golden Toasted Auburn
clip_image009[4] Copper Red
clip_image010[4] Irish Red
clip_image011[4] Medium Irish Red

I was reading my book whilst on a bus in the centre of Glasgow. The incidence of redheads, so called, is considerably higher in Scotland than in any other part of the world; about one in every eight Scots will be some shade of redhead. There’s a woman on the TV right now reading the news and she’s a redhead. I’m a redhead although I’m nowhere near as redheaded now as I was when I was a little boy. Indeed what little hair I have left on my head ranges from the darkest of browns to silver. Perhaps this is why I like my beard which is still more red than grey. While I was reading my book a redhead got on the bus and sat down in front of me. She had long hair, three or four inches below her shoulders, and, as she sat down, she tossed it behind her – presumably so she didn’t sit on it – and, in doing so, threw it over one of my hands, a not entirely unpleasant experience although one that immediately brought about a pang of guilt for enjoying the sensation more than I thought I ought and for not immediately rearranging myself so that my hands were out of her reach.

After a bit she turned and glanced behind her although not directly at me and really not looking for or at anyone. As she did so her hair slid off my hand and hung tantalisingly in front of me. She had the kind of pale skin that tends to go redhead with being a redhead, no freckles to speak of although she did sport a small pin in her nose; the pin had a blue stone in it which did not match her colouration. She was pretty but not beautiful and perhaps eighteen years old.

Her hair more than made up for any other ways Nature or poor fashion sense might have let her down. I stopped reading, stared at her hair and for a few seconds I was speechless. Actually throughout the entire experience I was speechless and so really what I should have said was that I was thoughtless only that’s not the right word because that suggests I was careless which I was not. What I mean to say is that nothing coherent went on in my head for several seconds. No words, no memories, nothing but the image of this hair which was only interrupted by the girl turning her head to look down the aisle; that broke my concentration because then I started to think about who she looked like.

So, if I’m being honest, I should associate “red” with stopping reading Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, however, I have no doubt that whenever I pick up the book from now on I will be confronted with the colour red or at least what I have decided to call “the colour red” despite the fact the expression clearly is woefully inaccurate.

She sat in front of me for perhaps ten minutes. Ten minutes out of her life and a corresponding ten minutes out of my own, ten minutes during which she stared out of the window and during which I tried to read and not stare at her hair. I have no idea how many pages I tried to read whilst not looking at her hair – eight perhaps, let’s say eight – nor do I have any idea which eight pages these were. I know when I alighted myself some twenty minutes after her I placed my bookmark in between pages 48 and 49 but everything else would be guesswork.

I don’t remember what I was trying to read while the redhead was on the bus with me. I think it was something about the narrator’s preoccupations with certain girls at school and certain female cousins but that might have been before or even after the girl was on the bus.

The girl got off the bus at Anniesland and walked away from the bus stop down Glencoe Street. I didn’t know the name of the street. I looked up the name on a map. I watched her as she walked away getting smaller and smaller. She looked younger from a distance, perhaps fourteen, although to be fair most fourteen-year-olds could pass for eighteen these days, and her hair was noticeably less stunning. I felt bereft.

Amber Sparks Now I can barely remember her face at all. I’ve decided that she looked a bit like a girl called Amber Sparks. I saw a photograph of this girl, a poet who lives in Washington, D.C., and I think the girl on the bus looked something like her. She probably doesn’t but when my mind searched for images to connect with this particular experience that was the one that came to mind. The photograph of Amber Sparks was a black and white one and so I have no idea if she had red hair when it was taken. I found the photograph again and now I really can’t remember what the girl on the bus looked like. It’s completely gone. Why do I remember Amber Sparks anyway? The name for one. It’s a lovely name – memorable. But she reminded me of someone I was friends with for several years who wasn’t a redhead. Do you ever do that, meet someone who looks like someone you’ve known from the past and immediately take a liking or a disliking to this new person solely because of how you felt about who they remind you of? Now I find a fondness creeping into my recollection of the girl on the bus. I’ve decided she must be a nice person. She probably is. Most people are.

In the book I was trying to read the narrator talks about how he assembled the looks he ascribed to certain characters in books he read as a child sometimes ignoring the descriptions as written and imposing his own, specifically one called ‘Aunt Bee’ to whom he assigned the face of an old nun he once was taught by, so it seems appropriate that my image of the girl on the bus should be part-fiction. She was real. My memory of her is not. Memories don’t exist in isolated little pockets in our brains. Likewise her hair. The term ‘redhead’ doesn’t cut it and ‘ginger’ is appalling – it has such negative connotations. I looked up ‘amber’ in Google and found this picture. Now that is the kind of colour I was thinking about. It is a piece of Lithuanian amber from the Baltic LithuaniaAmber coast. Amber is, of course, not a colour; there are lots of colours in this lump and the same goes for hair, especially in sunlight.

