How I Write Historical Fiction, Reviewed by John Hamilton

I found this volume both useful and entertaining. Through the essays and interviews in this book, the author speaks, in a candid and conversational style, about how he succeeded in becoming an author whose works are published by Hodder & Stoughton. He goes into everything, from the actual process of how he drifted into writing his first novel, to his being taken up by a major publisher.

The author is of course a writer of historical novels, and along the way there are many entertaining discussions of the moral and political attitudes of the past, and how they differ from those of the present. One of the difficulties with Hollywood movies, for example, is that they rarely have a feel for the alien moral character of past civilisations. Thus, so many of these old epics imagine ancient Rome as “much the same as modern America, but with funny clothes and a somewhat bloodier taste in entertainments.” (p. 116) This remark occurs in the context of a brief discussion of the film “Spartacus”, where there is that famous scene where Crassus is trying to seduce his slave Antoninus by giving him a tutorial on the ethical permissibility of liking both oysters and snails. Blake observes: “The gay lobby was strong enough to bring on a storm of applause. But the scene is absurd. Slaves were as much the property of their masters as horses and tunics. If a nobleman fancied one of his boy slaves, it was a matter of telling him to strip naked and waiting for someone to loosen his own clothing.” (p. 115) In any case, Blake points out, Crassus' speech is redundant because “Not only had they [the Romans] no prejudice against all-male sex, they had no special word for it. They had words for buggery, fellatio, cunnilingus, and every conceivable act. But they had no concept of The Homosexual as a different kind of person.” (ibid)

This is what I like about Blake. He is very sensitive to the important differences between ancient and modern social mores, and he doesn't fall for any sort of modern ideology. I think he's somewhat harsh in his comments about Derek Jarman's “Sebastiane”, for example, but he's right to point out that “Roman men preferred boys to having sex with each other – or did so unless there was a clear difference of social status, where the social superior would take the active role.” (p. 119)

To be honest, I found the author's political asides to be as entertaining, or even more entertaining, than his discussions of the writing and publishing trade (interesting though these latter were). Blake calls himself a libertarian, but he is a libertarian of a very unusual kind. For a start, he does not consider the history of the human race to be some kind of glorious upward curve, but is aware of the extent to which societies can and do relapse into barbarism. One such period is our own time: “Imagine you could go back to about 1965 and bring forward an intelligent man in his forties. Show him round modern Britain. No doubt, he would be astonished by the wonderful electronic toys we can all have, and by the gigantic shopping centres. Then describe to him how, a year after his death, the headstone was pulled off Jimmy Savile's grave, ground smooth of its inscription, and then smashed up for landfill – all because the man may have touched up some slightly underage girls a generation earlier. Show him the endlessly revolving scares about child sex abuse and global warming, and speech codes that do nothing to help their stated beneficiaries, and much to shut down debate. Tell him that, while the Soviet Union eventually collapsed without raising a hand against us, we cower in fear before the formal or informal rulers of places like Afghanistan and Yemen, and that we fight our wars with them by sending unpiloted aeroplanes to bomb women and children. Explain to him how, one after the other, our industries were taxed or regulated out of existence, and that the children of those who used to work in them are – if lucky – now employed as casual skivvies, or as minor functionaries of a vast and out of control regulatory state. Do all this, and your friend from the 1960s will soon feel nostalgic for his Post Office telephone and bad coffee, and for cars without air conditioning.” (p. 148)

Blake's politics are never far from the surface, but then he was a political writer and commentator before he wrote his novels (and still is). He has the rare honour of having once aroused the ire of vacuous media celebrity Vanessa Feltz for his non-PC views: “I recently went on the radio, to oppose the creeping ban on smoking. One of my arguments was that, if smoking ought to be discouraged because of the burden it allegedly places on health budgets, so should sodomy. Not long ago, I'd have been screamed at for likening smokers to those disgusting homosexuals. Now, Vanessa Feltz accused me of a homophobic hate crime for likening gay people to those filthy, self-harming smokers, and switched off my microphone as soon as she'd finished hyperventilating. How times change!” (p. 24)

I would recommend this collection both for its illuminating and highly encouraging advice about how to write a novel and get it published, and also for the fact that Blake is an excellent, intelligent and always entertaining writer.

Review pubished on Amazon on the 21st September 2016

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