Category Archives: History

A kind of Bernard, but one level down

One day I will know not to say to people I’ve just met that I’m pleased they are so old. I mean it in the most positive way, but realised – belatedly – that it might not sound too good.

Two weeks ago I knew nothing about Lindsey Davis, and when her publicist mentioned her to me, I visualised a twenty-something with long blonde hair. (It’s something about the name, that sounds so blonde and so young.) Hence my relief on discovering Lindsey is 66 and wears black socks. Like Jeremy Corbyn. (Her words, not mine.) She was ‘terribly sorry, but it’s just the way things are.’

Lindsey used to be a civil servant, rather like Bernard in Yes Minister. Now a bestselling author of historical Roman crime novels, Lindsey could take up sitdown comedy if she ever wants to, with no need to go civil servanting again. And at 66 she has her pension. I do hope her sense of humour will help her forget my bad manners. As I said, I meant well. (And as Lindsey said, ‘no I’m not going to stop [writing]. I don’t think female authors give up, do they? How old was P D James? 93.’)

We had tea, and coffee (which was not so frothy it gave her the moustache she craved), before her Bloody Scotland event. I’m grateful for the opportunity not only of meeting Lindsey, but being able to switch events to go to hers. It was one of the best ever, and I’d happily go again tomorrow. She had started her day by lying down on the carpet in her hotel room, until she remembered that in CSI they always point out how much ‘stuff’ will be lurking in a small square of hotel carpet. But since she was down there, she decided to make use of it.

When she was a civil servant during Thatcher’s reign, Lindsey used to do many strange things, and I especially approve of building toilets in – already – ancient monuments. And that’s with only O-level Maths, and English from Oxford. Lindsey decided to leave the civil service when she had to write draft letters on behalf of someone, and then had to write draft replies back to herself.

Lindsey Davis

To cheer herself up Lindsey wrote a novel, set in her favourite period, the English Civil War. She was runner up in a writing competition, so decided to give writing a go. In the 1980s the Civil War was the wrong period. ‘I chose the Romans because nobody else was doing it, which now seems rather funny. I like to tell myself they wouldn’t be there [in the bookshops] if I hadn’t.’ She had a leaking roof that needed money spending on it, and she’d already done some research on the period, and could ‘bluff well.’

Her Marcus Didius Falco books are in effect the Roman Archers; with her adding family details as the series grew. When writing about the Emperor Domitian, Lindsey discovered she quite likes ‘evil paranoid tyrants,’ reckoning she is one of them.

The new Albia series about Falco’s adopted daughter Flavia Albia is set when Albia has reached adulthood, so she has a certain standing in society, despite being a mere woman. Lindsey also feels that both authors and their characters need maturity and life experience, in order to avoid that young, blonde feeling.

(I kept mentioning the Roman Mysteries, and the fact that the female detective in those books is also a Flavia. Apparently you would be named for the Emperor, which explains the staggering number of Flavias. And then I mentioned the RM a bit more still… Lindsey reckons girls didn’t marry as early as we are made to believe. ‘I’m not convinced that that really happened. I think it was something that was practised in the aristocracy.’)

The most recent Albia book, Deadly Election, wasn’t planned to coincide with the elections either here or in the US. It mainly happened because of some stolen Rugby tickets for the Five Nations in Rome, which Lindsey had thought she could use for some kind of Colosseum background. And anyway, in Rome it was the Emperor who decided, with no elections necessary. (She told me she had always wanted to write about a Roman election, and how in the series this was a good moment. ‘And I found a book on it as well, so it just happened, and then I realised just how exciting it was going to be.)

Lindsey Davis

During the Q&A we discovered that the hall was full of retired civil servants. One man wanted her to come and live next door. I think that was a sensible request. We got an explanation to the background of the turbot gift, which featured an editor burning his hands on a hot tray of recently cooked fish. A very large fish, but no turbot.

Lindsey is a sneaky woman. I like her. She wanted to write a series of seven books, set on the seven hills of Rome. Two editors said no. Instead she’s writing about Albia. Each book is set on one of the hills of Rome. A new hill every book. There will be seven books.

She doesn’t plan much. (Except perhaps for the seven hills thing.) She has a vague idea of who will die and who did it, but wouldn’t want a long synopsis to ‘colour in’ when writing the book. And no need to suggest potential plots to her. ‘I don’t want people to give me ideas. I have plenty of ideas myself!’

At this point someone felt called upon to let us know that Lindsey’s ‘twin’ Jeremy Corbyn had won, so black socks are clearly ‘it.’ She grew up as much on radio drama crime as on books, liking Chandler and Hammett. Lindsey does read, but ‘when I stop work I tend to do something completely different, like gardening.’

