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  • Jonathan Sumption

    Tue, 02 Jun 2009 03:06

    Jonathan Sumption is a former History Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He is the author of Pilgrimage and The Albigensian Crusade, as well as the three volumes in his celebrated history of the Hundred Years War: Divided Houses, Trial by Battle and Trial by Fire. He is also a practicing QC, well-known for his defence of the Government before the Hutton Inquiry, and other high-profile cases before the courts.

    Mark Thwaite: What first fascinated you about the Hundred Years War Jonathan?

    Jonathan Sumption: The interlinked stories of England and France in the late middle ages have fascinated me ever since I first encountered them reading for a history degree at Oxford, and then teaching undergraduates as a young academic.

    Mark Thwaite: And why was the fascination so strong?

    Jonathan Sumption: The first thing that struck me about the Hundred Years War, as I think it strikes most people who read about it, is the dramatic scale of events. The war was originally provoked by the age-old conflict between the French and the English rulers about the provinces ruled by the Kings of England in south-western France. The English were determined to maintain their independence in the region, while the French were equally determined to integrate the possessions of the English house into an increasingly centralised state. From these beginnings was born a struggle lasting in fact well over a hundred years, from the beginning of the fourteenth century until the second half of the fifteenth, to which the two countries devoted much of their wealth and reduced themselves to ruin. All of their neighbours, Scotland, Flanders, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal were progressively drawn into it by the play of interests and alliances. By the fifteenth century, the war had outgrown its origins, and become a struggle for control over France itself.

    Whether we like it or not, war has been the chief collective enterprise of mankind until quite recently. War is destructive and inhumane. Yet it has shaped human institutions. It has stretched human experience and human capabilities. By comparison, long periods of stability have commonly been characterised by mediocrity and decline. As Shakespeare recognised two centuries later, both England and France derived their national identities from this tremendous struggle. But what is perhaps most fascinating about this war is that for the first time in European history, we can follow these changes not only through the actions of kings and princes, but through the experiences of the humblest archer or foot-soldier. Their lives are recorded in a remarkable array of sources, not only chronicles but memoirs, records, poetry and novels, some of them intensely personal.

    Mark Thwaite: Divided Houses is the third volume of your mammoth study of the war. How long did it take to write this volume?

    Jonathan Sumption: Each of the three volumes so far has taken me about ten years. It is a long time, I know. But it has to be, because since leaving academic life in the 1970s I have earned my living as a barrister, practising in the courts. The bar is an exceptionally demanding profession. There was a time, at the beginning, when I seemed to be writing the book it at about the same speed as it was fought, and began to worry about my longevity. In spite of appearances, I have speeded up. I know my way around the sources better than when I began. I have a better instinct for what material will prove fruitful and what will not. There will be two more volumes, which will be shorter than the latest one, and will be completed rather quicker. I have done a fair amount of the research for them already.

    Mark Thwaite: Your books must take huge amounts of research; do you enjoy the research or are you always keen to get down to the actual writing?

    Jonathan Sumption: I enjoy the research, of course, or I would not be doing this. I enjoy the cities where great archives and libraries tend to be. I enjoy the direct contact with my forbears: the feel of old vellum under my fingers, or rat-chewed fragments in French provincial archives, or unpicking the strap around the very notebook which an officer of the English garrison at Calais carried on his rounds about the town. But the writing is the ultimate objective. The researcher is omnivorous, but the writer has to be selective. You have to guard against including something just because of the pleasure you had in discovering it. It is the reader's interest that you have to cultivate. Marshalling facts spread across a whole continent, blending the history of at least ten countries into a single narrative line, without losing the thread or the attention of the reader, has been a major challenge.

    Mark Thwaite: Over the course of your writing have you substantially increased our knowledge of the Hundred Years War...

    Jonathan Sumption: I think so. There are aspects of the war that have never been known in detail until now, because the facts are buried away in unpublished records sources. Seapower, for example, was a vital factor in the war, which has been little understood: the English could never get to grips with their enemy without being able to transport great armies with their horses and equipment by sea not just across the Channel to Calais, but as far afield as Antwerp, Bordeaux, Corunna and Lisbon. How did they do it? Why were they eventually unable to go on doing it? The activities of the irregular armies on land, operated by private captains in the English interest, are another subject on which I hope that I have cast fresh light. They played a vital part in the war. I believe that I have pieced the fragments together to provide the first coherent narrative of their deeds, and to establish how their activities were co-ordinated with those of the English governments at Westminster and Bordeaux and how the French were ultimately able to destroy them. Even where the basic facts are known, I have tried to show the connection between apparently unconnected events.

    Mark Thwaite: During your researches, what discoveries about the period have most startled you?

