Sunday, 27 December 2015

Great Books of 2015

Looking back over my reading during the past year, the first thing that strikes me is that I have read almost no new non-fiction or poetry. That anyone who aspires to be a writer needs first to be a voracious reader goes without saying, but reading as a writer is probably never quite the same thing as simply reading for pleasure.

For one thing, it has a cyclical character. On completing the writing of a novel, it is natural to relax, and catch up with what one has been missing. Then, as a historical novelist, one begins the research for the next, which inevitably involves a great deal of non-fiction, as well as literature and sources of the time. As the new novel starts to take shape, one looks around for literary inspiration and influences. With my first two novels, I was happy to follow the examples of well-loved classics (including works by Homer, Thomas Hardy and William Golding, in the case of Undreamed Shores; Virgil, Robert Graves and Marguerite Yourcenar, in the case of An Accidental King). In shaping the form of Omphalos, I cast my net more widely, to include Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino and David Mitchell. Now that I have completed the research for my next novel, set in London in the 1st/2nd Centuries AD, and am starting to shape the text, I have been drawing heavily on Ovid (specifically the 1717 English translation, to which John Dryden and Alexander Pope contributed), and on contemporary English writers who seem to me to be working, to some extent, in his tradition (including Ali Smith, Marina Warner and A.S. Byatt). All of this means that I enter 2016 with an exceptionally long TBR list (with Mary Beard's SPQR at the top of that list), but among the new fiction I have read, three novels stand out for me.

The first is Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account, a fictionalised memoir of a 16th Century Spanish expedition through Florida and Texas, led by the would-be Conquistador, Panfilo de Narvaez. The expedition was a disaster from beginning to end, with more than 300 men landing at Tampa Bay and only four surviving the eight year trek that eventually brought them to safety in Mexico. One of these was a black slave from Morocco, Estebanico, about whom very little is known. He is the perfect narrator for Lalami's fictionalised account, written in the first person, and in the meticulously researched idiom of the time. As a slave, he has no agenda of his own, and can as easily (perhaps more easily) relate to the Native Americans that they encounter, as to the men who have enslaved him. Since he is already bilingual in Arabic and Spanish (and also, perhaps, because he has no reason to share the prejudices of his companions), he is well equipped to learn their languages. It is a powerful and humane story of survival, enslavement and freedom, and inter-cultural contact; a fresh engagement with, and new perspective on, the history of the European colonisation of the Americas.

"It was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage - I was at the edge of the known world. I was marching behind Senor Dorantes in a lush territory he and Castilians like him call La Florida. I cannot be certain what my people call it. When I left Azemmur, news of this land did not often attract the notice of our town criers ... But I imagine that, in keeping with our naming conventions, my people would simply call it the Land of the Indians. The Indians, too, must have a name for it, although neither Senor Dorantes nor anyone in the expedition knew what it was."

The second is Emily Bullock's The Longest Fight, set in South London in the 1950s. There is a long-standing debating point about where historical fiction begins and ends: the most common definition seems to be that it is fiction set before the birth of its author, and more than sixty years before it is published, in which case Emily Bullock and I both belong to the first generation of historical novelists for whom the 1950s provide potential source materials. Certainly it reads as historical fiction, and must surely have been researched as such. The world through which the reader is led, of working class boxing clubs in Camberwell, Brixton and Kennington, is eerily unfamiliar. The novel's protagonists, Frank and Jack, initially drawn to boxing as a recreational activity, come to see it as a potential route out of poverty, but success will require as much luck as talent, and may come at a terrible price. The bright lights of the West End represent a seemingly far-away place, of which the characters know little, and understand less.

"Jack surfaced from the Underground at Leicester Square ... He entered Soho, street-light shrivelled away from unlit doorways; the smell of beer and scalding tea, gas-heaters and rainy pavements. He took long, heavy strides as if he spent every night walking that side of the river ..."

It is an engaging, immersive exploration of a lost world whose buildings still largely surround us; of hopes and disappointments; of the pervasive influences of family, and of memory; and of the small personal tragedies that lurk in the background to all of the grand modernist narratives of "Progress."

