Book review! Runestone: Book One of Viking Magic

Salvete, readers!

This week I’m reviewing the first book of the Viking Magic series by Anna Cidor, Runestone. It’s a middle grade historical fantasy based on Norse mythology, so it’s kind of my thing.

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Historical fantasy occupies a unique space in the world of genre fiction. You’ve got to deal with the unreal world of the supernatural, but within the constraints of historical authenticity. Writing for children brings its own set of challenges. Where do child protagonists fit in a world whose concept of childhood was so different from our own? How do you forge a connection between past and present? And if you’re writing about Northern Europe of the Middle Ages, you’ve got to deal with the Tolkien factor as well—so many features of the Norse sagas have become fantasy tropes via The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Anna Cidor deals with these challenges well by side-stepping many of the clichés about Viking society.

The newborn Thora’s father has no interest in raising a daughter. He wants a strong young boy to help him out on the family farm. Oddo, meanwhile, is born into a family whose children learn magic before they can walk. To save Thora from being abandoned in the woods, the village midwife switches them at birth. Years later, Oddo shows no aptitude for farming, but constantly has to suppress his talent for magic. Thora loves working with her hands and making things grow, but has no magical ability whatsoever. When their paths meet, Thora and Oddo embark upon a journey to discover where they fit into this world.

It’s a simple story, well told. Oddo and Thora are charming characters who inhabit a world rich in detail. In the construction of her setting, Cidor pays as much attention to the natural world as the artificial, from the soapstone crockery to the alder wood trees. Her research into Norse social history really shows. The rhythm of the characters’ lives is determined by the seasons, as it should be for an agrarian culture. The characters live on the land and occasionally play at being warriors, not the other way around. If you wanted a story of axe-wielding sea-raiders or horned helmets, you’ve come to the wrong place. The system of magic is thoroughly embedded in medieval folklore and thus integrates nicely into the setting. I can’t fault Cidor’s research or her dedication to world-building.

That said, I question a few of the decisions in terms of authenticity. At times, the dialogue jars as it veers from the quaint to the modern. On the one hand, I think it makes sense for the dialogue to be idiomatic and casual. There’s nothing worse than highfaluting old-timey speak in historical fiction. On the other hand, well, the word ‘okay’ in a medieval setting just doesn’t feel right. While I appreciate that this world is essentially the author’s own, I never really got a sense of the geography or historical period. We get a fairly generic Northern European landscape, and the characters don’t seem to identify with any particular clan group. Anything resembling organised religion is notable by its absence. We get a kind of paganism minus gods—not one of the Asgardians rates a mention. This seems particularly odd when the story is about Viking magic. Surely Odin should at least be referred to, given that he was so closely associated with magic? I think adding a further layer of historical detail would have helped the story to feel less like a medieval fantasy and more like a fantasy novel which happens to be set in the middle ages.

Yet for every quibble there’s a stroke of genius. For instance, I love the use of ‘seethe’ as a verb for using a spell, rather than the more usual ‘casting.’ I’m guessing this is a transliteration of an Old Norse word for sorcery, seidr. If I’m right, this simple word-choice shows real sympathy for the historical past. Touches like this outweigh any drawbacks. With its likeable protagonists and compelling narrative, Runestone is an excellent first volume of what promises to be a thrilling series for children.

Until next time,

Valete

The essence of the story

Salvete, readers!

Last weekend I watched Moana again with my kids. This was no hardship, as I love this movie. Heck, I love the direction Disney is going right now—they really seem to have figured out what makes a story tick. As the credits rolled, my oldest son turned to me.

‘Dad, I think I know what this movie’s about.’

‘Oh, aye? What?’ Now, my son’s not long grown out of Thomas the Tank Engine, so I’m not expecting a particularly sophisticated answer. Probably he’s going to tell me it’s about a girl who goes on an adventure with a shapeshifter and fights a giant lava monster at the end. Nope. His next words staggered me.

‘It’s about being who you are.’

I blinked. ‘That’s interesting. What makes you say that, buddy?’

‘Well…’ He frowned. ‘They talk about it lots. Especially in the songs. Moana loves the ocean, and that’s who she is. But she needs to be brave to be a sailor, because the ocean’s scary and her dad doesn’t want her to go. So she has to be brave to be who she is.’

I smiled. ‘Go on.’

‘Maui, he’s really nice, and that’s who he is, but he acts mean and tough because he thinks that’s how everybody will like him. And the island lady at the end…’

‘Yes?’

He shrugs. ‘That’s what it’s about. Being who you are.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I would agree with you. That’s what it’s all about. Well done.’