    Jonathan Sumption: One should never be too startled by anything. But small surprises are often revealing. I once read in the Public Record Office the records of an enquiry into the alleged treachery of an English garrison commander accused of taking a bribe to surrender his castle. The case ended in his acquittal. Some weeks later I found in the French archives the actual receipt he had given for the bribe. But most surprises have been of a more personal kind: a prisoner of war's correspondence with his wife, a rock hurled into the bedroom of a garrison commander where his wife was feeding their baby, a soldier's search for his lost girl-friend, a cavalryman's pet dog howling by the grave of his dead master. These tiny incidents are valuable reminders that great events are experienced by real people, of flesh and blood, whose first priority is not politics but survival.

    Mark Thwaite: For you, who are the heroes and villains of the period?

    Jonathan Sumption: The heroes are the rare leaders with the intelligence and perception to think outside the box, to look dispassionately at the long-term prospects of their own side. On the English side, John of Gaunt, the son of an English King and the father of another, passed much of life trying unsuccessfully to make himself King of Castile. He never occupied a throne, but became the dominant figure of the reign of his nephew Richard II. He was also the first figure of the period to be made famous by Shakespeare. Gaunt was much maligned in his own day, and is still dismissed by many as an arrogant and mediocre self-seeker. But he had a rare scepticism about what armed force could achieve and was one of the few English leaders who perceived that England could never win against a country with three times its wealth and population.

    And on the French side? Charles V, who came to the throne in 1364 and died in 1380 at the age of only 44. Charles suffered from poor health throughout his reign, and never led his troops in battle, but like John of Gaunt possessed a rare intelligence and freedom from received opinions. He was the real architect of the French revival of the late fourteenth century. Gaunt and Charles never met, but they are known to have suspected and disliked each other from a distance.

    As for the villains, in a war characterised by so much villainy, you have to be selective. But Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, a junior French prince in the middle decades of the fourteenth century, must rank high among the villains of any age: a treacherous, ruthless, manipulative power politician, whose natural response to determined opposition was murder and who came close to destroying his own country in the 1350s.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or on a screen? Straight off, or with lots and lots of editing?

    Jonathan Sumption: On a screen. But computers are a great temptation to prolixity, because they dispense with the physical effort of endless recopying. You have to be very disciplined about cutting things out. So, yes, lots and lots of editing.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you learned from their responses to your books?

    Jonathan Sumption: Of course I read the critics. They have been kind about the book, and I am not completely free of vanity. But reading the critics is more than self-indulgence. I learn from the ones who know the period and those who, without necessarily being experts on the late middle ages, understand the historical process. History is, or at least ought to be, a branch of literature. The object is to give pleasure, and not just to oneself.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Divided Houses?

    Jonathan Sumption: Undoubtedly the linguistic challenges. In the period covered by Divided Houses, the war involved just about all of western Europe and occasionally even Europe's eastern frontiers in Poland and Hungary. Writing from original sources, I have had to read in Latin, English, French, Flemish-Dutch, German, Italian, Occitan, Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese.

    Mark Thwaite: How did you overcome this?

    Jonathan Sumption: Persistence and dictionaries, and a certain instinct for languages. They come, with practice, but it can be a struggle. I admit to having been completely defeated by Hungarian.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your 'ideal' reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Jonathan Sumption: Many historians dream of writing something that will satisfy several audiences at once: serious scholars of the period, as well as the interested reading public. That has certainly been my own ambition. I have never accepted that the two groups are incompatible. There is a large number of people out there who without being academics or scholars, enjoy serious history written to exacting standards of scholarship. The art is to recognise the human dimension of all great historical events, to explain why as well as what, and to write good English in a way that compels attention and makes the reader want to get to the next sentence.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Jonathan?

    Jonathan Sumption: Volume four. It will cover the years from 1399 to 1422, terrible years in which a mad King of France looked on vacantly as his country was torn apart by civil war, political assassination and foreign invasion, the background of the famous English victory at Agincourt in 1415. By the end, France had ceased to exist as an independent state, an event as cataclysmic in its day as the conquest of 1940.

    Mark Thwaite: Do other periods interest you, or are you a dedicated fourteenth century man?

    Jonathan Sumption: When I was teaching at Oxford, I had to cover a thousand years of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Reformation. I would not claim to have been an authority on all of that. But it was good training. You cannot just enclose yourself in one short period. To understand the significance of events, you have to look beyond your own subject and see its place in the wider order of things. I still read, rather unsystematically, about every period of Europe's history, from ancient Greece to modern Germany. It gives me a sense of perspective, and some surprising insights into the detail. I have learned about the logistics of fourteenth century warfare by reading about the campaigns in Italy in the Second World War, about the problems of medieval seapower from the Napoleonic wars, and a great deal about humanity from the whole fund of vicarious experience which history has to offer.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer?

