Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Three Ms

May, Merkel, Mugabe - three very different leaders in three different circumstances, yet sharing something more than an initial letter - determination to cling to power. The African dictator will only be dragged from office kicking and screaming. The German chancellor favours a fresh appeal to the electorate in the hope of retaining her position. The British prime minister, having tried that tactic once, with disastrous results, will certainly not do so again, and so staggers on.


Can anything be done to ensure the institution and maintenance of responsible and effective government, working exclusively pro bono publice, or, in this world of frail human beings, is that too much to ask? Tyrants can only be removed by force - sometimes by popular uprising but more often by the military. In democracies the situation is more complex. Governments are sustained or changed by a system of checks and balances which, theoretically, ensure that the will of the majority population is upheld. But no system is perfect and those elected into power can and do manipulate it to their advantage.

There could scarcely be a better example of that truth than the current British situation. A ruling party, riven by divisions, headed by a cabinet of politicians, noted more for ambition than integrity, is only sustained in office by a league with a minority N. Ireland party that cannot even govern its own province. This would be an unhealthy state of affairs in normal times but when our leaders are charged  with international negotiations that will affect for years to come our economic wellbeing and our standing in the world, where Middle East tensions are sending shock waves of migrants to the West, when computer technology provides new resources for terrorists, when the USA, by electing an intellectually-challenged incompetent, has abdicated any claim to free-world leadership - well, then, it is nothing short of disastrous.

What can we do about it? Bugger all! We have given our power to our current leaders and we cannot take it back until they say so. Let us pray it will not be too late. In 1653, the then British parliament was obsessed with its own importance and interminable debates. It agreed in principle to its dissolution but, when push came to shove, it could not bring itself to abandon power. Then it was that a certain Oliver Cromwell stood up and challenged the members: 'You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!'

Ah well ...

* * * * *

Monday, 23 October 2017

95 THESES - So What?

One of the multitudinous uses to which people put the internet is to remind us of significant anniversaries - births, deaths, battles, treaties, etc., etc. Fine - but that word 'significant' does need unpacking. It might reflect the passion of the person who posts it. So, for example, someone emotionally engaged with the tragic life of Anne Boleyn might want to flag up 19 May every year so that we don't forget her death. Someone else - a devotee of Richard III or the Tudor regime - might want us to reflect on 22 August, when (in 1485) the Battle of Bosworth change England's royal dynasty. A campaigner for press freedom might want us never to forget that 1 January marks the birth of The Times newspaper (1785). We can all use dates as pegs on which to hang our own pet historical subjects. What no serious history buff would do, I hope, is to claim that all the anniversaries we mark are equally significant. One factor that influences our assessment of significance is the extent to which the events we choose to mark in the calendar resonate with our own contemporary culture. One anniversary almost upon us is Reformation 500. On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther openly declared his opposition to certain doctrines held by the Roman Catholic church. Well, how yawn-provoking is that? Who nowadays, in our secular age, cares a jot about Luther's protest against indulgences - assuming that he/she even knows what indulgences were?

Well, my argument for remembering 31 October 1517 arises immediately from that last sentence: the very fact that we are free to believe or not believe derives directly from Luther's challenge. Or to be more precise it stems from his identifying of a scepticism that was widespread but which no-one else had the courage (or effrontery) to express. Europe, in both its political and religious aspects, was government by autocrats working through hierarchies of power. In practical, everyday terms there was little difference between the rulers of church and state. The pope through his supporting cast of cardinals, bishops and abbots laid down Christendom's moral and theological rules and maintained ecclesiastical courts to enforce them. The Holy Roman Emperor and Europe's kings, princes and nobles controlled the civic lives of their subjects. By and large, it paid for the spiritual and temporal authorities to work in tandem. Cardinals' hats were distributed to members of prominent families. Kings negotiated such issues as the right to appoint bishops. All men in positions of authority shared a common fear - rebellion. 

When established powerful elites maintain themselves by controlling people's minds and crushing dissidents, they can get away with it for so long. In the late medieval period the Catholic machine dealt pretty effectively with Waldensians, Hussites, Wycliffites and other heretical groups who presumed to challenge official doctrine. Ordinary folk tempted to question the Church's lexis or praxis were held in check, not only by the temporal power of the papal hierarchy, but by its spiritual authority: step out of line and you would pay, in the next world, a horrible price for your presumption. But, ultimately, totalitarian regimes collapse under the weight of their own inconsistencies.

In Rome corruption had become an art form. The man wearing the shoes of the fisherman presided over a regime marked by territorial ambition and the pursuit of power and wealth, which employed intrigue, simony, nepotism, bribery, war and murder as its modi operandi. But you didn't have to go to Italy to be aware of the mismatch between the message of the Christian gospel and the lives of many who were supposed to represent it. The forthright Yorkshire shearman who asserted that he would not confess to a priest his seduction of a fair woman, 'for the priest would be as ready within two or three days to use her in the same manner', struck a common chord with many. Scepticism and cynicism were rife at all levels of society by the turn of the 16th century, from the outspoken villager, to the writers of such exposés as The Ship of Fools (Sebastian Brant) and In Praise of Folly (Desiderius Erasmus), to genuinely concerned churchmen like John Colet, Dean of St Paul's, who castigated his fellow clergy for being 'drowned in the delights of this world'. Yet, few men dared to challenge the pope and his minions as long as they were believed to hold the keys of heaven and hell.

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther proclaimed, 'They don't'. His 95 Theses yanked the rug from under Catholic penitential ritual. He exposed the system of 'indulgences' for the money-making fraud that it was. Gullible people, he pointed out, could not improve their chances of reaching heaven by buying certificates offering reduction of the time their souls must spend in purgatory. What God had on offer, he declared, was free forgiveness to those who expressed their love for him by real repentance - i.e. a change of heart. He was soon backing this up with a new German translation of the Bible. Within a decade other vernacular versions of the Christian basic text were available all over Europe. Now people could read for themselves what the Church had on offer and decide whether or not to buy into it.

If freedom of choice in such a vital matter as eternal destiny was available, why might not such liberty be exercised in relation to lesser decisions in the mere here-and-now? The door was open, admittedly only ajar but open nevertheless, for the exercise of freedom in other areas of life - politics, social relationships, art, literature, morality. Martin Luther didn't invent individualism but, on 31 October 1517 it may be said to have come of age. That's why, whether we are 'religious' or not, this date is worth celebrating.
* * * * *

Sunday, 1 October 2017

BREAKING the SEXIST CHAIN

       If God has given grace to some good women, revealing to them by his
      holy scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write?
                                                                      -  Marie Dentière

It would be difficult to overemphasize the transformative impact of the Bible on sixteenth century European society and, in particular, on the place of women in that society. Invention became the mother of necessity. The movable-type printing press was a conveyor belt rolling out books by the wagon load. Books made reading, once a skill learned by the privileged few, available to the many. Demand encouraged the development of standardised vernacular languages. Men could see in print the words they were accustomed to speaking. It seemed like magic. But even more wondrous were the worlds now opened up to the imagination - romantic legends, tales of chivalry, chronicles, theological treatises, descriptions of newly-visited lands, bestiaries, almanacs, guides to practical husbandry, but, above all, the Bible. Incidents and personalities that had hitherto only been available to most people through occasional sermons, the visits of strolling players and the polychromed images in paint or glass in their churches now became parts of a connected and magnificent narrative - a world-changing narrative. One of the challenges the Bible presented was that of reconsidering the position of women in society. As newly-educated wives and mothers explored the Church's foundation document for themselves they encountered Ruth and Esther and Mary Magdalene. They discovered the important roles played in the Gospel story by members of their own sex. They read the words of St Paul: 'There is now neither male nor female but all are one in Christ Jesus.' And they questioned why a male-dominated hierarchy had kept this information from them. Some of them flouted convention by taking on new roles. I'll be telling the stories of some of these pioneers in the next few posts.

