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After The War Was Over

St Margaret's Curch, Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

St Margaret’s Curch (and Canadian Graves) Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

I had always assumed that when the First World War ended the troops quickly returned to their homes and families and began the difficult process of re-building their lives and relationships. That’s certainly the picture you get from TV dramas like “Downton Abbey.” In fact, at the end of the war thousands of troops went straight into demobilisation camps and stayed there for months or even years. They had been promised an immediate return to civilian life, but the rules for demobilisation depended on them being able to prove that they had a job, and they also needed their commanding officer’s agreement  to leave the army. Naturally, the longer a man had served, the less likely they would have a job to return to, and the proof of having a job was mired in a bureaucratic nightmare of form-filling and Ministry of Labour approvals.

The reason for keeping them in the army it seems, was that many senior politicians in the British Government, even in 1919, did not consider that the war was really over. Many wanted to maintain a large standing army. Some wanted to send troops to Russia to fight the Bolshevic Revolution, to Ireland to suppress Nationalism, to the Rhineland as an army of occupation. Others were concerned at growing dissatifaction and unrest in the country and the potential need to suppress any signs of rebellion. So the promises of homes fit for heroes and rapid demobilisation were quickly forgotten.

The demobilisation camps where the troops were kept were not pleasant places. They were over-crowded, poorly supplied and subject to rigorous discipline. No one knew from one day to the next where they might be sent, or when they might be able to return to their families. The men were “kept busy” with meaningless drills and exercises. After years of suffering in the trenches, and watching their friends die, this was what they had come home to. To many it must have felt like prison – scant reward for the sacrifices they had been asked to make.

On January 3rd 1919 rumours were rife among the British troops that men were to be sent back to France. The troops in Folkestone picketed the docks. They were joined by others on their way to France and “Colonial” troops on their way home. 10,000 troops marched through the city supported by the people of Folkestone. At the same time, 4,000 troops demonstrated in Dover and 1500 members of the Army Service Corps seized lorries and drove them into Whitehall. In the next few days there were mutinies in several places including Bristol, Kempton Park, and Aldershot.

On February 8th 1919 three thousand troops who were being sent back to France after returning from leave, refused to board their ships. A few hours later they marched into Whitehall. They were surrounded by a reserve battalion of Grenadiers and two troops of the Household Cavalry with bayonets drawn and machine guns trained on the demonstrators. Fearing a blood-bath the protestors eventually surrendered.

No incident is perhaps more tragic though, than the mutiny at Kinmel Park in North Wales where 14,000 canadian troops were stationed. No monument is more fitting to the way the way the heroes of the First World War were treated, than the graveyard at St Margaret’s Church in Bodelwyddan (pictured above). In that churchyard are the graves of 80  soldiers who died – after the war was over. Altogether 208 Canadian soldiers died in the Kinmel Bay camp. The majority died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, weakened by the cramped and insanitary conditions in the camp, the terrible winter weather and the poor rations they were fed.

Hearing the rumour that ships due to take them home had been re-allocated to the repatriation of American soldiers, proved the final straw and a thousand Canadian troops rioted in the camp. During the suppression of the rebellion five soldiers were killed and 28 wounded – 51 were later brought before a court martial and 27 were convicted and sentenced to terms between 3 months and 10 years.

Four of those who were killed in the Kinmel Park Riots are buried in St Margaret’s churchyard. The inscription on the gravestone of Corporal Joseph Young simply says –

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

It’s years since I first saw the churchyard in North Wales. I was driving to a meeting on a beautiful sunny day and the sight of the rows of white graves, lit by the sun, took me by surprise. The image stayed with me, yet it wasn’t until years later that I began looking online to find out who they were. Many never fought in the War. I don’t know if that makes their deaths any less tragic or heroic. What did emerge from looking into their deaths was the disgraceful way that the troops were treated – not just in the war – but afterwards.

Lest We Forget

“War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.”

These were the words of the Home Secretary, George Cave (Conservative) in introducing the “Representation of the People Act” in 1918. Millions of those who had fought and died during the First World War did not have the right to vote for the government that had sent them to fight – neither did any of the women who had kept the country running for the last four years, while mourning lost loves, husbands, brothers and sons. This Act, at last, gave the vote to all men over the age of 21, though only to women aged over 30.