    Jonathan Sumption: You would get a different answer to that question every week. Recently, Flaubert. I have been reading his letters. Sticking to history, I have always admired historians with a broad chronological and geographical sweep, classically Gibbon, in modern times Steven Runciman, the historian of the crusades, and Réné Grousset, the French author of a masterpiece about the nomadic nations of the Asiatic steppe. But if I had to name one favourite book, it would be Fernand Braudel's great history of the Mediterranean in the time of Philip II, an extraordinary achievement in multinational history and disciplined writing. It is good to be reminded that French historians once had wider horizons.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have a favourite quote?

    Jonathan Sumption: "How about a cup of tea?" (Anon)

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring historian?

    Jonathan Sumption: Avoid biography, or at least political biography. Most people try it, not always successfully. Viewing events through the prism of a single life is fundamentally distorting, and provides too narrow a framework for any great theme. It is not even the best way of conveying the vagaries of human personality.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Jonathan Sumption: I could go on for ever.

  • Alwyn Turner

    Fri, 29 May 2009 02:18

    Alwyn W Turner is a non-fiction writer specializing in the politics and culture of post-war Britain. His current book, out in paperback, is Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s. Previous work includes Halfway to Paradise, The Biba Experience and Cult Rock Posters.

    Mark Thwaite: What made you want to write a book about the Seventies Alwyn?

    Alwyn W Turner: Mostly, it was a fascination with the period in which I grew up. The popular culture meant, and still means, a great deal to me, and it was the time when I was becoming aware of politics. I wanted to explore the connexions between the two. And, quite apart from self-indulgence, it seems to me that the events of the era have cast a long shadow over British society: in his response to the Budget last month, David Cameron was still referring back to the winter of discontent in early-1979 -- these things have lingered long in the memory, and have shaped so much of what has happened in the country ever since.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you think is our biggest collective misconception about the decade?

    Alwyn W Turner: Back when I started work on Crisis? What Crisis? I would have said that it was the idea that everything was grim, awful and depressing in the 1970s, when clearly that wasn't the case. But I think more recent developments, as the recession has kicked in, have slightly changed that perception, and we're now more likely to see the positive aspects of the time, in particular, the sense of community and national unity, which might have been breaking down but which look ever more attractive.

    So, instead I think the biggest misconception is that it was 'the decade that style forgot' (a cliche which turned up in the 1980s, of all decades). It wasn't. It looked fabulous. Street fashions for men weren't quite as spectacular as they had been in 1964-66, but the existence of the glam rock stars more than made up for that, and women's fashions were much better than they had been in the 1960s.

    Mark Thwaite: Some on the Left think that at certain moments Britain was close to a pre-revolutionary moment, do you share that view or is it hyperbole?

    Alwyn W Turner:No, that's overstating the case. The idea that Britain was approaching revolution was more common on the right at the time than on the left -- the fear of trade union power led some to think that society was irretrievably breaking down, leading to calls for the raising of private militias and to such apocalyptic warnings like Anthony Burgess's 198

    Mark Thwaite: They exaggerated. Apart from anything else, there was no appetite on the part of the union leadership for a seizure of power, as there never has been in British unions. Governments were brought down by strikes -- Heath in 1974, Callaghan in 1979 -- but in neither case were the strikes politically motivated: they were attempts by individual unions, acting independently, to secure a better deal for their members at times of economic difficulties. There was some revolutionary rhetoric coming from the Trotskyist left, but these were fragmented and tiny sects -- between them they couldn't outnumber the Communist Party membership.

    What there was instead was a feeling that something had to change, that we had reached a T-junction and that it wasn't possible to continue in the same direction we'd been pursuing since the war. A turn to the left or to the right was seeming inevitable. We ended up, of course, with a turn to the right.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write and research Crisis? What Crisis?? Do you like research, or are you always itching to get down to the actual writing?

    Alwyn W Turner: It took about eighteen months for the formal researching and writing, though I also drew on work I'd done before then. I love both aspects of the work. Researching involves a great deal of watching old series of George and Mildred, which can't be bad, but there does come a time when the desire to start shaping the material becomes overwhelming.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most interesting/unexpected thing you learned during your research?

    Alwyn W Turner: It was the small details that surprised me -- things that indicated how deep were the roots of tendencies one might think of as being part of our own time. The idea, for example, that the first pubs in Britain to ban smoking did so in 1971. Or the fact that in 1975 Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart was forbidden to play requests on his Radio One show Junior Choice for children who had passed the 11-Plus, for fear of upsetting those who hadn't passed. Or that in 1977 the Union of Muslim Organizations wrote to the government calling for schools to have a statutory requirement to provide halal food.

    Mark Thwaite: Who are your heroes and villains of the decade? And what is your favourite Seventies TV show and band!?

