Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A good idea. By Jan Needle

Sitting down here in the wilds of Leicestershire, back on family duty, I suddenly realised that I had a blog to do. Shouldn't have been a surprise, because it usually coincides with our turn to keep the home fires burning now that one of the Aged Ps is sadly no longer with us.  But it did raise the immediate question – what shall I write about?

That, being a writer, is not a new question, obviously. In fact many AE blogsters ask from time to time where ideas come from, and how different people process them. As it happens my need for a subject matter coincided with some historical work I'm doing, and a couple of barely-related strands popped unbidden into my sights. One was the extraordinary suggestion/possibility that Abraham Lincoln had been shot because he was gay and refused to come out of the closet, and the other was the destruction of ancient monumental works of art or worship by the ‘new Puritans’ of ISIS.

These subjects are hardly related, except that they are both remarkably extreme. Lincoln’s sexuality, apparently, was glaringly obvious to anyone with well developed 'gaydar'. According to Larry Kramer's new book, John Wilkes Booth shot him because he turned down his advances, not because he didn't like the play. And the destruction of ancient works of art is a product of the apparent fact (also glaringly obvious) that they are an affront to Allah and his Prophet.
A man who seems to think life is easy...

To a Westerner who tends to accept anyone and everyone’s sexuality as entirely their own matter, and all religions as manifestations of an incomprehensible, but apparently basic, human need, both these strands call for little specific comment. But they made me think in general about how magnificently bonkers us humans seem to be. The decades-long orgy of destruction of the Nelson/Napoleon era blurred the ideal of revolution into the invasion and colonization of a whole continent, while the murder of a politician is shoe-horned into an argument that, to put it mildly, hardly needs it.

Let us stay with ideas though. I'm about to embark on number three of my Nelson saga, and my mind is steeped in blood. The carnage wrought by iron balls smashing through oak or teak, and producing the by-product of flying shards and splinters big enough and sharp enough to behead and disembowel, is matched by the fate of one of Nelson's colleagues who fought with him in Nicaragua. Colonel Despard, formerly a hero, now a traitor, is condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He has not been caught actually doing anything, you understand, merely thinking about it. He’s Irish, of course.

Shift forward a couple of decades, still on the naval theme. Deportees from Van Dieman’s Land – yes, deportees from that repository of the deported – are shipped out to Norfolk Island a thousand miles further from Australia where their treatment is so vile that they draw lots to die by suicide. If you lose you are murdered by a fellow convict, and if you win you murder one, happy in the knowledge that you will now be hanged. I’m not making this up. Thank you Sîan Rees for your fascinating The Ship Thieves.

If you think these European nastinesses pale into insignificance compared with smashing up idols because you consider your non-European country and your culture has been destroyed by generations of invaders, consider this: there is a growing argument in the West that such iconoclastic behaviour means we no longer need to 'repatriate' stolen artefacts such as the Elgin marbles. Even good old Boris seems to think so. Protection by theft. It’s a good’un.

Here’s a quote culled from this week’s New York Times: "If the people of these lands are indifferent and even hostile to their ‘cultural heritage,’ what's the point in reserving it for them to ignore or destroy?"

Or to expand it perhaps, "isn't it extraordinary that these people, so intellectually and culturally inferior, could have made these wondrous works of art in the first place. It can only have been an accident, and they need us to appreciate them."

So where do my ideas for fiction at the moment come from? Well, history. Which seems to suggest that the path towards what might one day end as genuine civilisation is hardly a straightforward one. Drones is a good one to think about. We can now kill those nasty ragheads without even seeing them, or the ever-larger clusters of innocent bystanders who also die. Innocent? Good God, they pull down their own statues! Infamous!

Ghandi, I believe, was asked by Churchill once what he thought of Western civilisation. It sounds like a good idea, he said.


PS. Late night newsflash. Just heard from Endeavour that my Napoleon book's been selected as a Kindle Single. They tell me this is good!






6 comments:

Susan Price said...

Great post, Jan - and congratulations on the Kindle Single! Hope you sell a million.

julia jones said...

Yet at the same time that all this Nelson / Napoleon business was going on, there was Jane Austen writing her novels which are doing their level best to persuade the rural gentry to treat each other in a considerate, sensitive, CIVILISED manner. With two brothers in the Navy, a third who watched his starving soldiers being shot by firing squad and a
much-loved cousin whose husband was guillotined was she keeping the horrors at bay or pretending that they didn't exist? I suppose its a tribute to our bonkersness that you can be considering actual hangings drawings and quarterings whilst taking gentle care of frail oldies. It's an odd place, the mind.

julia jones said...

Really pleased about your Kindle single. Many congrats! My good friend Richard Woodman is writing for Endeavour now. I think.

Mari Biella said...

Congratulations on your book being selected as a Kindle single, Jan. Keep us posted!

Dennis Hamley said...

Kindle Single? Brilliant. Well done, mate. Julia, I think Jane was pretty tough-minded and would never pretend that awful things didn't exist. Though through her brothers she had a proxy contact with horrors, she hadn't actually been there to see them, so why go to the trouble of trying to imagine them? Another cool Austen choice. In these terrible days, I can see her point.

Lydia Bennet said...

Congratulations on the Kindle Single! I agree that Austen was tough and if you read her letters she's quite raunchy in some ways and very direct about things! She wasn't untouched by the horrors as eg she knew the widow of the guillotined cousin, and she knew plenty of people who died horribly as did everyone at that time (childbirth etc) to say nothing of her beloved sister Cassandra's fiance tragically dying of yellow fever in the tropics while they stitched her trousseau at home. Love is as important as war if not more, so you can't say she chose something more trivial. People then didn't dwell on bad stuff because it happened all the time and you had to get on with it. Just as people in WW2 didn't go on about the horrors but went dancing instead.