No ‘street Latin’ for her in the books, either. ‘I hate books where they break into foreign languages.’  What she’s got is mainly 1940s style wise cracks. Lindsey finished by reading the first page from her next novel in the Albia series. This is a woman who knows what she’s doing.

Lindsey Davis

At the end of the day I discovered I was also wearing black socks. Admittedly, I’m not 66, but it’s a good witchy number. Long live old age.

Liberty’s Fire

Lydia Syson’s Liberty’s Fire is set during a most interesting historical period. My ignorance showed itself again, but I’d like to think I’ve picked up a few facts about the French Third Republic now.

They had a lot of empires and republics in France back then, and in the history classroom I recall feeling bewildered by them all, and they were hard to keep apart when all you might read is a few paragraphs before you move on to the next Napoleon, or whatever.

Lydia Syson, Liberty's Fire

Liberty’s Fire takes place mainly in 1871 during the brief Paris Commune. Young Zéphyrine is poor and doesn’t even know how to pay for her grandmother’s funeral. She meets violinist Anatole, and they fall in love. Zéphyrine gets involved with the communards and she shows Anatole how things might be. He, in turn, educates her a little in cultural matters, and introduces her to his photographer flatmate Jules, and to Marie, who sings at the theatre.

War and revolution are the main characters in this book. The hopes people have for the commune and the hate and violence from its enemies are striking. There is much bloodshed and cruelty, but also friendships and solidarity, the latter reminding me of the early 1970s.

There is also a tender love story nestling in this book, although not the obvious one between Anatole and Zéphyrine.

This is an excellent history lesson, mixed with romance.

No Mog?

What if there had been no Mog? What if Judith Kerr’s parents hadn’t been allowed to settle in Britain?

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is perhaps not the most harrowing of refugee books, as the Kerr family at least had – some – money and were able to travel together, and Judith wasn’t sent alone on a train with hundreds of other children.

But I’m grateful for the books she’s written. As I am for Eva Ibbotson’s books, and those by many others.

There is one thought I have when I’ve got this far, though, and that is ‘what about the countless marvellous books/paintings/other kinds of work the world could have benefitted from if more people had been able to leave 1930s Germany?


I often say I’m the kind of immigrant that people like or want. I could be wrong. It was never easy being allowed into the UK, but it was possible, and required only a phone call to the British embassy in Stockholm, payment of a fee, a plane ticket to London, a conversation with the immigration officer at Heathrow (who was mainly interested in where the future Resident IT Consultant came from – like was he another ghastly foreigner, importing more of his foreign kind into the country?), another discussion with an unpleasant customs officer, followed much later by a day at Lunar House in Croydon with all the other hopefuls. And much much later an interview with a council employee (who rather suspected I’d be importing all my foreign relatives if she wasn’t strict with me) to get my NI number.

But I got in, and I have stayed.

And here I have read many books about the plight of people in the 1930s who fled their countries and ended up in Britain, and survived because of it. There are the books, and then there are the authors, who wouldn’t be here today were it not for someone getting permission to enter back then. Now there are people here who actually are proud of this, even though there was hostility at the time.

Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness is another foreigner who must have managed this move as well, since he now lives in the UK. He’s blonder than me, so was possibly more welcome.

By now it appears that Patrick has caused hundreds of thousands of pounds to be donated in aid of the refugees, whose fate we see in the news at the moment.

Just think, in 2095 there could be people who will proudly say how happy they are that Britain welcomed these scared and desperate human beings in 2015. Because it’s what good countries do.

(Here is where you can donate to Save the Children and join Derek Landy and John Green.)

W.A.R.P.ed, or when Fong broke his arm

Eoin Colfer

Admittedly it was my own fault. When the programme said Eoin Colfer would be talking about his second WARP book, I could have done my homework and seen that it’d be the third book. But luckily he didn’t really talk about either of them, except to read a chapter from book three, which will be the last. WARP, that is, not from Eoin. He has lots of books coming, already written. (But I could have prepared by acquiring and reading the last WARP. Just so I wouldn’t feel left out.)

Eoin had a photocall session before his event, and he was only scolded once for looking my way and chatting, when he should have looked the other way and been quiet. He recognised me, despite my cunning disguise of cutting my hair.

Eoin Colfer

Anyway, he spent most of his event – which was full of children, mainly boys, of the ‘right’ age – telling us about his eldest son’s broken arm. This is a recurring thing, and I’d say Eoin gets plenty of mileage out of poor Finn’s misfortune. Or Fong, as he’s called when he breaks his arm in France.

Finn gives as good as he gets, though, hugging his father and patting him on the head, because it’s not every dad who wears children’s jeans. In fact, I’d hazard a guess and claim that Eoin’s sons might have taken over where Eoin’s four brothers left off. And it’s not as if Eoin never broke an arm, or tried to splint it with tin foil and stuff. It’s a hard life being a Colfer.

