Saturday, October 19, 2013

Castles, Customs and Kings

I'm delighted to introduce M.M. Bennetts on the subject of ...

History. It seems to be everywhere these days.  (And I'm not being facetious...)

There are history programmes on all channels as well as the ever popular costume dramas--covering every period of our past from the Wars of the Roses to World War I.  But what I love about the history as it's being examined today is that it's not just a dry-as-the-dust-in-the-attic recitation of names and dates.  It's putting the people back into the story.

And, because I'm biased obviously, I believe that the authors of historical fiction excel at this kind of thing, chiefly because it's not enough for them to write that General Jelly-Belly Fustylugs walloped Marshall Buckteeth-Warthog at the Battle of Molehill Valley, they want to take you there, make you a part of the story, allow you to smell the cordite, hear the clash of steel, and invite you to feel and to live in the period for the duration of their book...

All of which requires a different kind of research than perhaps has been done before.   It demands not just a knowledge of historical personages, but also a fascination with and a tenacious determination to understand what they ate, how things smelled, what the modes of transport were likely to be and how uncomfortable were they, how did they heat or light their houses, what did they read in their newsheets, ...everything in fact that contributes to what I'd call 'the fabric of daily life.'

But I'll be honest--quite often it's a case of reading 10,000 words or even an entire history book to write one paragraph of description in the novel.  Which might seem a bit of a waste...until now.

The English Historical Fiction Authors blog was the brainchild of one Debra Brown, who conceived of the idea of having a number of contributing historical authors writing a daily blog or essay covering some small aspect of their research--the bits which fascinated them, which they uncovered, all those tasty crumbs of history that get left out, maybe swept aside as historical trivia, but absolutely fascinating and delicious nonetheless.

Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales from English Historical Fiction Authors is a compilation of the 'best of' all these essays from the first year's worth of English Historical Fiction Authors blogs.

And because it's the combined efforts of 55 different authors (including some of the best-selling novelists in the field), all engaged in studying and writing about different eras and from different angles, it's an anthology literally with something for everyone.  Whether you're entranced by mediaeval knighthood during the Wars of the Roses or a night at the theatre in Jane Austen's day, from Boadicea to Brummell, Druidic slaughter to silk dancing breeches, this lovely volume has it covered.

It's possible I'm biased when I say that I think it's a cornucopia of fascinating facts.  I am, after all, one of the editors and a contributing author.

But, I have to say, even after all the editing, all the re-reading and re-reading and re-reading, I'm still fired up by the essays about the mediaeval bestiary, about when envelopes were invented and why, what a mediaeval field looked like (they ploughed in circles--how cool is that?), what happened to all those nuns dispossessed by Henry VIII's seizure of monastic lands and coffers, what it was like to be one of Elizabeth I's ladies-in-waiting...the list goes on.

These authors--including Anne O'Brien, Sandra Byrd, Nancy Bilyeau and Barbara Kyle--all love their subjects.  And it's contagious.  It lights each and every page.

Castles, Customs, and Kings. 
To my mind, the perfect compendium for anyone who's missing The White Queen (or who didn't like it and wants to know more about the period), longing for Cranford or wondering what were the turnpike roads like when Jane Austen was writing Pride & Prejudice...a book that puts the people and how they lived and who they were front and centre, and all in bite-size, easily digestible essays.  And which, I believe, often give a greater sense of an age than the name-and-date version of history that's too frequently trotted out as our island story.

Any questions?  Oh, yes, it's available in paperback (and it's really nice quality--it weighs well in the hand, which is what I like) or for Kindle from Amazon.

Slainte!  And happy reading!


M.M. Bennetts

Friday, October 18, 2013

Heads up!

Tomorrow I host M.M. Bennetts who's going to offer us something equestrian and historical while reminding us to seek out info on many other topics in "Castles, Customs & Kings". Watch this space!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Maggie May and collective memory

I've had an example of the failure of collective memory this weekend. Someone mentioned the song "Maggie May" and quoted a short extract, saying it was by Rod Stewart.