2014 is the centenary of the beginning of World War I and it is rightfully to be commemorated. Yet we are told by a Government Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove that:-

“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect, at best, an ambiguous attitude to this country  and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage … Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”

I can’t think of anyone who doubts for a moment that these men and women fought, and worked, and died for “king and country,” nor that they demonstrated “patriotism, honour and courage.” Mr. Gove says they were fighting for a “Noble Cause” and that “the conflict has, for many been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer, and Blackadder as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

Yet there is every reason to believe that the ruling “elite” were out-of-touch. We need only to remember the historic context, the words of the Home Secretary (above) – the “freedom” that people had fought for was a freedom they did not enjoy in their own country. The “western liberal order” had seen fit to withhold from them for generations the right to elect their own government. It had resisted at every turn the struggle for what we now take as basic human rights. Every movement, every rebellion, every attempt at uniting to seek universal suffrage, or better living and working conditions had been ruthlessly suppressed by the “western liberal order” in Great Britain – The Luddites, the Chartists, the Suffragettes – all ignored and victimised.

We are so quick to honour the handful of politicians who swam against the tide and helped secure universal suffrage, rights to basic sanitation, education and healthcare; yet we seem to forget that the vast majority of politicians (of all parties) had opposed such progress at every step. We extol those good old “Victorian Values,” and the age of innovation, while forgetting its dependence on the use of child-labour, the disempowerment of women, the terrible slums, and the dangerous working conditions that the majority of people endured for much of the 19th century. We remember the names of those who fought for the abolition of the slave trade, but forget the names of those whose wealth was built upon it, and who were compensated for its loss, or the many who treated their employees, “free” or not, as slaves.

Our democracy is something to be proud of, something to cherish. Many of the rights we may often take for granted are denied to millions around the world. Yet those freedoms were not a gift from enlightened politicians, but were hard-won by generations of “ordinary” people in the face of often bloody resistance from governments they had no part in electing. To my mind it’s that “honour and courage” we should remember – It’s that history we should be proud of. As George Orwell said,

“The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Don’t let the politicians change our history, it’s part of who we are – Lest we forget.

“JAMES CARSE is indicted, for that he, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 2nd day of December1787, in and upon Sarah Hayes , single woman, in the peace of God and our Lord the King, feloniously did make an assault, and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies… did wilfully and maliciously strike and thrust, giving her one mortal wound of the length of eight inches, and of the depth of two inches, of which she instantly died.”

Indictments for murder in the 19th century did not mince their words. They were emotional in tone and  gory in their description of the alleged crime and must have put the defendant at a disadvantage from the outset. The phrases “not having the fear of god,” and “seduced by the instigation of the devil,” were commonly used, perhaps to convey the sense that anyone committing murder cannot be of sound mind or soul? Perhaps in this case though they also serve to emphasise the beginnings of of what was to become a continuing struggle  to understand the mind of a murderer.

Up until 30th November 1787 James Carse had been a sailor on the frigate, “Boreas” having served for four years, mainly in the West Indies, under the captainship of the young Horatio Nelson. When he was signed off he was paid 50 guineas, a considerable amount of money at the time.

On December 2nd 1787, Carse went drinking with a group of friends, in a public house in Wapping called the “Ship in Distress.” Here he met a girl called Mary Mills, a “woman of the town.” Carse shared his drink (three pennyworth of rum and water) with Mary and asked if he could “go home” with her. She agreed and took him back to a room she shared with Sarah Hayes. Carse gave Sarah a shilling for the use of the bed and sent her out with half a crown to fetch him a pot of brandy. She came back with the drink and change of eighteen pence.

Carse and Mary started to get undressed while Sarah smoked a pipe in the chimney corner. Later, at the trial, Mary commented on the strange way Carse rolled his trousers into a bundle, “like a doll” and laid them at his side on the bed. He lay there for a while before sending Sarah out for more drink. She returned with the drink and food for him, insisting that he eat something. Suddenly, Carse jumped out of the bed, wearing only a shirt, and produced a knife. He grabbed Sarah by the throat and shouted “I will, I must, I must, I must” and stabbed the girl.