He gets it. At heart, whatever the details of plot or character, stories are about something. And when you’re writing, that something isn’t always clear. Sometimes you don’t figure out the theme until you’re deep in the editing phase. But once you realise it, you hold onto it and never let go.

I’d say it’s really important to know what your story is really about before you start trying to sell it—to the reading public, agents, publishers, whatever. It should be implicit in your elevator pitch, even if you don’t beat readers over the head with it. Once you can distil the essence of your story into a simple phrase, it’s your first step toward getting others to understand what it’s really about.

Until next time,

Valete

Review– Roman Empire: Reign of Blood

Salvete, readers!

In my last post, I mentioned that I finally cracked and got Netflix. What did I watch first, you ask? Did I go to Stranger Things? The Crown? The Expanse? A Series of Unfortunate Events? Daredevil? Jessica Jones? One of the many shows which demonstrate we are living in the golden age of television? Oh my, no. Me being me, I typed ‘Roman’ into the search box, and this led me straight to Roman Empire: Reign of Blood. Ooh, I think, Netflix takes a shot at Roman historical drama! Netflix has a Midas-like effect on TV shows, right? They can tell any story they want, free from the constraints of network television. Surely this was going to be a different take on Commodus’s story? They wouldn’t just repeat a bunch of lazy Hollywood tropes, would they?

Heh, heh, heh. Silly Past Julian.

Basically, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood follows the Roman emperor Commodus from his boozy adolescence to his rise to power. Comparisons to Gladiator are inevitable; it features many of the same historical characters. The show is a ‘docudrama,’ alternating between scenes of fictional dramatization, interviews with various talking heads, and sequences in which vast swathes of story are narrated by the venerable Sean Bean. Given that Sean Bean dies in every movie, I can only assume the narrator was crushed by a vending machine on his way out of the studio. It’s an interesting idea to merge documentary and drama, but by trying to appeal to fans of both genres it fails to please either.

The problem is that by relying on narration and interviews to carry so much of the story, the viewer never really gets the chance to get to know the characters. The series doesn’t show us who these people are so much as it tells us. We’re told in the narration, for example, that Marcus Aurelius is a great philosopher. But we never see this—not in the pilot at least. As a piece of historical fiction, I have my issues with Gladiator, but the way the writers worked lines from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations into his dialogue was a clever way of telling us he was a philosopher. Here we’ve just got to take Ned Stark’s word for it. The drama scenes feel unfinished. Just when we might get sucked in, it cuts away to somebody talking at us. It would have been far more effective to do either a documentary or a drama, but not both simultaneously. Of course, I’m not sure they had the budget to tell the story as a drama. I can’t help but admire the tenacity of the film-makers as they to make everything look bigger than Ben-Hur, but there’s no getting around the fact that the sets are tiny. Seriously, don’t try to tell me that Commodus is fighting in the Colosseum when it looks smaller than a college amphitheatre.

Any shortcomings in the production values would have been overcome by deep characterisation. I, Claudius had a budget not much greater than old-school Doctor Who, but still was absolutely riveting. Roman Empire is content with sword-and-sandals clichés. We’ve seen this story a million times. It’s basically a bargain basement version Fall of the Roman Empire, with gratuitous sex and violence thrown in for fans of HBO’s Rome. You know what made HBO’s Rome great? It wasn’t the boobs or the blood. The show worked because it subverted stereotypical portrayals of the Romans and invested so heavily in the characterisation. You won’t find that here.

It might seem like I’m venting my spleen at the show, and that’s probably because I am. As a classicist invested in historical fiction, I get frustrated when the same stories get trotted out over and over. Greco-Roman antiquity is such a vast, rich, fertile place for the imagination. There’s a world of stories out there. Did you know that the Roman empire gave us the first romance novels in history? There’s got to be more to historical epics set in antiquity than a bunch of sweaty dudes shouting and swiping at each other with sharp bits of iron. There’s got to be more to Roman female characters than maternal figures and scheming manipulators, more to their sexuality than simply performing for the male gaze. I love Agora not because it’s particularly faithful to the primary sources—it’s not—but as an intellectual character study of Hypatia. I love Centurion because it’s a survival thriller that just happens to be set in antiquity. Novelists have done so many interesting things with the Roman world—detective novels like those Lindsey Davis, children’s adventures such as Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries. Tansy Rayner Roberts goes so far as to invent a whole new subgenre in Love and Romanpunk.

By and large, TV and movies just haven’t caught up yet. This is a crying shame. I would argue that Greco-Roman antiquity is uniquely suited to long-form story-telling, as it allows writers the time and energy it takes to get readers to invest in what is essentially an alien world.