1.  The Writers

                            Fools that we are! to fear the civil law,
                           Popes and kings and city councils,
                           Torture, gibbets and prison fetters.
                           Through such fear we really commit treason.
                           Let us raise our eyes to our (divine) election.
                           We will no longer fear the condemnation
                           That man can pronounce against us ...
                           Believing that man has no power
                           Save that which is allotted him by (God's) will.

This is one of many poems to come from one of the most original minds of the sixteenth century. It's remarkable for several reasons. It was written by a queen. It expressed opinions officially condemned as heretical. And it was published. That last point is the most mould-breaking of all. Women did not presume to have books printed and circulated in their own name. They lacked the wisdom, the scholarship, the imagination for their works to appear beside men's on the bookstalls - everyone knew that. Well, not quite everyone. Certainly not Margaret of Angoulême (1492-1549), sister to Francis I of France and wife to Henry II of Navarre. She presided over the most cultured salon in Renaissance Europe north of the Alps. She gathered around her several of the finest writers and thinkers of the day including François Rabelais, the poet Clément Marot and the Bible translator Jacques Lefêvre d’Étaples. Margaret's own literary output was varied. As well as numerous poems, she wrote a book of risqué stories in the style of the Decameron and a spiritual autobiography The Mirror of the Sinful Soul. Margaret would not have got away with such audacity if she had not been the sister of one of the most powerful men in Europe.

Her initiative opened the way for other women who believed they had something to share with the world. In England Catherine Parr (1513-1548), sixth wife of Henry VIII, not renowned for allowing his womenfolk a meaningful degree of independence, read Margaret's moving apologia and ventured into print herself.  Her published works were the first by an English woman writing under her own name. She wrote psalm commentaries and collections of prayers before she, too, issued a personal confessional - Lamentations of a Sinner

It would be an exaggeration to say that these royal ladies opened the floodgates for female literary endeavour but they certainly encouraged other pioneers. The contemporary Italian noblewoman, and friend of Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547) did not hesitate to lambaste male leaders of church and state in her poems:

                  When the breath of God that moves above the tide
                  Fans the embers of my smouldering state
                  And the winds of God begin to dissipate
                  The foetid stench of the church, his bride,
                  Then the swaggering knight prepares to ride.
                  The war begins.

Of more humble origin was Marie Dentière (c.1495-c.1561) who came from humbler origins. Two facts make her of special interest: she enjoyed the patronage of Margaret of Navarre and she was a follower of the teaching of John Calvin, whom we do not normally think of as pro-feminist. Marie ventured fearlessly into the realm of political religious controversy. In pamphlets defending Calvin and his origination of the church in Geneva she argued, en passant, for her right to air her opinions and to claim for this right some impressive forebears: 

            What preacheress has done more than the Samaritan woman, 
            who was not ashamed to present Jesus and his word, confessing
            it openly before the world ... Or is anyone other than Mary 
            Magdalene ...  able to boast of having had the first revelation
            of the great mystery of Jesus' resurrection.

And was it a man or woman, she demanded, who had betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities? Fighting talk.

Next time:                          Women in Power

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

HENRY VIII and the FIRST BREXIT

In 1534 Henry VIII exited England from Europe - that is he severed the nation's links with Western Christendom by declaring that he, and not the pope, was Head of the Church in England. He didn't hold a referendum to consult his subjects' wishes. But that doesn't mean that he didn't care what they thought or that he took no steps to gain popular support. He knew he could count on widespread resentment at the Catholic ecclesiastical bureaucracy, its financial exactions and its interference in the lives of his people right down to parish level. Even so, he and his team of tame academics left nothing to chance. They cobbled together proof texts from any old manuscripts they could find and then put their own gloss on them (the mishmash of truths, half-truths and lies was called the collectanea satis copiosa). They bombarded the literate population with pamphlets and put up charismatic preachers in pulpits all over the land to stir up nationalistic sentiment. They bought the support of many of the nobility and landed gentry with promises of financial reward from the soon-to-be-confiscated lands of the Church. And they pushed their campaign through parliament in a series of statutes that took seven years to complete the divorce process. Yet, after all this effort, the result was a damned close thing. Within months the northern counties rose against Henry's religious policy and put an army of 40,000 in the field, which the king only managed to disperse with false promises and duplicity. When calm was restored over 200 rebels were left hanging from gibbets and church towers. But it was worth it to tell Johnny Foreigner where to get off.

All this was done for the good of the country. Anyone who still thinks that it happened so that Henry VIII could ditch his first wife and marry a younger bit of stuff who had caught his fancy does old Bluff King Hal a great disservice. England needed stable government and that meant a male heir to continue the Tudor dynasty. If, in the process, Henry became the richest king in Christendom, well that was just a bonus. Anyway, he needed the money. His policies had not gone down well with the major continental powers, France and the Holy Roman Empire (egged on, of course, by pestilential popes). That meant that the king had to spend all the lovely lolly from England's biggest ever act of nationalisation, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on extensive coastal fortifications and a large permanent navy.

Still, he had made his point, hadn't he? Thanks to his hard exit from the Catholic fold, England was by the end of his reign, a proud, strong, united independent nation, able to look forward to a bright and prosperous future. Well, perhaps, not quite. One of his own ministers grumbled 'We are at war with France and Scotland, we are at odds with the pope and have no assured friendship with the Emperor ... Our war (Oh yes, I forgot to mention that Henry launched a futile invasion of France which cost many lives and gained nothing) is noisome to our realm and to all our merchants that traffic through the Narrow Seas ... We are in a world where reason and learning prevail not.' He might have added 'and we are stony broke', because Henry had been forced to subject his people to crippling taxation and had promoted hyperinflation by debasing the coinage.

But it was all worth it to establish a united Protestant nation with its own identity. Er ... well, Henry had discovered, much to his surprise, that his subjects wouldn't believe what he told them to believe. Some hankered after the old religion. Some embraced the new. Some even wanted to go further along the Protestant route. From top to bottom the kingdom was bitterly divided. Some say Henry lamented the state of the nation to parliament with tears in his eyes. Perhaps some well-chosen executions of prominent Catholics and Protestants would make the king's subjects realise what side their bread was buttered on. Nope, English men and women began to emigrate to escape persecution.