There was, and is, little doubt as to the guilt of James Carse. He was arrested at the scene, covered in blood and the knife still in his hand. He also later confessed to the murder. Nor is there any doubt as to the sheer brutality of his crime, in killing a woman who had shown him nothing but kindness and who had offered no provocation. Yet there do seem to be some grounds for questioning his soundness of mind. Carse said little in his own defence at the trial, other than, “I was threatened my life at the same time.” When asked who had threatened his life, he said, “This woman, and the woman that I killed.” Pressed further he added, “There were people round the house at the same time.

This hardly amounts to a credible defence, and the proceedings of the Old Bailey do not give an account of the impression he gave, standing in the dock. Yet while James Carse said little in his own defence two factors probably saved his life. His defence barrister was the renowned William Garrow (as depicted recently in the TV series – “Garrow’s Law“) and the witness who spoke up for his character was the Captain Horatio Nelson, not yet an Admiral and the victor of Trafalgar, but even then a respected and commanding presence.

First Garrow produced two witnesses who said that Carse had told them that he was being pursued by a gang of sixteen men who were after his money when he had left his ship; that he had paid them off once, but that they were still after him. They said he seemed obsessed with the idea that people were after his money and would kill him for it. (Hence the importance of Carse’s statement that he believed “There were people round the at the same time.“) Several witnesses also attested that Carse’s character had changed since he had returned from the Indies. (Nowadays he might have been described as suffering from paranoid delusions.) Then Garrow questioned Captain Horatio Nelson.

William Garrow: “Had you an opportunity of knowing the character of this man, as far as humanity and good-nature were concerned?

Horatio Nelson: “Perfectly; …when I heard of this affair, I said, if it is true, he must be insane, for I should as soon suspect myself, and sooner, because I know I am hasty; he is so quiet a man, and never committed a fault during the time I knew him; seamen, I know perfectly, when they come home, the landlords will furnish them with raw liquors; I saw myself thirty or forty people from that ship, that were made as mad as if they were at Bedlam, and did not know what they did: I know, that when seamen are furnished with British spirits, it turns the brain.”

Garrow: “Can you fairly say, that this man, under the pressure of a good deal of liquor, did appear to you to be insane?”

Horatio Nelson: “He was a cooper on board; and at the island of Antigua, I think it was, he was struck with the sun, after which time he appeared melancholy; I have been affected with it; I have been out of my senses; it hurts the brain.”

Garrow: Is he a man, from your knowledge of him, likely to commit a deliberate foul murder?

Horatio Nelson: I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.

After retiring for some time, the jury found Carse guilty of murder, but recommended, “that an enquiry should be made into the state of the man’s mind before execution“. The judge agreed and respited execution pending the Royal prerogative.

As far as I can ascertain Carse was later pardoned on condition that he re-join the navy. Perhaps a combination of William Garrow and Horatio Nelson had saved the life of James Carse, as an 18th century legal system struggled with the definition of sanity and the concept of “being of sound mind”? It also raises questions as to whether “celebrity” played a role in the outcome. Was justice done, perhaps we will never know. What is certain is that a young woman needlessly and innocently lost her life in a particularly brutal way.

The case is also interesting for what it tells us about the skill of Garrow as an investigator, and of the young Nelson and his relationship with those who served under him – the fact that he knew the members of his crew (Carse was not an officer and held a fairly lowly place in the ship’s hierarchy) and that he was was willing to speak out for them even in circumstances such as this.  Nelson’s testimony was also very frank and self-critical – “I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.” 

One other detail of interest from the indictment is the reference to “and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies.” It appears from examining reports of other murder cases in the Old Bailey archives that it was common practice to to record the price of the murder weapon, be it a pistol valued at five shillings or a piece of wood with a value of a penny. This probably has a precedent in law, but perhaps it was a way of commenting on the fragility or cheapness of life?

Further details of this case, as recorded at the time, can be found in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

ludMap

Ever been called a “Luddite?” It’s an insult nowadays, but in the 19th Century they were considered heroes by most of the population. The Luddite Rebellion began in 1811, in Nottingham and gradually spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. They opposed the new machinery which had led to the growth of factory production methods. The cause attracted thousands of followers under the banner of “Luddites” though Ned Ludd, was in fact a mythical invention based on the character of Robin Hood.

The growth of factories  using the new textile and power generation technology took away the need for skilled artisans who worked largely at home. They were rapidly replaced by unskilled workers employed in factories. These textile workers, faced with increasing unemployment, falling wages and hunger, attacked the factories and smashed machines in the vain hope that they could change what was happening, or as history has interpreted it, halt “progress.”