My final choice, and certainly the most unusual (at least as far as my usual reading material is concerned) is Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper. It is supremely improbable that a bird species as obscure as the wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria) should, in the space of a single year, make an appearance in two novels, written by authors who have never met one another; but the wallcreeper does now have this distinction. It has a fly-on part in Chapter 14 of my own novel, Omphalos (blink and you'll miss it - the bird is not even named - but it, and its red wings, are there for a very specific literary/historical reason), and in Zink's novel an American couple in Europe, somewhat improbably, adopt one as a pet, following a road accident. The unorthodox lifestyle of this couple (think polyamory, the recreational use of ketamine, obsessive birdwatching of the sort a "real" birdwatcher - like my late mother - would call "twitching") is a rich source of dry, even surreal, humour; the more so as they become involved in, and ultimately redefine the nature of, environmental activism. It may not have a happy ending, so don't try out too many of these ideas at home, but the book, at turns, both made me cry with laughter, and made me think in new and different ways about the nature of our relationship with the world around us.

"I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage. Immediately obvious was my sticky forehead. Maybe I was unconscious for a couple of seconds, I don't know. Eventually I saw Stephen poking around the front of the car and said, 'Jesus, what was that' ... From the passenger seat the wallcreeper said 'Twee!' ... Stephen pulled over ... He said ... 'For me it's a lifer. It's like the most wonderful bird ... I identified it even before I hit it ... It was unmistakeable, just like they said it would be. So this is great.'"

A very happy New Year to one and all!

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Wards of Old London: Cornhill - A City Market for 2000 Years

The main road running through London from west to east passes from Poultry via Bank Junction into Cornhill, so called, as the 16th Century chronicler, John Stow, tells us, after "a corn market, time out of mind there holden." His wording implies that corn was no longer being sold here in Stow's time, and there is little in his chronicle to suggest that corn or flour were being traded to any great extent within the City of London at all. Bread and ale were certainly sold in great quantities, but the bakers and brewers presumably bought their raw materials directly from millers and grain merchants in the countryside surrounding the city.

Cornhill has been in almost continuous use as a market-place since around 80 AD, when the Roman Governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, rebuilding the city of Londinium twenty years after its destruction by Boudicca, chose it as the location for the city's forum, incorporating a basilica (combining the functions of a city hall and a law court) and both open and covered spaces for the sale of everything from meat and fish, to wine and olive oil, clothing and ceramics.

A model of the Roman Forum of Londinium (2nd Century AD), Museum Of London. Photo: Xomenka (licensed under CCA).

Within a few decades the city had outgrown its forum, and a new, much grander version had replaced it. A modern visitor, walking up Cornhill (and it is, noticeably, a hill), unknowingly steps over the north-west corner of the basilica, the rest of the complex hidden beneath the streets that lie to the south (Lombard Street, Gracechurch Street, Clement's Lane).

The original "Cornhill" was presumably established either in late Saxon or early Norman times, the abandoned Roman city of Londinium having been re-occupied on the orders of King Alfred the Great, after the Vikings briefly made use of its still robust walls in their war against the English. Stow tells us that, "in the year 1522, the rippers of Rye and other places sold their fresh fish in Leadenhall Market upon Cornhill, but foreign butchers were not admitted there to sell flesh till the year 1533." This is significant, in that it suggests that the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers had been prevailed upon to bow to popular pressure to allow the sale of cheaper fish by "foreign" merchants (meaning people from outside London, who were not members of the company), whilst the Worshipful Company of Butchers held out. Stow records that meat prices actually went up, rather than down, following the decision to admit "foreign" butchers, but this may simply indicate an increasing demand for meat in the context of economic growth.

The arcades of the Victorian Leadenhall Market stand on the same space in which John Stow recorded the 16th Century fluctuations in the price of fish and meat. Photo: Diego Delso (License CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Within Stow's lifetime, a new and elaborate mercantile "forum" was erected by one of London's most prominent citizens, Sir Thomas Gresham. Stow describes the opening of this "bourse," by Queen Elizabeth I: "In the year 1570, on the 23rd of January, the queen's majesty attended with her nobility, came from her house at the Strand, called Somerset House, and entered the city by Temple Bar, through Fleet Street, Cheap, and so by the north side of the bourse, through Threadneedle Street, to Sir Thomas Gresham's in Bishopsgate Street, where she dined. After dinner her majesty returning through Cornhill, entered the bourse on the south side; and after that she viewed part thereof ... which was richly furnished with all sorts of the richest fares in the city, she caused the same bourse by an herald and trumpet to be proclaimed the Royal Exchange, and so to be called from thenceforth, and not otherwise."