So, Eoin is the kind of author who goes from writing about leprechauns to time travel, because it’s more mature. He told us about his best bad guy, Albert Garrick, and about the witch trials he set up in the 17th century, where he ended up hiding.

With 20 minutes to go, he reckoned he had time for four questions, as Eoin knows he’s the kind of man who never stops talking. There were no remotes in the 1970s, but they had one of the first in Ireland, achieved by throwing things at his baby brother to change channels. He didn’t always want to be an author, but an artist, so began by making comics until he realised he was better at writing.

His favourite book that he didn’t write is Stig of the Dump, and this has something to do with the exhaust in their Renault 4. He liked having a book to read in every room of the house, in case of earth quakes. Eoin also broke the toilet by stuffing books behind the cistern, while his brothers used to pull out the last page of his books. (What did I say about the Colfers?)

Eoin’s favourite authors are Oliver Jeffers, Philip Pullman and Roddy Doyle. At his age he likes short books, in case he dies, and people like Raymond Chandler who wrote 190p books are just the thing.

Favourite book that Eoin did write is The Legend of Spud Murphy, written especially for his favourite son Fong (or was it the other one?). Asked if he has put himself in a book, he didn’t believe he had, until his wife pointed out he’s just like Foaly; sits around all day at his desk, thinking he’s hilarious. To prove it he told us the cardboard box and computer story again.

Future books include one with Oliver Jeffers, and an adult (I hope crime!) one.

Eoin Colfer

When I looked in on Eoin after an hour, he was still signing. And that was without me bringing him all mine.

Celebrating Young Adult Fiction

Daniel Hahn

There were so many authors for Daniel Hahn’s event on YA literature that we got 15 minutes extra to sort out the seating arrangements, (a rather nice booth at the edge of the Spiegeltent for me) or so he claimed. We should – could – have had much longer. Not so much for the chairs as for the sheer marvel of what everyone had to say, whether or not YA exists. (Some of them reckon it doesn’t.)

Them, were Elizabeth Laird, David Almond, James Dawson and Tanya Landman, plus Agnes Guyon, chair for this year’s Carnegie. That’s four award winners, and one awarder. Daniel said, two of them were suspicious, but he changed that to having suspicions [about YA] when we laughed. The introductions had to be kept short or there would have been no time for the event. Elizabeth has written 150 books, and she claimed ‘most of them rubbish.’ David Almond has won everything, including the Hans Christian Andersen prize. New kid on the block, and reigning Queen of Teen, James Dawson, hasn’t won so much yet, except for the rather spiky QoT crown he keeps in a cupboard. And then there was this year’s Carnegie medalist, Tanya Landman.

With the exception of young James, who did grow up on  Nancy Drew, Melvin Burgess and Judy Blume (yes, that book), before moving on to Stephen King, none of the others had had access to any YA books back in the olden days. Elizabeth read Kipling, Geoffrey Trease and moved straight from Wind in the Willows to Agatha Christie and Jane Eyre. Oh, and she read her great aunt’s books…

David liked John Wyndham and Hemingway, as well as Blyton. Tanya was also a Wyndham fan, she read Leon Garfield, and then she has forgotten the rest. Agnes Guyon went straight from the Famous Five to Zola. As you do. Daniel felt this was a terribly French answer, and one he will use in future.

On being asked how they became YA writers, James said he decided after reading Noughts & Crosses. He reckons we’re all here because of J K Rowling, and what Stephenie Meyer did to follow. David didn’t even know he’d written YA when asked about it in America. Tanya reckons a book is a book is a book, and she doesn’t like categories.

James Dawson

James believes Philip Pullman only got away with what he wrote because the books were aimed at young readers. Elizabeth’s reading is mixed, and she reads what she needs for the moment. When ill she can consume many Agatha Christies in a short time.

Tanya read from her Buffalo Soldier, and had to stick to the first chapter, as she wrote the book with a southern American accent in mind, but she can’t actually read aloud like that.

Talking about diversity, James said there are many books, but none are bestsellers, unlike the leading David Walliams, John Green and the Hunger Games. Elizabeth feels that it’s the 3 for 2 offers in shops that make the bestsellers, in a fake sort of way. That’s why we need libraries, with librarians in them.

According to David, children’s publishers are more adventurous, and more confident in what they publish, than adult ones, and mentioned Shaun Tan. Elizabeth has experience of being recycled. If you can stay in print for 25 years, you find that your readers have become parents and will be drawn back to your books, until 25 years later when it’s the grandchildren’s turn.