All this had a long, a very long aftermath. Edward VI pushed Reformation further. Results: trashed churches, popular rebellions, and top men jostling for power, more executions, Catholics fleeing abroad. Mary Tudor tried to put the clock back. Results: just under 300 Protestants burned at the stake, many Protestants emigrating, Henry's laws revoked, England tied into an unpopular Spanish alliance. Elizabeth I attempted a settlement. Results: many Catholics executed as traitors, many more continuing to worship in secret, England dragged into war with Spain, severe laws against Catholics. So it went on in this hopelessly divided kingdom. A hundred years after Henry activated his exit strategy England was embroiled in civil war.

Still it all turned out alright in the end, didn't it? We eventually came together as one united, happy nation when Catholics were restored to full citizenship once more...in 1829. 

How comforting it is to know that history doesn't repeat itself.
_____ 



Monday, 7 August 2017

H. TUDOR, D. TRUMP, EGOTISM and TYRANNY

I've been asked surprisingly often whether I think Donald Trump is some kind of re-incarnation of Henry VIII. My first reaction is that it's absurd to set the Trump mouse alongside the Tudor lion. My second reaction is that I'm no psychoanalyst, nor do I set much store by psycho-history. However, the nature of tyranny and the rise and fall of despots are certainly subjects grist to the historian's mill. So it may be worth considering whether the antics of the current U.S. president throw any light on those of the 16th century English king, and vice versa.

What 'every schoolboy knows' about Henry VIII is that he had six wives and disposed shamefully of four of them. Trump is only on his third at the moment. There are many reasons for failed sexual relationships but self-love is certainly one of the basics. Henry flaunted his masculinity - in the tiltyard, the tennis court and various displays of athletic prowess. He believed (or, at least, liked others to  believe) that he was no end of a stud. What other message was being conveyed by the best-known painted image of the king, with its thrusting codpiece? Women existed, first and foremost, for his pleasure. Although there was a dynastic purpose behind his marriages, his choices of bride were always based on sex appeal rather than policy. The French king sourly compared Henry to a coper at a horse fair who expected eligible princesses to be paraded before him for his appraisal. Only once, as far as we are aware, did Henry fall in love. His passion for Anne Boleyn is revealed in the oft-quoted love letters he wrote to her. Love involves vulnerability and also seeking the pleasure of the beloved above one's own. That's why egotists are bad at it. There is some evidence that the king was no great performer in bed. One reason for Anne Boleyn's fall was her ill-judged private mockery of her husband's sexual prowess. Trump has made no secret of his attitude towards women. His public references to them have gone beyond adolescent, laddish boasting. If we are to take him at his word, it would seem that sexual relationships exist to provide him with pleasure and boosts to his own self-esteem. Is he, too, a poor lover? I haven't the faintest idea but, as I have suggested, many egotists are.

Henry's ruthlessness extended to his ministers. Few monarchs have been served by more faithful and talented advisers. Wolsey, More and Cromwell were all remarkably accomplished and their service to the regime is beyond question but they were thrown aside when their royal master thought they had exceeded their usefulness. Loyalty, in Henry's book, was a one-way street. As well as being bad for the development and implementation of consistent policy, this encouraged political in-fighting among rival councilors. It was enough to cast doubt on the reliability of a trusted adviser for the king to remove his support. Then, the victim was doomed. In this department of Machiavellian politics Henry does seem to be outclassed by Mr President, who. I guess, learned stony ingratitude running the family firm. Trusted aids go in and out like yo-yos. The atmosphere in the court of King Donald must be toxic. An egotistical ruler needs fall-guys. It is inconceivable to any self-obsessed despot that he can be wrong. So, when policies come unstuck it has to be someone else's fault. When Henry passed the buck to his aides they they did not dare protest (it was, perhaps, a small price to pay for the considerable perks of high office).

What the despotic Tudor king got away with is quite eye-widening. Few opponents were brave enough to stand up to him and most of those who did payed a high price for their presumption. The 'bare ruined choirs' across the land and the full diaries of public executioners are testimony to the king's methods of dealing with opposition. The only individuals who consistently held up his record to scrutiny were men like Tyndale and Pole and they operated from the safety of foreign bases (not all that safe, in point of fact: Henry sent assassins after Pole and was complicit in Tyndale's arrest in Antwerp). Yet, even Henry's bravado had to face one serious challenge: though he was victorious over the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-7, the outcome could have been different. He won by a mixture of force and duplicity. Bodies hanging from church towers across the North were dramatic proof of his defiance. Capital punishment is not a weapon in Trump's armoury (much to his regret?). He has to fall back on a poor substitute - character assassination. Senators, representatives, and most of the UK and foreign news media are branded as stupid, malicious, un-American liars. They must always be wrong because Trump must always be right. Presidential inerrancy seems to be the key doctrine in Trump's creed.

His main way of imposing it on the nation is by showmanship. And here there is certainly a close comparison to be drawn with the second Tudor. Henry was a born performer. He spent hugely on court entertainments and public spectacles. The costly diplomatic farce of the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) was only the most OTT example of the king's spare-no-expense-to-impress strategy. And in every single display Henry had to be the centre of attention (He was furious when Francis I beat him in a wrestling bout in 1520). Trump, too, lives for the limelight and cannot bear to be upstaged. He only appears in public at carefully-prepared rallies where he is supported by crowds of cheering fans.

However, mass sycophancy by itself is no guarantee that a ruler can cling to power. The king understood the need for a wide support base. It's not immediately obvious that Henry cared about what his people thought. He did - not because he was remotely interested in their wellbeing but because it made sense to keep his finger on the common pulse. So, he relied heavily on propaganda. Having taken on the power of the Church, he needed to sell his policy to the political class and even to the public at large. This he did through a campaign of proclamations, sermons, books, pamphlets and the managing of parliament, backed by an effective campaign of censorship. I can imagine Trump drooling over Henry's manipulation of the media or control of the political machine. Even with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress he can't impose his will. This, I assume, lies behind his assuming the role of one-man publicity machine, using Twitter to go over the heads of the politicians and the pundits and telling the people what he thinks they want to hear. These bite-sized statements are the equivalent of Tudor royal proclamations, with the added advantage that they don't need to be explained or justified. The principle seems to be that if you say something, however outrageous, often enough and loud enough people will believe you. Well, bombast and showmanship worked for Henry Tudor for 37 years but the political class took over as soon as he was gone. His failure to establish a dynastic autocracy was partly due to bad luck (being succeeded by an under-age son and two daughters). Today it is the checks and balances of political systems that prevent tyrants and their offspring turning democratic nations into personal fiefdoms. The American people may not like the the political establishment but at least they have the power to change it periodically.