The Royal Exchange in 1569 (image is in the Public Domain).

Gresham had business interests in the Low Countries, and his Royal Exchange was styled on market-places he had seen Antwerp and elsewhere. This building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but, such was its importance, that a replacement was opened just three years later. During the course of the Restoration years, the sale of stocks, shares and futures, together with insurance, rapidly out-paced the direct sale of goods and commodities as the basis of London's economy. Some provision was made for these activities (which had previously taken place in coffee-houses) in the rebuilt Royal Exchange, but they soon forced other trading interests out. Lloyds of London took up home there in 1774.

The Royal Exchange and Cornhill, 1837, by J. Woods (image is in the Public Domain).
Lloyds Subscription Room, 1809, by Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Charles Pugin (image is in the Public Domain).

The 17th Century Royal Exchange burned down in 1838. Its Neoclassical replacement was opened by Queen Victoria in 1844. By this time, the Stock Exchange had relocated, and insurance had become the main focus of activity within the building. Insurance remains one of the City's most important industries today, but transactions are now conducted from high-tech spaces in modernist skyscrapers: the Royal Exchange building is, once again, a retail space, home to various restaurants and boutiques.

The Royal Exchange in 1955. Photo: Ben Brooksbank (licensed under CCA).

London is, literally, a layered city, the Roman streets stratified beneath the Medieval streets, which in turn are stratified beneath the various modern streets: few areas demonstrate this more clearly than Cornhill, which has preserved its essentially commercial character over the course of more than eighty human generations.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Wards of Old London: Walbrook - City Governance and Popular Protest

Leaving Cheap Ward, the main road running through London from west to east briefly passes through Walbrook Ward, dominated today by Bank Junction, a chaotic intersection of eight main roads that sits in the middle of the contemporary city like the body of an enormous spider, pointedly ignoring the regular pattern of the underlying Roman streets. Walbrook Ward takes its name from the stream (today entirely hidden beneath the city streets) which flows through London from north to south, carving a channel for itself between Ludgate Hill to the west and Cornhill to the east.

The centre of London's governance has long been located in this area: the palace of Britannia's Roman governors is thought by some experts to lie immediately to the south, in Dowgate Ward (on the site of the modern Cannon Street Station). In Cannon Street (formerly Candlewick Street) is found a mysterious monument known as "The London Stone," possibly a fragment of a Roman milestone or tombstone, traditionally taken as the "centre" of the city, although, as John Stow pointed out in 1598, it is much closer to the Thames than it is to the city's northern wall.

Bank Junction, on a Sunday in April, 1961. Photo: Ben Brooksbank (licensed under CCA).

Stow recorded a mention of the stone in a "faire written Gospell booke given unto Christ's Church in Canterburie, by Ethelstane, King of the West Saxons" (925-940 AD). In the late 12th Century, Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonstone owned a house close-by. A wealthy and prominent city merchant, he negotiated loans from the city on behalf of King Richard I, but attached the condition that the city would, henceforth, be self-governed, independent of royal officials. Henry himself became the city's first elected mayor in 1189.

The London Stone. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

Both the Mansion House (the official residence of the City's Lord Mayors since 1752) and the Bank of England lie within Walbrook Ward. The current Bank of England building was erected in the early 20th Century by Sir Herbert Baker, who demolished most of Sir John Soanes's earlier Neo-Classical building (an act described by Nikolaus Pevsner as "the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the 20th Century").

The Mansion House in 1837, by J. Woods (image is in the Public Domain).
The Bank of England in 1872, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

As the centre of city governance, Walbrook Ward has also frequently been a focus for popular protest, beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing down to our own times. In 1450, a rebellion took root in Kent and Sussex, directed against the unpopular government of King Henry VI. Though a pious man (a saint in the eyes of some), and a great patron of learning (he established Eton College, King's College Cambridge and All Souls Oxford), Henry was nothing like his popular, warrior father, and was regarded as a weak king, subject to the malign influences of his wife and advisers. Leading the rebels across London Bridge into the City, the self-styled "Captain of Kent," Jack Cade, marched to the London Stone, where several records agree that he ennobled himself as "Lord Mortimer."