To put it bluntly, we don’t need another Gladiator rerun.

So there.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly week, ending 5 May, 2017

Salvete, readers!

This week has been very much focused on academic writing. Good news, though! I finally knocked out my contribution to an article and sent the draft to my co-authors. It still needs some work, but it feels great to see a research project that started twelve months ago come to fruition.

I’m now going to focus on blogging and my fiction for a couple of weeks, before turning to the next academic project. I’m ecstatic about this next novel– it’s based on one of my favourite epic poems, Beowulf. I’ve written a draft of some early chapters, then realised I didn’t like the direction it was going down. So I decided to take it back to the drawing board and let it simmer for a few weeks while I worked on an academic project. In the meantime, I downloaded a series of recorded lectures on Beowulf and Norse history. This is one of the things I love about writing. It’s a fantastic vehicle for self-education and growth. And now, after a bit of cogitating on it (read: daydreaming), I’ve got a much clearer sense of where the story needs to go and who my characters are.

And we’re off to a flying start!

The only thing which could impede my productivity at this point is Netflix– I just joined and am slightly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of shows on there. On the one hand, it’s a bit of a time-sucker. On the other, good writing tends to inspire good writing, and by golly there’s some amazing writing in television right now. And then there’s Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, which is… not so amazing. In the meantime, I’m absolutely open to recommendations about Netflix shows.

Oh, and another thing I’m really looking forward to: I’m beta reading a good friend’s script! I love beta reading– I always learn so much, and it feels great to help out fellow writers.

In the meantime, O faithful reader, I have a question for you. Yes, you! How are you enjoying these updates on my writerly weeks? I’ve been contemplating the idea of dropping back to doing one per month. I find them a good way to keep myself accountable and it helps me a lot to look back and realise I have actually accomplished things. And yet I know it can get a bit repetitive to read what amounts to ‘wrote stuff, read stuff, thought about it a bit’ every single week. Let me know in the comments if you’re enjoying these posts, and I’ll let you know what I decide.

Until next time,

Valete

 

 

 

 

Historical howlers

Salvete, readers!

I’ve written a few posts now which talked about the ideas of historical authenticity vs historical accuracy. Here’s the long and the short of it. Basically, I don’t think the concept of ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction is all it’s cracked up to be. What’s important is that the story feels real and remains sympathetic to historical sources. Anachronisms are a problem insofar as they undermine the reader’s ability to buy into your world. In fact, there are instances where careful and conscious employment of anachronism can result in strong story-telling.

Good gravy, it reads like a manifesto, doesn’t it?

That said, I do want to stress there are definitely instances in which anachronism can have a disastrous effect upon the sense of authenticity. I’m not talking about the decision to, say, invent a scenario in which two historical characters meet when they couldn’t have. I’m talking about silly mistakes that make it glaringly apparent that the author hasn’t thought about their world deeply or done a lot of research. For a lot of readers of historical fiction, that can be a deal-breaker. On a deep and fundamental level, historical howlers can undermine an author’s voice. The illusion that this story could be true falls away to reveal an author who is visiting the past like a tourist. When anachronism undermines the world-building, the entire story is going to fall down. Let’s have a look at a few examples.

For whatever reason, food is one of the most common places where howlers occur. I don’t know why descriptions of meals are so galling when the author gets it wrong—maybe it’s because sharing a meal together is such a universal human experience, and because it is a classic setting for character development. So when I read stories of, say, peasants in early medieval Ireland tucking into potatoes… well, suddenly the story doesn’t feel real any more. Potatoes, after all, come from the Americas and were hence unknown in Europe until after Columbus. But they quickly became common fare, so I guess they’ve become shorthand for peasantry. Gosh, I remember grinding my teeth when I saw peasants hurling tomatoes on Merlin for much the same reason.

Leaving the middle ages aside, howlers like this really grate when the author is writing about historical experiences within living memory. Kathryn Gossow (author of the contemporary fantasy Cassandra, which is really good and I recommend it highly), pointed out on one of my previous posts that it doesn’t make sense for a story set in 1950s Australia to feature a working class family sitting down to a hearty meal of mac and cheese. Really it should be meat and veg. A really clear sense of world history is your best friend when it comes to writing about food—not just the nitty gritty details of a particular time and place, but a clear sense of the ‘big picture’ of history around the globe.