    Alwyn W Turner:When I was a child in the early-1970s, the two figures who intrigued me most were Muhammad Ali and Richard Nixon. Both still fascinate me, and I think it's quite clear which was the hero and which the villain.

    Mostly, though, I'm not sure that it was a time when there were many heroes or villains, at least in political terms. There are figures on the right -- Rhodes Boyson, Mary Whitehouse - whose politics I disagree with strongly, and who should therefore be villains, but who I can't help admiring for their consistency and tenacity. Meanwhile, Roy Jenkins, who was clearly the best home secretary and possibly the best chancellor since the war, cut such an absurd figure that it's hard to see him in heroic terms. If there is a villain, then -- cruel though it is to say so -- one would have to look to Edward Heath, an incompetent prime minister who confused meddling with modernization. Not that he was the last such, of course...

    The best television of the period was spectacularly good. I, Claudius and The Sweeney remain among the finest achievements in the history of TV drama, Coronation Street was at its absolute peak, and the comedy was extraordinary: Morecambe & Wise, the work of Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais and, best of all, the mighty Rising Damp. But all this is now available on DVD and can be relived. What I really, really miss is the wrestling on a Saturday afternoon with commentary by Kent Walton: I mean, the glory days before Big Daddy ruined it, when Kendo Nagasaki, Adrian Street and Les Kellet were in their pomp. I still have a programme from an evening at the Civic Hall, Wolverhampton on which I got the autographs of Massambula and Vic Faulkner.

    The best music of the 1970s was -- to be entirely obvious -- provided by David Bowie. He didn't put a foot wrong all decade, and more than that, he drew you out beyond the music. It was as if he came with a reading list, so that if you liked him, you'd find yourself drawn into a world populated by the likes of Lindsay Kemp and Jean Genet, where German expressionism was as important as rock and roll.

    Mark Thwaite: Your book encompasses much pop/cultural history -- why do you think that that is so important for our understanding of the past?

    Alwyn W Turner: Popular culture often reveals more about the state of the nation than politics ever can, indeed it tends to precede political change. And particularly so in the 1970s. Whilst the newspapers and the Westminster establishment were in a state of panic about the unions and the prime ministerial prospects of Tony Benn, the sitcoms and the soaps, the pop music and the paperbacks of the time told a very different story -- here Enoch Powell was very definitely the most resonant figure. The arrival of Margaret Thatcher, a kind of surrogate Powell, as Tory leader in 1975 and her election in 1979 was pre-shadowed by the trends you can see in the popular culture.

    Popular culture is the primary arena in which people can share their fears and aspirations. To take just one example, the country voted decisively in the 1975 referendum to remain members of the EEC (as it then was), but that vote was immediately followed by a spate of novels about rabies that expressed Britain's underlying uncertainty about closer links with Europe.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have an overarching thesis? How does your book differ from, say, Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out?

    Alwyn W Turner: The main aim is to tell some good stories, to remind those who were there of things they've forgotten, and to capture something of a fascinating period for those who missed it. In the process, I was hoping to show why and how Thatcherism came into existence. If there is an underlying thesis, it's to emphasize that relationship between politics and popular culture we've just been talking about. I'm not a political journalist or a parliamentary insider, I see politics from the point of view of the consumer, and from that perspective, government doesn't exist in isolation -- it competes for public attention with sport and television and all the rest. Westminster is important, but so too are the Wombles.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you think we can most learn from studying the Seventies?

    Alwyn W Turner: Primarily the same as we always learn from history -- that despite the superficial differences, human beings remain the same. Even if you remember history, you're still condemned to repeat it, as Gordon Brown is discovering in his re-enactment of the dying days of Jim Callaghan's government. But there are specific lessons that can be learnt. We might look at the much more constructive and intelligent response to terrorism, a much more serious threat then than it is now. Or, from another angle, we might look at how rock music should ideally be experienced in squalid, smoke-filled cellars, not in vast fields dominated by the sponsor's logo.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you learned anything from their responses to your book?

    Alwyn W Turner: I think you have to reach a very rarefied level to enable you not to read the critics. But I fear I do so from a sense of vanity rather than in the hope of learning anything.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Crisis? What Crisis?? How did you overcome it?

