Tag Archives: history

A little man with a big story

Phil: The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn takes place in 1625 and follows Nat Davy – a man who became “the Queen’s Dwarf”. Based loosely on a real person, Sir Jeffrey Hudson, it weaves a story around his life from being sold by his father and living as a plaything (initially) of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles the first.

The book is an interesting and enjoyable historical romp. I suspect that if you are a hard-core history buff, you’ll we clenching your fists in a few places as fictitious versions of real events unfold, or at least versions that have been enhanced by imagination simply because there is no other way to do it.

I found it fascinating to read the tale of the English Civil war from the losing side. Nat is firmly embedded in the Royalist camp and even though he doesn’t rate the king highly, doesn’t disagree with the basic idea of someone with the God-given right to rule the country. This is a world, where you find yourself forced to fight, and die, for a cause that you might not believe in. Nat’s brother is enlisted to the Parliamentary side simply by being in the wrong place (at home) when they took over his village. He doesn’t want to fight and has no interest in politics – all that stuff seems a long way away from his rural village in the era before instant communication.

The Queen grows from a terrified 15-year-old the entire country dislikes (she is a Catholic) to a powerful force behind the throne that the country hates.

Nat is devoted to her, and becomes a trusted confidant. Both are outsiders, her because of her faith, him because he stoped growing at ten years old. She lives in a palace full of intrigue and suspicion where courtiers brief against each other and vie for the ear of the king. It all sounds very similar to politics today!

I’m not really one for historical novels, but this is a real page-turner. I’m sure history buffs will find much to criticise, but it’s not a school exercise book, it’s an enjoyable story which has a historical background. My limited knowledge means I didn’t spot any major issues – but the author has stuck to many established facts for the main events in the story. What she has intended is the stuff that wouldn’t be recorded anyway.


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Do you read reviews? I really should.

Phil: I’ve just come back from the Tutankhamun “Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition in London. I shelled out good money to get in and for my ticket to travel. Sadly, by the end, I was disappointed and felt cheated.

We were promised 150 artefacts, many leaving Egypt for the first and last time. That much is true, but my motivation was to see the iconic golden mask of Tutankhamun – the thing everyone pictures in their mind’s eye when you say the name.

I gazed at many amazing and fascinating objects, gradually nearing the end. Turning in to the last room, I was faced with….a stone statue. An interesting statue with 3000-year-old paint, but not the golden mask.

Querying this with a steward, it became obvious that I’m not the first person to ask. The reply about the mask being “too delicate” to travel from Egypt came out very quickly and with much practice.

Looking back at the booking, I realise the organisers had never said the mask would be there. They had simply used an image of one of the other objects, a miniature version of the coffin used for holding some of the King’s internal organs. It’s beautifully made and from the picture, you wouldn’t know the thing was about a foot tall. I simply saw the picture and assumed, something the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer guessed would happen.

Now, if I’d taken the time to read some reviews beforehand, I’d have realised I wasn’t going to see the mask. On that basis, I’d have given the exhibition a miss.

This makes me think, I’m a bit rubbish at checking this sort of thing out in advance. I don’t generally read book reviews in advance either.

Is this just me?

Maybe authors can stop worrying quite so much about a bad review. Most people have better things to do than research a book in advance – a nice over and slick synopsis on the back probably sells more.

OK, there will be some who pore through reviews, probably looking for the bad ones. A slew of good reviews can’t hurt either, but maybe we can afford to be a bit more relaxed. And maybe, I need to be a little more prepared in future when planning a day out.


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Finish with a flourish

DominionPhil: Meeting up for lunch a couple of weeks ago, I was sat outside the pub reading in the sunshine. When Candice arrived, after she’d taken the mickey out of my hat, commented that she’d read the same book and written it up on the blog.

’tis true. I half remembered this. In the back of my mind it’s why I bought the book. Well, that and it was for sale in a pound shop.

The book is Dominion by CJ Sansom. A thriller set in an alternate history where Britain didn’t fight very much of the second world war, instead coming to an arrangement with Germany that sees us living in a sort of hybrid British/Nazi world.