I think howlers become a serious problem when they undermine characterisation. I’m going to use another example from a very popular historical fantasy series set in ancient Rome—I’d rather not say which one. It’s a first-person narrative. We are inside the protagonist’s head for the duration of the novel, and so I’d argue that it is extra important to keep the story feeling authentic. One of the subplots revolves around an infected wound. And that’s fine, infection was rife before the age of antibiotics. You could die of a broken bone in antiquity. The issue is that the protagonist describes it in terms of ‘infection.’ As in, he seems to be aware of bacteria. Now, the Greeks and Romans were well aware of the process of corruption. Aristotle devoted an entire treatise to the subject. And yet to have the character diagnose himself using the modern medical term has an effect like crunching gears on a car. It’s unpleasant to the ear and bad for the mechanics. The protagonist doesn’t sound Roman anymore—it’s become a generic fantasy with Romanesque costumes. Sometimes historical authenticity comes down to something as simple as word choice.

To avoid howlers, I always recommend digging into the primary sources for the period—newpapers, diaries, and especially novels from the time you’re depicting. Not just to mine for details, but to get a sense of the voice, the way people talked and thought.

And you know what? I’m also going to recommend a resource: Susanne Alleyne’s Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders. It’s an awesome little reference guide. The examples used in this book do tend to gravitate strongly toward a European and American context, which makes sense given the author’s historical interests. However, it also gives a really good, solid grounding in the methodology for avoiding historical howlers. And, you know, if you want to know a bit about medieval undies, it’s a great place to look.

And on that lovely note…

Valete

My writerly week, ending 28 April, 2017

Salvete, readers.

I’ve crawled across the finish line this week, and I’m weary. And yet I do have a few things to celebrate.

  • One of the highlights of this week was when a friend of mine showed me a photo he’d taken at the Classical Association’s annual conference– my academic book was on sale at the Routledge table! And another written by a colleague which I had proofread. I’m really happy that Tertullian and the Unborn Child is reaching people who will find it helpful, and that my efforts do make a difference in this world.
  • After a very intense month in my day job, I decided to carve out some time this weekend to focus on my creative pursuits. I decided to add a few key details to my novel based on the Aeneid, added a new scene to the radio play I’m co-writing, and pushed the next novel forward another few steps.
  • By the end of this weekend, I aim to have my contribution to an academic article done and dusted. It’ll be so great to have that Centaur off my back– hoofs hurt more than monkey paws!

I listened to a podcast this week–The Bestseller ExperimentHave you heard it? It is kind of brilliant. Basically these two guys (whose names, confusingly, are both Mark) have set out to write, publish and market a bestselling novel in one year. Every week they interview somebody from the publishing industry. Whether it’s an author, publisher, editor, agent, or a number-cruncher, the guests share their secrets to success in the world of book publishing. I wish the guys who run the podcast loads and loads of luck, though I suspect that the aim to produce a ‘bestselling’ novel in just a year may be an exercise in hubris. That said, the podcast is really informative and entertaining. I did a literal spit-take when they interviewed Ben Aaronovitch, and the interview with Bryan Cranston is amazingly insightful. Not only am I learning a lot about how the industry works, but I love the sense of connection with all these people who love books and contribute to our literary culture. At the end of the day, whether as big-time mainstream novelists or as indie authors, we’re all in this together. And, yeah, I can dream about being on the show someday. Well done, Marks, you’ve inspired me.

I’d love to talk about building upon one’s academic cred to make a career as a novelist. And compare and contrast modern and ancient means of storytelling. What can we learn from the ancients? How have we progressed? In some ways, have we come full circle?

Or, you know, I could just write a blog post about it.

Well, that’s about that for this week. Thanks as ever for sticking with me, folks. Building a community is one of the main functions of story-telling, as I see it. The writer’s journey can be impossible if you go it alone, but it gives me courage to know that my words reach others, and it’s so heartwarming to hear of others’ success.

Until next time,

Valete

Depictions of Troy in Historical Fiction

Salvete, readers!

After a couple of weeks of posts concerned with WWI, we now return to our regular programming to discuss historical fiction. Anachronism can be a dirty word when it comes to evaluating historical fiction. By and large, I would agree that blatant anachronism can be dangerous when it undermines the story. However, I would also argue that when used carefully there is a place for anachronism in historical story-telling. I’ve written previously about how complaining about anachronism sucks the fun out of everything. But anachronism can also be put to good use, if used in a conscientious way. I’m going to use examples from the Trojan War, simply because it’s a topic in which I’ve researched pretty thoroughly.

Numerous novels set in the Trojan war run with the Homeric tradition that the Trojans were more or less the same as the Greeks, eg. Colleen McCollough’s Song of Troy and David Malouf’s Ransom. In these stories, Greeks and Trojans speak the same language, worship the same gods, and share the same material culture. The power structures in Greek and Trojan society are organised in more or less the same manner. The idea that the Troy was a mirror image of Greece is in no way historically probable, and if we are trying to understand the novel using the restrictive framework of accuracy, it will fail dismally.