In questioning why the Luddites opposed progress it’s important to consider how that “progress” was affecting people’s lives. The new machines did not require skilled operators. They were easy enough for a child to operate. In fact children from the age of five upwards made up between two thirds and three quarters of the workers in the average textile factory. This naturally increased adult unemployment and depressed wages. The children worked the same 13 hour day (from 6am to 7pm) as the adults, but they were considerably cheaper to employ. While adults might be paid 7 shillings per week, a child under 11 was more likely to be paid 1 shilling, if they were paid at all.

With levels of unemployment as they were, many families were dependent on the money their children earned. But factory work was hard, the hours long, the machinery dangerous and the air thick with tiny fibres and pollutants that got into the lungs. Many parents would not allow their children to work in factories even if it meant “going without.”

Faced with the difficulties of recruiting sufficient cheap child labour the factory owners commonly resorted to buying children from orphanages and workhouses. In some cases they were even paid to take the children who were known as pauper apprentices. The children were made to sign contracts that made them virtually the property of the factory owner. Pauper apprentices were also cheaper to house than adult workers. While it might cost, a £100 to build a cottage for a family, an apprentice house for 100 children could be built for £300.

As the Luddite Rebellion grew, the attacks on factories and the destruction of machinery increased and grew in ferocity. Thousands of machines were destroyed. The Government responded with the “Frame Breaking Act” in February 1812, making the breaking of machines a capital offence which carryied the death penalty. They also deployed twelve thousand troops to the areas where the Luddites were active, to protect the factories and to apprehend offenders.

To add to the problems of the textile workers, in 1811 the wheat harvests failed, driving up the price of bread, the staple diet of the poor. Unable to feed their families, there were food riots in Manchester, Oldham, Ashton, Rochdale, Stockport and Macclesfield in 1812. These people did not have the vote, but they nevertheless petitioned the Government for help. This was the response of the Parliamentary Committee which considered their petition:-

“While the Committee fully acknowledge and most deeply lament the great distress of numbers of persons engaged in the cotton manufacture, they are of opinion that no interference of the legislature with the freedom of trade, or with the perfect liberty of every individual to dispose of his time and of his labour in the way and on the terms which he may judge most conducive to his own interest, can take place without violating general principles of the first importance to the prosperity and happiness of the community, without establishing the most pernicious precedent, or without aggravating, after a very short time, the pressure of the general distress, and imposing obstacles against that distress ever being removed.”

In other words the Government refused to intervene, preferring to do nothing, adopting a “laissez-faire” approach, or in modern parlance opting to – “Let the Market decide.”

The Luddite Rebellion as an organised movement was largely over by 1813, but in 1816 (again following a bad harvest and increase in bread prices) the Luddites attacked Heathcote and Boden’s mill in Loughborough. They smashed 53 weaving frames which had cost £6,000. Troops eventually quelled the riot and arrested some of the rioters. For their crimes, six men were executed and another three were transported.

Some historians believe that the Luddite Rebellion was the closest Britain had come to a full scale revolution since the Civil War in 1642, yet it achieved very little, if anything,  in terms of change. It was not until 1833 that the government passed the “Factory Act” prohibiting children under 9 from working. The use of child labour became commonplace in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.  It took until 1888 for Parliament to pass the “Factory and Workshops Act” preventing children under 10 from working.

The Luddites  are now predominantly remembered as “technophobes” and opponents of progress. The word “Luddite” is commonly used as a term of abuse. But before judging the Luddites it’s worth remembering that thousands of men and women were willing to risk their lives for the Luddite cause and that the “progress” they opposed, adversely affected their lives and the lives of their children, and their children’s children. Surely it is the way that technological advancement is implemented that determines whether or not it represents progress?

Perhaps what being a Luddite was really about is best summed up by the journalist, William Cobbett, who wrote at the time:-  

“Society ought not to exist, if not for the benefit of the whole. It is and must be against the law of nature, if it exists for the benefit of the few and for the misery of the many. I say, then, distinctly, that a society, in which the common labourer . . . cannot secure a sufficiency of food and raiment, is a society which ought not to exist; a society contrary to the law of nature; a society whose compact is dissolved.”

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” opens with the sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is one of the best written and best known opening lines of any novel. It is also one of the best examples of “comic irony” because, as Austen makes clear throughout the novel, it is primarily the women (or more particularly their mothers) who are desperately in search of a rich single man as husband-material.