It’s hard to say what will or won’t happen in the future. I have no reason to remember the girl on the bus, no explicit plans for her. I expect I will remember her for some time especially now I’ve decided to write about her but whether I remember her or not will ultimately have less to do with what I want than what I am capable of. I don’t have a good memory. Perhaps that is why I relished this experience at the time realising that it would soon be lost to me. Because I have become used to not being able to return my memories with ease. I have no doubt that the memory will remain and every time I read this it will jog a semblance of that memory. I may remember. There is no guarantee I will.

It’s also inaccurate to say that I will remember this forever. I don’t expect to live forever. I could say that I may remember this for as long as I live but I suspect that even that is being overly optimistic.

I never thought about what the girl was doing on the bus, where she had been or where she was going. Amos Oz would have. He would have constructed a whole life around her. I don’t do that so much but, if I did, what would my redhead be like?

People with red hair are assumed to have bold personalities and short tempers, and they are frequently thought to be adventurous, unafraid, and mischievous. While these characteristics are pure assumptions, they lend mystery and desirability to red hair. –

gillian-maxim It’s not true you know. When you think of red hair who jumps to mind? Gillian Anderson, perhaps? Or what about Julianne Moore or Geri Halliwell (that would be ‘Ginger’ Spice) or, if you’re of a certain age, perhaps Lucille Ball? All feisty women. Surprisingly I can only think of one redhead from when I was at school, a boy, ‘Big Nell’ – so much for 13% of the population having red hair, eh? Of course, by “red” they’re counting everything from honey blonde upwards.

I expect the girl on the bus was going home because she got off the bus in a residential area. I don’t need to know. I will probably never see her again. I do pass her bus stop occasionally and perhaps the next time I pass her stop, or the stop on the other side of the road, I’ll think about her but most likely not. I could write her into a story, her hair anyway, or a poem. I could give her hair to a girl – it need not even be the main character – just a girl on a bus, feisty or not. Her hair would look good in anyone’s story.

What I think I should have written is:

For some time to come whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, I imagine that will call to mind hair the colour of Lithuanian amber.

It’s a bit cumbersome but more accurate. The real question is: how precise does one need to be? I personally think one can overthink a sentence. Did the girl have hair the colour of Lithuanian amber or have I overwritten the image in my head? It would be nice if she had. Even if you never had a picture to look at just the sound is lovely. I had a look online at some of the similes people have used to describe hair, not just redheads, and there are a few beauties:

hair the colour of...

  • moonlight
  • soup milky tea
  • strawberry jam
  • spun gold
  • hatred (good one)
  • Heinz Tomato Soup (I kid you not)
  • sun-bleached straw
  • a ripe wheat field
  • Hayley William's in the decode video (typos not mine)
  • hay in a prairie dawn just as the sun hits the first stalks
  • the yellow flag iris which grows by summer water

Perhaps I could say that the girl on the bus had hair the colour of amber sparks. Or am I trying too hard to meld these two ideas together in my head? That would okay actually because amber is just a lump of fossilised tree resin whereas this girl’s hair was alive. If I write “amber sparks” I’m suggesting movement, not of her hair, which swished very nicely thank you very much, but the way the light reflected and picked out different shades. It didn’t so much sparkle as shimmer. (Christ! What did people ever do before thesauri?)

Main Entry: shim·mer

Pronunciation: \ˈshi-mər\

Function: verb

Inflected Form(s): shim·mered; shim·mer·ing \ˈshi-mə-riŋ, ˈshim-riŋ\

Etymology: Middle English schimeren, from Old English scimerian; akin to Old English scīnan to shine — more at shine

Date: before 12th century

intransitive verb 1 : to shine with a soft tremulous or fitful light : glimmer
2 : to reflect a wavering sometimes distorted visual image transitive verb : to cause to shimmer

It’s not quite right, is it? What about ‘glimmer’?

