Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Past vs Present

I've been reading this blog, which is following the proposals for the redevelopment of part of Deptford. Deptford is a run down area of south east London which is certainly in need of regeneration.

However, the area which it is proposed to redevelop is historically significant. It is the site of the first Royal Dockyard which dates from the time of Henry VIII. It is also the site of Sayes Court, home of the diarist John Evelyn, and of his garden.

Those who object to the proposals argue that they do not give proper consideration to the historical importance of the area; that they risk damaging or destroying archaeological evidence;  that they do not allow for community access to and appreciation of some of the historically important aspects of the site.

Yet homes are needed, as is investment that will bring jobs to the area. How should these needs be balanced with the desire to preserve the past?

The question of past versus present can be asked elsewhere. How much should local authorities spend on archive services when services for children and the elderly may be facing cuts?

Should the owners of  historic buildings be restricted in what they can do with their properties?  Yes, it is desirable that that old buildings should be preserved whenever possible. Timber and brick are almost always more attractive than concrete.

(It would be even better if planning authorities took account of scale and context when deciding what to preserve.)  

Most houses have been altered over the years. Fireplaces and chimney stacks have replaced open hearths. Tiled roofs have replaced thatch. Extensions have been added, rooms knocked through or partitioned off or converted to different uses. New windows and doors have been fitted. Mains drainage, water, gas and electricity have been added.

Why should it be decided that at some arbitrary date in the twenty first century a building should stop evolving to meet the needs and wants of the people who live there?  

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Crime and Punishment

Anyone who writes crime fiction set in the past has to deal with the fact that capital punishment existed. I was surprised to find myself squeamish about this when deciding who my villain would be and how he or she would be discovered.

I'm usually the one arguing that things were different in the past and we must not  judge by present day standards.

I don't have a problem with killing characters by other means. I've killed off good characters and bad ones.

There are ways to avoid the issue. Have the villain run in front of a train as he tries to avoid capture; have such strong mitigating circumstances that it can be suggested that the death penalty will almost certainly be commuted (according Old Bailey Online, many death sentences were never  carried out); make the villain so irredeemably evil that no-one could feel any sympathy for him; write about crimes that did not carry the death penalty.

But that would feel like cheating (and in the case of the irredeemably evil villain,  two-dimensional characterisation). And if one is going to write historical crime, one can't avoid the issue forever.

However I choose to approach it, it must remain my problem and not become my characters'.  They are of their time and it's unlikely any of them would object to capital punishment on principle.

If one of them had a personal connection to someone who was facing the drop, however - now that would make a dramatic storyline.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

How not to be a short story writer

I rarely write short fiction. Short story writing, which requires set up, development and resolution in two thousand words or fewer, is a skill that I don't have. The novel, with a plot that takes time to work out, and a large cast of characters, is my natural medium.

However, a while ago I was inspired to write Bess, her story, linked to under 'Pages' above. It's not a story, more a slice of life or character piece. It's not at all my usual style, and I don't think it would work in a longer piece, but it demanded to be written that way.

(The next paragraph discusses the piece, so you might want to read it before reading further here.)

And even in this short (just over two thousand words) piece I have nine named characters, two who are individually described but not named, and others who are mentioned but not individually described.

What is totally lacking, however,  is a plot. The characters don't drive the action. They don't make any decisions that change the course of events. They only observe and react.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

How to teach history?

‘History [is] little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.’

‘If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.’

‘Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.’

The history teaching debate seems to have resurfaced in some areas. According to one blogger, 'schools history instils in students very little sense of what history is really about, and very few of the skills for university history ....  History is about interpretive skills and understanding other cultures.... The real, socially and culturally valuable skills of history proper can be taught regardless of the place or  period under study.'

So what matters, it seems, is not actually teaching about the past, but teaching some undefined 'skills' for which the student may or may not have a use in the future. But surely skills are useless without knowledge and context?  One would not, presumably, teach someone the skills to perform heart surgery without first teaching him or her human anatomy? Or the skills to rewire a house without teaching about electricity?  Why should it be any different for history?

It is true that in order to study history at university one does need analytical and critical skills. But the majority of people who study history at school will not go on to study it at university. Many will not even study it to the age of eighteen. Is it appropriate, therefore, to use the limited time available to teach skills that many students will never actually need, rather than to give them knowledge which will help them understand the world in which they live?

Should not the purpose of history in schools be to teach students how we came to be where we are today? That is, to teach them about the origins of our landscape, our language, our monarchy, our legal system, our parliamentary system, our Commonwealth, and may other aspects of daily life?

The idea of teaching history as a continuous narrative is also decried by some. Under the National Curriculum in schools, and with the modular approach favoured by some universities,  it is possible to go through thirteen years of school and three years of university specialising in history without studying the complete political, social and economic history of Britain.

Yet one cannot properly study historical topics and eras in isolation. One cannot understand the Second World War without studying the First. One cannot understand the causes of the First World War without going back at least as far as 1815, and arguably as far back as the ninth century. One cannot understand Henry VIII’s conflict with the Pope without looking at relations between the English monarchy and the Papacy as far back as the time of William the Conqueror. And so on.

This debate has been going on for some years and shows no sign of being resolved in the near future. It is possible that the end result will be that, as there is now a generation of English teachers who cannot punctuate, because they themselves were never taught how, there may in future be a generation of history teachers who do not know any history, because they were never taught any.