Historically Bath was undoubtedly one of the most favoured locations for such match-making, both in fact and in fiction. Though the city is relatively small today, it had grown faster than almost any other in Britain during the 17 th Century.  In 1801, when Jane moved to the city it was the ninth largest conurbation in England with a population of 35,000. Its spa facilities and entertainments were renowned throughout Europe and visitors flocked to the city for “The Season” (roughly from the beginning of May to mid-September). This was the ideal time for husband-hunting.

There were balls and gatherings, concerts and card games in the Upper and Lower Assembly Rooms. Each day people met in The Pump Rooms (see Rowlanson’s image above – Wikimedia) to see who was newly arrived in the city, to make introductions (and to be introduced) and perhaps most importantly to exchange gossip, and arrange social events. The theatre too, was well attended with a continually changing programme of popular contemporary productions, drawing some of the finest actors and performers of the age.

People also entertained at home, and yet one of the most favoured social events (weather permitting) was simply “promenading” in the popular shopping areas like Milsom Street, or the many purpose-built, Parades and Parks, like Jane’s favourite, Sydney Gardens. These were the places to see and be seen, the places where accidental meetings might be expected, or could be contrived. As Catherine Morland remarks in “Northanger Abbey”

a fine Sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants, and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is.

It would be easy to be swept away by images of “beautiful people” in a social whirl of high society events, set against a back-drop of some of the finest Georgian architecture in the world. Indeed that is the world that Jane Austen seems to present in her novels, yet that was not the whole truth, at least for Jane. The notorious British weather certainly often made promenading, or even attending events or visiting friends, difficult. As Jane said in a letter to her sister, Cassandra,

“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

 It must also be remembered that Jane lived in Bath continuously (throughout the years) from 1801 to 1805, and the city was a very different place, out of Season. Being primarily a Spa, many of the resident population of Bath were of retirement age and not always in the best of health. As for eligible young men, only 39% of Bath’s population were male in 1801, and it is safe to assume that relatively few of these were eligible, and that even fewer were young. As Sir Walter Elliot observes in “Persuasion” –

“There certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced.”

Many of the eligible young men were of course in the army or navy and away fighting the Napoleonic Wars for much of the time that Jane was living in Bath. And while officers in the services were expected to be at least literate, they came from vary varied educational and social backgrounds. Contrary to popular opinion, although an officer was supposed also to be a “gentleman”, this usually referred to an expectation rather than a predisposition. And often officers fell short of those expectations, which perhaps accounts for Jane’s portrayal of characters like George Wickham, the ne’er-do-well seducer in “Pride and Prejudice.

I’m sure there were lots of George Wickhams in Bath. It was, and still is, the perfect setting for a novel. It was a place where, given enough money or access to credit, all the trappings of wealth and position could be rented or hired or borrowed for The Season, and where people were often not who they appeared to be. As Jane observed in “Persuasion

“Sir Walter had at first thought more of London; but Mr Shepherd felt that he could not be trusted in London, and had been skillful enough to dissuade him from it, and make Bath preferred. It was a much safer place for a gentleman in his predicament: he might there be important at comparatively little expense.”

Very few of Jane’s letters survive from her time in Bath and some say that she wrote very little while she was there. Yet it’s well known that Jane was a consummate editor; writing and re-writing, polishing and refining her work until she was satisfied it was good enough. She may well have been working on drafts of her later novels even then. She was certainly observing and remembering what she saw.

We do know that Jane wrote the beginning of her unfinished novel, “The Watsons” while in Bath. Some say it remained unfinished because it was a time of upheaval in her life (with the death of her father). Others believe it so clearly mirrored her own experience (particularly the financial precariousness of the family) at the time that she found it too painful to continue. And perhaps the chapters that she did complete lack some of the refinement and polish of her later novels, yet I find them very poignant and touching. I can’t help thinking that someone of Jane’s intelligence and sensitivity must at times have been hurt by a Society where people were judged so much in terms of title, wealth and appearance; as opposed to their true nature and accomplishments.

In my novel, “AVON STREET” I have tried to explore aspects of the City of Bath that lay hidden and forgotten behind its romantic Georgian image. Jane Austen recognised that all was not always as it seemed in the City. Perhaps it’s little wonder then that she makes such good use of comic irony.

