Monday, 22 October 2007

The Tudors

The Tudors, a swashbuckling TV take on Henry VIII's court produced by an American film company is gathering pace. So starved of historical drama are we, that the historical inconsistencies and the soap opera style still have us glued to the set.

But don't let this lull you into disdain, many North Americans may have an ersatz view of merry olde England but some of them are a great deal more au fait with our history than we are. Some of their historical novelists – those whose blogs I read - or fans of the genre have a breadth of knowledge of our kings and queens that quite put me to shame.

The only thing I remember with clarity is what happened to his wives, helped by the old rhyme: divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. I have to check with the trusty Pears encyclopaedia if I'm to be sure of my kings and my dates but these guys can reel them off without pausing for breath.

A sense of the past surrounds us to such an extent in Britain – architecture, landscape, names, traditions – and is so much part of our daily lives that we don't recognise, appreciate or cherish it as much as some of our American cousins do. Living in west Kent, so close to the environs of London, we're surrounded by reminders of the Tudors and we take it all for granted.

At Lullingstone Castle in Eynsford, the young King Henry VIII often visited his friend Sir John Peche who had built the original Manor House there. They jousted together on the ground outside the gatehouse, where an area was raised so that spectators had a better view. Sir John remained a friend and accompanied Henry to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

When Henry rode out to Eynsford from London he could ride on with ease to Knole in Sevenoaks. Knole had been built by the Archbishop of Canterbury and in 1538 the house was given to Henry VIII. Elizabeth I gave it in turn to the Robert Dudley and then to the Sackvilles in 1566.

Nearby was Penshurst Place: Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet and courtier, inherited this lovely estate in 1552. Built of mellow sandstone with crenellated towers, mullioned windows, tall chimneys and ancient doorways it's everyone's idea of a Tudor manor house. As beautiful today as it was then, even the medieval structure of the gardens Sir Philip laid out are still clearly visible.

But it was Knole's deer park of over 1000 acres that was the most popular place to hunt and it was at another property a short ride away that Henry took his hunting to another level: hunting that was to produce the future Queen Elizabeth I. Ann Boleyn was born in Hever Castle - another romantic medieval house - but spent most of her childhood at court in France.

When Anne became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon she attracted Henry's attention: absenting herself from court she stayed at her family hunting lodge, Hever, and it was to there that he pursued her. After her marriage to Henry in 1533 and subsequent death Henry gave Hever to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.

However, over a number of years Hever fell into disrepair and in 1903 was bought by the millionaire, William Waldorf Astor. And this knight in shining armour who restored Hever Castle with imagination and a great deal of money was – wait for it – an American. So I think that an American TV serial about the Tudors can be allowed a little licence if it gives us all a bit of fun and entertainment.


Book Note: There are so many good novels about the Tudor era but Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl is about Anne's sister, Mary, and its an interesting view of the court at the time.

Friday, 19 October 2007

The Great Storm

The Great storm, the worst that Britons had experienced for over 300 years, struck 20 years ago this week. Deaths were caused, electricity supplies cut, cars were flattened, roads blocked, railways lines closed, house roofs blown off and landscapes devastated as trees were uprooted.

In London there was a blackout, the first since the Blitz in 1945 and it was thought at the time that the Kent and Sussex countryside, devoid of its trees, would never be the same again. The historic town of Sevenoaks was dubbed One Oak when it was learned that six of the old trees had crashed to the ground, hitting the town's very identity.

In addition, the ancient deer park of Knole in Sevenoaks, now owned by the National Trust, lost seventy per cent of its trees. Many of the trees over 200 years old -oaks, beech and chestnuts - were uprooted by the gale force winds, crashing to the ground felling others in their wake. The park, so beloved by the inhabitants of the town, was a scene of utter devastation.

In towns and villages throughout the South East similar damage was experienced: no-one could go anywhere for days and the sound of chainsaws was constant. But in fact it was amazing how few deaths there were and how many families and properties survived such a terrible storm. This was due in large part to the fact that the hurricane struck overnight.

The Met office had failed to predict the hurricane: some lucky souls slept through the entire thing, shocked when they opened their curtains on scenes of mayhem and destruction. This happened to me, I could hear there was a storm and peering out of the window saw the branches of our large purple beech flapping as if ready to take flight: Best Beloved slept on.

