Sunday, 28 August 2011

Flannelled Fools

It's  nearly the end of summer and I haven't posted about cricket. Very remiss of me, considering the England team's terrific performances in the Ashes in Australia last winter and against India at home this summer.

Cricket is not just a game of physical skill and stamina. The most successful captains are those with the best tactical skills. And then the most careful plans can be undone by the English weather.

Cricket seems to have originated in south east England. The earliest known documented reference is in a court case in Surrey in 1598. A witness recalled playing fifty years before.

In the summer of 1652 several men were indicted for 'playing an unlawful game called crickett' on several occasions in Ballfield in Cranbrook in Kent.

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 cricket was no longer unlawful, but it could be dangerous.

In April 1662 John Carely ‘being playing at a sport called cricket with David Morgan and others at Goudhurst  .... in striking at the ball thrown against his wicket with [a] cricket bat which he had then in his hand ... did strike the said David Morgan under the ear ... inflicting an injury  from which he died.’

John Carely was indicted for  murder, the charge later being reduced to manslaughter. The jury, however, found that Carely ‘had no malicious intent’ and Morgan died ‘not by any homicide.’

Cricket was played by all social classes. The cricketers at Cranbrook and Goudhurst in the seventeenth century included a gentleman, a clothier, a husbandman and a labourer.

In the mid eighteenth century the Sussex shopkeeper  Thomas Turner often watched, and sometimes played in, matches between parishes in his neighbourhood. He also occasionally had a bet on the results. He seems to have been well informed about the game, recording after one match that ‘Lindfield kept the field best and batted best in general, but could not bowl.’

The game was becoming more organised by the later eighteenth century. Thomas Turner saw a team that purported to represent the whole county of Sussex. The Marylebone Cricket Club was founded in 1787 and a year later the Laws (not Rules) of cricket were laid down.

The best known lines of cricketing poetry are probably those by Sir Henry Newbolt:

There's a breathless hush in the Close tonight -
Ten to make and the match to win -
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.

The game is a popular subject for prose writers in both fiction and non-fiction. Lord Peter Wimsey is probably the best known fictional cricketer.

Some cricketing moments have become part of the national memory. Anyone who has any interest in the game will remember where he or she was on the fourth and fifth days of the Headingley Test  in 1981. Or the moment when a large part of the nation was reduced to giggles.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

St Bartholomew's Day

24 August is St Bartholomew's Day.

It is the anniversary of the Battle of Sandwich, otherwise the Battle of St Bartholomew's Day, fought in the English Channel between the French and the English in 1217.

The English were led by Hubert de Burgh, who had sixteen or eighteen large ships and twenty smaller ones under his command.

The French fleet was probably twice the size of the English, but since it was carrying reinforcements and supplies for the invading force already in England, the ships were overloaded and not easily manoeuvred.

The French fleet was commanded by Eustace the Monk, a notorious pirate and mercenary who also dabbled in magic. Eustace made his fleet invisible to the English, so that it could slip past them and enter the Thames Estuary and proceed to London.

However, Stephen Crabbe, a Winchelsea man, was also a student of magic. Despite Eustace's enchantment, he could see the French ships. He leapt aboard Eustace’s ship and struck off his head, whereupon the French fleet became visible again.

A storm raised by the intervention of St Bartholomew scattered the French fleet and left the English unharmed.

More plausibly, it is suggested that when the two fleets came to close quarters the English threw barrels of powdered lime onto the decks of the French, blinding them. Then Eustace’s ship was captured and Stephen Crabbe did indeed behead him on the deck. About twenty French ships were captured, the remainder retreating to Calais.

The Chapel and Hospital of St Bartholomew were founded in Sandwich to commemorate the victory.

Bartholomew Fair was held at Smithfield, on the edge of the City of London, from 1133.

As well as cloth merchants and traders in other commodities from all over England and further afield, the Fair attracted ballad sellers, tumblers, gamblers, conjurers, quacks, cheapjacks, doxies, cozeners, coney catchers, cutpurses, pickpockets, rogues and vagabonds. Many travelled long distances to be at the Fair, providing a headache for local authorities.

The Fair was used as the setting of a play by Ben Jonson in 1614.

By the nineteenth century, fairs as centres of large scale trade were becoming obsolete as other methods of distribution developed. The respectable merchants no longer came and Bartholomew Fair became increasingly vulgar and riotous. The last Fair was held in 1854; it was abolished by the City authorities in 1855.

The proceeds of tolls from the Fair went to the Priory and Hospital of St Bartholomew, founded in 1123. The Priory was dissolved in 1539. The Hospital was refounded, endowed, and its administration given to the City of London, in 1547.