In fact, the historical Troy was in all likelihood a Hittite colony. Eric Shanower picked up this idea and ran with it to great effect in his magnificent Age of Bronze comic book series. His depiction of Troy was hugely effective in that it subverted the reader’s expectations. Another great example of a novel which honours the historical Troy’s Hittite origins is Judith Starkson’s Hand of Fire. Shanower and Starkson deserve kudos for their detailed research and the dense, richly layered depiction of Hittite culture.

However, even as I acknowledge the power of historical verisimilitude in these narratives, I would argue that the traditional depiction of Troy as a kind of Greek polis still honours the story’s historical roots in that it reflects the cultural milieu which produced the Iliad and Odyssey, the primary textual sources for the Trojan War. In this context it can be very effective for the historical fiction author to evoke a sense of time and place rather than to rigidly adhere to the facts, archaeological or otherwise.

Sometimes we imagine that archaeology is an impartial science which provides unquestionable fact. Problem is, there’s no such thing. Archaeology is just as much influenced by the vicissitudes of historical circumstance as any other discipline. Here I think it’s useful to consider the thoughts of classical archaeologist (and spy!) Jerome Sperling is illustrative. When he wasn’t relaying information to the allies, Sperling participated in Carl Blegen’s pivotal excavations at Troy. Blegen’s interpretations of the site were strongly criticised by later archaeologists, who argued that he allowed his experiences of seeing cities levelled by enemy bombing in WWII to influence his interpretation of the destruction of Troy. Questioned about it decades later on Michael Wood’s documentary series In Search of the Trojan War, Sperling responded:

To me it doesn’t have any great significance, this criticism, because everybody’s Troy is different from everybody else’s Troy. It depends on what blend you make of the poetry you’ve read or how much of the archaeology and you care about it, and how much you use your own imagination… I don’t see the need for identifying Agamemnon, say, as being the person there at the end of Troy VIIA. I mean I’m thrilled by, I’m overpowered by Homeric poetry, and I think everyone is who reads it carefully. It’s an over-powering experience. But that doesn’t make it, doesn’t have to make it historical, because you see poetic truth comes in the people that he talks about, their hopes and despair and problems and conflict. That’s where the truth of it is.

So there you have it. I think that if a renowned archaeologist (and puncher of Nazis) can recognise that the power of the Troy lies as much in story-telling as historical veracity, then surely novelists can too.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly week, ending 21 April, 2017

Salvete, readers!

My favourite Father-in-law informs me that salvete is not only for Latin for, ‘Hey folks!’ but is also Latvian for serviette. I can only assume that any Latvian readers who stumble across my blog think I have a weird fixation upon serviettes.

This week has been very much focused upon my day job as I am entering a period of intense workload. That’s life. I’ve done a few cool writerly things though.

  • Chipped away at a bit more on the big translation project I’m working on, and finally finished another smaller project. I take back everything I said about Ps. Nicolaus being readable.
  • I can give myself a bit of a pat on the back for sharing my research on how the Great War affected my great grandparents. Hint: it wasn’t that great.
  • I did some research on marketing fiction and looked into some discussion of where the publishing industry is heading. This is, alas, just as important as actual writing these days.
  • I carved out some time to work on an article whose deadline is looming. This comes as a relief, as it’s been hanging over my head for a while.

I’ve been reflecting a bit on my author platform. As a creative writer, I produce historical fiction with a heavy mythological bent. This is a fairly natural extension from my existing platform as a young scholar of Greek and Roman history. But this also means that effectively I’m building two writing careers simultaneously, working in two related but very different genres. They complement each other quite harmoniously. Still, balancing the two can be a challenge sometimes. But it’s a challenge I love to meet, week by week.

Thanks for sticking with me, folks. I really appreciate it.

Until next time,

Valete

Harold and Marion’s War

Salvete, readers!

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A couple of years ago I decided to do some research on the lives of my maternal great grandparents, Harold Moses Horne and Marion Gordon Horne (née Taylor). I thought I would share what I found, and my reflections on the ANZAC legend and what it has meant for my family.