    Alwyn W Turner: Simply the scale of the project. Trying to capture a decade, and such an eventful decade, in the space of around 300 pages means that regrettably some things have to be left out -- things like the fallout from the underground scene of the late-1960s, for example. On the other hand, the discipline of keeping it tight produces what I hope is a fast-paced, entertaining read.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Alwyn W Turner: I'm the ideal reader. I try to write books that I'd enjoy reading. In this instance, I was also counting on the fact that I was born smack in the middle of the most populous generation in British history, and that therefore there would be others who would have had the same experiences, been interested in the same things, asked the same questions and wanted to see the same themes covered.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Alwyn W Turner: My favourite period of literature spans from the late-19th century through the first few decades of the 20th: writers like Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Aldous Huxley, PG Wodehouse, HG Wells, Barry Pain -- subtlety, wit and intelligence aimed at the widest possible readership, not simply at an elite. It all went wrong with modernism; we hanged William Joyce, but James Joyce walked free. That can't be right, surely? Non-fiction writers I admire tend to be more recent: Bernard Levin, Simon Garfield, Tony Benn. Under the regulations of Desert Island Discs, I'd chose the seven volumes of Benn's diaries to take with me.

    But if there's one writer I'd really like to mention, it'd be John Summers, a wonderful novelist of the 1960s and '70s. Two of his books in particular are amongst the best things written for many decades: Edge of Violence (retitled The Disaster in paperback) is a fictionalized account of the Aberfan tragedy, and The Raging Summer is a masterpiece about growing up in a South Wales pit village during the great depression -- warm, beautiful and very funny, it's a book that will one day claim its place as a modern classic; all human life is here.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer/historian?

    Alwyn W Turner: Write as much as possible; never mind the quality, feel the width -- the quality will come in due course. And keep going. It took me ten years before I got a book published, another ten before it really felt like it was working.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Alwyn W Turner: I'm currently working on a sequel to Crisis? What Crisis? about the Thatcher years. And I'm being constantly surprised how rich 1980s culture was -- the music's better than I've ever been prepared to admit, the television has survived remarkably well, and it really was the golden age of detective fiction. At the time, it left a lot to be desired, but in revisiting the period I'm impressed that there were so many good things in there. The wrestling might have gone into terminal decline, but at least we had the snooker to compensate us.

  • Sarah Hall

    Tue, 26 May 2009 03:27

    Sarah Hall was born in Cumbria in 1974. She is the author of Haweswater, which won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel, a Society of Authors Betty Trask Award, and a Lakeland Book of the Year prize. In 2004, her second novel, The Electric Michelangelo, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia region), and the Prix Femina Etranger, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her third novel, The Carhullan Army, was published in 2007, and won the 2006/07 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, a Lakeland Book of the Year prize, and was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a radio adaptation of her third novel. Her latest novel is How to Paint a Dead Man.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for How to Paint a Dead Man?

    Sarah Hall: There were probably a few preoccupations circling -- for me there never seems to be just one clean central idea around which a novel is based. The enigmatic, beautiful still life paintings of Morandi were a key starting point - I have admired them for a long time - though Giorgio in the novel is certainly not Morandi, not an attempt at any kind of fictional biography. To me these paintings, a well as being visually and domestically pleasing, are like questions marks. The novel is about life's big questions perhaps. If that sounds terribly grand, it isn't meant to. Susan's story in particular I think encompasses our contemporary anxiety about who we are and what life is. The other operating keys for the book -- its themes -- are identity (vocational and personal) grief, sex and love -- and I was interested in how these things might be expressed through art and through human interaction, how we make connections and share meanings.

    Mark Thwaite: Your novel spans fifty years, some of which is based in Italy in the 60s -- did you spend much time doing historical research?

    Sarah Hall: Yes, I did. Italy in the 1960's is an interesting period that includes the economic boom. I had a writing residency in Umbria in 2007, which helped too, gave me some time to get acquainted with the place, to gather its folk histories and cultural details, learn about its flora and religious traditions (particularly relevant to Annette's story), talk to people about their lives and memories, and also to encounter firsthand those very famous works of art I'd known about since studying an art history degree. I also researched San Francisco, New York and Liverpool in this period, as Peter's story is partly set in these locations.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write your novel? Is this the usual timeframe for you?

    Sarah Hall: About 5 years from start to finish. This is a little longer than the previous three novels, but I think it's a more complex and subtle piece of fiction, with four varied, interlocking narratives, and the final stages of the project, as well as the inspiration and the drafting, required space, grace periods, and careful arrangement. Though I've now written four novels I hesitate to say what might or might not be normal for me. Each book has felt different and the processes have been different each time.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or on a screen? Straight off or with lots of editing?

    Sarah Hall: These days I tend to use a laptop for composition. For editing I still like to make marks on the page. It's always a balancing act between getting the words out and ordering them somewhat before moving on. Questions like this, while they appear very straightforward, are quite hard to answer. I think writers are usually too engrossed in their projects to deploy a detached aspect of their selves to observe the proceedings and report back on the findings. This writer anyway.

    Mark Thwaite: Your book is a study of art and loss. By default, is it also about the art of writing?

