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A History-Making Creature

Why I write about the past

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

‘Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat his past nor leave it behind.’ The words are W.H. Auden’s from The Dyer’s Hand, one of a number of quotes I have pasted in my research files. Another favourite is Oscar Wilde’s: ‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it’ from ‘The Critic as Artist’, though that hardly reflects my own position as a writer of historical fiction: for me, duty never came into it. To those who maintain that the author has a responsibility to illuminate the world we inhabit now — to the charge that merely fictionalising the past is a kind of cop out, I’m prepared to plead guilty. Though if I’m honest, guilt isn’t an issue either. If I’m wedded to the past, it isn’t merely for its rich sources of material, but for what it teaches me about the present.

For the early part of my life I had an ambivalent relationship with history. When I was at school in the 1950s and 1960s it was badly taught and unforgivably dull: accession dates of Kings and Queens, dates of battles (usually won by the English), Acts of Parliament and the deeds of statesmen (the accent invariably on the second syllable), with barely a glimpse of the times in which these people lived. The context was what interested me: the food, clothing and customs, the sounds and smells, what it was like to dine in a medieval great hall, shop in Tudor London or carry a pike in a Civil War battle. And since I wasn’t learning about those, I sought my history elsewhere: from TV, film and books, which led me into enjoyable escapism. On television The Adventures of Robin Hood took me to medieval England with its barons, knights and outlaws, as did Ivanhoe (played by a young Roger Moore). Here men fought with swords and longbows against injustice, knights jousted on horseback, and everyone seemed to live interesting (if dangerous) lives. On the cinema screen, battles between huge armies under a blazing sun (see Spartacus and El Cid) held me spellbound, while at bedtime I devoured ‘good books for boys’: The Coral Island, The Treasure of the Incas. All of these offered adventure, colour and spectacle, worlds away from the grey, rainy Northern England in which I grew up.

Given such a fascination with history it’s unsurprising that, as I began to develop as an author, I would begin to exploit the mass of available material. My earliest professional works were radio plays, the first two of which had contemporary settings. By the time the second one was aired, however, I had discovered the vast, liberating potential of the medium and plunged enthusiastically into the past: five of my subsequent plays for the BBC had historical settings or motifs. Producers, I found, were receptive to my tastes; it’s often been said that on radio one can stage a battle for the cost of some clanging and shouting effects, mixed with explosions if necessary. Two of my stage plays also dealt with historical themes; and when I began writing novels, I turned again to the past for inspiration. The work has continued over four historical series set in the periods I know best, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

By the time I began writing seriously I had, naturally enough, learned that television and film, particularly Hollywood, had been supplying me with an inaccurate, neatly-packaged and often sanitised version of history; the trend continues, with some critics levelling similar accusations at popular drama series like Downton Abbey. But in my case, this merely whetted my appetite to know more. Working on radio and stage plays had already introduced me to the pleasures (and pains) of research; for the novels I had to dig deeper. Like many ‘historical writers’ I’m obsessive about accuracy, as far as it’s possible. This has led not merely to long hours of ‘sit-down research’, but to handling period artefacts and visiting locations like country houses, churches and castles — anywhere that brings me closer to the story’s setting. Background reading, though essential, is never enough: for a series featuring a falconer, for example, I went on a course to learn how to handle some of those remarkable birds myself, and discovered a whole new vocabulary in the process.

That said, however, I dislike the common maxim that the author must ‘inhabit the world’ of their characters; until someone invents a time machine that isn’t possible — imagination must do the work. To imagine a time when the fastest speed a person could attain was that of a galloping horse, means that information travelled so slowly as to be almost inconceivable to a generation raised on social media. For the author, however, limitations can be stimuli: in a world without phones or banks, without refrigeration, photography, emergency services or even gas and electricity, restrictions become possibilities. If the lives of many were nasty, brutish and short, when death from a myriad causes was seldom far away, does this not provide fertile ground for drama? Almost invariably I find the human story is enriched by the knowledge that when life is more precarious, people are pushed closer to the edge — of their passions, if not of their very reason.

The pitfalls of historical writing are many, ‘backwards projection’ being among the commonest (along with using undigested research, and the urge to add too much period detail). It is often difficult not to project one’s own twenty-first century values onto a time when the popular mind-set was quite different: attending a Bankside arena in 1600 to watch a blind bear being whipped and then savaged by mastiffs would not – at least I hope not – have the same mass appeal today. The historical writer’s task is to look beyond such behaviour to the underlying human needs, and to find stories that stem from them: to show how the same needs – for security and comfort, for family, entertainment and fulfilment – exist now as they have always done. Throughout the ages, people have merely found different ways of satisfying them.

This leads me to a confession: that after almost forty years of writing across a range of genres, I have little that’s original to say about the confusing world I find myself in today. There are numerous writers addressing that far better than I could. And if I’m drawn to any firm conclusion, it is that despite millennia of progress in most areas of life, basic human nature has changed very little. The ‘great themes’ – love and loss, betrayal, jealousy, greed, triumph – are ever present, as the daily news reminds us. The tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides are still performed 2,500 years after they were written, and they still work. Hilary Mantel’s masterly saga of Thomas Cromwell’s rise and fall at the court of Henry VIII might feasibly be retold as the story of an official trying to survive in Idi Amin’s government of the 1970s, or under Saddam in the 1990s, or – most obviously – under Kim Jong-un today. In that respect I beg to differ from Auden’s view: we do repeat our past, time and time again.

In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, Dr Ian Mortimer writes: ‘History is not really about the past; it is about understanding mankind over time.’ This is the spur that compels me to set my fiction in bygone eras — and in so doing, make my fumbling attempts at examining human nature. Confucius put it somewhat differently: ‘Study the past if you would divine the future.’ We are not merely ‘history-making creatures’, but history-writing creatures too, engaged in the endless task of discovering where we came from and how we got to the place we are now. For the novelist that journey of exploration is still being undertaken via (well-researched) windows into the past — and in the process it may illuminate the present.

John Pilkington has written plays for radio and theatre, television scripts for the BBC and numerous historical mysteries for both adults and children. His last book in the ‘Marbeck’ spy series was published in paperback in 2016. He is now working on a new historical novel.

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