It was relatively easy to find information on Harold in old newspapers and the national archives, as he was a soldier in World War I. Marion was more difficult to trace. I managed to find three photographs of Harold. I’ve included one above. There are only two existing pictures of Marion, as far as I know. One is their wedding photo, taken when she and Harold were young. The other is of them in their fifties, worn and unsmiling. Both pictures are lost in a box somewhere. For both of their lives I am dependent also on the oral tradition handed down to me by my Mum. What really strikes me is how profoundly the war affected both of their lives. These people were not legends, as such, but genuine human beings with all the strengths and frailties that come with being human. I hope nobody minds if I share some of what I’ve found, and some of the thoughts I’ve had trying to piece together their lives.

Our story begins with Harold. This is by necessity, because information about Marion is scarce. His war record says he was born in 1895 to Charles and Miriam Horne, both of them farmers. That’s not too surprising. The overwhelming majority of Australians were farmers in those days. He was a Baptist, and from what I understand pretty devout most of his life. Most of his life he lived in Rosewood, Queensland. What really hits me is that he was a promising kid. According to the Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser, he won an academic prize at Ashwell State School. I guess he would have been twelve. After that, he took up an apprenticeship as a mechanic at the Ipswich Rail Works. He would have just finished the apprenticeship when he signed up with the army in March of 1916.

Why did he sign up? The same old stories get trotted out around this time of year. The stereotypical story of the ANZAC recruit is that he had a craving for adventure, or an ardent desire to defend the Motherland, or (God help us) wanted to help forge the Australian identity. Honestly? I have no idea, but I am willing to speculate that there were more prosaic reasons he might have joined the army. The Ipswich Rail Works ceased operations less than a year after he joined. Government subsidies had been redirected to the war effort, and most of the company’s labour force had volunteered. Perhaps Harold saw the writing on the wall for the company, and decided to try his luck with the army as many of his mates had? Certainly he and his family had never been well-off, and Australian troops were paid a princely sum of six shillings a day—more than three times as much as their British counterparts. In any case, we do know that he enlisted in February of 1916. At the age of twenty-one, I don’t think he could have known what he was in for.

A few months later, he boarded a ship for Alexandria to undergo training. I don’t think he could have had much training or experience. Five months after he embarked from Australia to Alexandria, he was shipped off to Marseilles, and from there to the Somme. Harold was part of a machine-gun division. Perhaps he had been assigned there because of his experience with heavy machinery. Who knows? All I know is that what he experienced changed him forever. We can read of the Somme, but I don’t think any of us can really understand the pointless, empty brutality of the battlefield—young men cut to ribbons and left to rot in no-man’s-land, and for what? To gain a few feet of land which would be lost the next day? Whatever empty sentiments we hear on ANZAC Day, I have difficulty seeing anything noble or glorious about such pointless loss of life. As a machine-gunner, his role would have been defensive. He likely never went over the top, but rather defended his trench against enemy attack. I can’t imagine the horror of it, to have to kill or be killed. He would have let loose a hail of fire that would have decimated row after row of enemy soldiers. What does that do to a person? I’m glad that I’ll never have to know.

Harold served in France until November of 1917. On a cool Autumn morning, his unit was hit by an enemy mustard gas attack. In the confusion, he was snared in some barbed wire. He managed to get his mask on, but the damage was done. His lungs were shredded. He was relocated to a military hospital in Aberdeen with acute laryngitis. It is at this point my great grandmother Marion comes into the story.

Marion had been born in 1898. Her dad was a blacksmith, and she had lived in Aberdeen all her life. When they met she was a munitions worker, and volunteered by night as a nurse’s aide. Here the oral tradition diverges somewhat from the documentary evidence. According to my mum, her grandmother always said they fell in love gradually as she tenderly tended his wounds. He was the tragic hero, an exotic foreigner fighting for freedom. It was like a scene from a romance novel. Perhaps that’s genuinely how they remembered it, and I don’t doubt that they were immediately attracted to one another on some level. No, what I find myself doubting is the timeframe. Harold was admitted to hospital on the Eighth of November, 1917. He and Marion were married on the Thirteenth.

Crikey. They didn’t waste time in those days.

Most marriage certificates tend to be printed on cream paper with gold embossed writing—or the ones that are meant for display, at any rate. This one is pretty grubby, with military typescript and scribble. Whoever made the record got her name wrong. The paper says she was ‘Maria.’ I’m willing to bet Marion lied about her age. While other records show she was born in 1898, the marriage certificate says she was born in 1895. Or perhaps it was a clerical error.