    Sarah Hall: Not consciously, though in all forms of creative production there may be some similarities. Certainly some of the inquiries and explorations into discipline and industry might apply to the literary profession as well as the art world -- the interest in the practitioner as a representative of their work, the desire to find celebrities in the field, the way critical response often attempts to obviate or fix an interpretation of the work, unsuccessfully. I think in the end the book is probably more of a raw human study than an academic meditation or treatise.

    Mark Thwaite: Whilst all your books are very different, as an author do you feel you have ongoing concerns, which you continually interrogate in each of your novels?

    Sarah Hall: Identity is something I often consider, or at least ask questions about in the books -- whether through place and locality, profession, societal definition or marginalization. Also landscape, which I treat almost like a characterization, wherever the settings for the novels might be. There are usually gender debates of some variety at work too, challenges to conventional notions of the feminine and the masculine. Art is a very interesting arena for such things. Think of the names in the history books. Think of the iconic forms on the canvases. Think of the muse.

    Mark Thwaite: You have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (for The Electric Michelangelo) and you've won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 2007 (for The Carhullan Army) -- what do those awards mean to you? And what is your general view of literary prizes?

    Sarah Hall: I'm very honoured, and I also know I have been very lucky. My work is particular, often divisive, so it's a little baffling that there has been enough agreement over the years for a nomination or an award to be given. There is no getting around how useful such things can be for marketing purposes and profile. But even now, I possibly retain something of an underdog status, or an outsider status. That's OK; I like trying to punch above my weight.

    I don't have a general view of literary prizes. Having been a judge myself I know how difficult the process can be, how rewarding and uplifting, how compromising and frustrating. There are different agendas at work. Some awards are longstanding and obviously pride themselves on integrity, always selecting knowledgeable and expert judging panels, and focusing on excellence. Others don't, and seem to be devaluing their role in literary advocacy -- are a little too keen on working the media by employing residents of the celebrity cul-de-sac, often under the banner of leveling democratization.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you learned anything from their responses to your books?

    Sarah Hall: No I don't, but inevitably some reviews will find me. I've learned that there are astute, balanced, well-read critics and then there are the opposite numbers. Positive and negative reviews come from both. The perceived weaknesses and successes in my work have been noted. I've also noted sexism, genre-bias, personal attacks and careless mis-readings.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing How to Paint a Dead Man? How did you overcome it?

    Sarah Hall: The macro-management. It was tricky alloying the four narratives, splicing them together, and forming the overall body of the text. The possibilities were endless, so a system had to be engineered. I knew each story had to work independently, but also work as part of the whole. The chapter tie-ins are both small and large, from domestic detail, to erotic drama, to existential transcendence. My hope is that there is satisfaction in following each character's story independently, hearing each fictional voice telling a tale, but also that the four pieces converse and chorus with each other, thematically and structurally.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Sarah Hall: I've never had an ideal reader in mind. I wouldn't presume to know who that might be, or that I could wholly meet the needs of a particular reader, or that I could disqualify anyone from finding within the text something worthwhile. The responses to my writing have been wonderfully varied and very surprising. A farmer recently showed me an extract from Haweswater he had taped to his kitchen wall -- a little passage about cows that had appealed to him. What more could be hoped for?

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Sarah Hall: A radio adaptation of The Carhullan Army for the BBC and a collection of short stories. I'm also learning to play the banjo -- it's definitely work.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Sarah Hall: There are lots, but I'll throw a few out there: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck; The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox; Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell; Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; The Optimists by Andrew Miller; The Tree House by Kathleen Jamie; and The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy.

    Mark Thwaite: Favourite quote?

    Sarah Hall: From Withnail and I -- the poacher's note: "Here hare here."

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?

    Sarah Hall: Dozens.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you'd like to say?

    Sarah Hall: Thank you.

  • Adam Foulds

    Tue, 19 May 2009 04:26

    Adam Foulds was born in 1974 and lives in south London. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia and his poetry has appeared in a number of literary magazines. His first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times, was published in 2007, The Broken Word came out to great critical acclaim last year (and is the focus of our interview). His new novel The Quickening Maze, about the poet John Clare, is out now.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing The Broken Word?

    Adam Foulds: Reading a review of two very good history books about the Mau Mau conflict (David Anderson's Histories Of The Hanged and Caroline Elkins' Britain's Gulag). I was immediately struck by the fact that I knew nothing about this recent conflict in British history and also found myself imaginatively in it and knowing that I wanted to write my way through its world. I read those books and some others and started to write.

    Mark Thwaite: The Broken Word is a narrative poem -- why did you choose this form to tell your story rather than a prose narrative?

    Adam Foulds: I wanted the technical resources of poetry, particularly the ability to break lines, to accomplish the violence that is central to the work. A line end is a like a corner the reader has to turn to continue on and these can be used to reveal shocks. I also wanted the work to be maximally intense, like the experience of its central character, to be without let up or explanation. The short ride in a fast machine that a poem can produce therefore suited my purposes.

