Sunday, 13 June 2010

'My' hill fort

Took a walk today up to the little hill fort between Bridge of Allan and Dunblane. It had just stopped raining and the day was very fresh, with water dripping from the leaves and into the sun-dappled undergrowth. Trees have long since covered the fort and when you walk through them it's a bit like being in the cloisters of an ancient abbey; you feel immensely close to the people who once lived their in the huts that are now only  shallow overgrown pits in the earth. While I was there I went a little further, to what I think of as the King's Grave. It's not marked on any maps but if you look closely you can see a perfectly round, slightly raised mound encircled by large stones, some of which are now missing. I couldn't help thinking that two or three millenia ago people had gone to a huge amount of effort to ensure that the man or woman who was buried here would never be forgotten, yet their name hasn't been spoken for at least two thousand years. The life they lived and the landscape they lived in is gone forever, apart from a tree-covered hill that's now shared by rabbits and badgers, and an almost invisible shadow in the bracken that marks their final resting place. One day, maybe I'll try to tell the story of this haunting place.

On the way to the fort I watched three soaring buzzards being harassed by a single angry crow in a kind of aerial dogfight that felt like having a grandstand seat at the Battle of Britain. The crow would fight for altitude and then come bombing down its target, which would turn in mid-air to meet the attacker with its hooked claws. Time and time again the bird came back, but the buzzards went serenely about their business with just the occasional shriek of outrage.

A little later I spent fifteen minutes in a staring match with two roe deer, a buck and a doe, in the field next to me. I'd spotted the doe easily enough because of her red colour, which at first made me think she was a fox. The buck was perfectly camouflaged against the brown of the patch of bracken he was foraging in.  Eventually I moved and the buck gave three barks and the pair of them went racing across the field in elegant bounds and disappeared into the trees.

The gentlemen who own this land want to turn it into a golf course, with the obligatory hotel and the housing that means that when the golf course and hotel go bust in twenty five years they'll be able to have the whole hill zoned for residential use. They've allowed perfectly workable fields to run wild so they can claim that the land is no longer economic for farming. At the moment it's a paradise for  wildlife and walkers but in a few years you'll only be allowed on it after you've paid your green fees.

Isn't it a joy to watch market forces at work?

Friday, 11 June 2010

New look

Thought I'd try something a little more modern and fresher. I quite fancied using one of the books as the background pic but couldn't figure out how. Anyway, I like it.

Monday, 7 June 2010


Oh, dear Russell, what have you done?

A lot of people have described my first two books, Caligula and Claudius, as cinematic, which hopefully is a compliment, and I keep being asked, jokingly or otherwise, if I have a film deal yet. The answer, if you're interested, is no, although one film company did have a little nibble at Caligula right at the start.

So it was fascinating to read the other week about Victoria Hislop turning down £300,000 from a Hollywood studio for the film rights to her book The Island. Her decision to decline was a matter of principle. She believed that a big studio would take liberties with the book and turn it into something she never intended it to be, instead selling the rights, no doubt for considerably less money, to a Greek TV company who plan to turn it into a mini-series. A very laudable decision that says much about her principles, and just as much about her circumstances.

But back to Russell, fine actor that he is. I went along to see Robin Hood at our local cinema on Sunday, full of anticipation based on the reviews I'd read and the fact that no-one could go wrong with the Hood legend. What I found is that no matter how much money you pour into a film, how much star power you have or how good the director, in this case Ridley Scott who made the fabulous Gladiator along with Crowe, if you don't have a proper narrative your film is destined to be a turkey. Sure, make it gritty and hard and brutal (think the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan). Russell Crowe doesn't do men in tights. Fine. But why completely ignore a brilliant, iconic tale of good against evil and replace it with a story that says nothing except: We're planning a sequel to make use of all this armour and leather gear.

Russell's Robin Hood - and I have no objection to his accent if he'd only make up his mind which one of the four or five to use - isn't sure whether it is trying to be Maximus Hood or Kevin Costner without the coiffure. The problems start, as they do, at the beginning. He's an archer, among the lowest of the low of Richard the Lionheart's crusading (looting) army. Ten minutes later he's landed gentry and handing over dead King Richard's crown to the Queen like he's to the manor born; give him half an hour and he's leading a whole army. Full of action? Yes. Believable? No. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief when you go to the pictures, but there were moments when I laughed out loud and I'm sure I wasn't supposed to. In Costner's Robin Hood, the supporting cast, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman et al, were interesting. In this film, they're cyphers. You know who Will Scarlet is because he's got red hair. Little John is Little John, because he's not er' little. Alan a'Dale plays a mean lute but he doesn't do anything else.

