Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Parallel lines

I think I've said before that I learned more history from historical novels than I ever did at school. One of the things I do remember is the history teacher telling us about the Black Hole of Calcutta, when over a hundred prisoners were locked away in an Indian prison cell four metres square and only twenty-odd of them survived the night. The only problem is that I always linked it to the wrong war. It happened in 1756, just before the Battle of Plassey, but for years I thought it was part of the Indian Mutiny.

In a way that's understandable, because the Mutiny is one of those conflicts that gives war a bad name, stuffed full of wanton savagery, military incompetence, corruption and double-dealing. It also, of course, spawned heroism, stoicism and sacrifice from civilian and soldier alike, and on both sides.

Two of the best novels on the Mutiny are JG Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman in the Great Game. Farrell's is a tightly corralled tale homing in on a single fictional event, while Fraser somehow manages to get his anti-hero to most of the major battles of that sprawling conflict that enveloped the cities of the north central plain. This week I finally got round to reading a third novel of the period.

I've always been a big fan of Julian Rathbone. He writes superbly crafted, often very funny books normally with a single main character involved in one of the world's great events. His hero is unscrupulous, and never dull, and the stories are prone to eccentric changes of direction that keep the reader guessing. What struck me about The Mutiny were the parallels with the Flashman book, in fact, the devious, philandering villain of Tom Brown's Schooldays even gets a mention. Rathbone skilfully pulls together the roots of the conflict, showing how religion, corruption and exploitation combined in an explosive mix whose potential for damage eluded the complacent rulers of the Raj. He solves the problem of the Mutiny's scale by telling the story from multiple points of view. Expectant mothers Sophie Hardcastle and Catherine Dixon show us Meerut, where the violence began, their children vanish, rescued from certain death by Lavanyah, Stephen Hardcastle's wetnurse. The children somehow reach Cawnpore, where the Indian girl is immediately ostracised, and endure the terrible siege and betrayal. For most of the book, Rathbone deliberately underplays the horrors inflicted on white and Asian alike, but in the massacre that follows Cawnpore the bloodshed is graphic and minutely described, an odd contrast to an event that Fraser conveyed in a single line. There are echoes of Flashman in Lieutenant Farquhar, the shadowy figure who slips with ease between enemy lines, and who along with William Raikes Hodson - assumed by some to be the original inspiration for Thomas Hughes's bullying schoolboy - takes the story to the sieges of Lucknow, Delhi and Jhansi. Like Fraser, Rathbone is probably kinder than she deserves to Lakshmi-bai, the Rani of Jhansi, one of the exotic female leaders of the revolt, but he perfectly captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the British in India, imprisoned by a caste system almost as rigorous as those of the natives they despised, and the oddly muddled descent into horror of the Indian princes.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

A walk on the wild side

Codeine, the Harris hawk: a born hunter
One of the things I enjoy about being a writer is getting the chance to research the odd things that your character might have to master. I have a plan for a series set in Medieval Scotland and one of the things my knightly hero will almost certainly be involved in is a hunt.

Falconry was hugely popular throughout the period, so I arranged to have a day out with Phoenix Falconry near Gleneagles. This was to be a proper hunt and I joined a party of five with four Harris Hawks on a chill Perthshire afternoon, and we headed out into the rough country behind the Orchil Lodge Fishery just down the road. The woods were full of pheasants, partridge and woodcock that were soon flushed out by the resident livewire black pointer. Just to be close to these birds is an absolute joy, but to see them in their natural element hunting in combinations of two three and four, sweeping through the trees at high speed after a swift and agile pheasant was truly exhilarating. The one thing which quickly became clear and which pleased me was that this was a genuine competition, and one in which the pheasants held all the aces. Time and again a bird would be flushed, the hawks would react, but the pheasant would be too quick for them. By the time we reached the open fields it was Prey 20, Hunters 0.

On we went to a rabbit warren in a nearby wood, and with the help of a ferret to get the rabbits out into the open, the hunt was on again. The rationale is that the animals the birds catch are the old, the slow and the injured; a kind of natural selection. A flurry of wings and three birds converged on the same rabbit in an incredible display of flying and teamwork. The handlers ensured the unfortunate rabbit was dispatched swiftly and the youngest of the hawks was allowed to eat his fill as a reward for his efforts and to strengthen the link between the hunt and the final reward.
Patience was essential - for everybody
Up close and personal with a true predator
Returning for her reward
Ready to hunt again
It was a fascinating day and a proper education. I felt no joy at the kill, but the hawks had done their job and there would at least be something for the castle pot, though I doubt my lord would have been pleased with a single coney! 

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Time up?

I've been watching Time Team since the first episode in January 1994 when they went in search of  what might have been King Alfred's base in what would then have been the Somerset marshes around Athelney. Physically, I'm not sure what they found, probably not very much, but that didn't matter because the producers had stumbled on TV gold dust. That came in the format '... and we have just three days to find out' and the chemistry between the team, which took a little longer  to gel.

Tony Robinson, who had made an indelible name for himself as Baldrick in Blackadder, was the front man. His enthusiasm for history oozed from the screen (the first time I'd seen him on TV was reciting a monologue for children, Odysseus, the Greatest Hero of Them All). He cheerfully admitted he didn't know a thing about archaeology ... but he knew a couple of people who did. They came in the form of the wild-haired, rainbow-jumpered Professor Mick Aston, and granite-jawed, beer-swilling digging machine Phil Harding. If I remember rightly, relations between them at the start were a bit stiff, but over the years Time Team turned into a sort of cheery archaeology-loving family who visited your living room on a Sunday night.

In those early years, the search for archaeological evidence and historical truth was the be all and end all of Time Team. It was a niche programme for history lovers who salivated over the churned up remains of Roman mosaics and the slightly darker stain in the earth that might be a Saxon post hole. Nobody was all that bothered about building a big viewing audience.

But that audience came, and with it came changes. Time Team turned a bit tabloid. The three day format remained, Phil got a bit more to say, the geo-phys team got better equipment, Stewart got to go up in a helicopter, but now they were expected to have revelations and come to conclusions. I began to get a bit annoyed when Guy de-la-very-posh-Roman-expert would look at a bit of pottery and tell the world that it changed our whole outlook on Roman history, when it patently didn't, or Francis Pryor studied a hole in the ground and turned it into a neolithic temple, despite there being no real evidence for the claim.

You could tell things were getting strained when Mick would tetchily turn to Robinson and say 'no, it doesn't mean that at all. It might mean it, but it might not'. And in the latest season, the straw that broke the Samian ware dish: Mary-Anne Ochota, a very scenic archaeologist and former model, with a nice smile, brought in to co-present with Tony and bring a bit of glamour, as the producers, in Aston's words as he announced his decision to quit the show, decided to 'cut down the informative stuff about archaeology'.

I don't like the new format as much. I know TV shows have to move on and do things differently, but it's all a bit too forced and there's a desperation to find things that aren't there. Earnest and often po-faced, Mick Aston brought the gravitas and genuine learning to the show that kept me and history lovers like me watching for almost twenty series. There have been other changes over the years, but without him I'm not sure Time Team will be Time Team. I met Tony Robinson once, when he opened a dinosaur exhibition, (don't ask!) and he seemed a very likeable, easy going chap. I have a feeling he might be thinking the same.