Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The 'new' historical novel

Maybe I'm just getting crotchety, but it seems that over the last few years the trend in new historical novels is to thrust as much nasty detail down the reader's throat as possible. Whether true or not readers must endure descriptions which encourage belief that:

1. All streets were waist high in shit, muck, filth and sewage, and stank.
2. All houses were poorly built, falling down, too low, to small and full of beetles, bugs and parasites.
3. All householders slung slops and muck from their windows every five minutes.
4. All people wore dirty clothes.
5. Most men, especially the wealthy, spent their time whoring in 'low' inns or fornicating with other men's wives, but never caught the pox or any other STD.
6. All woman at Court or Noblemen's wives were busy screwing anything male. They never became pregnant.
7. All the villains had bad breath and rotten browning teeth or few teeth.
8. All the men drank and vomited over people or furniture.
9. All the heros carried swords and were either magnificent or clumsy but cunning swordsmen.
10. All heroines rode well, sang, danced and were beautiful, intelligent and independent. 21stC women really!
11. Every inn had foul beer, fleas and chigs.
12. Wine in inns was always vinegary or sour and often drugged.


At the moment I am wading my way through a 600 page novel set in 1642. The hero is son and heir to a wealthy Lord. He is a 'bad' boy, screws anything in petticoats, preferably other men's wives, ran away the night before his arranged marriage to a suitable young woman he did not 'lurve', and spent 6 years abroad fighting for the Spaniards and not the Protestants. He ending up as a gambler who lived in a whorehouse. He does not have one STD, but is, of course, a misunderstood, troubled, honourable gentleman, a noble hearted man!
Oh yes?
And he drinks too much, vomits too much, and smokes hashish.

What I would like to know is: Did the author intend us to think her hero was just like wealthy modern young men who drink, screw and drug, or was it her modern arrogance, we are better than those filthy people? Or was it the agent and editors telling her sex sells and women readers like bad young men?

I have just reached the point where we meet the heroine. She is, of course, ultra intelligent, beautiful, rides as if moulded to her horse, is sexually promiscuous, and challenges the hero by refusing to sleep with him on their first meeting.

I could understand this if I were reading a genre romance. I know agents tell us that sex sells - when didn't it? - but this is meant to be a serious historical novel. Actually it's a bunch of clich├ęs. I have to review the book so must read to the bitter end. I really don't want to. I couldn't care less about the ghastly 'hero' or the modern whore heroine.

'Bawdy and smart' is one of the blurb descriptions. Bawdy is used to describe the plays of Oliver Goldsmith and implies humour. There is nothing humourous about this book. It's a weighty tome about a plot to kill King Charles.

So who is choosing these wretched books and why do we have to wade in the filth? A little research shows that cities had bylaws even in 1642. More research shows that the price paid for dog shit, manure, ash, soot, sewage, urine, bone, compostable rubbish, burnable rubbish, old clothes, in fact just about anything we throw out these days, was high, because they were usable and people actually collected the stuff and made money from them.

So why the filth and the thoroughly unlikeable characters. Is it post-modernism brought to the historical novel? If so by whom and where can I find them? I have a strong desire to take this 600 + page novel and cram it down that guilty person's craw.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


For some reason I have been unable to access my blog. No matter how I tried my password was rejected and I could not get help. I do hate technology! Today I have access!

Winter, the boys from NIWA assure us, has been the coldest for a long time but will now become milder as the la nina influence fades. Good. August brings calves and lambs to my part of the world and I hate it when the weather seems determined to wipe them all out.

The firewood pile - all 40 cubic metres of it - has shrunk more quickly than it should have but I have read a vast number of books, catching up on old favourites and discovering new authors.

Terry Pratchett has gone from good to great. I am not a great fan of the witch/wizard novels but have loved all the Ankh-Morpork, Sam Vimes novels, and 'Going Postal' and 'Making Money' made me laugh as I came across all those neat little jibes at things beloved by businesses, banks, and bureaucracies. Pratchett can take the micky out of so much of modern society and make you think.

Alexander McCall Smith gets better and better as he goes on writing about ordinary and mundane people and their lives, showing us that they are far from mundane, but in fact, unique, original and special. His is a very special talent.

I am glad I do not have a television. On a night like this with a full moon silvering the world and the Southern Cross gleaming I would far rather sit here with a book, reading by moonlight, and gazing out at the winter night.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

A writer's life...

Ann Thwaite, author of children's fiction and biographer extraordinaire, visited my home town recently. Her talk about her New Zealand connections and her memories of Otago engaged the audience, who were delighted to swop bits of family history with her. At the tea after wards Ann Thwaite agreed to let me interview her for 'Writer's News' and we arranged time for a telephone interview. Our chat ranged over the writer's lot and she confessed that her advice to a young would-be writer today would be 'DON'T'.

I knew what she meant. I do not have a long and distinguished career as Ms Thwaite's has been, nor have I won prizes for my books, but to be a writer today means starvation. If one has an inheritance, or a partner who will support one, then writing full time is possible. Even a freelance writer today often cannot sell enough articles to pay the bills.

So working in snatches of stolen time, writing when tired and with half one's mind on the problems of that other life, one ends up with a novel one is sure would be much better if life did not get in the way. But with more sacrifice and effort it is dragged into publishable shape.