This piece was kindly hosted on the Jane Austen’s World blog on May 11th 2013.

Bridges Across Time

"A View of Pulteney Bridge" by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery  (Bath) Collection

“A View of Pulteney Bridge” by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Any author owes a big debt to their readers. Not just because they’ve chosen their book amongst so many others, but because they have spent time reading it. There are so many competing forms of more “instant” entertainment now, and time is precious.  The cover and blurb and opening page may be what initially appeals, but a writer has to earn their readers’  time by creating characters that they will care about and by devising a plot that will make them want to keep turning the pages.

But the historical novel, perhaps like science fiction, demands something more. It requires the reader to suspend their disbelief, to ignore everything around them, and to imagine that they are living in another place, another time. For a writer that’s where the research comes in. A writer has to understand what life was like in another time – fashions, transport, medicine, work, education, politics, crime and a host of other things. But as a novelist they also have to ensure that they include just the right amount of historical detail in the novel – Too little and it doesn’t feel real – Too much and it becomes a history lecture. It’s a difficult balance, particularly as reader-tastes differ.

What I love about historical novels is that they can help us challenge perceptions of the past, to better understand the lives of “ordinary” people and what it might have been like to have lived in another time. History often, seems to emphasise how different people were to us in the past, as in the famous opening line from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, “The Go Between”

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Yet it’s a poor traveller who visits a foreign country and has no interest in their culture. In historical novels you have to acknowledge those differences of culture, science, technology, education, religion, economics and all the other external influences that make us different. But while those “differences” cannot be ignored, neither should they be allowed to make caricatures out of characters. The author needs to make the culture of the past understandable and believable if the reader is to engage with it in their imagination.

The Victorian era particularly appeals to me because we know so much about it and because, perhaps more than any other era it mirrors our modern world. It was an era of great change and the first age of consumerism. The Industrial Revolution was in some ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. And it was the age of popular novels, which allow us, perhaps for the first time a real glimpse into the lives of “ordinary” people.

Perhaps more importantly the Victorian Era was the time when the struggle really began for democracy and basic human rights. Universal suffrage, equality under the law, safe working conditions, decent housing, education , basic sanitation and clean drinking water were not granted through the benevolence of governments – each was fought for over many years and usually stubbornly resisted by the powers to be. It is a struggle which is just beginning in many parts of the world as the process of  industrialision takes hold. It is a struggle which never seems to end. These things which many now take for granted, shape who we are, yet they were each fought for by people who we sometimes imagine to be very different to ourselves. It’s perhaps strange to think that the very changes they fought for and brought about now make them seem so very different to us.

My novel, “Avon Street” is set in Bath in 1850.  It’s a city whose image is defined even today by the novels of Jane Austen, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was to challenge (much as I love Austen’s writing) the romanticisation of the past.  I wanted to explore the darker side of the city that Jane Austen only ever hinted at – to go behind the Georgian facades – to show the streets of a city, where wealth and elegance were never far from poverty and squalor. To me, history is like a detective story. We have to sweep aside the images and pre-conceptions to truly understand the people of the past. And perhaps then we can better understand this foreign country, that we all came from.

(This piece is based on a post originally written for, and kindly hosted by Carol Hedges on her blog  on 5th April 2013.)

Bookshops – Who needs ‘em?

According to retailing and publishing experts and the Media, it seems that the future of the high street bookshop is at best uncertain. They say that bookshops can’t compete with internet retailers who offer cheaper prices and greater choice. I don’t know enough to argue with them, and nor can I claim to write on behalf of readers and authors as a whole, but I can give a personal perspective on the issue, for what it’s worth.

As a reader I would miss bookshops.  I’m not a great fan of shopping, but bookshops are one place I’m happy to be. I love the smell and feel of books. I enjoy exploring new titles and genres that I might not otherwise have considered – and you can’t do that in the same way with virtual books.

Discovering a new book should be an enjoyable experience in its own right, yet sometimes all the choice that the internet provides  seems to make choosing books, more like hard work. The better bookshops remind me how it felt, as a child, armed with a book-token or some cash, and the excitement of choosing from all those books. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as hypocritical as most and often buy books and ebooks on the internet, but I do try to follow the mantra – If I actively browse and find what I like in a bookshop – I buy it in that bookshop.