Henry VIII inherited a considerable fortune, spent every penny of on his grandiose designs and left his country shattered, broke, overtaxed, at war and bitterly divided. Why? In his early days he may have been dazzled by stories of King Arthur and Henry V. He may have dreamed of 'making England great again'. But towards the end he was driven by what can only be described as egomania. Is Trump in the same category? Your answer will depend on how you judge his motivation. Does he love his country or himself? Is he there to serve his people with a raft of well-considered, carefully-costed policies aimed at nothing but their wellbeing or does he simply tap into populist prejudice? Are his 'privy chamber' staff men who have the capacity and the commitment to cope patiently and constructively with America's internal and external challenges or are they yes-men? Is he a shrewd politician or does he believe his own rhetoric? Egotists are so wrapped up in themselves that it's difficult to determine exactly what they do think, and why. After 500 years we're still trying to understand Henry VIII. Perhaps Trump's behaviour will give us some clues.
* * * * *

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

REFORMATION 500

On an October day in 1517 an obscure 33 year-old friar in an obscure German town pinned up a public notice. The world hasn't been the same since. Martin Luther's famous 95 Theses were not a programme for violent revolution - simply an invitation to fellow academics to discuss some aspects of church practice that Luther questioned. How, then, did this end up rending the seamless robe of Western Christendom and plunging Europe into devastating wars of religion that lasted 130 years? The Reformation was a bubbling cauldron of political rivalries, social discontent and intellectual conflict. The eastern border was menaced by a resurgent Ottoman Empire, under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent. The houses of Habsburg and Valois were locked in a war for the control of Europe. Communities were devastated by sweating sickness and syphilis, diseases hitherto unknown. State rulers were rethinking their relationship with the pope and questioning the nature of his jurisdiction. The opening up of long distance sea routes to East and West brought exciting new commercial possibilities but it also gave rise to a sense of unquiet, as people realised that the world was not the place they had always supposed it to be. Academics were asking new questions, exchanging their hypothetical answers via the revolutionising medium of the printed word. Everywhere there was a miasma of anxiety, a suspicion that old certainties would no longer serve. Among the more popular books of the period were works of satire, scepticism and humorous jibes directed at the clergy who, it was widely believed, did not measure up to the ethical standards they promoted in their sermons (e.g. The Ship of Fools, The Decameron, In Praise of Folly, etc.). Change disturbed people to such an extent that they were ready to listen to the prophecies of apocalyptic doom-mongers. Yet, despite all this unease, few were bold enough to challenge the doctrinal basis of the Catholic church. This was the only thing that gave cohesion to sixteenth-century life and to discard it would be to throw away the only belief system which made society work. To support that system (and their own status) church leaders defended with mounting ferocity the ancient truths. They made bonfires of books and men. They extended, wherever possible, their political power. And, then, along came Martin Luther. What he did was aim an arrow at the theological heart whose beating kept alive the febrile body of Latin Christendom. He exposed what he believed to be the intellectual and spiritual inconsistencies of the system. And people all over the continent read his protest. It seemed as though there was a sharp intake of breath across Europe as people came to realise that they did not have to believe what they had always been told to believe; that there was another - and more ancient - kind of Christian truth and that, in embracing it, so many of their questions were answered and their anxieties stilled. This liberating truth empowered the individual. It inspired many to face hardship and even death. It profoundly changed societal relationships - not least those between men and women. It transformed, not only what people did when they went to church. It affected the whole of their lives. In the words of the historian Jacques Barzun
'It fostered new feelings of nationhood. It raised the status of vernacular languages. It changed attitudes towards work, art and human failings ... by emigration to the new world overseas, it brought an extraordinary enlargement of the meaning of the West and the power of its civilization.'
It prepared the ground for the cultivation of democracy. The Reformation sundered church and state. It made possible the evolution of secular society. Yet, paradoxically, its aims were the reverse of this. Far from de-Christianising society, it aimed to provide humanity with a clearer vision of God, one from which the mists of 'false' doctrine had been rolled away.

What that dynamic vision was will be the subject of a conference to be held from 16 to 20 October in the magnificent setting of Lee Abbey, on the North Devon coast. The relaxing yet also stimulating setting of this beautiful place will enable us, through talks and seminars to explore in depth the history of the world-changing events being widely celebrated in this centenary year - Reformation 500. For full details go to leeabbeydevon.org.uk .
_____ 

Monday, 26 June 2017

Z is for ZERO TOLERANCE

If we are proud of our profession we should be intolerant of anything that lowers its standards or brings it into disrepute. Let's list a few things that are in danger of doing that.

(1) Cheapening our glorious written language. Of course, English is a living thing. It grows, evolves and develops to meet our changing needs but that does not mean we should be slipshod in our use of it, as though structure, conventions and rules don't matter. For example, 'crisp' is a perfectly good adjective - sharp, onomatopoeic and meaningful. 'Crispy' is flabby and does not mean the same thing. Attaching the suffix 'y' to a word usually suggests modification - 'yellowy', 'dreamy'. Good King Wenceslaus did not venture forth on a night when the snow was 'deep and crispy and even'. Another sin against good English is throwing away perfectly good words - e.g. 'convince' is not a synonym for 'persuade'. If you persuade someone to do something against his/her better judgement you have not convinced him/her. Perhaps the biggest crime is making a nonsense of grammar in the interests of political correctness. For example, 'Every member of the group must look after their own equipment' - yuk!

(2) Amateurishness. Most professions guard themselves against infiltration by untrained practitioners. Anyone masquerading as a doctor, an engineer or accountant deserves to be exposed and locked up before too much damage has been caused. Today there exists an assumption that anyone can write a book without any sense of vocation as an author or willingness to buckle down to learning the craft.

(3) Manipulation. Language is powerful - and therefore dangerous. The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword. We should, therefore, do everything we can to stop it falling into the wrong hands. There have always been purveyors of social poison. In the past peddlers of such toxic material were largely confined to politicians and journalists who played on racist, sexist, class or nationalistic prejudice for their own ends. Social media has increased this menace to the nth degree but books are not immune to changes akin to hate mail. There is a market, human nature being what it is, for pornography, explicit violence and pseudo-romance (By 'pseudo romance' I mean stories which sugar-coat human emotions and call the result 'love').

(4) Mercenariness. Of course, we all want monetary reward for our endeavours - and quite right, too. That means writing material people will pay to read. But we must resist the temptation to become mere hacks, churning out populist stuff for no better reason than that it will sell. If our output is to have real worth we must believe in it. We should be setting out our stall with honesty and conviction, even if it means offering the public ideas that are unfashionable or unpopular.

We are privileged to be in a position of influence, to affect the lives of others in a multitude of ways. Books have changed the world and continue to do so. But privilege carries responsibilities and one of those responsibilities is self-discipline. That means more than sitting at our desk for hours on end when we'd rather be lounging in the garden or going to the pub. Its about social responsibility and making the world a better place. That is not as ponderous and pretentious as it might appear at first sight. Making readers laugh is as important as making them think. Encouraging others to value themselves is as valid as challenging them to revisit their assumptions. Tapping the well springs of our shared humanity can enlighten people and move them. Truth has many faces and we writers are dealers in truth or we are nothing.

Thank you very much for following these 26 reflections on the writer's craft - if you have. I hope you have picked up a few useful thoughts from among those I've gleaned during fifty years in the bizz.

