Tag Archives: History

An Exciting Day

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Wednesday 13th June, 2012. A pretty fabulous day. At least until I realised I was catching a cold. Before that it was brilliant though. I went to London, with work, to help deliver the education program at the Royal Courts of Justice. But on the way I had a royal encounter…

It just so happened that the Queen was visiting Nottingham as part of her Diamond Jubilee tour that day. Nottingham has quite a history where Diamond Jubilees are concerned–it was as part of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations in 1897 that Nottingham was given city status. And the people of this city were certainly excited to see her…they think there were 35,00o just in the Old Market Square. I hadn’t given it much thought though, since I was off to London. Then I arrived at the station and found that the Queen would be arriving shortly and, since I had a train ticket, I could wait in a place beyond the ticket barriers where only a few people were waiting to see her (compared to elsewhere).

So I did. And I reflected on why I wanted to. Politically, I’m fairly ambivalent about the monarchy. I recognise their privilege, the inherent unfairness of anything hereditary and their real irrelevence to the politcal life of this country. And yet…and yet…I can’t help but be a bit of a fan. Perhaps because the Queen seems like a genuinely good person. Perhaps because I recognise that even if we didn’t have a monarchy we would undoubtedly still be led by with privilege and money, so I can’t hold that against them. But mostly I think it’s that I’m aware that I’m looking at history. The figures of the queens of the past fascinate me, all of them, but especially the first Queen Elizabeth. I was awed to see her tomb in Westminster Abbey and to just be a few feet away from her earthly remains. So to see a living queen, plus a future king and his future queen consort is exciting to me. I can’t help it.

Anyone who hears me talk about history will know that I am all about the history of the ordinary people. I love the untold stories, trying to work out the little details of the lives of the poorest people in society. My writing research and my job give me endless opportunity to understand those tales and to try to breathe life into them once again. However, it is impossible to ignore the big events of history, the stories of the powerful, the great and not-so-great. Those stories are interesting too and part of the fabric of this country’s history and culture. I can’t help but enjoy it. I was unashamedly excited to get to see the Queen, and Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. When I’m an old woman, I’ll be able to say that I saw a Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year. No one’s been able to say that since 1897. It’s an event, a moment in time. And so very British.

So, without further ado, here’s some photographs, for anyone who hasn’t already seen them!

And if that wasn’t excitement enough, then I headed off to London. I love the place. History just oozes from every building and flagstone when you look at the place through my eyes. The Royal Courts of Justice are amazing…to be able to enter that grand doorway and actually have a job to do in there was wonderful. It’s an impressive and awe inspiring place, but I didn’t feel scared of it. When I was at Oxford University all those years ago the sheer grandeur and weight of history of the place terrified me. Now I feel quite at home in those surroundings, I find. I loved it there. Significant historically and such an important place–the highest civil court in the United Kingdom and main court of appeal. Wow.

And then I wandered around the vicinity. The Strand, Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill, Old Bailey, Cheapside, Holborn Viaduct. Even then names fascinate me. Bread Lane. Wow. And I saw so much history…not to do with kings and queen and great events…to do with what London has been to Londoners, and Britons, for centuries. The area destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, the churches rebuilt by Wren. The churches which house the bells of the rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’. St Paul’s Cathedral. The site of the old, infamous Newgate Gaol and the public executions outside, now the location of the Central Criminal Courts. The old newspaper offices of Fleet Street, the Temple Bar boundary dragon, site of the old City gate. The oldest tea shop in London. There is so much to see. I tried to soak it all in, but there’s never enough time in London, it seems!

Temple Bar boundary dragon, the Strand

Twinings tea shop, there on the Strand since 1706

I loved this. The site of an old well outside St Clement Danes Church.

The corner of the Central Criminal Courts…the site of the old Newgate Gaol

St Mary-le-Bow church, home of the famous Bow Bells.

Old newspaper offices on Fleet Street.

