30 June 2011

A very special guest: L.S. Lawrence

A special treat today. The mysterious L.S. Lawrence has granted us an audience. Imagine you're sitting in a book-lined study with a view of a back yard. Sitting opposite you is a professorial type with half-glasses, a hound's-tooth jacket and a bow tie. He is blinking, with mild astonishment, at the rainbow lorikeets in the lemon-scented gum outside. This is what you ask him and this is what he tells you:

Why were you drawn to the King Arthur story?
Because there's nothing like a mystery, and that's a mystery. Nobody knows anything much. Everything was in chaos in Britain, no government, no law. The towns were mostly in ruins, with bandits and invading barbarians everywhere. But there is just one story written at the time that tells of a British war-leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus, who won a great victory against the invaders somewhere in the west of the country. And that's just about all we have. Centuries later, people began to tell stories about a king called Arthur, who beat the barbarians and established a kingdom called Camelot where, for a time, there was law and justice.

Is there any truth to these stories? Nobody knows. Are they possible at all? Some aren't, but what if the others are at least partly true?

And that is the beginning of all story-telling. The beginning is always a question, and the question always starts with the words ‘What if ...?’

What if the stories are sort-of true? Not all true, because for that you need magic, and knights and dragons and giants and the Holy Grail, and all sorts of stuff that was added in later. But what if there was a boy who grew up to be a great leader? What if he had, well, sort-of knights – armoured horsemen, anyway? Where would he get them? Where would he get the horses for them?

And then I tripped over an odd fact. Archeologists dig up all sorts of things, including the teeth and bones of horses. In a ‘dig’ in the west of Britain, near a place called Cadbury Rings, they found some. Now, most horses in ancient Britain were just ponies – very small. But these were big horses. And more; there's a way of testing the teeth that tells scientists where the horse was born. Two or three of these horses came from northern Spain.

Imagine that! Somebody had fetched some of the famous Andalusian horses, and had brought them back to Britain. Who did that? And how did they do it?

And there was the start of the story.

What do you admire about Alexa in Horses for King Arthur and Sara in Escape by Sea?  
Well, first of all, courage. It's not that they're never afraid, it's that they don't allow their fear to beat them. That's what courage is, you know.

Then, decency. The idea that there is an underlying law, no matter what other people think or do. Sara won't allow her father to kill the man who cheated him, because it wouldn't be right. Alexa does her best to care for the warriors wounded after the battle because it's right to do that. They do what is right, just because it's right, not because it's convenient or easy. That's what I mean by decency.

And lastly, independence. They grew up in a place and a time where women had few rights and little freedom, in theory anyway. But in all times and all places, there have been women who made their own way, no matter what. I can only guess at what they had to go through. But I can write about them, and admire them for what they did.

Do you like all kinds of history, or do you have a favourite era/people that you like to write about?
Can I answer, One of each, please?

Yes, I like all kinds of history. As soon as you look under the names and dates and places – which are boring, if you look at them alone – you find stories. Stories everywhere. And stories are fun.

But I especially like history that's a long way away from us, in time or space or ideas. Ideas are the most interesting things of all, and in history you can find some really strange ones. Some of those ideas are horrible, and some of them are brilliant, and all of them make you think about our ideas of the world.

For instance, did you know that an inventor showed a Roman Emperor a machine that could make roads, all in one go, and didn't need a huge crew of slaves to work it. The Emperor ordered the machine to be destroyed and the inventor strangled, of course. Why? Well, look at it from the Emperor's point of view. If all the slaves who built roads were set free, what would they do? Probably start a rebellion, that's what.

That same way of thinking happened when a settler found a large gold nugget among the roots of a tree he was digging up in New South Wales, in the 1830s. He showed it to the Governor, who told him to hide it away and not tell anyone. Why? Look at it from the Governor's point of view. He was in charge of a prison, basically. The last thing he wanted was a gold rush, and all the convicts escaping to dig up gold.

We tend to think that anything new and different is good. But most people in the past thought that things should stay the same.

Weird, isn't it? But weird is fun, too. And history is full of stuff like that. That's why I like it.

What do you admire about people of that era?  
Mostly, it's not so much that I admire them – I'd rather live here and now, thank you very much. Most people in Rome were slaves, you know. Most people in Britain in the year 475 were farm workers, doing stoop labour on land they didn't own twelve hours a day, just to get enough to eat – and sometimes not even getting that. In fact, that's true of practically anywhere at any time up to about a hundred and fifty years ago.

They were tough and enduring, that's true. They had to be. And it's true that this modern world was built on what they did. But I don't want to live like them. Is it admiring them to say that much?

You seem to know a lot about sailing, and war, and horses, and medicine, and even about cooking. Do you do a lot of research?

Um, well, yes and no. See, I've been reading history – mostly, whatever I fancied – for, oh, about fifty years now. Is it research when you know pretty much the shape of how history happened, and you trip over a detail like the horses in Cadbury, and you think, how cool is that?

After that, the stuff you need to know sort of happens as you go along; and it's strange how the details often seem to fall into place. For instance, I needed to know who was ruling in southern France about this time. A bit of reading told me it was a Visigoth chieftain named Euric. And what do you know? It turns out that he also ruled northern Spain. Where the horses came from. And it also turns out that Euric was the first ruler in the old Western Roman Empire to declare himself an independent king, and make it stick. Oh, cool, I said to myself, and when did that happen?

475 CE, the same year as I was setting my story.

See what I mean about things falling into place? It's almost spooky the way it seems to happen.

Sailing, well, I sail small boats, and went as crew once or twice on ocean-going yachts. It's not the same, but it gives you a feel for it. War – well, I play tabletop war games. Horses – if you look at the dedication of Horses for King Arthur you'll see the name of Elizabeth Moon, who really does know about horses, and whose brain I picked. Medicine – my wife comes from a whole family of doctors. Cooking – I have a copy of an actual ancient Roman cookbook. Fact. Fellow named Apicius wrote it two thousand years ago, and somehow it was preserved. Funny what things people will keep. Most of the works of great writers and historians and playwrights and poets from ancient times have been lost, but a cookbook survives. Weird. I said it was weird, didn't I?

That's history. It's weird. I like it because it's weird. Quite likely, most people would, if only they knew.

Out this month, L.S. Lawrence's latest novel.

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