     'One would never undertake such a thing if one were not
      driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor 
      understand'  
                                               -   George Orwell on writing



Monday, 19 June 2017

Y is for YOU

     If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
     Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
     Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
     'He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'
                                - Thomas Hardy  Afterwards


I would be surprised if, at least sometimes, you do not ponder, as  you write, 'What will the readers make of me? When what Hardy called, "my tremulous stay" in this existence is over will book lovers - perhaps for a few years - go on taking my volumes down from the shelves and think, "He/she really shared our humanity and added something to it"?' We all want to be read, to be appreciated, to be admired. Whether we're pitching an idea to a publisher, sending a MS to an editor or standing in a public forum to defend our work, we want to feel that we have conveyed what we had a burning passion to convey and that readers have, whether or not they share our passion, appreciated our integrity. Or do we?


There is much tied up in that word 'integrity'. Polonius' oft-quoted advice to his son is oft-quoted because it's wise:

          ... to thine own self be true
          And it must follow as the night the day
          Thou cans't not, then, be false to any man.


But we are in the book bizz and there are many temptations to shave bits off our integrity. When we look in the mirror of our latest offering to the world of LIT-ER-A-TURE do we really see ourselves as we are? Or are we confronted by an idealised image? Do we see lurking behind that visage the face of some other writer we admire and try to emulate? Is the mask peering back at us smeared with stylistic cosmetics in order to make it more attractive to our readers? Some while ago I was chatting to a novelist who had centred her latest work on a real historical character whom I have studied. I commented that I did not readily recognise in her work the man I had been researching. Her reply was, 'Nor do I but I've had to turn him into someone modern readers will easily understand.'

Your written work is YOU in words. That doesn't just apply to autobiography or to passionate expression of your convictions. It covers every genre - humour, crime, romance, biography, history, etc, etc, etc.  But the process of writing is an exercise in communication and it is in the act of communicating or translating you into words that distortion can occur. Being true to ourselves means setting down what we genuinely think or believe or feel, not what we'd like readers to think we think or believe or feel - or even what we would like to think we think or believe or feel, if we did not know ourselves better. Whether we are dealing in facts or ideas or character studies, 'truth' has to be the sheep dog constantly nudging us and snapping at our heels when we find ourselves writing what we think our fans will like, or what is currently fashionable or what will sell.

Is that too difficult; a counsel of perfection? Yes - but did anyone ever say professional writing was easy?
_____ 



Saturday, 3 June 2017

X is for X FACTOR

Publishers will tell you that they are always on the lookout for book proposals that are new, fresh, original. Then, when you present them with your new, fresh and original brainchild they tend to response 'Oh, we've never done anything like that before: we don't think it will work.' This is a dilemma that faces many authors - or, at least, many authors worth their salt, for we all ought to be trying to expand literary boundaries. We hope that our latest title has the X factor. But what is the X factor?

Well, we can identify some things that it isn't. 'X factor' is not a synonym for 'best-seller', that grossly-overused expression, which has virtually lost all meaning. An X factor book is not one that does reasonably well at the bookshops. Commercial success may be the result of several different things - the author's celebrity or large fan base; an effective publicity campaign; television exposure; or lucky timing. X factor is not an accolade awarded to a book that addresses an issue that desperately needs addressing (important though such works are). X factor is not a quality recognised by committees that make literary awards. X factor is not a question of longevity, though books which have this rare quality usually stand the test of time. For example, Das Kapital does not have the X factor, while The Road to Wigan Pier does. It's easy to dismiss all these attempts at definition because X factor is, by its very essence, indefinable. It is a quality that makes something very special.

Often this quality makes a book a game changer. I referred above to The Road to Wigan Pier, a work much in our minds in this, its 80th anniversary year. George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) produced a study of the appalling poverty existing in the industrial north of England in the 1930s. It told a terrible story. It shocked its readers. It pricked consciences. It was a depressing read. But it was also beautiful. The poetic descriptions of grimy streets, shoeless children and lives cut short by disease touched people's hearts infinitely more effectively than any socialist rant would have done. Orwell's readers were not just, through his powerful prose, 'observing' urban poverty; they were seeing it, hearing it, smelling it, feeling it.

Of course, an X factor book does not have to be a social exposé. In fact taking the lid off subjects we need to be aware of is probably done better by television and film nowadays. Having said that this faculty is indefinable, it would be foolish of me to attempt to describe it. But I think it's safe to offer one or two qualities that contribute to this elusive intrinsicality. (1) Passion: An X factor book is one that has got to be written, that almost tears itself out of the author's soul. (2) Love: it may be indignant, angry or challenging but it will treat its subject and its readers with affection. (3) Linguistic inevitability: by which I mean that the subject will dictate the style. (4) Painful honesty. It follows that nothing you learn from manuals, creative writing courses - or A-Z blogs - can infuse the X factor into your writing.

Most of us won't possess this strange quality. Those of us who do can't bottle it and pour it out into everything we write. If we produce one volume that has the X factor then we are among the thrice-blessed. Perhaps, if we asked ourselves the question, 'If I had only six months to live what book would I want to write for the benefit of the world?', and if we then sat down to write it, well, we just might pull it off.

PS: Don't try to work out the tweet formula - it's nonsense.
_____ 




Thursday, 25 May 2017

W is for WORDS

                'He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not
                 Be noble to myself'
                                            - Antony and Cleopatra, V, ii, 192-3


In Shakespeare's play the queen has been listening to the empty promises of Caesar. She is not taken in by them and thus expresses her contempt. We are all familiar with the ways politicians play with words, using them to convey lies, half-truths, evasion and misinformation, investing them with emotional overload. We are aware of the slippery use of 'weasel words'. We know what they are doing, though not enough of us, like Cleopatra, call their bluff. It's not only politicians who abuse language. Advertisers study the psychology of words, so that they can select the ones which will evoke favourable responses in those who read or hear them. Academics use 'in' words to impress their peers (e.g. 'metanarative' instead of 'big story'). Writers of instruction manuals for our ever-more-complicated electrical devices seem incapable of writing an English sentence uncluttered with jargon, acronyms and symbols. And as for social media afficianados ... well, I won't go on. The point I want to make is that one of our tasks as writers is to preserve, protect, cherish and glory in that galaxy of glittering objects that provide our bread and butter - words.

Those of us whose natural tongue is English are the privileged guardians of the richest and most expressive written language in the world. We must protect it. From change? No, heaven forfend! Language evolves, and quite rightly so. But it should become richer for change and not poorer. For example, what is happening to the word 'persuade'? It is being barged out of the vocabulary by 'convince'. Now, the two words are not synonymous. You might persuade someone to do something without convincing him/her that it's a good idea. And there's another thing: political correctness has made us so gender sensitive that it is becoming commonplace to abandon grammar altogether. You would not be surprised nowadays to come across such a sentence as: 'Every member of the team has their special responsibility'. Yuk!