St Paul’s Cathedral

And the best part of all? I wasn’t remotely intimidated by any of it. Not the grandeur, the history, the hustle and bustle, the crowded tube or the very solemn Evening Prayer service at St Mary-le-Bow. I just enjoyed it all. I don’t know where this new confidence came from exactly and I can’t pinpoint on which day exactly I stopped being scared. But it feels very, very good indeed. 13th June just showed me how far I’ve come. It’s a wonderful adventure.

Surprising myself…

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I’ve not posted for a while. I guess life has rather got in the way of reflections on life…I’ve also barely written a thing, depsite two  nagging streams of creative inspiration which I am convinced will lead to full novels at some point. I’ve just not had the chance.

But I have got a new job. A job I don’t mind telling everyone about, because it seems to compliment my writing, my academic interests…and is generally more reflective of who I am than any of my other recent employment. I’m now an Interpreter at the Galleries of Justice musuem (in the Shire Hall and County Gaol of Nottingham, the place I fictionalised as a setting for my first novel Truths).

The Galleries of Justice

I love my job. It’s very random. Just yesterday I sat down facing a severed head…walked past a sword propped in a doorway on the way to the staffroom…had a conversation with a witch who then went on to kill the Sheriff of Nottingham in a Victorian courtroom…dodged through the shadowy cells so as not to interupt the ghost hunters…oh and spent the day dressed as a stern Victorian. In the coming week I’ll be a reform school teacher and a drunken Georgian prisoner. I’ll also work, as myself, with groups of school children, helping them understand their experience of visiting such a historic building…

And I am constantly surprising myself. I first had a taste of the job when I was 18. At that time I was terrified of public speaking, but my desire to share my knowledge of history won out and I found I could talk to huge groups about what went on the gaol exercise yard. But I’m still not comfortable being the centre of attention, or with the sound of my own voice. So before every tour group reaches me, I have a moment of wondering “what on earth am I doing? This isn’t me! Why would anyone listen to what I have to say? I can’t even act!”

But then, anywhere from one to thirty pairs of eyes are on me and I open my mouth and…I surprise myself. I am stern. I am loud. I am authoratative. I share my knowledge. I crack jokes and get laughter in response. I gesture emphatically. I let myself become a character and don’t feel remotely reserved about it. And I am shocked every time. I wonder where Rebecca’s gone.

It’s an amazing learning experience. That surprise is very similar to how I feel when I remember I’m a writer. The revelation is “wow, I really can do this…and people are actually liking what I do…”

I hope to never lose that sense of wonder. Because I think it’s crucial to not taking life and it’s opportunities for granted. I think it’s essential to fulfilling the potential we’re all born with, to knowing just how much we can do. Just now and again you have to surprise yourself. And in order to do that, you have to push…you have to take risks…you have to try to do the things you don’t think you can. Because when you discover you can, it’s the most amazing feeling. You see the true miracle of how multi-faceted we all are, the skills and traits we all keep hidden because we’re not confident in them…and seeing that, you realise how much fun life can be if you stop being scared of it.

I’m not saying give everything a go. There are things you don’t want to try in life. I have no interest at all in adrenaline rushes and will never be a thrill seeker in that sense. But there are always those nagging thing. The things you want to try…the things you see others do and suspect you could do just as well…the things you’ve always wanted to do. If the opportunity arises…go for it. You have to. We’re here to live our lifes and keeping the things you want to do buried under a lack of confidence stops you living life to full…

So. Go for it. Let your light shine into the world. Tap into your creative side and trust your instincts. Surprise yourself by finding just what you can do. It’s the way I’m trying to live…one day at a time, learning about myself, one surprise at a time…I’m getting there…

Oh and my third novel now has a beautiful front cover! The Locket and the Flintlock will be released in May 2012 by Bold Strokes Books. That’s a thrill that never goes away…and the wonderful surprise of seeing my name on a book cover never really diminishes…

Please check out the Galleries of Justice on facebook and also add our very own Villainous Sheriff, to see photos and find out about special events!