(Warning: Spoilers follow)

Plot: Frank Muncaster, a geologist, learns an important secret from his American physicist brother. The realisation that after a very short conversation he knows how to make an atomic bomb terrifies him and the book revolves around the resistance’s efforts to get him out of the country while the Germans try to capture him.

That’s nearly 800 pages distilled down for you, so here are the good and bad points:


  • The book comes fitted with a ribbon to use as a bookmark. Yes, I know it’s daft, but I really liked this.
  • The atmosphere of a 1950s Britain is well done. Basically, it’s very similar to the world as it happened but with more televisions.
  • At the back there is a history section explaining how the author developed the world the story takes place in, extrapolating from history. History experts have pulled this to bits but much of it seems pretty plausible to me.
  • The Nazis are a little comic book but the idea that they would try to appear to work within the system doesn’t seem so far-fetched. This isn’t an invasion proper so there aren’t storm troopers in the streets.


  • The plot is daft. Muncaster is a geologist and yet learns enough from his brother before pushing him out of a window to be useful in developing an atomic bomb. Seriously? The Manhattan project was a massive undertaking with vast numbers of scientists working on it. If you were high enough up the chain to understand all the technical stuff you’d never be let out of the country on your own to visit an enemy state. Even then, the chances of explaining things to someone with no training in the field are slim even if you had plenty of time.
  • At the end of the fascinating history, there is a four page rant about the Scottish Referendum. Even if I cared what the author thought of this (I don’t) then a hardback book is not the place for it. With the benefit of hindsight, whoever left that bit in looks a bit silly now.
  • Once the “secret” is obvious, the ending falls a bit flat. If there’s one thing I learned from it, it’s that a book really needs a good, big, ending. I’m very glad we didn’t edit away any of ours.

This might sound like I didn’t enjoy the read but I did. The atmosphere carries you along and in the peasouper fog you don’t notice the holes.

However on reflection there is a problem in that almost nothing that happens on the page matters. In the background, the most important story is Hitler’s death and what will happen to the regime when he goes. Nothing anyone does really makes a difference and that leaves this reader feeling a bit empty. There’s a nice epilogue to tie up all the loose ends but after nearly 800 pages I’d like to feel more satisfied.


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Something for posterity?

leobookPhil: Last week, I found myself with an hour to kill in the Kings Cross area of London. Obviously I did what anyone of a writerly persuasion would do, I dropped in to the British Library.

Now you don’t use the BL to borrow books. Not if you live 2 hours from it by train anyway. Bad enough to pay late fines without having to think about the ticket to get there. Quite a lot of people seem to use it as somewhere to eat – the giant foyer was littered with people eating those posh lunches you only see in London. Plenty were using laptops or tablets too.

Me, I headed into one of the exhibition halls. Treasures of the British Library shows off some of the most famous bits of paper in the collection.

“Bits of paper”? Yes, it’s not just books but letters and notes.

The amazing thing is that for no money, I could stand in a room and look at words written by legendary historical figures. The very first case contained one of Leonardo de Vinci’s notebooks. 5 feet away, a Michelangelo (not the turtle) set of notes on figure proportions.

Around the corner, a letter started by Anne Boleyn and completed by hubby King Henry VIII.

All these just a few centimetres and a sheet of thick glass away from me. Words written by real people who exist only in history books. All I could think was stupid thoughts like, “de Vinci touched that paper.”

It set me thinking. What will be left for future scholars to drool over?

Using our book as an example, most of the work is carried out on computers. I know my handwriting is terrible and I’m so out of practise that if I have to fill a long form in with a pen, my wrist hurts.

There are notebooks of course, and a big pile of Post-It notes but we aren’t really generating much that the BL will want to stick in a cabinet in the future. No one wants to look at an early NolanParker manuscript and think, “Candice and Phil typed that.”.

Maybe we are generating lots more words but our methods have lost something over the years. That said, I’ve never seen a publisher asks for novels to submitted in quill pen and having seen Henry’s handwriting, I can see why.

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World War Z

Phil: World War Z, written by Max Brooks,WWZBook is a very clever book. Written entirely in the past tense, it describes the ten-year long Zombie war as a series of individual accounts related to the author, a UN executive who has previously written the official report on the war. The idea is that these would have been in this report but were instead published in book form as they were too casual for an “official” publication.