Terrible wind, I thought, and went back to bed. In the morning we were shocked to see two conifers – one at the back of the house one at the front - had fallen parallel to the house: lucky or what. If the wind had been coming from a different direction we may never have got up at all.

Non-native evergreen conifers are densely leafed – the wind didn't pass through their branches – and shallow rooted they fell by their thousands. And venerable hardwood trees are vulnerable in high winds: in fact many of the trees that were uprooted had passed their sell-by date.

Britain had been steadily deforested over hundreds of years: wood was needed for fuel or arable land, timber framed houses or fighting ships. Later, when vast estates were owned by the landed gentry and passed on form generation to generation, tree planting was something that was natural: ones heirs would benefit. Nowadays, when the average time to live in a house is about five years, there is less incentive for the home owner to plant for posterity.

In the last fifty years new forests have been mostly coniferous and existing hardwood forests have not been renewed – previously pigs or deer had kept the under-storey of broadleaf woods clear of saplings and invasive species without which the woods slowly lost their good health. Old trees were not taken out so hysterical had we become about 'saving' trees. At the same time Town or Borough Councils planted fewer and fewer roadside trees – paranoid about being sued for anything - our townscape the poorer for it.

It's generally not appreciated that much of the hedged and wooded landscape we love –and often think of as natural – was in fact planted for sporting pursuits. Farmers and landowners are less inclined to plant trees – which are not a very lucrative crop – as there's no longer fox hunting and less need for pheasant coverts. When there were, these small parcels of woodland were managed (see my blog archive of May 8) and the woodlands healthy.

After the Great Storm the landscape is certainly not the same, but it has regenerated. Many woods lost trees that should have been felled long ago: after losing them the new clearings opened up the woodland floor allowing wildflowers, birds and insects to flourish. In the woods bluebells, which had disappeared from many woods due to lack of light, were suddenly thriving again.

Surviving trees grew well without the need to compete for nutrients or light and a massive tree-planting programme, undertaken throughout Britain with the help of grants and philanthropists, added to the stock.

The loss of so many trees created a collective appreciation for the beauty of the natural environment and we began to treasure our woodland as never before. Now, twenty years on, the scars have healed and we have beautiful and healthy woodland again, better able to weather any storm.


Sunday, 14 October 2007

Tate Modern is scary

The spider is back, but this time it's lurking outside. The conversion of Bankside power station complete, Tate Modern finally opened its vast doors to the public in 2001. Inside was installed Maman, the spider, a giant steel structure by Louise Bourgeois.

I wrote in a newspaper column at the time: "it is doubtful any state-of-the-art structure could have been more suitable for a museum of modern art than the austere, art-deco influenced building at Bankside. To begin with, economics would never have permitted such a vast Galleria as the Turbine Hall to be included in the specification of a purpose built gallery…

The most stunning area is undoubtedly the Turbine Hall. Here Louise Bourgeois' giant sculptures suit the scale of the space. Thirty foot towers with stairways and looking glasses are interactive pieces that mirror the industrial style of the building.

Next to them lurks a monster spider sculpture – this awe inspiring piece is almost an Alice in Wonderland experience. The spider looks down – as visitors do from the galleried mezzanines above – on Gulliver-sized figures.

Surreal: giant spider, miniature people; one's perception of the real world turned on its head. The juxtaposition of its organic, natural form with the rigidity of the powerful man-made building is equally interesting."

A large retrospective of Bourgeois' work has just opened at Tate Modern. The large show is chronological and traces her work of decades – she is now 95 – from painting, to geometric sculptures onto organic pieces in a variety of materials.

She admired Giacometti, liked Bacon's work, knew Duchamp and Brancusi and was a pupil of Leger: there are few artists alive today who could claim that lot. And she is still imaginative and still exorcising childhood demons in her work.

Bourgeois' pieces are not for the faint hearted: when in the turbine hall her dark, giant arachnid stood on its enormous jointed legs guarding a pile of its marble eggs. The observer could feel the menace, the fierce protectiveness of a mother.