Main Entry: glim·mer

Pronunciation: \ˈgli-mər\

Function: intransitive verb

Inflected Form(s): glim·mered; glim·mer·ing \ˈglim-riŋ, ˈgli-mə-\

Etymology: Middle English glimeren; akin to Old English glǣm gleam

Date: 15th century

1 a : to shine faintly or unsteadily b : to give off a subdued unsteady reflection
2 : to appear indistinctly with a faintly luminous quality

Better. But this is becoming hard work. No one other than me will ever know the exact colour I have in my mind so why bend myself out of shape trying to find the perfect expression when no such expression exists? Maybe all I need is:

From now on, whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, I’ll think of a girl with red hair on a bus.

I might also change it around and say:

In the future when I notice someone with red hair I expect to think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch.

I imagine that will be so for a time because it needn’t be hair precisely the same shade as the girl on the bus. It doesn’t even need to belong to a girl. It’s not saying the same thing as the very first sentence I wrote but it’s safer. It makes more sense. There are loads of people with red hair that I’m likely to see but how many copies of Barley Patch are there in the UK? Not many I suspect. So I think I’ll go with that. My readers will be more able to relate to that despite its inaccuracy. Forget Amber Sparks, Lithuanian amber and ludicrous similes. Forget trying to be precise. There’s ‘precise’ and there’s ‘precise enough’ and, as my good wife is very fond of saying, that’s “close enough for government work.”

So, what’s that, about three and a half hours to get one sentence right? Assuming I stick with it. Which is unlikely. I don’t really like ‘notice’.

Yes, writing’s easy ain’t it? You just sit down and write. Right. Of course you do.

Monday, 21 June 2010

A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees

 A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees

The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it. - Hilary Mantel

When I think of people emigrating to America the first thing I think of is them sailing into New York and getting their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty; it’s become a bit of a visual cliché in fact. The disenfranchised and put-upon from all over the world flocked there and it should come as no surprise to hear that the Welsh headed there too. What happened, as happened with people from all cultures, is that they began to lose their national identity beginning inevitably with the language. You may well think the benefits would be worth a few sacrifices but, like the Scots, the Welsh take their nationality seriously, passionately even. Being Welsh signifies more than where you were born and live. It is a culture, a way of life, a mindset. And although many were living in poverty and under the yolk of oppressive landlords the idea of giving up who they were to escape was too much to ask.

Lewis Jones  [Edwyn Lloyd] Enter the picture, a nineteen-century Moses, Lewis Jones (who becomes ‘Edwyn Lloyd’ in the book), promising, not so much a land flowing with milk and honey, but a place of meadows and tall trees, a New Wales in a foreign land called Patagonia, “a wonderful place, a new Eden, a paradise.” Like most of the people he spoke to I had no idea where Patagonia was; I thought it was somewhere near Tibet. It’s not. Patagonia is a geographic region containing the southernmost portion of South America. The name was coined by a Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, and although the etymology is unclear, it refers to the size of the natives, the Tehuelche (who he called the Patagones), an exceptionally tall race, although not nearly as tall as they were reported at the time (9ft – 15ft).

Clare Dudman’s new novel, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees (and she is keen to stress in the Author’s Note at the back of the book it is a work of fiction although based on facts), follows the lives of the first Welsh settlers from their arrival in 1865 through to 1869, although there is a brief epilogue set in 1879.

The central character is ‘Silas James’ who is based on the real life Aaron Jenkins. We meet him and his wife, ‘Megan’, along with their daughters ‘Myfanwy’ and ‘Gwyneth’ as they prepare to disembark from the Mimosa twelve-year-old tea clipper, The Mimosa, which, having been converted to carry passengers, has just completed the arduous two-month crossing from Liverpool to New Bay near the port which will eventually be called Porth Madryn. The couple have been one of five who have lost children on the crossing, in their case, a son, ‘Richard’. A Welsh-sounding name is all good and well but the beach they find themselves heading towards doesn’t look like any Wales they’ve known:

Browner. Colder. Beside him, Megan’s head swirls. Everything is clear now. Every detail. Yellow patches of cliff become pockets of dead gorse and weeds like bramble, and in between them the ground is bare, sandy, infertile. This is more than winter. It is as if something has killed everything. As if there’s been a plague. Nothing moves. Nothing makes a sound. Nothing lives.

Megan’s eyes widen. ‘Silas...?’ She says, ‘Silas?’

Nothing but banks of mud, pale cliffs. Sea.

He reaches for her hand.

‘Silas...?’ It’s as if she’s come alive. As if she suddenly sees.