"Now is Mortimer Lord of this City," Shakespeare has him say, "And here, sitting upon London Stone, I charge and command that, at the City's cost, the Pissing Conduit run nothing but claret wine the first year of our reign. And now, henceforward, it shall be treason for any that calls me other than Lord Mortimer."

Cade arrested the Lord High Treasurer, James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele, one of the king's hated advisers, and had him beheaded in Cheapside. His "reign," however, was to be short-lived. Later that day, drunk on wine stolen from the London vintners, his men began to loot and pillage. Londoners armed themselves and chased the rebels back across London Bridge into Southwark. When they tried to re-enter the city the following morning, a pitched battle ensued on London Bridge, claiming the lives of forty Londoners and two hundred rebels. The rebel leaders, including Cade, were subsequently rounded up and killed.

In 1780, Protestants angry at government proposals to end official discrimination against Catholics attacked the City. They burned down Newgate prison and released all the prisoners, leaving graffiti behind them to declare that this had been done "on the authority of His Majesty, King Mob." The mob then surged along Cheapside and Poultry to attack the Bank of England. In a piece of irony that few novelists would have the audacity to invent, the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot, which successfully defended the bank against the rebels, was commanded by one Thomas Twisleton, the 13th Baron Saye & Sele (one wonders if he even knew of his ancestor's fate at the hands of a similar mob more than three centuries earlier).

The "Gordon Riots" of 1780 (so-called after Lord George Gordon, who whipped up hatred against Catholics), by John Seymour Lucas (image is in the Public Domain).

The tradition of protest continues today, most recently in the "Stop the City" mass action in 1983, and the G20 mass action of 2009 (the latter, tragically, claiming the life of an innocent bystander, a newsagent trying to make his way home at the end of the working day).

The G20 Protests, 2009. Photo: Kashfi Halford (licensed under CCA).

These various protests, spanning more than five centuries have, at least on the surface, focussed on very different issues (the supposed corruption of the Lord High Treasurer and his associates in 1450; religious sectarianism in 1780; climate change in 2009), but all have arisen in times of recession and austerity, in which more fundamental underlying concerns about social inequality have bubbled to the surface. Like the Walbrook stream, which thousands of Londoners cross, unaware, every day, "King Mob" is never so very distant, and the historic ceremonial centre of the City of London presents an irresistible stage for the playing out of his rambunctious, and sometimes deadly, masques.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 34 - "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier

In the United States presidential election campaign of 1860, the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, made a commitment to move towards the abolition of slavery. As a first step, he proposed legislation to prevent its westward spread into territories newly settled by Americans of European origin. Lincoln won the election but, by the time of his inauguration on the 4th of March, 1861, seven states had declared succession from the Union, and established the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy would subsequently expand to include eleven states, but was never formally recognised by any foreign country.

When the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter the following months, the leaders on both sides understood that they were locked in a battle for the soul of America. Federal forces wasted no time in implementing General Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan" for a naval blockade of Confederate ports and, whilst Confederate leaders were convinced that the cotton-hungry merchant fleets of Britain and France would do everything in their power to break the blockade, they instead found alternative sources of cotton in Egypt and India.

The "Anaconda Plan," Library of Congress (image is in the Public Domain).

America was behind the times when it came to the abolition of slavery: the United Kingdom had banned the slave trade in 1807, and slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833; France had abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794, and, although Napoleon Bonaparte had reimposed it, it was abolished for a second time in 1848. Isolated on the international stage, the Southern cause was doomed almost from the outset, but the war continued for four long years.

Together with the Crimean War, which had been fought a decade earlier, the American Civil War was among the first truly mechanised military conflicts, a precursor to the horrors of the First World War, claiming more than 750,000 lives. It settled the future, however, both of the American continent, and of the institution of chattel slavery, paving the way for the Twentieth Century to become "The American Century," just as the Nineteenth Century was "The British Century."