After all that, then facing the mountainous problem of finding an agent and publisher, a problem increasing in difficulty by the month, I am left wondering why anyone would want to be a writer, and why people persist in thinking it is a lucrative and glamorous job.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

ANZAC Thoughts

Dawn came in Hollywood technicolour this ANZAC day and there was even a camera crew from the local T.V. to film the streaks of apricot and silver flaming across the sky, the towers of clouds, and the spreading pool of light. Dawn over a little granite cenotaph on a green grassy knoll in very rural New Zealand. It did looked splendid, nature turning on the technicolour to honour the occasion. And the piper - with his wee apprentice grandson for a shadow playing his tiny set of pipes - piping one of the Highland Laments, followed by a very shaky old bugler who did not wobble or miss one note, had me in tears.

After the wreath laying and prayers, a piped version of 'Amazing Grace' saw the dozen returned servicemen march off and people spoke about who they had come to remember. Brothers and fathers killed in Europe, Africa, and Burma. Grandfathers who fought the Japanese in the Pacific and died in the Singapore concentration camp, great and great-great grandfathers who died at Gallipoli or at Ypres or Flanders. Here was a group for whom 'Lest we forget' meant something special. The small crowd of parents, grandparents and grandchildren, the local school representatives with their wreath, those old enough to have lost brothers and fathers, and those who had never met grandparents, all came to remember that those men and women who died, whose names were inscribed on the cenotaph, had given their lives in the belief that they were protecting their families and friends back home.

It was dawn when those poor soldiers were landed at Gallipoli in a bungled attempt to prevent the war to end all wars. It was dawn when we bowed our heads in prayer and remembered our relatives who never came home. But when will it dawn on politicians that remembering the war dead is supposed to remind us that war should never happen again?

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Of Pickle pots.

It’s autumn. A moist melancholy March with one bonus, something I’d forgotten about until now that I’m back on the land. Mushrooms, glorious field mushrooms and their enormous cousin, the horse mushroom. My small paddock and the top meadow have been covered in white lumps. Even my lawn took to sprouting mushroom fairy rings along with the usual fragile rainbow-coloured clusters of toadstools. We’ve had a generous four weeks of the delicacies instead of the ordinary two week season. Driving into town I can see that every farm shared in the harvest, there hasn’t been one field without a scattering of saucer sized horse mushrooms, or rings of field mushrooms.

What to do with the daily four pails of them. Dry them, soup them and I like to cheer bitter winter days - the ones where you think the sun will never shine again and every growing thing is dead - with a taste of the seasons yet to come. I love a spicy pickled mushroom stock to scent a winter soup or stew, make a sauce or gravy. This time I have my Japanese pickle pot with its ceramic weight to do the job of pressing the salted mushrooms to extract their liquid. I chuckle every time I use it. It’s Japanese pottery, expensive and beautifully simple. Standing on my kitchen table it draws my eye and I remember the stylish shop full of Japanese pottery, fabrics and clothing. My students and I went shopping there, practising English. How Sachiko teased me about buying such an expensive pickle pot when I could easily buy a cheap, made in China one in the local D2 or Cains superstore. Kaori and Kaworu didn’t believe I’d make pickles, not like the exquisite crisp Japanese ones they could make. But I think that Kaori understood when I said I wanted to take home something traditionally made and specially Japanese. So I use it and remember the smells and sights, and especially my friends in Japan.

Monday, 2 February 2009


Funerals are becoming frequent as I grow old. Today's was a shocker. It was for a thirty four year old mother, breast cancer of course, and so unnecessary. When will cosmetic companies come clean about parabens and cancer? At least there was a church funeral service before the crematorium and a chance to talk to family and find ways to ease our sadness. And the crematorium was silent and dignified, quite different from my father's crematorium funeral. That was awful, a sort of commercial, plastic, crematorium affair, and quite soulless. The officiating priest was Catholic, (my father would have been furious,) and he got all his facts muddled, dropped his notes, which were inadequate any way, and mumbled. There was a queue of funeral parties going in at one end and coffins out at the other, all trying to get more than their fifteen minutes, and all noisily ignoring the service in the chapel as they waited. I really expected the Monty Python crew to come rushing through cracking jokes, it was as bad as that. Not the ending to wish on anyone.

We need an Obon, an annual celebration of our ancestors, like Japan's. Shizuoka's Obon was a real experience as this is a rural area where the Shinto religion is an important part of everyday life. Every house where someone died during the year was visited by the community and a special group of Obon dancers, these are drummers and singers and it's a very old tradition. It was a lovely way to remember the death and see the person honoured. Like a special party, but spiritual not riotous, and people actively remembered the dead person and wished them well.

The songs and the dances are unique to certain areas, Shizuoka had some very special ones only performed there. The music is very old and whilst most unmelodious to the unused, non-Japanese ear, it is traditional Japanese. One of our students was a drummer in an Obon dancers' group and he took a party of professors from the university to one dance session. I was allowed to take part - foreigners are not usually welcomed - because my father had died that year. The group - not knowing our lack of such customs - drummed for him too. It was very satisfying.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Happy New Year!

2009 has been the quietest New Year for a long time. My home is in an area of New Zealand where many Scots were original settlers. I anticipated piping in the New Year with Robbie Burns, haggis and Scottish Country Dancing. Alas nothing. Next year, if I am not working overseas again, I will know to organise a good Scottish New year's party myself.

The local church bells weren't rung either, but the stars were gorgeous at midnight, the Southern Cross bright and clear. I thought of my Japanese colleagues and friends sitting in some high spot to watch the New Year's first dawn, shivering in the cold. Here I didn't even need a sweater.

I wish, when we threw out the old traditions and superstitions, that we’d invented some new ones, something better than a rowdy piss up, which is all so many people sem to do. Summer is a good time for parties and we have sea and sand, bush and mountain space to enjoy them in.