Historical musings…

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I’ve been embroiled in the commercial side of my trade this last week or so…trying everything I can think of to get people interested in the Bold Strokes Books event in the UK in July. If you’re thinking of coming to event, you can now follow us on Twitter and add us on facebook. I’ve sent more e-mails than I’ve kept track of this week, with flyers attached. I really really want this to be a bigger event than last year. Not to raise my own profile, or to sell books…those things are nice, but not of primary importance. What I want is for aspiring writers to be inspired to keep writing…for queer readers to know there are more books out there written for them than they think…to bring a community together with a shared love of books and writing…

Do I sound idealistic? Good. It’s better than cynical. 😀

Oh I’ve been editing too. My new historical novel. But it’s got to the point that I’m just reading and making no changes…so time for a break from that too, methinks…

Anyway, I decided it’s time to think about something else. So a blog post called to me…I asked my facebook friends for questions they would like me to answer in a blog a few days ago. My fellow history lover Melissa McGuire asked me this: “What historical character would you most like to meet? What time period would you most like to explore in a novel?” Thanks Melissa! 😀 I’ll try to answer now. Although this could be an endless essay on one of my favourite topics if I let it run away with me!

What historical character would I most like to meet? It’s a hard one. To begin with, does it have to be someone well known? Historical figures usually are. Kings and Queens, heroes who made their name with some feat of daring or great invention, some clever battle plan or inspired work of literature…But if you’ve read my books, Truths or Ghosts of Winter you’ll know that I’m fascinated by the ordinary people and the untold stories…I’d love to have a chat with someone who watched the execution of Anne Boleyn in the crowd…with a factory worker during the industrial revolution… with a soldier on the field at Waterloo…with a maid in a Victorian household…

Truth is, I love history so much that virtually any historical figure, famous or not, would hold my interest. But, for the sake of an answer to this question, I can think of a few of the more famous names. In the world of literature, tempted though I am to say Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, it’s actually Lord Byron I want to meet. Would he live up to his “mad, bad and dangerous to know” reputation, given to him by Lady Caroline Lamb? Would he be as handsome as he was thought in his day? Just what did go on with all those women, and those handsome boys? I want to meet the man who gave the adjective “Byronic” to the world. I remember standing in the church where he is buried (in Hucknall, near Nottingham) and wishing I could conjure him into life.

Lord Byron

Outside of literature…well…The Duke of Wellington, just to see if he’s as obnoxiously intelligent as he seems to have been…Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley and one of the earliest advocates for women’s rights…”Mad” King Ludwig of Bavaria, to see if he really was mad…

The list could go on and on. But I must just mention the one woman who has always intrigued me, from my earliest days of understanding history. Queen Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I

 

Strong, powerful, in many ways tragic, the woman who defined an age, a golden age for this country. I would be terrified of the woman. But I would love to meet her too.

Okay, that was more than one figure. I hope you’ll forgive me… 😀

Now for the second part of the question…what time period would I most like to explore in a novel? This is just as hard! My favourite historical period is, without a doubt, from the French Revolution in 1789 to the end of the Regency in 1820. I love everything about the history, culture and literature of this period. Romanticism, the Napoleonic Wars, Jane Austen, the industrial revolution and the growth of the cities, the rise of the Gothic, the Enlightment…everything about the time fascinates me. I connect with it in ways I don’t entirely understand. The historical part of Truths and the historical novel I’m working on now are both set in this time period.

However, I’m not limited to one period! When I first thought of writing historical novels, it was the Tudor period I wanted to explore. All the power and poltics, life on a knife edge, a time of great discovery, hugely significant kings and queens…And at the moment, I am planning a late-Victorian novel, with all the decadence, anxiety, aesthicism and Gothic sensibilities of the fin de siecle period.

And yet, if I had to choose one period of history to explore…I would say the 1920s. That few short years between the two world wars, when Britain was already changed beyond recognition by the tragedy of World War One, but optimistic, full of the spirit of modernity, a drive to avoid the mistakes of the generations before…It seems such an exciting time. But all so futile. One shiny, glistening decade before the Wall Street Crash and the Depression…before the devastation of World War Two which followed…To explore that, to capture the spirit of that time in words, is something that is very much one of my writing ambitions.