Charles Frazier's novel, Cold Mountain, is only peripherally a book about the American Civil War, just as Tolstoy's War and Peace is only peripherally a book about the Napoleonic Wars in Russia. It takes as its theme the Homeric motif of a warrior making his way home at the end of a conflict. W.P. Inman (a fictionalised version of Frazier's great-great-uncle), a conscript in the Confederate army, has been wounded at the Battle of Petersburg (1864-5). He deserts from a military hospital and makes his way towards his home at the foot of Cold Mountain, where he hopes to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Ada.

A Confederate soldier (image is in the Public Domain).
The real Cold Mountain, now part of the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. Photo: Ken Thomas (image is in the Public Domain).

Like Odysseus, Inman meets many characters along the way, a few of them helpful; some of them menacing; many of them ambiguous. Unlike Homer's Odyssey, however, Cold Mountain focusses as much on Ada's psychological journey as it does on Inman's physical one. As faithful as Penelope, Ada, who has had a privileged urban upbringing, struggles to scratch a living from the land following the death of her father.

An American girl, c1850 (image is in the Public Domain).

There is no Telemachus in this story (the only people searching for Inman are the armed thugs of the Confederate Home Guard, led by a sadist named Teague). Instead, in a stroke of genius, Frazier introduces the character of Ruby, a young homeless woman who is sent in Ada's direction by a kindly neighbour. Ruby will on no account consent to being Ada's servant but, in return for a room, she teaches Ada the skills she will need to get by. The story of Inman's journey through the landscape (a landscape beautifully painted for us by Frazier (himself a native of North Carolina) is interwoven throughout the novel with the story of Ada and Ruby's struggle to survive in a world with few men. As the paths of the male and female characters moves towards a convergence, Frazier presents us with a bitter-sweet ending that could scarcely be more different than that of Homer's Odyssey.

"The blind man twisted a square of newspaper up into a cone and then dipped with a riddly spoon into the pot and filled the cone with wet peanuts. He handed it to Inman and said, Come on, cite me one instance where you wished you were blind. Where to begin, Inman wondered. Malvern Hill. Sharpsburg. Petersburg ... But Fredericksburg was a day  particularly lodged in his mind ... Inman looked into one of the houses scattered about the field. A light shone out from an open door at its gable end. An old woman sat inside, her hair in a wild tangle, face stricken. A lit candle stub stood beside her on a table. Corpses on her doorstep. Others inside, dead in the attitude of crawling to shelter. The woman staring crazed past the threshold, past Inman's face, as if she saw nothing. Inman walked through the house and out the back door and saw a man killing a group of badly wounded Federals by striking them in the head with a hammer. The Federals had been arranged in an order, with their heads all pointing one way, and the man moved briskly down the row, making a clear effort to let one strike apiece do. Not angry, just moving from one to one like a man with a job of work to get done. He whistled, almost under his breath, the tune of Cora Ellen ... The blind man had sat wordless throughout Inman's tale. But when Inman had finished, the man said, You need to put that away from you."

The aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg (image is in the Public Domain).

"The agreement Ada and Ruby reached on that first morning was this: Ruby would move to the cove and teach Ada how to run a farm. There would be very little money involved in her pay. They would take most of their meals together, but Ruby did not relish the idea of living with anyone else and decided she would move into the old hunting cabin. After they had eaten their first dinner of chicken and dumplings, Ruby went home and was able to wrap everything worth taking in a quilt. She had gathered the ends, slung it over her shoulder, and headed to Black Cove, never looking back.

The two women spent their first days together making an inventory of the place, listing the things that needed doing and their order of urgency. They walked together about the farm, Ruby looking around a lot, evaluating, talking constantly. The most urgent matter, she said, was to get a late-season garden into the ground. Ada followed along, writing it all down in a notebook that heretofore had received only her bits of poetry, her sentiments on life and the large issues of the day. Now she wrote entries such as these: To be done immediately: Lay out a garden for cool season crops - turnips, onions, cabbage, lettuce, greens. Cabbage seed, do we have any? Soon: patch shingles on barn roof; do we have a maul and froe? Buy clay crocks for preserving tomatoes and beans. Pick herbs and make from them worm boluses for the horse."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.