The churches of St Bartholomew the Great and St Bartholomew the Less survive from the medieval period, but otherwise the earliest surviving buildings of Barts Hospital date from the eighteenth century.

Barts has now amalgamated with other London hospitals, but continues to operate from its Smithfield site.

In fiction, it is best known for the fact that John Watson met Sherlock Holmes in a laboratory there.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Subscribing to this blog

Some technical notes for anyone who would like to be notified when this blog is updated: at the foot of the page is the option to subscribe to the Atom feed. For anyone using Internet Explorer, this will display in the Favorites bar at the left hand side of the window. There are also options to sign up to receive notifications by e-mail.

And for something more literary, one great English poet, Kipling, writes about another:

The Coiner

Against the Bermudas we foundered, whereby
This Master, that Swabber, yon Bo'sun, and I
(Our pinnace and crew being drowned in the main)
Must beg for our bread through old England again.

For a bite and a sup, and a bed of clean straw,
We'll tell you such marvels as man never saw,
On a Magical Island which no one did spy
Save this Master, that Swabber, yon Bo'sun, and I.

Seven months among Mermaids and Devils and Sprites,
And Voices that howl in the cedars o'nights,
With further enchantments we underwent there.
Good Sirs, 'tis a tale to draw guts from a bear!

'Twixt Dover and Southwark it paid us our way,
Where we found some poor players were labouring a play;
And, willing to search what such business might be,
We entered the yard, both to hear and to see.

One hailed us for seamen and courteous-ly
Did guide us apart to a tavern near by
Where we told him our tale (as to many of late),
And he gave us good cheer, so we gave him good weight.

Mulled sack and strong waters on bellies well lined
With beef and black pudding do strengthen the mind;
And seeing him greedy for marvels, at last
From plain salted truth to flat leasing we passed.

But he, when on midnight our reckoning he paid,
Says, "Never match coins with a Coiner by trade,
Or he'll turn your lead pieces to metal as rare
As shall fill him this globe, and leave something  to spare...."
We slept where they laid us, and when we awoke
Was a crown or five shillings in every man's poke.
We bit them and rang them, and, finding them good,
We drank to that Coiner as honest men should!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

To plan or not to plan?

Fiction writers are firmly divided into two schools of thought; the planners and the non-planners. The planners believe in having every detail of a novel worked out before they start writing, sometimes to the point of knowing exactly what will happen in every scene.

The non-planners literally make it up as they go along. Some crime writers do not even know who the villain will be when they begin writing. I'm definitely a non-planner, although perhaps not so extreme as some.

When I start writing I always know who my main characters are, what the main conflict of the story will be,  and have at least some idea of how it will be resolved. But I don't know exactly how the story will unfold.

Two things, however, are essential before I can start writing.

I have to get the main characters' names right. I once changed the name of my central character because I thought the name I'd initially chosen was over-used. It took me a while to get used to her new name, and with it her character developed differently from how I had originally imagined her.

In historical fiction, I have to know exactly when the novel is set. Historical fiction centred on particular events, or a real person's life,  is of course tied to specific dates. But if that isn't the case, how does a historical fiction writer decide exactly when a story should take place?

When I began a previous piece of work, I knew the story had to be set in the late eighteenth century,  because that was when conditions existed for the story I wanted to tell. I decided to set it specifically in the autumn and winter of 1792-93,  just before Britain went to war with Revolutionary France. The impending war heightened some of the tensions and conflicts within the story, and the autumn weather, combined with the physical setting, could be used to establish the mood.

I'm just in the very early stages of thinking about another piece of work. The inspiration came from a passage in a book published in 1879, but the story could be set a few years either side of that.

Since it's to be a crime story, set in London, I don't want to go as late as 1888, as I don't want to have to deal with (or ignore) the Whitechapel murders. I also don't want to overlap with the Sherlock Holmes canon; the first story,  A Study in Scarlet, was set in the early 1880s and published in 1887.

I also have the impression that the 1870s are less used as a setting for fiction than the 1880s, so the earlier decade might be a good choice.

The year and even the month will be important as technology, and the
geography of London, were changing rapidly in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1874 my character could have seen the demolition of Northumberland House, the last of the great noblemen's palaces which had once lined the Strand, followed by the construction of Northumberland Avenue.

From 1878 she might have seen a telephone in operation in London. The Royal Albert Dock was opened in 1880, the Circle Line was completed in 1884; in the years preceding my character could have seen them being constructed.

Quite possibly, as I research the period, I'll discover something that was happening in London at this time which I can use in my plot, which will determine the precise date the action takes place.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Does it matter?

When does criticism of a writer's work cease to be reasonable and become nit-picking?

