Thursday, 14 October 2010


Fiction & History
On writing for Young Adults…

• New history novel: introduction and sample
• Notes in Passing: Robin Hood

Watsonworks Blog 16

A sense of history
An extract from an article published in
The Best of Books for Keeps (Bodley Head),
edited by Chris Powling.

For me, writing is an interaction between the author and readers, a sharing of things held close to heart and mind. To begin with, I wrote stories that would be sufficiently exciting to stir in the young reader something of my own fascination for history.

I set quick-moving adventures in vivid historical settings such as the Florence of Leonardo in Sign of the Swallow, or among the Minoan splendours of Knossos in The Bull Leapers. The aim was to thrill and at the same time sow a seed-trail in the reader’s imagination, ready to germinate when he or she looked into the past with a more searching eye.

Trenches of Aragon
That old triple alliance of objectives – to entertain, to inform and (possibly) to educate – forms a reasonable basis for communication over distance and between strangers. For the novel, however, it leaves out the crucial role of being there; of being it. In my Spanish Civil War story, The Freedom Tree, the central characters, Will and Griff, find themselves in the cold, rat-infested trenches of the Aragon front, caught in a blazing cross-fire.

Suddenly, in the pitch darkness, they are eyeball to eyeball with a youth of their own age from the enemy side, as terrified as they are. What happens next, and how it affects the two friends, their relationship, their attitudes to the conflict and to death is unique to them and, I hope, to the reader.

For a split second, if the illusion has been well-enough staged, the reader is the experience: the mediation of the author, words and paper are forgotten in the same way that, with a film, the reality of celluloid, screen and light gives place to a reality of direct identification.

Mutual discovering
If that amounts to authorial power, then the irony is that the author rarely, if ever, knows what response there has been to that power. Yet the writer is not only talking to, sharing with the reader, but is undergoing his or her own route to discovery. To be interested in history is but a small step to the altogether more dynamic condition of recognising –and perhaps developing – a sense of history. Without this, it is difficult, in my view, to make sense of the present.

Nothing unique?
Whoever believes that history does not repeat itself is absolutely right if he or she sticks to the pedantry of detail. Hitler was unique; Franco was unique; the bombing of Guernica was unique, and President Pinochet of Chile was unique.

Tyranny, however, is not unique; nor are poverty, racism, sexism or exploitation of the weak by the powerful. That much we can learn from history, though the root causes of such phenomena are admittedly less the task of the novelist to explain than that of philosophers, historians, sociologists and political scientists.

Part 2, on the ‘necessity of politics’ will appear in Blog 17, due mid-November 2010.

On the stocks, historywise…
Just completed, a story set in medieval Florence at a desperate time in the city’s history. Here is an Introduction, followed by the opening pages of Besieged! The Coils of the Viper.


The mercenary armies of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, have brought terror to Italy. Cities such as Siena, Perugia and Bologna, have either been overcome in battle or been terrified into submission.

Florence alone stands out against him. It is the burning hot summer of 1402. For 14 months Florence has been cut off by a blockade mounted by the Viper, his intention to starve the citizens until they are too weak to resist. The River Arno has been reduced to a polluted trickle. Water supplies have dried up; plague stalks the streets. Visconti’s final order to attack the city is expected hourly. If Florence falls to him, all of Italy will become subject to his tyranny.

What was once the richest and most cultured city in Europe has been reduced by hunger, thirst and disease. A centre of banking, crossroads of trade, it has been cut off from all contacts with the outside world. Its streets are deserted except for rats scavenging on the corpses of those struck down by the Black Death or those who, in stepping out into the night streets in a desperate hunt for food, have been robbed and murdered by roaming gangs.

In the refectory of the priory of the Dominican brothers, the Master, one of Florence’s most distinguished artists, and Luca, his apprentice, see no choice but to continue with the great fresco that the Master has been commissioned to paint. They know that once Visconti’s mercenaries breach the city walls few citizens will survive the brutality that has become the Viper’s trademark.

Yet artist and apprentice continue to mix their plaster and their colours and prick out the lines of what might one day be one of Florence’s proudest masterpieces. There is still time, it would seem, for love. While escaping the heat of the August sun and sketching the masterpieces of Giotti in the gaunt but magnificent Santa Croce basilica, Luca becomes aware of the girl in a brown robe, hovering in shadow as if compelled to look over his shoulder at what his skilful hand commits to the page.

Will one of them pluck up the courage to speak?

1. Master and Apprentice

Resting his brush for a moment and talking up his spirits, the Master says, ‘A monster he may be, but I have it on good report that the Viper has a soft spot for the arts’. The Master is stooped, well into his fifties, a little unsteady on his feet, but bright eyed; with the paintbrush in his hand, bursting with ideas and energy.

He adds a touch of azure to the Madonna’s gown. ‘On a good day, when my Lord of Milan has fattened his belly on venison, suckling pig and sated himself on our Tuscan wines, he might spare a drop of mercy for us poor artists. After all, who will record his glories for posterity if our talents are extinguished?’

In reply, Luca grunts, ‘Doesn’t that make us slaves, Maestro?’