This is not what they were expecting. They are reassured by Edwyn Lloyd who is waiting to greet them, however, and told that their settlement is forty miles south beside the Chubut River. Has Lloyd lied and if so what could his motive possibly have been? He is a charismatic speaker and few of the newcomers have any real doubts. Silas is not so easily enthralled but he holds his tongue. Even the Promised Land had to be tamed; God didn’t simply hand it to the Israelites on a platter.

Silas agrees, although the way Edwyn puts the proposal to him he can do little but comply, to set out before the group along with John Jones to herd the sheep there being too many “to go by any small ship.” They only have enough water “to last a couple of days, which Edwyn had insisted would be enough to take them to the valley:”

‘Besides, you are sure to find more water, there will be ponds, just as there are here,’ he assures them.

‘And the odd fountain appearing miraculously from a rock, I expect,’ Silas mutters to himself miserably. But there is not much else they can do – there is a limit to how much water a man can carry, and if they carry too much they will travel even more slowly.

‘Faith, Silas,’ Edwyn says, clapping him on the shoulder.

‘I’ve got faith,’ Silas says, shaking him off.

All does not go well. The two men are separated and Silas ends up wandering alone and lost. Without water and delirious he is close to death. But he is not alone. An old Indian shaman, Yeluc, has been watching the new arrivals and has followed Silas who, for some reason, of all the people there, he has taken a shine to:

I will watch you, I told the man, I will be your guardian, your brother. I will let nothing harm you, and although he heard me he didn’t see me. He turned and his eyes were like the rou’s. There was a kind spirit in them, like something young in an old shell, and I wanted to hold it to me and make sure it lived. I guided him along the river, shaking branches of the small willows so he knew where to go. He didn’t see me. Not once. He walked as if he dreamed. And soon we came to where his own kind were and I could lead [my horse] away, for then there was a smell of a fox cooking in a pot, and they greeted him with cries and a word that I now know must be his name: ‘Si-las.’

Although the bulk of the book is written in the third person, Yeluc’s chapters are first person narratives and I particularly enjoyed his observations and wry remarks; I was a little disappointed when he gets absorbed into the general narrative. You’ll notice he mentioned something he called a rou. Although the book is not burdened by them there are a smattering of both Welsh and Tehuelche terms. Guanaco_09.24 A small glossary at the back lists the important ones although a few are explained within the text, bara for bread, for example. A rou is a guanaco, which is a bit like a llama.

When they finally reach the “promised land” they find that all is not as promised. And things go from bad to worse: they lose their flock, and it is not a small flock, some eight-hundred animals. A meeting is called to discuss their position:

Now Mary Jones is standing up and quoting from the report they all know so well: ‘Meadows and tall trees, wild cattle and other game... that’s what it says, does it not?’

Edwyn says nothing – instead he seems to be waiting for someone else to speak with a weary silence. He does not have to wait long.

‘And where exactly did you see these wild cattle, when you first came over here, Mr Lloyd?’ Annie Warlock asks, ‘Because they’re not here now are they?’

‘They were here.’ Edwyn’s voice sound strained. ‘It must be the Indians, maybe they chased them away, like they did before.’

Mary opens her mouth to speak again by Caradoc Llewellyn interrupts her. ‘The important thing is, chwaer [sister], what we should be concerning ourselves with, is our current predicament, and what we should do about it, not prodding bruises we can do nothing about.’

The bottom line is that, without the ewes, without crops, they have enough, if they are careful, to last five months.

Mary speaks again, ‘Well we’re going to have to ask for help. Sometimes, Mr Lloyd, even God needs a helping hand.’

Edwyn is deposed and the mob, because that what it really is, declares Selwyn Williams to be their new spokesman – there is no formal vote – and he is despatched to Buenos Aires to ask the government for more supplies.

In the meantime help comes from an unexpected quarter. They may have been expecting an Edenic setting but they were also well aware that this land had sitting tenants even if they didn’t sit still for any great length of time. Like 59761_1 many of the indigenous peoples the Tehuelche are an itinerant nation, moving with the animals and the seasons. It is only a matter of time before the Welsh have to confront them which is why they are reluctant to use up their ammunition on hunting. They have no real clue about how they will be received by the Tehuelche, however, they do not have long to wait; Yeluc has told his small group that it is time to relocate:

‘Where now?’ asks Tezza when everything is ready.

Just down the trail and to where the sun rises, I tell them. Where the Chubut curls before it meets the sea.

‘Where Si-las is,’ Seannu says, ‘is that it?’ And she looks at me with her eyes narrow.

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I need to see what they do. I need to let our tribesmen know I am with them, I need to know they are safe.’