Oh dirty Maggie Mae they have taken her away
And she never walk down Lime Street any more
Oh the judge he guilty found her
For robbing a homeward bounder
That dirty no good robbin` Maggie Mae

To the port of Liverpool
They returned me to
Two pounds ten a week, that was my pay  (that's the whole song)

Now I know this is not the case. I think this short version is from the Beatles album, Let It Be. I copied down this song in the late 1960s when the folk revival was in full swing, following the skiffle era of the 1950s. I think I learned it from the Spinners (the Liverpool ones, not the pop group of the same name) but I certainly sang it with the folk group I belonged to, and these are the words we sang:

Maggie May - As sung by Eggshelz in 1970

Come all you sailors bold, and when me tale is told
I know you all will sadly pity me;
for I was a bloomin' fool in the port of Liverpool
on the voyage when I first paid off from sea.

Oh Maggie Maggie May, they have taken you away
for to slave upon Van Diemen's cruel shore
For you robbed many a whaler, and many a drunken sailor
but you'll never cruise down Paradise Street no more.

I paid off at the Home, just back from Sierra Leone (Canning Place was the location of the Sailors' Home in Liverpool, see next verse)
Two pound ten a month it was my pay.
As I jingled all me tin I was sadly taken in
by a lady by the name of Maggie May.


When I steered into her, I hadn't got a care, (in Scouse, this rhymes)
I was cruising up and down old Canning Place;
she wore a gown so fine (or "crin-o-line"), like a frigate of the line,
and I being a sailor, I gave chase.


She gave a saucy nod, and like a farmer's clod
I let her take me line abreast in tow;
and under all plain sail, we ran before the gale
and to the Crow's Nest Tavern we did go.


Next morning when I woke, I found that I was broke,
I hadn't got a penny to me name;
I had to pop me suit, me long johns and me boots
down in the pawnshop, number nine Park Lane.


She was chained and sent away from Liverpool one day;
the lads they cheered as she sailed down the Bay,
and every sailor lad had never been so glad
as when they sent her out to Botany Bay.

Oh Maggie Maggie May, they have taken you away
for to slave upon Van Diemen's cruel shore
For you robbed many a whaler, and many a drunken sailor
but you'll never cruise down Paradise Street no more.

Other "red light" streets are also named in the chorus, including Peter Street and Lime Street.

Some history

Here's the link to the information available on Wikipedia about Maggie May (or as the Beatles' truncated version spelled it, "Maggie Mae".)
"Maggie May" (or "Maggie Mae") is a traditional Liverpool folk song (Roud #1757) about a prostitute who robbed a "homeward bounder": a sailor coming home from a round trip.
John Manifold, in his Penguin Australian Song Book, described it as "A foc'sle song of Liverpool origin apparently, but immensely popular among seamen all over the world".[2] It became widely circulated in a skiffle version from the late 1950s.
In 1964, the composer and lyricist Lionel Bart (the creator of the musical Oliver!), used the song and its backstory as the basis of a musical set around the Liverpool Docks. The show, also called Maggie May, ran for two years in London. In 1970 a truncated version of the song performed by the Beatles was included on their album Let It Be.

Stan Hugill writes of an early reference to the song in the diary of Charles Picknell, a sailor on the female-convict ship Kains that sailed to Van Diemen's Land in 1830. This indicates that versions of the song date back to the actual period of penal transportation mentioned in the lyrics as Maggie's fate. In the earliest known version the protagonist is "charming Nellie Ray", who may have been a real transported prostitute and thief.[1] 


This fogging up of memory happens all the time, I know. It's why hoax assertions and downright lies continue to circulate on social media - it seems to fit with what we remember and so we go along with it as "truth".

However, while this is a downside of the collective memory and one reinforced every day by our use of the World Wide Web, the upside is that we can use a search engine and check the truth of these "facts" before we decide to pass them on to inform - or usually MISinform - our circle of acquaintances., Hoaxslayer etc are our friends in these cases.

It also behoves us as historians, researchers and writers to check any blithe assertions we may make - because it's so easy for the critical reader to check whether we've been diligent or lazy.

And it would make social media a lot less confusing.

Sue Millard's books almost all have a rural or equestrian background and can be found on her web site,

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books.