Elizabeth Laird

Daniel’s bugbear is translations. There are not enough of them. Pushkin and Little Island are two publishers who do look for fiction to translate. Elizabeth read from her book A Little Piece of Ground, which was very moving.

Adults are people who ought to know better; they should read proper books. Or that’s what people think. Tanya reckons To Kill a Mockingbird has become what it is because it’s accessible. She knew someone who was embarrassed to be seen reading The Book Thief, because it’s not a ‘proper’ book. James even defended Twilight, being someone who’s ‘heading into his mid twenties.’

Tanya said what I’ve long failed to put into words, which is that in YA books things get better within the book (except for Kevin Brooks), while in adult books you start level, and then things spiral into something worse, with divorce, unemployment and worse. Elizabeth had some insight there and then which she shared with us; YA wants to tell a good story, straight and simple, with no ‘tricksy writing’ unlike so many adult books.

Agnes said that what the Carnegie judges look for is plot, style and characterisation, well told. And as someone retorted, ‘how hard can it be?’

James read from his new, almost not published, book, about a bisexual relationship. I think we were all impressed by how daring this seemed, but when asked if he’s ever encountered resistance, he said his whole next book got scrapped (grindr culture for gay men, starting with hardcore gay sex), and as a World Book Day author next year this wasn’t seen as being quite right. Elizabeth laughed so heartily at this, that I suspect the publishers are wrong.

We finished with David reading from Ella Grey, about Orfeus and rather grown-up sleepovers.

One question from the audience was on how children seem to get older younger these days, and James treated us to his memories of reading about demonic sex at the age of eleven.

Someone else told us that YA books save her in her job as a teacher, because the books suit the children. Elizabeth wonders if we are all teenagers, really, and Daniel added that it could be we are just optimists.

Perhaps there wasn’t any wolf whistling from the audience, but almost. This was one happy group of book lovers and we could easily have stayed there much longer. As it was, we trooped over to the adult (the irony of it!) bookshop for signings. It was good to finally speak to Tanya Landman, who was excited enough to give me an extra ‘e’ but that’s all right between Carnegie winner and witch.

James Dawson, Elizabeth Laird, Tanya Landman and David Almond

(This photo borrowed from Lindsay Fraser, because it’s so much better than mine.)

What Five Children and It Did Next

My first event on Monday was learning more about Kate Saunders and her much praised book Five Children on the Western Front, which won last year’s Costa. I’ve not read it yet, nor do I know the Edith Nesbit original stories all that well. I read some, but it was a long time ago.

Kate wrote this sequel to Nesbit’s books for the anniversary of WWI last year. She had long ago worked out that those children were just the right age to be caught up in the war that Nesbit didn’t know about when she created their idyllic, magic, free childhood.

Kate Saunders

As a child Kate felt that E Nesbit spoke directly to her, and she reckons that the author ‘put all the seeds down’ and she simply wrote her book, based on what was already there. Kate’s own teenage son died a few years ago, so she feels the far too early loss of young people very strongly.

She had plans for whom to kill off, but at least one character was saved by book reviewer Amanda Craig, who forced her to rethink. And in Monday morning’s school event, it appears Kate managed to make chair Daniel Hahn cry, which just goes to show how books can affect people.

Writing your last letter home, for if you don’t survive the war, features in Kate’s book (this was the moment my first pen decided it had had enough). She said it’s ‘outrageous that young people are sent away to be killed’ and she found that using magic in her story meant that it wasn’t all about life on the home front, but she was able to let the younger children see what went on in the trenches, while they were trying to help the Psammead.

The one thing that doesn’t translate well to a new book like this is the way Nesbit treated servants. She was very un-pc, and Kate has made a point of being nice and kind to ‘her’ servants, in whatever accents you get.

The audience in the Writers Retreat were fairly young, but they had nevertheless read both Kate’s book and the Nesbit ones, and they came up with some really excellent questions. Kate told them she began writing at nine, and that in twenty years’ time it could very well be one of them who would be talking at the book festival.

On the subject of dramatisations of novels, she feels it’d be hard to get in there and beat War Horse. This former actress once had to pay her son to come to the theatre with her.

Kate had to work hard at not revealing who dies in her book, or the fates of any of the characters. The children kept asking, though. And with war you just can’t have anything but a sad ending. It can’t be avoided. The thing for Kate was that there should be kindness, and there’s a strong sense of right and wrong.

There will be no more sequels of other people’s books for a while now. She wanted her book to be true to the feeling of Edith Nesbit. She compared it to considering rewriting the New Testament, which is something you just wouldn’t do.

Generally Kate doesn’t know what the end will be until she gets there. It’s ‘better to make it up as you go along.’ She needs a good start and then she has to have a shape that she strives for. After that she might rip up chapters (computer fashion) to make her book better.