Ah, I hear you say, but surely the winsome Cate Blanchett must save the day? Well she does, in a manner of speaking, at the end  (that was the bit where I put my head in my hands) but the screen chemistry between the two leads is about as interesting as a Primary Two litmus test. Throw in an unlikely storyline about Rob's dad writing the original Magna Carta, a Prince John who's about as camp as a two-man tent and the longest 'Nnnnnnnnoooooooohhhhhhh!' in mainstream movie history and you have a film that's lost in the wilderness and not coming out for a long, long time.

If you don't want to know what happens at the end, please stop reading here.

Poor Cate, you could almost feel her cringing when, at the start of the final climactic battle scene (see Saving Private Ryan above), some idiot decided it would be a good idea to have her ride into the battle line in full armour, leading the bunch of ten-year-olds who'd up until this point only ever haunted Sherwood Forest like little pointless ghosts. Now they slaughter fully kitted up French men-at-arms with the aid of their little, but lethal, pen knives. Please God, let it finish here. But I doubt it will. Robin will be back for Hood Two, hopefully with better scriptwriters.

So there's undoubtedly danger in selling your book to some mega-bucks, megalomaniac Hollywood producer (I know Robin Hood is a legend, not a book, but I'm trying to make a point) and they turn out Caligula: the Musical with Darius as the lead, or Claudius meets Godzilla. Does that mean I will follow Victoria Hislop's lead and put artistic integrity above profit? Well, I'll probably take about ten seconds to think about it, but I fear that when the phone call comes I will reluctantly park my principles in a safe place until such time as I can actually afford to have them.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Rewriting history

I read that historian of the moment Niall Ferguson has been pontificating about historical fiction to the literatti at the Hay on Wye festival. (see Charlotte Higgins Apparently he no longer reads the kind of books I write because they 'contaminate historical understanding'; the premise presumably being that when a historical novelist puts words into the mouth of one of his non-fictional characters he is somehow distorting the historical record. Likewise he warns against historians inferring beyond the written record 'or else this takes you into the realm of romantic fiction, a world I shall never enter.' What a dull life the man must lead.

I've always felt a bit sorry for 'proper' historians who believe they have to stay within the strict parameters of the evidence and aren't allowed to use their imagination. Some of the best and most readable works on the subject have been by people prepared to break free of that restriction. Professor Mary Beard's Pompeii: The life of a Roman Town is a great book because she's confident enough in her subject to look at the evidence and allow her imagination to take her back 2,000 years. That doesn't make her a bad historian, just a good writer. In Before Scotland, Alistair Moffat writes about a time for which we have no written record, but uses the landscape, etymology, and his imagination, to revisit and recreate a fascinating true Dark Age.

Historians like Mr Ferguson make a living out of re-evaluating history, which is fine if you have a large anthology of written work to start with. Quite often all they achieve is to see what others have seen before them, only to cry out that they've discovered something everyone else has missed, not because it is new, but because they're looking at it through the prism of their own, modern, age. The written record can also be dangerous ground, particularly when it is taken literally. Our knowledge of early Rome is based on only a handful of writers, each of whose work has been, to a greater or lesser extent, 'contaminated' by the times they lived in. Pragmatism meant they could only say so much, and in a certain way. Tacitus and Cassius Dio put words in the mouths of Rome's defeated enemies of a hundred years earlier that sent messages to the readers of their own time. Nobody in their right mind thinks those words were actually spoken.

People who read historical fiction are intelligent enough to understand that what they are reading is just that: fiction. Our knowledge of Boudicca, Calgacus and Caratacus, the three great British heroes of early history, exists only because of the way their defeats reflected on Rome. They play bit parts in large stories and we know little or nothing about the reality of their lives. Does that mean we have to ignore them? Of course not. When, in Claudius, I sat Caratacus down in a mud hut with the leaders of southern Britain, I was attempting to recreate the atmosphere of the times not write a history of them. Likewise, when Valerius looks across the river Colne at the seething horde of Boudicca's army in Hero of Rome, I used my imagination. Yet, in some form, if not in the way I actually portray them, both these events must have happened and I make no apologies for using them to inform, and to entertain. Because, unlike Niall Ferguson, we scribblers of historical fiction are in the entertainment business as much as the literary.
We know our place.