How can we buck this appalling debasing of our beloved English? It goes without saying that we should acquire, principally through our reading, as large a vocabulary as we can so that our writing will be as nuanced as possible; so that we can express our meaning with the finest degree of precision. This may not always be appreciated, as I discovered when a reviewer hauled me over the coals for using the word 'fissiparous'. In the context of what I was describing it meant precisely what I was trying to convey (i.e. 'having a tendency to fragment') but it was not a word he was familiar with and he accused me of making it up. Not that I would be offended at being accused of verbal innovation. There's nothing wrong in occasionally, being playful with our language. Shakespeare was a splendid maker-upper of words. In the quote above he takes that very noun 'words' and makes it powerfully a verb. We can almost see the sneer on Cleopatra's lip - 'He words me, girls'. Speaking, I find, can be a real help in finding the right combination of words. if I'm having difficulty with a passage, I say it aloud. Does it flow off the tongue or judder? Is the sentence too long? Is the paragraph overloaded? Do the chosen words convey mood as well as meaning?

We're not jailers of the language but we are guardians. We should be trying to keep its feet on the right path. If we don't, no-one else will. We're not pedagogues, either. We are not here to teach our readers how to write. And yet, in a sense we are. Just as our use of language has been shaped by all the authors we have read, so we are, unconsciously, influencing those who read our books, imparting to them our love of words. At least, I hope so.
_____ 


Friday, 19 May 2017

NEW BOOK OUT 25 MAY

This is to introduce Superstition and Science - Mystics, sceptics, truth-seekers and charlatans, which will be published on 25 May. In this book I try to describe the major developments of Western thought in the three centuries between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in a way that is accessible to the general reader. This is a mammoth subject and it may be that I was audacious to attempt it. However, I believe that there are valid reasons for dissecting this period of intellectual history.

The reason that is the most immediately obvious is that these centuries (c.1450-c.1750) produced some of the more remarkable and fascinating characters in the history of our civilization - people who challenged old certainties, advanced new ideas, plunged deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos than anyone had dared to plunge before, and made discoveries that benefited their own and later generations. They are a varied pantheon of brilliant, often clashing, intellects - Copernicus, Luther, Harvey, Spinoza, Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal, Dee, Locke, Rousseau and many others. Some are household names, familiar to most of us. Others are worthy of being rescued from relative obscurity. But, important as they are, we must not examine them in isolation in order to understand them. We must not locate them in an ivory tower labelled 'History of Thought'. They were of their own time, responding to contemporary events and fashioned by the world in which they lived. For most of the period under review that was a violent world. Political and religious conflict unleashed devastating wars and unspeakable violence which decimated populations but also inspired invention. Some of Leonardo da Vinci's visionary drawings were for war machines. The telescope was first conceived as a tool for military leaders. Improved navigation for fighting ships was an offshoot of star gazers' speculations about the movements of heavenly bodies.

Then, there is still a need to underpin with fact our study of the development of philosophical thought. It is not a single, simple line that can be drawn on a graph which begins in naive ignorance and rises to sophisticated understanding. The book is deliberately called Superstition AND Science, not Superstition TO Science. Human affairs are much too complex for such simplicity. Religion and magic are no more boon companions than science and atheism are inevitable bedfellows. The quest for truth in medieval Europe was, almost exclusively, the preserve of churchmen. They held a monopoly of learning and learning was based on revelation and observation. Revelation consisted of truths enshrined in the Bible, the writings of the great doctors of the Church and the wisdom inherited from the classical world - predominantly from Aristotle. The sine qua non of all intellectual speculation was that 'life, the universe and everything' could only be understood in terms of the interaction of two spheres - nature and supernature. The two momentous events that gave rise to the Renaissance - the invention of movable-type printing, and the influx of ancient Greek and Latin texts following the collapse of Byzantine Christendom - did not change this basic approach to scientia (knowledge). Throughout the period covered in Superstition and Science scholars continued to seek truth in the 'Book of Nature' and the 'Book of God'. By 1750 atheism had scarcely dared to show its face. Most men of science were also men of faith. Thus, Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, in A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of nature (1686) attacked the atheism he associated with libertinism; and Sir Isaac Newton devoted more mental energy to the second coming of Christ than to the theory of gravity. And if we see Galileo's spat with the Vatican as proof that religion and science were incompatible in the 17th century it is because our vision is dimmed by 21st century secularist assumptions.

Speculation about the cosmos and man's relationship to it was not confined to scholars. Magic (black and white), alchemy, herbalism, astrology and folk religion were all facets of the prism that was popular belief and which cast its rainbow of everyday life. Even mathematicians like John Dee and Tycho Brahe were primarily in demand for casting horoscopes. Who could doubt that, just as the seasons for planting and harvesting were determined by the cosmic dance of earth and sun, so in all other human endeavours it was wise to fall in with what was 'written in the stars'. And just as acorns turned into oaks and caterpillars into butterflies why should lead not be transmutable into gold? The Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, was not the only magnate who spent a fortune surrounding himself with 'wise men' who claimed to be able to harness the powers of the spirit world.

Meanwhile, official religion had not remained unaffected by the ambitious speculations of thinking men. Theologians responded to and contributed to the realignment of thought. The Reformation produced devout men and women who pitched individualism against the dictates of Catholic traditionalism, just as the Renaissance produced free-thinkers who challenged political and artistic conventions. From Luther to Wesley the lives and writings of Christian thinkers demonstrated new ways of thinking and believing. 

These are just tasters of the kaleidoscopic narrative that makes up Superstition and Science, a book that places the achievements of great pioneers like William Harvey, Andreas Vesalius, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Hobbes and the founders of the Royal Society alongside the puzzling assertions of mavericks like Paracelsus, Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno. It is as we see such remarkable individuals against the background of their own, often violent, world that we can assess more clearly the places they occupy in that bigger narrative that is the adventure of the human spirit.
_____ 


Thursday, 18 May 2017

V is for VANITY

For writers vanity is not admiring what you've written. Sometimes - just sometimes - that is justifiable. To have worked hard and long on a chapter, or even a page, and to have reached the point at which you can say, 'Yes, that really is what I meant; I couldn't have put it better' is justifiable self-satisfaction. To believe and seek to persuade other people to believe that you are something special because you write books - that's vanity. The tendency towards this kind of self-love has always been obnoxious but it has been encouraged by the development of marketing trends over recent years. Now that authors are expected to be involved in promotion - not just attending the occasional launch or festival but maintaining a social media presence - the temptation is strong to become self-advertising 'brands'. It can have a deleterious effect on written style, as when an author cultivates literary eccentricities in order to declare to readers 'look how clever I am'.

