Thursday, 25 December 2008

Digging into the past 3

Reflecting on the problems thrown up by researching a new book has made me realise how very differently each country can preserve its militant past. The usual practice seems to be is that if you won, you preserve the battlefield; if you lost, you don’t - although, commercial considerations can alter that rule of thumb.

Take the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, for instance, in The Hundred Years War. I first went hunting for these sites some twenty five years ago. I eventually found Crecy, marked only by a small plaque, erected by the “Friends of Old French Windmills,” which announced diffidently that on this site stood a windmill that (and almost by the way) had been used by the English King Edward III as a command post during the battle of Crecy in 1346. On the same trip I finally pinned down the second battle to a small wood, a couple of miles south of Poitiers. Some twenty paces inside the wood a tiny, hand-painted sign nailed to a tree announced it to be “Le site de la Battalle de Poitiers, 1356.” The British had won both battles and, it seemed, the French weren’t over anxious to commemorate the encounters. Fair enough, but five years later, when I was researching for my book “Masters of Battle,” Crecy had been marked by the erection of a splendid, tall, timber viewing platform, showing the disposition of the two armies, set opposite floral reproductions of the two kings’ coats of arms. At Poitiers, however, even the sign had gone. The difference? Crecy was much nearer the soon-to-be-opened Channel tunnel, with its anticipated stream of English visitors.

A couple more examples from my diggings. The forest clearings where the American longwoodsmen gave the British redcoats a thorough beating at Saratoga in 1777 – so swinging the American War of Independence decisively towards the “rebels” – is beautifully
maintained. Old cannons show artillery emplacements and illuminated signs explain the depositions. (See “Masters of Battle.) Trying to find the site of the Battle of El Kebir in Egypt, however, where the British defeated the Egyptians to begin a 75-year occupation of the country, (“The Guns of El Kebir”) is an unrewarding business. There is no indication that this small village saw a turning point in Egypt’s history and nobody locally wanted to talk about it.
Now that Wembley has gone, what will be left to indicate to future generations where England defeated Germany so decisively to win the World Cup in 1966? We must, we really must, stir ourselves!

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Digging into the past 2

I blogged about the problems of researching in modern day Zimbabwe, but to my aid has come a splendid source. Dave Sutcliffe, a British born Rhodesian who now lives in South Africa, is a historian and a guide to what we British called the two Boer Wars. He was the man who led Betty and me on the 1,500 ft climb to the summit of Majuba Hill in afternoon temperatures of 32 degrees for my book, “Last Stand on Majuba Hill.” (I have always hated that word “Hill.” We found it a small mountain!)

I e-mailed him a couple of questions and so opened a Pandora’s Box of information back from him about the geography, wild life, flora and fauna of Zimbabwe, all put into the context of what it might have been like to march through the region in the late 1880’s: the river crossings, the mopani woodlands, the giant ant hills, the puff adders, the smell of cinnamon, the flies, the wild monkeys, the lions… He even sent me detailed maps of the country and I shall always remain grateful to him.

If any reader is contemplating a visit to the Boer War sites then I warmly recommend him as a guide. He is at:

Anyone who writes history depends upon a variety of sources that he must plunder. But I still feel guilty and rather cowardly about starting “Matabele” without visiting Zimbabwe. Maybe I can get away with Dave’s help and, perhaps, a visit to the South African side of the Zambabwian border. So I guess I am still pondering…

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Digging into the past 1

Research. I am always being asked about it (see Q & A page) and, at the moment, the subject is sitting on my shoulder like Winston Churchill’s Black Dog. The next book in the Fonthill series is set in the late 1880’s in a then untamed part of northern South Africa at the birth of what became Rhodesia and later Zimbabwe. It is an historical event that gives me all I need for the background to a Fonthill novel: exploration into a comparatively unknown part of the Dark Continent, a cruel but multi-faceted native chief, a soaringly ambitious white entrepreneur and climax where white settlers fight brave black warriors. The very name of the territory – Matabeleland – sends a frisson through me. It is very much Fonthill territory.

I always like to visit the country that I write about, even though the people, the politics, the very terrain will have changed considerably since Fonthill set foot there. So this seventh novel in the series – due out early in 2010 – poses a problem. As I write, Zimbabwe is the last place in the world anyone would want to visit. The conditions for research are poor, moving around the country is difficult and it is clear that there is little left there to help me reconstruct the final battles that overthrew King Lobengula and allowed Cecil John Rhodes to establish his new colony. Now cholera has broken out there.

I am surrounded by books about the country, some of them valuably contemporaneous of the 1880’s and giving me the kind of detail that I need and love (“abomidable prices: beer four shillings a bottle, Boer brandy six shillings – worth about sixpence in the Cape”). But I need to get the smell and feel of the terrain if I am to persuade readers to accompany Fonthill, Jenkins and Alice on their epic journeys through Matabeland and Masonaland. How to get that without catching a plane to Harare? I am pondering….