Saturday, 7 February 2009

Turning the Pages...

My apologies for the interruption in blog service. I decided to go to South Africa after all to research "Matabele," my next Simon Fonthill novel (still working title only - other options: "Black Blades," "Black Spears," "Matabele Rising," Matabele Crossing," and, in desperation, "Fred" or even "Thelma"). Funcked going into Zimbabwe, the old Matabeleland, because of the cholera threat so we sniffed around the borders of that country with Mpumalanga (Transvaal in old money) to get a feel for flora and fauna and then dug out further facts about Cecil John Rhodes in Cape Town. It turned out to be worth the trip after all, even if one of the ladies in the special books section of the National Library of South Africa had never heard of the great C.J !

So I guess here I am, back in the UK, still droning on about the value of research for a writer of historical fiction. In this context, I have to confess that the couple of days I spent in the basement of London Library before flying out were just as valuable - and a touch less expensive! - than the trip to the bottom of Africa. In every novel I had written, I have thanked the staff of this splendid institution but I cannot resist singing its praises again here.

Founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, it remains a private library mainly, I guess, for scholars and writers although, given a low waiting list, anyone can join if he/she can afford it. It is now, in fact, not inexpensive at just under £400 per annum, having just hoiked its membership fee to pay for a much needed extension to its present premises. But it remains worth every penny to me for two reasons.

Firstly, one can take out as many books as one likes and keep them for as long as one likes, subject to them not being required by other members. This is important in terms, not only of being able to have reference books at one's elbow during the writing, but also for the convenience of having them handy for help in answering editor's questions after the MS has been submitted. Secondly, unlike many conventional libraries, the L.L. has a precious collection of old books, many of them written in "my" period, the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This means that one can assimilate opinions and received wisdom of the time, but also receive an osmotical feel for the language of 1880's England, or wherever, even if only in literary form.

There is another, more abstract and personal pleasure, however, to be experienced by visiting this tall, thin building in St James's Square. For an ex-hack like myself, it is a thrill to be allowed to enter the basement and turn the pages of "The Times" of the day; not, mind you, a micro-fische copy but the actual pages, the news sheets of 1888, or whatever.

I write "news sheets" but the dear old Times presumably didn't want to shock its readers by using such a tabloid term. So the news pages were referred to as "Intelligence." Of course, it is hard work at first in wading through the slabs of copy: narrow columns, few cross headings and, certainly, no pictures or engravings. But one soon gets used to that. The problem for me in trying to find a reference to the invasion of Matabeleland by Rhodes's column of "pioneers," lay in the distraction provided by a series of fascinating little news (sorry, "Intelligence") snippets. For instance, under the heading "Singing On the March," a Mr Dallas asked the Secretary of State for Ireland in the House whether he was aware that the police engaged upon eviction duty on the Oliphant Estate, Donegal, on the 19th and 20th of June in 1890 sang "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" on their march back to their barracks every evening . The Minister replied that he found the practice to be perfectly respectable and saw no reason to change it.

Yes, I know. Small things for small minds, but they amused me. I must own that it became a pleasure for me merely to turn the pages of this solemn newspaper of long ago: heavy newsprint, creamy in colour and slightly pink for some reason at the edges. They slumped over and landed with a satisfying clunk on the page before. Ah, the simple pleasure of the researcher...!


  1. I look forward to the next novel, particulary due to it being set in Matabeleland.
    I would like to think that the reseach included the writings / diaries of Robert Baden-Powell's "Matebele Campaign 1896" as well as a book written by C R B Barrett "The 7th (Queens Own) Hussars" Volune 3 that includes their Matabeleland /Mashonaland campaigns of the early / mid 1890s.

    John Lister

  2. In Shangani your personal notes talk of Rhodesia being separated into North and South - fine - but then being reunited and becoming Zimbabwe.
    I do not remember any reunification?
    Did not Northern Rhodesia become Zambia?