You may be able to plumb the depths of the artist's psyche better than me but I must admit I wasn't too taken with what I thought I could see there. A secure and happy place it did not seem to be but perhaps a little angst is what great artists all need. I suspect that children will think of Maman as pure Disney and teenagers as computer graphic and not be as affected as some of us more pathetic souls.

The giant spider now stands outside Tate Modern and if you suffer nightmares or don't like horror movies, you'll know right away that it's not the place or the show for you. And it seems that this could apply if you venture inside too: Doris Salcedo – a Colombian artist - has a new installation there called Shibboleth. It's a 167m long fissure that zigzags across the floor of the Tate and it widens to such an extent that visitors could fall down if not alert.

Like an earthquake Shibboleth rents a landscape in two: Salcedo sets out to show the conflicts that divide us whether of thought, politics, immigration or art. Is it a crack or a scar, a negative space or two spaces, a chasm that is ripping our society apart or what exactly?

I haven't been to the show yet but I must, it sounds so thought provoking. And I have a feeling that it will be as impressive as that giant spider - the one that's lurking outside – but I hope not as scary.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Tips on writing a book

Writing historical fiction is a lengthy business admitted Sarah Waters, talking with John Mullan, author of How Novels Work (see my weblog archive for May), at the Sevenoaks Literary Festival last week: her latest novel The Night Watch took her four years.

A friend remarked that four years seemed a very long time: the problem is that we hear of authors that rattle off a book in a couple of months and we think it the norm. But it's often hype. Well, it is possible of course if the story is straight off the top of your head (and you have all day, every day to do it in) but not if the author has to research historical periods that are not familiar.

First there's the background reading: books and novels that are in and around the period the story is set in that will give the author a taste for the time, slang used, social mores etc. Double that reading if the place the story is set in is unfamiliar: the author will want to visit the setting too to get the 'feel' of it.

So, here we go, tip number one: choose to set your novel somewhere nice, or somewhere close, or preferably both. Jane Austen often went with the close and nice option: Bath. You could choose your own backyard (quick and cheap) or an exotic location but bear in mind the latter will add to the budget as well as the time scale (although it might be fun).

Then there's the research to check facts that may be alluded to: dates, names, fashions, music etc. There may be cultural differences, unfamiliar weather, flora etc. And throughout research there will be note taking that needs to accessible – probably put on the computer: so altogether there goes a substantial chunk of time. And after the book is finished and edited you may have to check the facts again because they may have been mangled in the process.

So, tip number two: don't choose to write historical fiction at all – or non fiction for that matter – if you only have a couple of months to spare. Write a book about your dog. Or better still write a book about your expertise growing dahlias: it will appeal to publishers and sell much better than fiction anyway.

John did question Sarah about the risky time shift she chose in The Night Watch: as she pointed out, the author has to decide on structure very early on and can't change mid-stream. And certainly not when the novel is finished, that is, unless you are a very talented, successful and obsessive author who completely rewrites his finished novel in a different tense.

So, tip number three: write your book in chronological order, in the third person, past tense and cross all the T's and dot all the I's. It might be boring but at least you'll be in the majority: no-one will ask you why you put this before that or what happened to whom. Ignore the alternatives John Mullan discusses in his novel: what does he know anyway.

When cross questioned Sarah did admit to a few idiosyncrasies that she feels inclined to include in her novels – like making sure her characters know where the loo is and (obviously a practical woman) that they make use of it. Another was a fondness for bondage: now some might say that's not idiosyncratic, simply a perfectly normal lifestyle choice. Bound to be for some.

So, tip number four: know how to untie knots. That is if you intend to take research to the nth degree and try everything you have your characters do. This is also applicable if you're simply writing about your dog or your dahlias.

That brings me on to tip number five: include something dirty. Sex for starters, it's worked for Sarah and it could work for you. If the book is about your dog my advice is, be careful, discretion is all: if it's dahlias, digging the dirt is de rigueur.

Now don't expect these tips to automatically make you a successful author like Sarah (amazingly, without my help, she's managed to complete four novels with only several years of study behind her and bags of talent) but if you do follow them you may find yourself with a bestseller on your hands. And if you do, you sooo owe me.


Book Note: was it Philip Roth who completely rewrote his finished novel in a different tense? Everyman perhaps? It's driving me mad: please, someone, put me out of my misery.