1920s

I hope that answered your question Melissa! 😉

Now, I am going back to my editing. Otherwise known as banging my head against a wall constructed out of my own words…

Oh and Ghosts of Winter is out NOW!!! 😀

The view from the castle…

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So I’m back to being a writer rather than a political campaigner. In fact, I was recently supposed to deliver leaflets for the Lib Dems in favour of voting reform, but I decided I don’t have time…what with being a writer and all…

In truth, I suppose what I’m spending my time doing right now is trying to be human. Or trying to be a human I like being, at least…And being a writer is a big part of that. It’s alarmingly fundamental to me, I find…Next month sees the release of Ghosts of Winter, my second novel. It’s a mostly contemporary novel, with some colourful glimpses into the past…And the “ghosts” of the title aren’t true ghosts. They’re the ghosts of history echoing into the present, and they’re the personal ghosts we all have to deal with in in our own lives.

I realise this is the second novel I’ve written with a similar theme. This time–in Ghosts of Winterit’s a fictional country house; in Truths it was the Shire Hall and County Gaol of Nottingham. A place, a historical building, leads me into a contemplation of the past, and also my present. In contemplating history, I find myself moved, and examining my own life…I feel my place in the continuum of humanity…

Just last week, it happened in a very real way. I experienced both of the sorts of “ghosts” I toy with in my novel. I took a wander to the grounds of Nottingham Castle, a place I haven’t been to for many years. And lest you should see the rather square manor house that stands on Castle Rock today and feel disappointed there are no turrets, let me assure you there is plenty of history there. And Robin Hood and the Sheriff are really nothing to do with it. A Norman fortification, where medieval lovers escaped through the caves, a Civil War Royalist stronghold, its mighty walls demolished in the 16th century to lessen its threat, the fine mansion of one of Charles II’s loyal supporters, gutted by Reform Bill rioters in 1832, and since 1872 an art gallery and museum: the castle is more than it seems.

Nottingham Castle

However, it was not the castle itself that really moved me. It was the view from the terrace, high above Nottingham. From there, I could see my city. My home. And the ghosts of my own past. I could see Wollaton Hall, the Elizabethan stately home my grandparents used to take me to. I could see the Trent Building at the University of Nottingham, built in 1928, where I studied for my degree. I could see the back of the County Gaol, now the Galleries of Justice museum where I worked, and from where I drew my inspiration for Truths. And I could see Nottingham. For better and worse. Ugly multi-storey car parks, next to the fine building of the Council House. Out towards the countryside, and looking closer, the modern tramlines…The backdrop of most of my life, laid out before me. And it felt like mine. In that moment I could take possession of myself and my life story, my own ghosts. It was like looking at the story of myself.

View from Nottingham Castle

At the same time, I was aware of the greater story I am the tiniest part of. I was aware of the layers of time, the generations of people who had seen the view as it changed and developed.  I saw the bedrock of the castle, with the medieval caves. I saw the tower of St Mary’s Church, from the fourteenth century. The white townhouses of Georgian Nottingham, the fine market town, giving way to the red brick of the Lace Market, with its tall factories. My eyes swept down to the old canal, the industrial warehouses flanking it, now modern pubs. A cluster of twentieth century houses where I know full well were once the crowded slums of Narrow Marsh. The serene Victorian villas of the Park, a private residential area which is as exclusive now as it was then. Suddenly, I could see it all, I could strip back the years of development and imagine what it used to be like. I could feel the pain of the slum dwellers and Reform Bill rioters, the pride of the Victorian middle classes, the passion of the medieval lovers. I could smell the smoke of industries long gone. This wasn’t stale history. This was vivid, colourful, still echoing into the present, into my own life. The “ghosts” were all around me, laid out in front of me. I wasn’t cut off, I wasn’t alone. Other lives had been lived here, others had loved and cried and laughed and sighed here.  I was part of that story. I don’t mind admitting that it moved me to tears.

It was hard to come down from that castle terrace. But the feeling lingers on. I’ve gained a greater understanding of my own novel, and what I was hoping to achieve with it. When Ghosts of Winter is released, I will be reading it more eagerly than anyone. Because now I really understand the feelings that compelled me to write it. And it’s all part of the journey of understanding myself…