    Mark Thwaite: Your book tells the story of the Mau Mau uprising -- what drew you to this?

    Adam Foulds: The extremity of those events and the fact that they happened very much within living memory. They seemed hidden in plain sight.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you do a lot of research before you began writing?

    Adam Foulds: I researched enough to be feel confident that I wouldn't perpetrate some terrible anachronism and then got on with it, double checking afterwards.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your sequence? How did you overcome it?

    Adam Foulds: Actually the trauma of imaginatively experiencing the events I was describing. For that, there was no way out but through.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Adam Foulds: Longhand onto blank white computer paper. I do the same for prose fiction. I find a computer screen vaguely hassling with its tiring light and flashing cursor.

    Mark Thwaite: Is poetry inspiration or perspiration in your experience?

    Adam Foulds: Both, but the greater the proportion of inspiration the better.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? Have you learned anything from them?

    Adam Foulds: Surely that's three questions. I've certainly been delighted with most responses I've had to the book. Some of those have been reviews.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Adam Foulds: I probably read more than I write, certainly when I'm not in the middle of something. And I do the things we all do -- social life, food, music, telly, other kinds of work.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Adam Foulds: I think I probably write for myself more than an imagined other. I write books that I want to exist and that don't yet.

    Mark Thwaite: Your novel about John Clare, The Quickening Maze, has just come out -- tell us a little bit about it Adam!

    Adam Foulds: It's set around 1840 near where I grew up, in Epping Forest, and during the period of Clare's first incarceration in a private mental asylum there. The young Alfred Tennyson -- pre-beard, pre-In Memoriam -- was also living in the area and became involved in an industrial scheme hatched by the charismatic owner of the asylum, Dr Matthew Allen, a very variegated character who had been imprisoned for debt in the past but by then was a highly respected psychiatrist and friend of a number of literary eminences of the time. Around these three real figures are some I invented -- Allen's family, other patients, the gypsies living in the forest (who were indeed there). It offered a very intense and coherent little world that allowed me to write about lots of things: the forest and natural world, poetry, young love, ambition, the rise of industry, enclosure, the idea of home.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Adam?

    Adam Foulds: Forgive me for being evasive, but I like to preserve some secrecy. It helps the process somehow. I will say: more, and different, but with some similarities.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Adam Foulds: Where do I start? Homer, the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Donne, Hardy, Larkin, Eliot, Bishop. All the usual people. Recently I've really enjoyed reading Borges's short stories and the novels of Jose Saramago and Penelope Fitzgerald.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Adam Foulds: Expect more rejection than acceptance. Make sure you have a job / income stream that can sustain you if it doesn't happen (and probably even if it does). Don't give up (unless you should). And try only to write the things you can't not write. Also make sure you welcome and want constructive criticism: don't fear it. All published writing is a collaborative effort. Take seriously the advice of agents who reject you.

  • Andy Beckett

    Thu, 14 May 2009 02:39

    Andy Beckett studied modern history at Oxford University and journalism at the University of California in Berkeley. He is a feature writer at the Guardian, and also writes for the London Review of Books and the New York Times magazine. He lives in London and has just written When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies.

    Mark Thwaite: What made you want to write a book about the Seventies Andy?

    Andy Beckett: I was born in 1969. I remember the power cuts and the 1979 election but not much else about the 70s. But as soon as I became politically aware in the 80s I was conscious of just how much people in Britain talked about the 70s -- how awful they had been, how all the strikes and economic problems then "justified" what Margaret Thatcher did subsequently. I became intrigued: how bad were the 70s really? What was it like to be involved in politics during such a turbulent era? My book is an attempt to answer these questions.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you think is our biggest collective misconception about the decade?

    Andy Beckett: That the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 was inevitable. It wasn't: until the winter of discontent of 1978-9, when a chaotic wave of strikes effectively destroyed the Callaghan government, Thatcher was increasingly struggling as Opposition leader, her poll lead disappearing, her many enemies in the Conservative party undermining her, much of the public baffled or appalled by her ideas and manner. It wasn't until well into the 80s that a decisive proportion of the electorate and of the British political establishment came round to her way of thinking.

    Mark Thwaite: Some on the Left think that at certain moments Britain was close to a pre-revolutionary moment, do you share that view or is it hyperbole?

    Andy Beckett: I don't think a revolution was ever close, although it suited some people on the left and the right to claim that it was. But between 1974, when a miners' strike helped bring down the Heath government, and the winter of discontent, the left had more power in Britain than at any time in history: a majority of employees were in unions, union leaders like Jack Jones were genuinely more powerful than most cabinet ministers, and Marxist and semi-Marxist ideas had unprecedented influence from academia to popular culture. None of this constituted a revolution, but the usual order of things in Britain was certainly upset. That was why so many conservatives found -- and still find -- the 70s a disturbing period.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write and research When the Lights Went Out? Do you like research, or are you always itching to get down to the actual writing?