I can speculate all sorts of things that might have been going on at this point. It was probably clear to them that Harold was going to be rejoining his unit soon, and chances were that he wouldn’t have made it home, especially with his wounds. Did either of them expect this to be lifelong commitment? Nobody knew when or how the war would end. Maybe they felt they had to live in the moment. Or maybe they were just silly kids who didn’t think things through. I expect they saw it as terribly romantic to get married so soon, in a flurry of passion. There could have been any number of reasons. I honestly don’t know. There’s only so much a scrap of paper can tell you, and only so much a grandmother is willing to divulge to a child. Don’t forget, one of my main sources is what my mother tells me her grandmother told her when she was a kid. I suspect we’ll never know the full story. It would certainly cause his proper English Baptist parents some consternation when he brought home a girl who was not only Scottish but Presbyterian!

Harold and Marion only had a few weeks together before he was sent back to the front line, where he was reassigned to another machine-gun division. A few months later he suffered a relapse of laryngitis, and was sent back to the UK to recover. I haven’t been able to figure out where, and I haven’t found any evidence of communication between Harold and Marion at this point. Then he was deemed too ill to return to fighting, but was not discharged at this point. The war ended in 1918, but he couldn’t go home just yet.

After four years of bloodshed and with millions dead, Harold was reassigned to the Burials Division. This was a common fate for a lot of soldiers in his boots, I think. Too sick to fight, not sick enough for a medical discharge. They called Australian soldiers ‘Diggers.’ The word ‘Digger’ evokes mateship and bravery in Australian parlance. It features heavily in the bellicose rhetoric of the tabloid, the trite warmongering of the political speech. In Harold’s case, I don’t think he would have found anything to cheer in the name.

At this point we find something a little unexpected in Harold’s war record. In May, 1919, he was admitted to yet another military hospital, this time seeking treatment for syphilis. When did he pick it up? How did he pick it up? Actually, you know what? Never mind how. Let’s go back to when, and from whom? When I mentioned the disease to Mum, her eyebrows raised. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Well, you know. These young blokes, they thought they were going to die any day. I guess they had to try it.’ It is entirely possible that he contracted syphilis from a casual encounter or through the services of a sex worker. Once more, we’ll never know.

And I’m okay with that.

What I’m more curious about is whether he had it before he and Marion were married. If so (as seems likely) then she would have caught it too. Mum thinks that would have explained a few things about their marriage. I cannot blame him for passing it onto her. After all, syphilis only becomes detectable to the naked eye in its later stages. I just feel terribly sorry for both of them. Treatments for syphilis in those days did little and had horrible side-effects. It must have seemed like a miracle when penicillin was discovered when they were in their thirties. Shortly after undergoing treatment, Harold was placed on indefinite leave, and returned to Aberdeen. I can only assume she was treated too, as both would still have been carriers.

Some months later, they embarked aboard a ship to Australia. By this point, Marion was pregnant; the baby was stillborn en route. He was Christened ‘Allan’ before being buried at sea. Marion always blamed him. Now I guess we know why.

Harold came back to Rosewood a hero. The local paper ran a photo of him on the front page. His name and picture were included in a commemorative book, Queenslanders in the Great War. Incidentally, you can still download a copy of this book via the University of Queensland library. But inside I think both of them were dealing with a world of hurt. They had both seen things that nobody should have to see. They had just lost a child. And I can imagine that each was suddenly realising the consequences of marrying a stranger. Marion was far from the only home she had ever known, and trapped living with her in-laws, who never lost their distaste for her. She spoke with a heavy brogue, and never quite fit in with her husband’s family.

The next decades are a blur. Times were lean. The roaring twenties largely bypassed the young couple, and indeed much of Queensland. Harold didn’t qualify for a pension, as the government did not deem him grievously injured enough to warrant one. But his health was permanently affected, and he was so frequently ill that he could never hold down a steady job. There are a few reports of him being fined a few shillings here and there for driving without a licence or public drunkenness. Their marriage was never easy. Before he left, Harold had apparently been easy-going and likeable. Now he was surly and easily provoked. The war had changed Marion too. As a girl she had been naive, energetic. Over the next years she nursed a deep resentment for the hurts she had endured, and a regret for the life she had left behind. They had three more boys, Jack, Gordon, and Allan. The last boy was her favourite, named after the baby she and Harold had lost.

Their marriage, always tense, seems to have reached breaking point during the Great Depression. I was startled to discover a 1937 article from The Queensland Times. I don’t know much about the context, but certainly the clipping is suggestive of deep problems in their marriage. I shall reproduce it below.

STIR IN COURT

Woman Leaves Witness Box

A stir was caused in the Summons Court yesterday when the complainant in a case became somewhat excited and rushed from the witness box before she had completed her evidence. Appearing before Mr. G.A. Cameron, P.M., Marion Horne, Ipswich, claimed that of February 20th, 1937, she had been unlawfully deserted by her husband, Harold Moses Horne, and that she had been compelled to leave her husband’s residence under reasonable apprehension of danger to her person.