‘True, at the very best, we are mere servants at the tables of the rich.’ The heat of the afternoon is speeding up the drying of the fresco. ‘More lime, Luca, I think, before the light fades.’
The Master’s apprentice works swiftly, adding water to the lime mortar, mixing it into a thick paste. There is anger in his movements. ‘And the people, Maestro, will the Duke’s mercenaries spare them once they are through the city gates?’

Luca has just turned eighteen. These days he lives in a fury mixed with a sense of helplessness. His dark hair tumbles as far as his bony shoulders and his deep brown eyes appear to blink back emotions that threaten the steady eye and hand he needs in his work.
‘Luca, calm yourself. We don’t want two of us with hands shaking so badly we can’t draw a steady line. How often do I have to remind you? While we work, we dismiss our worries, put awkward and depressing questions behind us.’
‘I do my best, Maestro, to cool my blood. But it boils at the thought of how we have been brought low; and at how you are suffering for lack of a decent meal in so many weeks.’
‘We’ll not get fat on self-pity, Luca.’

The vast end wall of the priory refectory is closed off by wooden scaffolding, but light from the high windows floods across the half finished fresco of the Madonna and Saints in Majesty. The prior and the frati – brothers – of the Dominican order had, with this commission, planned to outshine all rivals in the city, and at least to match the masterpieces in the mighty churches of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella.

Alas they are no longer present to witness the evolution of the Master’s work. At the news of the advance south of Visconti, Lord of Milan, with a vast and seemingly invincible army, of his rout of the Bolognese at Caselechio and the city’s surrender, of the terror that spread faster than the Black Death as his mercenaries plundered every town and village they passed through, the Dominican brothers quietly and under the shelter of darkness, made their escape, taking refuge in a sister abbey in the Casentino.

At first, the Master had been outraged at the departure of the frati. ‘Huh, Dominicans – the Hounds of Heaven, yet what do they do? At the first whiff of danger, with not so much as a blessing for those left behind, they high-tail it into the hills. Yellow-livered desertion, I called it. And do you know what the Prior’s answer was, Luca, when I made my objections?’

Luca has heard the tale often enough. He waits patiently to hear it again. ‘Says he, with a perfectly straight face, “We are not escaping Gian Galeazzo, Maestro, we are simply avoiding the stifling heat and intolerable dust”.
Oh dear, mia colpa! – my mistake. The Lord forgive me for misjudging their motives. Heat and dust – of course!
‘The scales of doubt fell from my eyes when the good Prior explained how the cooler air of the Casentino is more amenable to the contemplation of sin and sacrifice than the stifling odours of the city.

‘When I happened to mention the little matter of ten thousand cut-throats advancing like locusts from Bologna, the Prior assured me the frati would pray morning, noon and night that Florence be spared.
‘I felt so overwhelmed with gratitude, I nearly throttled him with his chain of office. Huh! Pious hypocrites. Give me a Franciscan every time!’ Still, the Master has had to admit, ‘They left us with provisions, though the wine they spared us is worse than dishwater.’
Luca corrects his master’s tenses: ‘Was worse than dishwater, Maestro. Our provisions ran out days ago.’
The Master sighs. ‘I am unhappy, Luca, that you have had to become a scavenger.’
‘Scavenge or starve, Maestro. There is no choice.’


Notes in passing…
US Award
Glad to report that Michael Scammell’s biography of Arthur Koestler, featured in Blog 12 (Lest We Forget: The Power of Biography,16 June 2010) has been awarded the 2010 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

A better than expected Robin
Ridley Scott’s take on Robin Hood was damned with faint praise by the critics. The feeling seems to have been that our national hero should have been played by an English actor. Yet both Russell Crowe (Robin) and Cate Blanchett are Australians – and where did Australians come from in the first place?

It was an honest telling. For the first time in a Robin Hood movie the ‘saintly’ Lion Heart comes out of the tale badly; and deservedly. As a squady in Richard’s retreat from the crusade, Robin earns himself a spell in the stocks for saying the unsayable, recalling King Richard’s order for the slaughter of several thousand civilian Muslim men, women and children following the siege of Acre; Robin even mentions the Hill of Ayyadieh, where it all happened on 20 August 1191.

What’s particularly interesting about Scott’s choice of narrative is that Robin is no outlaw; indeed his life as an outlaw only begins as the film story ends. We encounter a differently calibrated King John in this version: a scheming, untrustworthy knave, indubitably, but when the French invade he leads his troops valiantly; Robin and he are almost comrades.

Given the power and confidence of victory, John then renegades on his promise to guarantee the liberties of the people, thus turning Robin Hood from national hero to outlaw. One wonders, is this ‘prequal’ hinting at a sequel, or is it a neat piece of historical reconstruction?

Either way, with convincing portrayals by Crowe and Blanchett, and a memorable vignette by Max von Sydow (the knight in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal), the film works, with some splendid set-pieces and top-quality photography.

The Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern is deservedly drawing in the crowds. It's thematically rather than chronologically presented so you can start at the end or the middle of the displays without losing the thread. You may be advised to do this considering the queues that have formed by 11.00 in the morning. Take care to step over the school kids busy committing Gauguin to paper.