What is noteworthy here is that when he uses the expression ‘tribesmen’ Yeluc is not talking about reporting on the state of the Welsh camp to the rest of his Indian brothers, no, rather he is expressing an affinity with the Welsh, the Gallatts, as they come to refer to them. What is remarkable is how they differentiate between the Gallatts and the Christianos, the Argentine Christians, who they have come to dislike and distrust.

The first meetings go well. Yeluc and his small band are accepted and a bond of affection develops quickly, not simply between Silas and Yeluc, but among all of them. They begin with simple bartering – bara is one of the first words the Indians learn – and then the old man begins to teach the men of the settlement how to hunt and the women share their knowledge of the plants in exchange for lessons in bread baking.

[W]hen Silas asks Mary if she has changed her mind about the Indians she shakes her head. ‘Just Yeluc, and his women,’ she says. ‘As for the rest of them...’ she shrugs. ‘Who knows?’

Yeluc has chosen to move early though. Shortly thereafter more Indians arrive, one group, and then a second, following the guanaco to the coast. Their leader is the huge Chiquichan, well known to Yeluc, and fond of a drink. An old man and a few women have been one thing but they now find themselves surrounded by over a hundred northern Tehuelche.

After a year of seeing just the same hundred or so faces, they now have to get used to seeing more. It is too much of a change. They have become used to having space, spreading out, laying claim to all that they see, and now they are surrounded and feel hindered and watched.

And then the Indian children begin appearing at the doors of the settlers – I guess there is no smell anywhere in the world more enticing than that of baking – and the first word of Welsh they too learn is bara, bread.

This is not the end of the book, there are a good hundred pages to go after this point and a lot can happen in a hundred pages. What we do learn is more about the relationship between the Welsh settlers and the Argentinean government and what conditions are imposed on them; politics rears its ugly head; we see their crops fail and we see the Welsh ready and willing to pack everything in and then, of all people, Edwyn Lloyd reappears and, although he doesn’t save the day (that honour goes to Megan, Silas’s wife), his rhetoric does rally the people together. Plus we find out his story and a little story that I’d read at the start of the book and forgotten about suddenly made far more sense than it did the first time I read it: context is everything.

Historical Romance People can be very blinkered when it comes to novels set in the past. They read “historical novel” and hear “historical romance which is something else completely; I’ve not been brave enough to attempt reading one of those yet. The book has at its core a loving and married couple eking out a meagre existence in the back of beyond. I assure you there is not much time for romance and actually what little there is is quite endearing in its awkwardness.

I have only recently begun reading historical fiction and I have to say I’m finding it a curious beast. I never enjoyed history at school – I was very much in Henry Ford’s camp (“History is bunk”) – primarily because it never felt real to me and yet when I watched many of the films that were based on historical events these also left me cold because it was obvious that the facts had been manipulated to produce a more entertaining story – sod accuracy. It seems like the historical novelist’s remit is to find a balance between the two, to present a story that is believable and entertaining within the bounds of known facts.

This is a good book. It is not an exciting book but it is an engrossing book. It sticks to the facts and doesn’t exaggerate them for effect. That said there were opportunities to maximise on factual events that maybe Clare didn’t capitalise on but I feel the book’s strength lies in its portrayal of real people. In an e-mail to me she wrote that she “wanted to use this story to say something about the condition of being human” and it does. It focuses on identity, national identity on the surface, but once you start to dig a little deeper there are other identities under the microscope here and the old Indian provides an excellent sounding board, not that he doesn’t have his own identity issues which he deals with in his own way. I grew rather fond of old Yeluc and would have liked more of him. Clare can take that as a request.

The book is published by Seren, Wales’ leading literary publisher, and is available from all the usual places for £7.99 or thereabouts.

Let me leave you with the official trailer for the book:


Clare Dudman was born in North Wales and educated at Leicestershire comprehensive schools, the University of Durham and King’s College London. She has a PhD in Chemistry and has worked as a postdoctoralClare at Hay Research Associate in UMIST, a development scientist in industry, a science teacher, a lecturer and as a creative writing tutor for the WEA and the MA in creative writing at University College Chester. She is a member of the Welsh Academy.

Her first novel was for children: Edge of Danger which won the Kathleen Fidler award. Her second novel was for adults Wegener’s Jigsaw (published as One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead in the States) which is a fictional autobiography based on the life of revolutionary scientist and arctic explorer Alfred Wegener and won an Arts Council of England writers’ award. 98 Reasons for Being, her third novel, is from all accounts out of print which is why God invented libraries.