The complainant, in evidence, stated that she had been married to the defendant for 18 years. Her present address was Bremer flats, but she had lived with her husband in Roderick Street until a year ago. She was not living with him now, as he had made her life a “hell.” On February 20th she was compelled to leave her home because she was afraid he would do her an injury. Her mind was a complete blank regarding the events that led up to the incident on February 20th, because every day was the same to her. She had gone through a lot and her nerves were bad. On one occasion he had thrown water over her, and he ill-treated her frequently.

With an outburst of emotion witness declared that she was happy to go to her own home, and she would never go back to live with him again.

‘Witness began to talk very fast, and after being continually advised by the Police Magistrate to tell her story calmly and coherently she shouted hysterically: “That is enough! You can do what you like with me!” She then left the witness-box and made for the Court-House door, but was recalled.

‘The case was dismissed, Mr. Cameron observing as he turned to the defendant: “You had better make arrangements to keep her.”

What conclusions can I draw from this? First, that the situation for women in the 1930s was pretty lousy, if that’s the best the judge could come up with when presented evidence of domestic abuse. Next, my great grandmother had considerable courage to testify against him in the first place. And finally… Look, I don’t want to absolve my great grandfather of blame, but my mind cannot help but make a connection to the war. It is possible that post-traumatic stress could have been a factor in the domestic violence. The war made her life hell as well as his.

This is one of the legacies of war, that it tears apart the lives of generations. She did go back to him, and that they never separated again after that. I’m not sure she had much choice in the matter. But when Harold passed away in 1955 at the age of sixty, I know she remembered him with fondness. She would sit by the window in the afternoons with a pack of cigarettes, and remember. Sometimes she would tell her grandchildren something of her life, and that of the blue-eyed boy she fell for in Aberdeen.

I have mixed feelings about ANZAC Day. Most of all I hate the way the legend silences the Anzacs themselves. I hate the way it has become commercialised like Christmas, with scented candles and slogans, biscuits, campouts and all this khaki rubbish. Is it nothing more than an excuse to get pissed and play two-up? Why do we mask the human dimension of conflict behind sanctimony? Harold and Marion’s was not the war to end all wars. A hundred years have passed since Gallipoli. Do we have the right to use the ANZAC story to encourage today’s young people to take up arms for God, gold, and glory?

No. I don’t think we do.

But you know what? I too am a part of the war’s legacy. So are my parents, my siblings, my children. I’m rather glad Harold and Marion jumped into their relationship head-first. I owe my present existence to a very rash decision two young people made around a hundred years ago. And now as an historian I can do my best to ensure that their legacy is remembered and not misused.

Lest we forget.

Until next time,

Valete

 

My writerly week, ending 15 April, 2017

Salvete, readers!

And so we come rumbling to the end of another week. Let’s jump right into it.

  • Progress has been regarding my current academic project.
  • I gave one of my old essays a polish and posted it here, and it seems to have gone down well. Can I just take a second to express my gratitude at its warm reception? This essay has particular significance for me, as it was my first stab at researching my own topic independently when I was a wee undergrad! It’s more than that, though. The history of mental illness is a topic very dear to my heart, and my great grandfather’s PTSD following the First World War affected my family for several generations. Next week in honour of the ANZACs I am going to post some of the historical research I’ve done about my grandparents: how they met in WWI, and how the war affected them throughout their lives.
  • I’ve made a few minor tweaks to the novel which has a full manuscript, but nothing major. I should probably leave it alone now and just focus on the next project. Then again, I always remember a quote from George Lucas: ‘Films aren’t released. They escape.’ Perhaps its the same for all forms of storytelling.
  • The next novel has crawled forward a few paces. I had a bit of a brainwave on that front– the going has been slow, and that’s okay, but maybe I’m overthinking the first draft. My last novel was an historical fantasy set in a world which evoked the Greek bronze age. This next one is a first person narrative set during the early middle ages, and I’m working really hard to make the voice sound authentic to the period. The conceit of my current story is that it’s a lost historical source from a medieval author. Creating an authentic-sounding medieval voice is a greater challenge, which means very deliberate word choices. But you know what? Maybe I just need to give myself permission to write garbage and then edit, rather than agonising over every word. It’s important that I’ve got the voice down pat, as it’s really important. It doesn’t have to be perfect, though. That’s what first drafts are for.

I want to press forward on my writing projects, but it’s the Easter weekend and I think I owe my children some time. There will always be things to do, but my kids won’t be young forever.

Until next time,

Valete