In a novel set in 1797, two army officers are returning, on horseback,  to Woolwich, from a country house in Kent, described as being forty miles from London, south of the Maidstone road. They are riding up Shooter's Hill.

They halted at the top of the hill beside a curious, triangular tower....
'What is this thing?' asked Whittington, looking up at the tower....
'It's a memorial to a man called Sir William James..'

Except that Sir William's memorial, Severndroog Castle,  isn't at the side of the road as one goes over Shooter's Hill, or even, nowadays at least, visible from the road.  I can't help feeling the author has confused it with another tower, an early twentieth century water tower, which  actually is at the side of the road at the summit of Shooter's Hill. (Google brings up yet a third tower,  the water tower of the former Brook Hospital just beyond  Shooter's Hill to the west.)

Aside from this confusion of towers,  if these two gentlemen were returning to Woolwich via the Maidstone road, they should not have been on Shooter's Hill at all.

Does any of this matter?  Only a few readers would pick up on these points. None of it has any impact on the plot. The point of the journey was  to provide an opportunity for the two characters to have a conversation, which they could as easily have had at an inn  while eating and resting their horses. The mention of Severndroog doesn't seem to serve any plot or character related purpose at all. While I was briefly thrown out of the story, my overall enjoyment of the novel wasn't spoiled. 

On the other hand, while these might be minor nitpicks, they are errors that need not have been made. Maps, both current and historical, are easily available, in print and online, for working out journeys. Sometimes travellers' descriptions of particular roads exist. If this author had wanted a near-contemporary account of the Maidstone road, she could have referred to the Torrington Diaries of 1781-94.

But how far is it necessary for an author to go in researching these minor points? Do small mistakes cause readers to lose confidence in an author's research into major plot elements even if, as in the case of this novel, it appears to be thorough and detailed?  Of course novelists should aim for accuracy in what they write, and a failure in research which rendered a plot implausible or impossible would matter. But readers should probably be forgiving of minor errors, as long as a book does not contain too many of them.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Bank Holiday Monday

The first Monday  in August used to be Bank Holiday Monday, the high point of the summer holiday season for many English people. (But not all; parts of the North of England and the Midlands had different traditional holiday arrangements.)

Christmas Day, Good Friday and Whit Monday had traditionally been observed as holidays in England.  It was said that ‘Saint Monday’ was also widely observed by the English labouring classes.

In 1871 the government passed the Bank Holidays Act, which added 26th December (Boxing Day), Easter Monday, and a new holiday, the first Monday in August, to the existing traditional days. Banks would be closed, and so any business involving financial transactions would perforce have to close also.   

According to The Times, the ‘holyday’ was devised for the benefit of the lower middle class, who inhabited ‘the rows of small houses which extend for miles through the suburbs of London,’ from among whom ‘the vast army of bank clerks’ was drawn. Hitherto they had been overlooked by legislators and  philanthropists. ‘It is not for them that taxes have been taken off, schools founded, or suffrages extended.’

The new holiday was an immediate success. The Times reported that ’the early morning trains to the country and the Southern seaside resorts were crowded and the favourite exhibitions in London were frequented by innumerable sightseers.’

The local newspaper in one south eastern seaside resort reported ‘we are overcrowded, invaded and threatened with famine … On Saturday, Sunday and Monday last every nook and corner was filled. In vain respectable people applied for lodgings …. Monday was a holiday under the new Act and we had forgotten all about it. Our rooms were not reserved, our bread and beef had been supplied only in the customary quantities. When the rush of excursionists came - over 700 in one train -  we were overwhelmed and the excursionists were starved.’

It was said that in London neither the railway companies nor the steamboat companies could cope with the rush to the seaside that weekend. Passengers on boats were packed like sardines, all the food on board being sold out within ten minutes. Travellers arriving at Charing Cross at eight o’clock in the morning had to wait two hours to get on a train.   

England might stop on a Bank Holiday weekend, but world events did not. Bank Holiday Monday in 1914 was 3rd August. On that day Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The British government declared that the banks would remain closed the following day also, in order to avoid a financial panic. 

As paid holidays became the norm, Bank Holidays became less significant. But the first weekend in August remained the time when many people took their two weeks summer holiday. As car ownership became more common, for many the Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend was notable for the hours spent sitting in traffic jams.

In 1965, in an attempt to spread the holiday rush more evenly, the Bank Holiday was moved to the last Monday in August, initially on an experimental basis. The change was made permanent in 1971, one hundred years after the holiday was first introduced. Also in the early 1970s, the advent of the cheap package holiday to Spain changed the English holiday trade forever, and marked the end of prosperity for many English seaside resorts.