Her current project involved an extensive research trip to China: after landing in Hangzhou she toured Shanghai and Suzhou on the east coast before heading inland to the world's most populous city, Chongqing, taking an overnight train to a remote town called Yangzhou before heading down the South China tea and Guandong and finally Hong Kong. On the way she interviewed scientists, farmers and industrialists and attended an international conference on silk.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Historical imagination and historical consciousness


History is bunk – Henry Ford

Any book that deals with events that happen in the past is delving into history, the past, the dead and gone. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing about the fall of the Berlin Wall or what I had for breakfast yesterday (a hot cross bun and a cup of black coffee if you’re interested); it’s all the same, it’s over and done with. I much prefer fiction because I’m not bound by facts that I can’t change. I’m also not very interested in the Past with a capital p. I’m interested in People with a capital p, some of whom happened to live in what, to me, is the past but what, to them, was very much the present. So I happily read books by Camus or Steinbeck or any of a hundred dead writers writing about times that are long gone. But I find that I’m not especially interested in the events, it’s the people that fascinate me.

Let’s consider an example, Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. The novel is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran's population in 1849 following French colonisation, but the novel is actually set in the 1940s. This wasn’t the only instance. There were also outbreaks in 1556 and 1678, but cases after European colonisation, in 1921 (185), 1931 (76), and 1944 (95), were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel. Is this important? Not to me. But to a historical novelist, yes, probably, if they want to get their facts straight. Camus isn’t especially interested in the disease but the disease provides a crucible in which he can study existentialism. It’s an historic novel but not particularly historical.

In a recent appearance on The Book Show the historical novelist David Starkey mentioned in passing that Dr. Johnson did not rank historical writing as he believed writers of it had no need to use their imaginations. I think that’s a rather narrow view of historical fiction and indeed a narrow view of historians. The philosopher, Owen Barfield, uses an expression “historical imagination” which he defines as:

[T]he habit of mind which endeavours to approach a past epoch by seeing the world through its eyes instead of seeing it through the eyes of the twentieth century.

I think this is a commendable stance to take but not such an easy one to carry out.

One of the driving forces of writers is to understand. I don’t think any line should be drawn as to what we try to understand. It’s like in Clare Dudman’s 98_reasons_cover novel 98 Reasons for Being which talks about the attitudes of people towards the mentally ill. One of the characters says, “The mad cannot feel the cold.” How preposterous is that? And yet that is how some people thought. Stating it accurately is one thing but when I read it, I read it as a 21st century man not a 19th century man. I can read the words but I can’t grasp the mindset. I have similar problems with attitudes expressed towards African-Americans in the fifties or so-called witches in medieval times. Intellectually I get it . . . but I don’t’ get it.

"In assessing the contribution of [a past] epoch to the history of human consciousness," Barfield counsels in the same text, we must always “refrain from judging it by later standards – especially if the creation of those standards is part of the very contribution to be assessed."

I think that is a very difficult position for any author who is trying to get up into the mindset of the people who lived at the time. A middle ground is often the best one can hope for:

Most people can’t deal with a past that is too alien; instead they enlist it for present causes, domesticating it with legends that ‘project the present back, the past forward.’ The result is a kind of communion with the past that we think of a history, but is actually heritage.

This is not only a problem faced by historical novelists though. Crime writers have the same problem, both those who write factually and those whose work is fictional: how do I get inside the mind of my character? And do I truly want to get inside the mind of a serial killer? Or is it enough to suggest and leave the rest to my readers? And yet it can be done.

I have been a fan of Star Trek since its earliest beginnings. I don’t dress up as a Klingon and wander round saying, Q'apla! or anything but I enjoy watching the thing and I can get quite absorbed while watching. I have years of experience and I can spot a gaff a mile off. Here’s a simple one: Vulcan expressions tend to be deadpan, everyone knows that, and yet when I watched the film Of Gods and Men recently, which was made by the fans for the fans, did I not see some Vulcans smiling? Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Totally out of character. The poor acting and amateurish effects I could forgive but smiling Vulcans? Never. The same happened when they decided to produce a show set before the original Star Trek, Star Trek: Enterprise. There was nothing wrong in principle with the show other than the fact it rewrote history and that upset a lot of the fans; me, I was more forgiving.