Starting with a doctor who treats “Patient Zero” at the start of the outbreak, we hear from an ordinary soldier who fought in the failed American “Last Stand” at Yonkers, a South African who comes up with a practical but horrifying strategy to fight the zombies, the US general who takes control of the reconfiguring of society to fight back and survive along with many others.

Being an oral history, we don’t get to know everything. For example, no one explains where the virus that caused the zombies to rise up comes from. There are hints that it originated in China as a military programme but that’s never explicitly stated. There’s also an event called “the great panic” where it is hinted that a US newsreader finally tells the truth about the zombies on air – previously news had been suppressed – but while it’s alluded to, we never get any details, just the results.

Along the way, different countries handle things in their own way. Israel abandons the Palestinian territories and shuts the rest of the world out. The US goes typically gun-ho in a completely ineffective way initially. This is truly multi-national story.

Now, you might suggest that zombies are a stupid enemy – completely preposterous in fact, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. There’s also an allegory with current events. Were Ebola or SARS to spread dramatically, how would nations react to the threat? More to the point, how would society react? How would you handle such a threat?

The book plays everything straight and works well because of it. Fastidious research and realistic assumptions from the author make a fundamentally silly idea work brilliantly. The idea of a series of verbal accounts from different points of view is inspired. Maybe it’s been done before, but I don’t recall it. A fascinating read.

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The People’s Songs

Peoples SomgsPhil: Does a song transport you back to a place in time?

If it does, then you’ll probably enjoy Stuart Maconie’s latest book, The People’s Songs. Although nominally about music, it’s really a history of the UK from World War 2 to the present day focussing on youth culture. We kick off with Vera Lynn and the sentimental songs that everyone wanted during the war years and finish in 2012/13 with Dizzee Rascal and Bonkers.

The concept is sound enough but sometimes the author’s position firmly ensconced in the media bubble as assistant editor at NME shows through. I’m never convinced that punk (for example) was as important to the world as it was in London. Even those heavily in to the scene at the time like Danny Baker have suggested that the whole thing was overplayed by a metropolitan media.

Which makes you wonder how much the music reflected the time and how much it drove the mood. For example, Ghost Town by the Specials is a fine reflection of the period but in the same year (1981) we also bought two different versions of 9 to 5, Antmusic and Girls on Film. Duran Duran came from Birmingham, The Specials from Coventry – 25 miles apart by road but separated by a million miles in terms of musical style.

There’s a distinct hint of shoehorn in the way some tracks are tied in to the histories. Maconie likes to make sure we get some Smiths so there is space for a few quotes from Morrissey. I’m assuming the singer has some incriminating photos of Maconie as he pops up in every book with no hint of derision no matter how ridiculous he is being. Some of these aren’t so much People’s Songs as songs that tie in with the period and say something about it.

Overall though, this is an enjoyable read. I had the advantage of knowing most of the songs, but if you don’t then you’ll probably be scurrying for YouTube to fill in the blanks. Take it as a history of pop culture and enjoy the many tangents the text heads off in. The 50 chapters are bite-sized and idea for commuting or grabbing in short bursts of reading when you don’t have time to wallow in anything longer.

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Finding inspiration from the other side

V2Phil: Have all the stories been told? Do we all need to churn out variations on the same tale?

No, we don’t. It’s just that finding the setting for your novel that is both plausible and recognisable to the reader gets harder every time another book plops out into the world. Imagination of course is infinite and sometimes you just need to, as the main character in our book would say, think outside the box.

Candice reviewed Dominion on Tuesday and this provides a good example. Set in an alternative version of history where Germany won World War II, the setting can be both familiar and totally alien to us.

I live in a perfect example of this. Leamington Spa would have become the capital of Nazi-run Britian. This is historical fact – there are plenty of documents to prove it. Thus, I can walk past a town hall that would very likely have been festooned with red banners bearing the swastika. Familiar but very alien.