But it’s as a writer, that bookshops mean so much more to me.  As a relatively new author I know how difficult it is to get a book noticed and to reach readers. Hundreds of thousands of new books are published every year. In a presentation at the Digital Book World conference in New York on 25th January 2012, the author and “futurist” David Houle, said,

“There were more books published this week than there were in all of 1950,”

And that’s without all the classics and the bestsellers of past years, and the back-catalogues of well known writers still in circulation and popular. It’s hard for unknown writers to compete with the Big Names. Most new writers will never be reviewed in national newspapers or magazines. Most publishers have limited promotional budgets for new writers. So the unknown writer increasingly has to self-promote to find readers and hopefully generate word of mouth. And every new writer is in the same boat, trying to get their book known in a crowded marketplace, trying to use the social media to promote. (One tip here for new writers – If you want an online presence that makes a difference – start building it long before your book comes out!)

The Internet is wonderful though.

This week I watched a couple of sessions from the “Author (R)evolution Day” conference streamed live from thousands of miles away in New York. One talk in particular impressed me. It was a joint presentation by Eve Bridburg (founder and director of the “Grub Street” writers centre) and publishing industry guru, Porter Anderson. They presented a scatter diagram with some of the many ways an author could promote themselves and their book. The sheer number of avenues for promotion was staggering. Some were familiar to me, others I had heard of, but didn’t fully understand or didn’t have the necessary expertise to exploit, some I had never even come across. The promotional band-waggon moves at one hell of a speed and is constantly changing. Facebook, twitter, blogs and websites are really only the tip of the promotional iceberg, and that’s without thinking about methods of generating or manipulating on-line traffic. Some have used them extremely effectively, but the vast majority (like me) I suspect have barely scratched the surface.

It was what Eve Bridburg said in conclusion though, that really made me think. It was like a moment of calm in a blizzard of concepts, initiatives and innovations. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but this is what I took away from what she said in terms of self-promotion:-

  • Don’t feel you have to do it all – it’s not even possible nowadays.
  • Set goals, but do what makes you feel happy.
  • Strive for balance between writing and promotion.
  • Manage your expectations and don’t get sucked in by the hype.
  • Be honest with yourself about what you want to achieve, and what is achievable.
  • Never lose touch with what it is you enjoy about writing,
  • Remember why you started writing, and what your goals were then.
  • Decide what really matters in your writing, and who you want to reach.

And

  • Celebrate the achievements that have really meant something to you.

My book, “Avon Street” was one year old this month. The book is set in Bath and my publisher (The Mystery Press) recommended right at the start that I should call into the main Bath bookshops and introduce myself.

It was good advice, though I was nervous initially about strolling in and introducing myself. My first visit was to The Oldfield Park Bookshop. They did not have my book in stock, but said that they would order it. They also made me feel welcome, boosted my confidence and gave me the encouragement to try other bookshops.  Toppings bookshop was also welcoming, as was Mr B’s Emporium. Toppings had copies of the book which they asked me to sign (a strange feeling) and they also took the couple of posters I offered them. Waterstones were less welcoming, saying (probably quite rightly) that I should have made an appointment to see the relevant person.

Celebrating three achievements that have really meant something to me.

  1. I was amazed when, later that same day, I walked past Toppings bookshop again. There in the front window were copies of “Avon Street” complete with posters. In a couple of hours they had built a window display for a local, unknown writer.
  2. A few months later, in the summer, I walked into Waterstones and “Avon Street” had a glowing staff review card under it. It was displayed cover-outwards and was included in their “Buy Two – Get Second half-price” promotion. Again, a largely unknown writer was sitting beside national bestsellers and household names.
  3. Just before Christmas, my daughter texted me to say, ‘Hey dad, I’m in Oldfield Park Bookshop and your book is in the Top Thirty.’ –   I can’t claim “Avon Street” is a national bestseller – but in Oldfield Park it was – and that felt good.

And OK, most bookshops in Britain won’t even have heard of “Avon Street” let alone stock it. But looking back on the year, these are the 3 achievements that have given me the most joy – and they all came from high street bookshops. I’d just like to say a big thank you to all the bookshops in Bath, including the ones I haven’t mentioned. You’ve all helped and encouraged. And to all the other bookshops wherever you may be – Keep up the good fight.

So, Bookshops

Who needs ‘em? 

Writers do!  

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