Horse_of_Destruction Of course science fiction writers rewrite history all the time. There was a Doctor Who episode in 1965 which had the Doctor inside the Trojan horse. Sometime later in an episode of The Time Tunnel the leads also ended up in the same Trojan horse. So where was the Doctor? I remember a letter being sent into one of the TV papers asking and, to their credit, they gave a very straight-faced answer about how quantum mechanics works. Fans are interested in details and I’m always impressed when I see the pains that filmmakers take to get it right. Just consider the BBC’s many historical dramas.

Professor Peter Seixas of the University of British Columbia, makes a similar argument to Barfield when it comes to historical writing but it’s his closing sentence that I want to draw your attention to:

[Empathy or historical perspective-taking] is the ability to see and understand the world from a perspective not our own. In that sense, it requires us to imagine ourselves in the position of another. However – and this is crucial – such imagining must be based firmly on historical evidence if it is to have any meaning.

The problem with “historical evidence” is that it is not always accurate. It is not always there. In some cases, as in the last days of Tolstoy, writer Jay Parini had access to diaries by all the major players written at the time plus recollections written by minor characters after, but quite close to, the events. Warwick Collins when he wrote The Sonnets was not so lucky. Once Shakespeare became famous there is more to pick and choose from but the period he decided to write about is one where we only have the sketchiest of reliable information. Do we have to conclude that Collins’s novel has less meaning that Parini’s? Both were well researched and as accurate as they could be as regards the details that could be verified but after that we have to depend on the writer to extrapolate (now there’s a good Star Trek word) from the facts and build a believable scenario, something that realistically could have happened.

The historian R G Collingwood believed that the events historians study have both an 'outside' or observable part, and an 'inside' which can only be "described in terms of thought". By the 'outside' of historical events, Collingwood meant the part of the historical event which could have been perceived using our senses; for example, we could have seen or read reports about the movement of troops during a World War II battle. By the 'inside' of historical events, Collingwood meant the thoughts of the people involved in the event which caused them or motivated them to act as they did before, during and after the event. When I spoke to Clare Dudman about her most recent book,A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, she mentioned something similar when she referred to “hard facts” and “softer facts”.

Collingwood believed that to fully understand the past a historian needed to imagine it. Remember Collingwood wasn’t an historical novelist, he was an historian and so what he’s saying should be of particular interest to all those who think of the past as dry facts. He believed that researches needed to create an image of the past in their heads – isn’t that what ‘imagine’ means essentially? – and to get inside the heads of the people who created the documents they were referring to. The word he uses is an evocative one: re-enact.

I’ve mentioned Clare Dudman a couple of times. Mainly because she’s the only historical novelist I have any real dealings with. The publisher’s website says this about the amount of research that went into her latest book:

To research A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees Dudman travelled across the Patagonian desert in a bus, and then took ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ in the Andes. Along the way she interviewed the descendants of Welsh settlers who came here in 1865. Other research for this novel included intensive courses in Welsh and shamanism.

This didn’t surprise me because I’ve followed her blog for some time and I’m very well aware that she takes her research very seriously; she’s been off to China recently doing research. And yet when I read the book I was surprised how little evidence there was of research. This is not a criticism. Some buildings, I’ve used this illustration before, have all their workings on show, e.g. the Pompidou Centre in Paris, but most don’t. What I know when Clare describes something as simple as a landscape is that she has experienced that landscape, she has walked where her characters have walked – as literal a re-enactment as possible – and she has tried to feel what they might have felt.

The next stage Collingwood talk about is interpolation.

Because the authors of our sources do not tell us everything we need to know, we must interpolate between one statement and another within a document, or between what the author said explicitly in a statement and what was implied, and sometimes we must interpolate between statements made in different documents. Collingwood referred to this process of interpolation as 'constructing history'. Interpolating, or bridging the gaps in what our sources tell us, is an obvious use of the historical imagination.

This means if our character travelled from Glasgow to Edinburgh in the 1960s and owned a car he would have very likely have driven down the M8 for at least part of the journey. But since the motorway only began being constructed in 1965 I would need to check my facts before I committed them to paper. It’s all conjecture anyway. The car may have been in the shop that weekend and they got the train or the coach. It’s not desperately important how they got there but if an author wants to imagine a conversation on the way then a setting is required. And if he happened to mention the Renfrew Bypass which didn’t open until 1968 who would notice . . . or care that much?

The third thing that Collingwood talks about is interrogating the facts. People lie or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they can be mistaken. Official documents can contain inaccuracies. Statements must be corroborated and the biases of the author of the document and the historian must be taken into account. Honesty is a difficult thing. We like to think we’re being honest but very often we have agendas we might not have been aware of ourselves until we began writing. There is also the issue of distance. Contemporary historical narratives – I’m thinking about journalism here – don’t have the time for a considered response. They lack the clarity that comes with the passage of time. There is also the danger that by leaving things too long we lose objectivity to nostalgia.