Sticking with this theme, one of the books in my library is V2 written by Major-General Walter Dornberger. This describes the development of the German V1 and V2 weapons at the Peenemünde Army Research Centre from the perspective of the man in charge. The account, translated by the Special Scientific Book Cub, is a dispassionate account of the process. You see the whole thing from the point of view of those we traditionally refer to as the enemy.

There is no attempt to justify any of the actions – it’s just what a senior army officer did. Maybe the translators have produced a more dispassionate account that the original text would have us read but it’s no less fascinating for all that.

Chapter 15, Flaming Night, is the most interesting in many ways. Assuming the reader has made it this far, they are seeing people normally portrayed as monsters at least as human beings. The chapter describes an air raid by the Allies in August 1943. Suddenly, the bombs dropping are heading for the writer. It’s a novel perspective an d slightly unsettling as you find yourself hoping that everyone is OK. That’s not right – these are the enemy. As we know, they were carrying out acts of unimaginable evil – yet it’s more difficult to be on the side of the attackers than I feel entirely comfortable admitting.

So, maybe there is scope to write from the perspective of the other side? Not to justify actions but because on both sides of any conflict there are stories to be told from the perspective of ordinary people unable to influence things but still suffering the consequences.

Another options is to consider how history would be different if that air raid had been more succesful.

V weapon research might have been halted. Wernher von Braun and the other rocket scientists are buried under the rubble. Operation Paperclip, the spiriting out of the country of scientists “useful” to the Allies never takes place. Rocket science is put back at least 10 years.

How is the world different? Is the Cold War based on tanks rolling across Germany rather than people lobbing missiles at each other? Presumably, the aircraft based systems we built stay in service for longer but does this make the situation better or worse? Would the Cuban Missile crisis happen? Do we ever walk on the moon?

There are stories out there, we just need to change our perspective.

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What’s the story of this?

Flint Arrow HeadPhil: The photo shows a flint arrow head that I was presented with recently.

It dates from 3000BC.

This makes it 5000 year old. Five Thousand!

As I handle it, I can’t begin the grasp this. It’s an unimaginable time. This tiny item 3.5cm long, has survived pretty much everything we know in history. Civilisations have risen and fallen while this carefully shaped bit of stone has been buried in the ground.

I feel I want to tell its story, but I don’t know where to start.

If I tried, I’m sure the result would involve a stereotype cave man, probably called Ug because as far as I know. cavemen didn’t give themselves names. He (I’m assuming he but don’t see why this must be the case) would spend the days carefully chipping away at bits of flint to make weapons. Looking at the workmanship, he must have been highly skilled. The point would probably still pierce skin if fired on an arrow at close quarters.

What else would the story involve? How did cavemen live? What did they do day-to-day?

I realise as I handle the arrowhead that while it might provide a physical link through history, it’s far too big a story for me to tell. Sometimes you just have to sit and wonder.

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Delving into the past

Candice: I recently met up with my Aunt, who is the grand old age of 88. My parents have been doing some research into my Dad’s side of the family and wanted to know if my Aunt could remember anything juicy. My father’s family come from somewhere in County Cork, but we don’t know where, and Nolan is as common as Smith over there. We do know that some of our relies are on the war memorial in Birmingham but don’t really know much more than that.

Anyway, all this research made me think about how you construct a character for a book. When Phil and I started writing we just threw what ever words came to mind on a page. However,about half way through we realised we need to work out who these characters were, and why they would do what they do. And simple things like, did Kate have brothers and sisters, how had she got to where she was, how many men had Tracy shagged etc. So, we needed to give them a back story, even if it didn’t appear in the actual book. This is actually quite similar to creating a character as an actor. When I used to a lot of theatre, the method approach mean that you wrote a history for your character and it defined how your character behaved. I was never quite to that level, probably because I only had minor roles. But, even now when I do extras work, I try to think of my character’s motivation as it really does help you be a more professional character (and I like to think I give good extra!)

So, we created character sheets for our main characters (and some minor ones), which helped drive the story, and make sure that Phil and I wrote the same things about out characters. It’s no good me saying Kate went to public school and Phil has her going to a comp in the next chapter.

At our writing peak, I could tell you exactly what Kate would do in any situation, they were that well rounded.

For any budding writer out there, I recommend you do this as part of your planning.

Image created by Phil, by the way !

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