    Andy Beckett: The book took six years: basically four years research and two years writing, which is quite a long time for a non-academic book in the world of modern publishing. I loved the research -- watching muddy old TV footage, tracking down once-notorious trade unionists, visiting a North Sea oil rig -- and spent a lot of the writing time hoping I would do it justice. There were times, usually after a strong espresso, that I felt the writing was.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most interesting/unexpected thing you learned during your research?

    Andy Beckett: The British 70s are full of political surprises if you make yourself look at them with fresh eyes. But I'd single out a couple: that the Labour vote in the 1979 election actually went up, especially among wealthier voters -- the idea that the behaviour of the unions sent the electorate running screaming away from Labour is a myth; and that Thatcher in her 70s incarnation was a much more vulnerable and appealing figure than she became in her 80s pomp. Some of my friends are worried I have developed a slight fancy for the 70s version.

    Mark Thwaite: Who are your heroes and villains of the decade?

    Andy Beckett: Heroes - Not Thatcher, I promise... Jack Jones -- for living in a tiny flat while running the biggest union in the country. The Gay Liberation Front -- for demonstrating that the 70s was when the 60s really happened for most radical Britons. Denis Healey -- for being such a forward-thinking and enjoyably rude chancellor.

    Villains -- the National Front -- a reminder that in some ways Britain in the 70s was much worse than now.

    Mark Thwaite: Your book includes some wonderful interviews -- who did you most enjoy talking to and why?

    Andy Beckett: Healey, especially after the very large whisky he gave me. Heath, just before his death, because meeting him was the only way to really understand such an odd and private man. And some unionized truckers in Hull who effectively ran the city by workers' committee during the winter of discontent. They had regrets about the way they had wielded their power, but they were also alive with the memory of it.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have an overarching thesis? How does your book differ from, say, Alwyn Turner's "Crisis? What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s"?

    Andy Beckett: The thesis of my book is that the 70s have been too crudely portrayed in Britain, often for political reasons, as nothing but a series of crises and dead-ends. The period was actually much more alive and interesting: it included the rise of feminism and environmentalism and anti-racism, which have arguably changed Britain as much as Thatcherism, as well as the recessions and phases of frightening social tension. And now that the free-market ideas that have ruled Britain since 1979 are patently not working as well as they did, the 70s look different. But I want to emphasize that my book is also an attempt to deal with the politics in the 70s without constantly battering the reader's head with polemic. Too many books about decades in general and the British 70s in particular seem to boil down to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the period in question - the decade book as comment piece. I want some readers to disagree with my argument but relish my descriptions of the period.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you think we can most learn from studying the Seventies?

    Andy Beckett: That even the cleverest-seeming politicians can be ambushed by unexpected events -- Heath got the oil crisis, just as Brown got the credit crunch. And that new political movements and ideas are always getting going on the margins just when most people think it's a dead period.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you learned anything from their responses to your book?

    Andy Beckett: I do read my reviews -- I don't think I've written a perfect book, and I review books myself, so I don't feel I have the right to hide from the critics. I've been delighted with my reviews, especially one by Jon Savage in the Guardian which I felt really got the book. The one critical review I've had caricatured what was actually in the book, I felt, by making me sound like a naive apologist for everything about the 70s. What I take from that review is that some people are still determined to blacken the period and anyone who tries to depict it as it actually was.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing "When the Lights Went Out"? How did you overcome it?

    Andy Beckett: The hardest thing was finding the right voice for the book. I didn't want to write a conventional decade book, full of bite-sized chunks about punk and 70s TV shows. I wanted to be more selective and vivid, more novelistic. But I also wanted my book to be factually authoritative and accessible to the general reader. I think it took me a good few weeks to find the right tone and structure.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Andy Beckett: I'm trying to write for people who aren't automatically interested in politics, and people who want nonfiction books to have a few adjectives in them.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Andy Beckett: I read a lot of WG Sebald and Iain Sinclair, and think historians and nonfiction writers generally can learn a lot from their descriptiveness and their unconventional narrative structures. I also love Pynchon and Dickens, and hope that my books have some of their sense of a teeming world. Joan Didion is also a favourite for her economy and coolness -- if you're trying to make the IMF crisis of 1976 readable a look at her sentences is a good starting point.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer/historian?

    Andy Beckett: Be in love with your subject. When it's a grey afternoon in the British Library and you're halfway through writing your 200,000 word book you need that intensity to get you through. And readers can tell when books have been written and researched without that passion.

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