The hardest thing for any historical novelist though has Clare Dudmanto be creating the voices of the characters, whether that be internal voices or dialogue. In the Author’s Note to Clare’s new book she says that she has only used the “bare bones” of the story and she has not attempted to “base ‘the flesh’ on any accounts” of the people themselves. I wondered why:

I wanted the book to be my invention, much more so than any of the other novels I've written. I wanted to take the circumstances of what happened and feel free to invent how my characters would react. There were very few accounts that I could find of the individuals involved in any case.

Historical fiction often comes in for a fair bit of unfair criticism, as Hilary Mantel recently mentioned in an article in The Guardian on the subject:

The accusation is that authors are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.

The problem with any event is that it can be presented in different lights. They say that history is written by the victors and although that is often the case the stories of the victims often persist and a writer gets an opportunity to write the histories that never got a chance to be written. An historian is supposed to be impartial and dispassionate but a novelist is not an historian. I wondered if Clare thought that there’s a time for proselytising and novels, written primarily as a source of entertainment, are not it:

I think you can't help but proselytise to some extent in a novel because as a novelist you have to represent a character's point of view. The most interesting ones are likely to be quite strident in their viewpoints – so part of the entertainment must come from portraying this. It may not convert anyone, but it might make a reader think again about something that happened. That's certainly been my experience as a reader.

In the same article Mantel says, “The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it.” I’m personally very wary of a statement like that. To my mind the past should be set in stone and there is a danger that the quality of history can be diluted. Let’s take another example from fiction and sherlock-holmes-poster1 pretend it’s fact, the highly entertaining reimagining of Sherlock Holmes which bears little resemblance to the character portrayed by Jeremy Brett in the superlative Granada Television adaptations. To anyone my age who had grown up with them, Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes. Methinks that kids seeing Guy Ritchie’s version may find older adaptations dull at best and the books unreadable. I didn’t feel so strongly about Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes because he wasn’t reinventing the character merely wondering what might have happened had the two protagonists met earlier. Besides this was a work of fiction and anything’s allowed there.

In her book The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction, author Naomi Jacobs has this to say:

The best of the fiction biographies are simply good novels; their effects do not depend upon the readers’ knowledge of the historical characters. Writers create these historical characters on the page exactly as they would create more purely fictional characters.

Too often historical novels are criticised primarily for the accuracy of their research and secondly for the quality of the writing. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind when reading fiction that is based on real events. Its quality should not be solely dependent on its accuracy. In her latest book Clare uses the word “surreal”, not one of my favourite words, but certainly not one a 19th century Welshman would have used since it hadn’t been invented yet. Does this make it a bad book? Nah, she made a slip.

Why is the past important? For many reasons. It’s the record of how we got here. It’s a record of our successes and perhaps even more importantly our mistakes. But is it enough just to remember the past or should we be looking for ways to assimilate it, to pass it on to our children? In a speech on YouTube, Professor Seixas, who I quoted earlier, had this to say about what he refers to as “historical consciousness”:

When we think about historical consciousness it's how we integrate notions of the past into our own everyday thinking, our everyday life as we live in the present for the future. But that notion of historical consciousness is in fact very challenging, precisely for this reason, because it points to a bridge between our own subjective being, our way of knowing, our thoughts, our subjectivity and the world out there and not only the world out there today but the world in the past, that huge inchoate, virtually infinite experience of humanity...

The past is there to be interpreted and reinterpreted. As time goes on and the bigger picture gets wider and wider it’s only to be expected that things which were major new stories in our pasts get overshadowed. Unfortunately all that leaves us are bullet points. And sometimes we need to stop and refocus. I think this is where historical novels have an important part to play because they are a way to rehydrate those dry facts and make them more palatable. Perhaps not the prettiest of metaphors but you know what I mean.

I think attitude has a lot to do with how much one enjoys historical fiction. If you sit there looking for faults you’ll find them and although there’s a kind of enjoyment to be found in nitpicking I’m not sure that’s why most of us read books. We want to be caught away, to be transported, to believe in what we’re reading. I think if any writer can do that they deserve credit.

On Monday I’m going to be reviewing Clare’s new novel A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees. Let me leave you with two videos in which she talks about her research in the UK and in Patagonia for that book.

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