It is understandable that wordsmiths feel the need to do something - anything - to draw attention to themselves. In Britain alone 150,000 new titles are published every year. Most of them are doomed, after a short shelf-life, to disappear without trace. With insecurity built into the very framework of our lives it's not surprising that some of us resort to any tricks we can think of to stand out from the crowd. I believe we all need to guard against this tendency for at least two reasons. The first is that it goes against the grain - at least for many authors. We are solitaries. Large chunks of our lives are spent in confined spaces, shut up with our emerging creations. We don't devote much of our time to cavorting before the public, either in the real world or cyberspace. I've often thought that being a famous author is probably the most satisfactory form of celebrity because you lead a normal life without being recognised everywhere you go. Therefore, to actually seek admiration can set up real tensions. The other reason is that vanity is usually self-defeating. We live, are discovered and, hopefully, enjoyed in our printed words. It is the transmutation of our imagination and intellect into readable prose or verse that impacts on readers. The more we intrude our personalities - through the text or the advertising paraphernalia that increasingly precedes or accompanies the text in the market place, the more we bore or irritate our fans. For example, it is one thing to flag up on twitter each new publication and quite another to name drop or announce to all the other creatures in the aviary what fun we had doing the research or explain how we succeeded in tackling a difficult aspect of the subject. Of course, there are a few folk out there who are genuinely interested in the writer's craft but don't let's kid ourselves that the world loves us as much as we love ourselves. Readers want the product not the producer.

It could be reasonably argued that all authors are, of necessity, vain. We have the effrontery to think that what we want to say is of such interest and value to people that they will part with good money to read it. Perhaps we should remind ourselves frequently that our subject matter lies largely 'out there' rather than within. It was one of the more attractive Puritan divines of the 17th century who observed, 'None are so empty as those who are full of themselves'. We offer readers our view of the world but what matters is not that it is our view but that it is based on keen and honest observations - less introspection and more extraspection. The dish we serve up may be piquant, strong-flavoured, sweet or highly-spiced but it will be made more palatable if served with the sauce of modesty.
* * * * *

Thursday, 11 May 2017

U is for UP TO SNUFF

Back in the 18th and early 19th centuries taking snuff (powdered tobacco) was a rich man's vice and the valuable commodity was carried in ornate boxes crafted in gold, mother-of-pearl and other precious materials. Thus, if you were 'up to snuff' you were the tops in terms of wealth, fashion and sophistication. Few people now indulge this habit but the phrase 'up to snuff' lives on as a way of describing things or people of recognisably superior quality. How can we achieve this accolade for our work as writers? The only people who can confer it are our readers. That means we can't know whether our books are recognised as having real quality until they are published. By then it's too late to improve them. What steps, then, can we take while our work in in progress to ensure that it has a good reception and reflects favourably upon our skill as writers?

Well, we could let friends or family members read it. Not the best idea! It's a bit like putting our own child out to foster parents. We are reluctant to see it forming other relationships. As for the chosen readers they are likely to be very complimentary because they want to please us. If they stifle their reservations we have learned nothing. On the other hand, if someone gives us honest critical feedback we might resent it - and bang goes a beautiful friendship!

Alternatively, we could put our precious MS out to a professional reader. There are plenty offering their services - for a fee. The best ones will tactfully give considered advice. Here, the problem is that we are dealing with just one individual, whereas the success of a book depends on the favourable concensus of thousands of readers, each with his or her own preferences. More importantly, such paid critics have no personal investment in our work. They will not share in our success or failure once the book hits the market.

It remains true that the best people to help us raise our game are agents and publishers' editors. They do have a stake in furthering our careers. If we prosper, so will they.

So much for seeking criticism. The other side of the coin is knowing how to take it. Whatever we write reaches its 'finished' form as the result of a long, continuing process of self-criticism (or it most certainly should). We are constantly changing, revising, crossing out and re-inventing. We - and only we - know what we want to say and how we want to say it. As a result, it's not easy to accept from someone else any suggestion that we may have got it wrong, that it could have been done better. Successful writing involves compromise because we need to write, not only what we want, but what other people want to read. Compromise is never easy. If we reject it, there's no point in our seeking advice in the first place. If we slavishly follow every amendment urged upon us, we will end up with something that does not satisfy us and may well not satisfy others.

In bygone eras social climbers tried to get up to snuff by slavishly following fashion and I guess not a lot has changed in that regard. It may be true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it seldom, if ever, works in the writing world. Copying popular authors' subject matter and style invariably ends up by exposing our own lack of 'flair' or 'elan'. And, in my opinion, there's something tawdry about piggy-backing on someone else's achievements. We should be offering our own skill and insight to the world.

Will we be rewarded in material terms for doing so? Well, it would be nice to believe that 'genius will out' but experience suggests that, 

     Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
     And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

There are two truths about the writer's world that are profoundly unfair: too much rubbish gets published and too much work of real merit does not get into print. But success is not solely measured in material terms. Self-satisfaction, regardless of market reaction, is worth more in the long term. An author whose life and work are marked by passion, imagination, persistence and sheer, bloody slog is, I suggest, a creative agent who is truly up to snuff.
* * * * *

     


Monday, 1 May 2017

EVIL MAY DAY

     It is remarkably appropriate that today marks the 500th anniversary of one of the more unsavoury events in the history of England's capital city. An angry mob of some 2,000 people rampaged through the centre of London bent on 'bashing foreigners'. The premises of alien traders and artisans (mainly French, Flemish and Italian) were broken into and looted. Several of the inhabitants were injured, though, remarkably, no-one seems to have been killed by the rioters. Law and order was only restored with difficulty by mounted troops who were even more violent than the protesters. Some 300-400 offenders were rounded up and, at a hastily convened court, the ringleaders were convicted of 'disturbing the peace of Christendom' and summarily hanged, drawn and quartered.
     At first sight this looks like a simple example of ugly xenophobia. Politicians and rabble-rousers can always rely on distorted national pride to channel discontent into an attack on 'them'. It matters not who the 'them' are, whether Flemish weavers, Muslim women wearing traditional dress or Mexican immigrants. All that matters is that the chosen scapegoats are 'different', 'foreign', 'not like us'. The Evil May Day riots of 1517 certainly had their origins in inflammatory preaching. Some two weeks earlier an open-air preacher in Spitalfields, an area where many immigrants lived, railed against their alien customers. He protested that they took the jobs of honest Englishmen and deflowered their wives and daughters. This mingling of truth, prejudice and downright lies did its work and, by the end of April it needed only one spark to set fire to the dry tinder of grumbling and gossip. That spark was a notice pinned to a door of St Paul's Cathedral calling all 'true Englishmen' to assemble at the church of St Martin-le-Grand on the next public holiday - May Day.
     Most people do not follow closely the intricacies of national and international politics. That makes them easy prey for rabble-rousers offering simple answer to complex problems, particularly if those answers are emotionally loaded. That was certainly the case in 1517. If the rioters had a genuine grievance they were not the fault of the strangers in their midst. It was the economic system which was responsible for the influx of European settlers and that system had the full backing of the Tudor regime. London, like all major European cities, was cosmopolitan. The smooth running of commerce require foreign banks and merchant houses to keep offices and agents in the English capital. The high quality English merchandise was, in some measure, dependent on immigrant craftsmen, such as Flemish dyers, who were particularly skilled at their job. The government profited from the settlement of overseas workers by the imposition of alien taxes. Clothiers and other industrial tycoons enjoyed close relations with their associates beyond the Channel. Government profited from import and export duties which made up a substantial part of annual revenue, and to encourage foreign businessmen the Crown extended special privileges to them. And at a diplomatic level national prosperity demanded the safe and easy routine operation of business across national borders. All this helps to explain the knee-jerk reaction of the authorities to the popular protest of 1 May 1517.
     When the initial panic had died down. Henry VIII, in a stage-managed display of royal magnanimity, pardoned the remaining rioters who had been arrested. Assurances were given to foreign ambassadors that their fellow nationals would continue to enjoy the protection of the government. Essentially nothing changed - in the short term. In the long term Londoners learned to live with their foreign neighbours. Many of those neighbours married into English families, leaving nothing but their surnames as an indication of their origins. That is the way communities develop. All western nations are inhabited by mongrel populations. As long as countries prosper they will continue to attract fresh waves of settlers. The only way to stop this process is to stop being prosperous.
     But, then, that is just another over-simplified solution.
_____ 


Friday, 28 April 2017

T is for TEACHERS and TRUANTS

          'I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which          of them deserve to be followed.'                                - George Orwell

     There is a sense in which all writers are teachers or truants. We either have something to tell the world or we've bunked off into our own imagination. At the risk of overburdening the metaphor we might say that life is a classroom where lessons - some good, some bad - are taught about how things really are. Some of us, like teachers, believe we have things to impart that readers need to know. Others of us have got bored with reality or find it distasteful and prefer to peer in at the schoolroom window beckoning our classmates to come out and join us to romp in the world of fantasy. We either explore the human condition as it is or create a world inhabited by people as we would like them to be. To give concrete examples, we can either identify with George Smiley and his creator, John Le Carre, or with Ian Fleming and his tough, womanising hero, James Bond. One explores the real world of espionage; the other feeds our craving for excitement. In our writing we have to choose which it is we're offering our readers - enrichment or escapism.

     Escapism: A look at the bookstand in any supermarket leaves us in no doubt that fantasy pays. Apart from a few novels by well-established authors who have become household names, the shelves are filled with romances aimed at the female market and adventure stories for the chaps; proof, if any were needed, that many (most?) people look to books to provide them with escapism. They try out the works of unfamiliar authors who seem to be offering them the fare they are already used to, whether that's whodunits or bodice-rippers or pseudo medievalism. They are not looking for profound insights into the human psyche. A new author seeking to establish him/herself can quite easily and quickly work out how to exploit the escapist market: read half a dozen examples of a chosen sub-genre, make careful notes, work out the formula and reach for the keypad. We can all think of writers who have done just that and have churned out undemanding page-turners. What are your chances of joining them? Miniscule. You would find  yourself in the first-timers' lottery, with nothing to make your work stand out from the crowd. This is a strategy many, many hopefuls have tried. Your only chance of getting into print would be to self-publish or become involved with one of the small online publishing outfits who lack the resources to give your work real heft.

     Enrichment: Most publishers and all discerning readers are looking for writers with something worthwhile to say. It may be expertise that you have to impart - knowledge of the fashion industry, collecting rare stamps, any specialised knowledge that you can draw on to give your work, whether fact or fiction, verisimilitude. Or it may be personal experience that enables you to write with authority - coping with disability, witnessing a tragedy at close quarters, achieving a long-cherished ambition. In other words this kind of writer provides enrichment by offering something of him/herself. He/she is a teacher, not a truant.

     Of course, there is much more to successful authorship than deciding whether you want to provide escapism or something with more substance. You still need to develop writing skills. You still need guidance in the complex publishing business. You will, almost certainly, need a least one piece of luck. It's also true to say that the distinction I have suggested between the two approaches to our craft is not hard and fast. There are fantasy tales that rise above the mere recitation of thrills and spills and there are books which fail to deliver on their promise of providing something profound. But, that said, it is worthwhile for all of us to ask ourselves - often - what it is that we are trying to do, why we are trying to do it - and how much of ourselves we are ready go invest in the process.
_____ 

     


Saturday, 22 April 2017

S is for STYLE and SUBSTANCE

'Weak argument  -  shout'

   Academic research has established what most of us have long realised - that in the business of opinion forming to assert lies with conviction is more effective than calmly telling the truth. Politicians do it. We had a plethora of bombastic misinformation in last year's USA presidential election and the British referendum debate. Tweeters do it, hence the concern over hate mail and fake news. Manufacturers do it by hyping their products. The rule that governs most marketing - whether of a political programme, a washing powder or a personal prejudice - is, 'Never mind the facts; deliver your message loudly and with conviction'.
   Professional writers are supposed to be immune to this sort of thing. We should value truth above all else. We should be able to tell our stories, whether fact or fiction, using imagination as a vehicle for truth and not an embellishment of it. We should avoid the hidden agenda. We should let the narrative speak for itself and, as far as humanly possible, not interpose ourselves between the text and the reader. In other words, we should not sacrifice substance to style. I suppose that, as a historian, I'm particularly sensitive on this issue. My training has established the basic rule that the writer starts with the existing source material, assessing its worth and building his/her narrative on all the facts that can be discovered, irrespective of whether or not they support his/her own sympathies. Good history writing, like all good biography, is 'warts an' all'. When I come across a book that is written to prove a point (or, more often, to disprove someone else's point) I'm instantly on my guard. But it's not only in the field of historical non-fiction that we need to avoid the 'weak argument - shout' approach to our work. A while back I read an internet apologia by someone who had written a novel about Anne Boleyn. Her attitude was 'historians have described Anne as a scheming woman but I don't think she was like that. So in my story I describe her as a brave and wise heroine'. In other words, 'Don't confuse me with facts; I know what I think'. We all, if we have any intelligence at all, are sensitive to truth and falsehood. When a book fails to convince us, we stop suspending our disbelief and, in all likelihood, set it aside without reading to the end.
   The above may seem like a counsel of perfection and - to some extent - it is. We all have our convictions and prejudices. They go into the mix of our personas and, inevitably, colour what we write. But that does not mean that we are free to ignore our obligation to truth - to take our eye off the substance of what we are writing and concentrate instead on how we can impress a publisher or a reader. This involves a high degree of self-discipline. We are not free to 'let it all hang out' - not if we expect to be taken seriously. Here is a simple catechism we could all do well to pose to ourselves every time we take up pen or keypad:

1.  Do I have an agenda? Am I trying to persuade people to think/believe as I do?
2. If the answer is 'Yes', am I presenting my argument fairly and intelligently, recognising that opposing points of view must be respected?
3.  If the answer is 'No', am I really sure I'm not using my plot, characters or presentation of facts as a means of writing a surreptitious sermon?
4.  Are my characters - real or imaginary - well rounded and believable. In real life there are very, very few complete heroes, heroines or villains.
5.  Am I using a style based on clever, fashionable or 'literary' stratagems to make a good impression and win the approval of readers?
6.  Am I prepared to undergo the mental and emotional stress of getting inside all my characters, so that I can, hand on heart, say that my objective is truth?

   As a writer I am privileged to convey my thoughts directly, and personally into the mind of every one of my readers. That is an awesome responsibility that I take extremely seriously. 
_____