Why We All Love Pirates

Ahoy maties! Today be the day we talk like a pirate. So get yourself some grog, landlubbers, and hold off swabbing the decks for a while.

We shouldn’t love pirates. They are thieves of the sea even though they can rob on the shore. They are outlaws and criminals, often violent and sometimes murderers. So what is the strange appeal that makes us tell stories about them to young children and enjoy Hollywood films about them?

When my daughter was four, pirates were everywhere. Her bed was a pirate ship with a large Jolly Roger flag at the headboard, maties such as a giant fluffy bee lookout  and a ship’s cat, crewed the ship. There was a large treasure chest carved by my uncle and wood smith extraordinaire, Norman Smith, complete with secret compartments, maps and treasure. There were the obligatory accessories: parrot, hook, hat and eye patch. I created a new world of stories where she was the captain and, with her friends and toys, went on many adventures and we discussed them on our walks. But best of all were the books and DVDs of such pirate heroes as Captain Pugwash, Yoho Ahoy and Treasure Island. For the grown-ups we have Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp playing Captain Jack Sparrow. Pirates really capture our imagination with their quirky phrases and dress sense.

Historically, pirates were both feared and venerated. They have existed as long as sea-faring commerce has existed – and that is a long time. However, the romantic versions of pirates and their galleons came from the Tudor period until the late eighteenth century, mostly. The Golden Age of Pirates came about as the Americas were discovered and the treasures were transported back to Europe. These goods included gold, rum and sugar. There was a lot of wealth generated by the traders and with it came more fancy things like silk and embroidered clothes. So when the pirates captured ships and stole the cargo they utilised their booty. They wore rings and jewellery, fancy frilly shirts, satin and lace. And of course, they became drunk on the rum. And sang a lot too.

The kind of men who became pirates were often outcasts for one reason or another. Some were already criminals on the run to escape the harsh justice of the times, or slaves. Others were already sailors who mutinied and took over the ships themselves. Some were not even men but women who carried out crime the way men did so dressed accordingly. The one thing that drew them together was that they were all pirates aboard a ship and as such they had a kind of respect and democracy. The communities chose the roles of captain and the other officers that did not take into account social status or race simply on skills and characteristics needed. If the democratic rules were broken then punishments took place: walking the plank or thirty-nine stripes of the whip. This almost civilised structure probably started the romantic ideology and affection the pirate folklore has given us today.

Queen Elizabeth I was very keen on her pirates. They were known as privateers, that is, they were authorised by the queen to carry out their piracy. In this case it was against the Spanish ships of King Philip II as they brought the gold and Aztec treasures from the emerging Spanish Empire, including tobacco and potatoes. Shortly afterwards the Armada occurred. Funny that.

There was glamour and democracy, adventure and discovery, heroes with made-up names, lots of stories and songs. That is why we love pirates me hearties.

(c) 2013 A.J. Sefton

Why the Dark Ages Were So Dark  

Periods in history are so much easier to remember if they are given names instead of numbers, even if those names are cruel and wrong. The term Dark Ages suggests ignorance, decay and depression. That was the intention: a bleak, unrecorded time between the Romans’ departure and the emergence of the Renaissance. Numerically this is the fifth to the fifteenth century. During the last century the dating of the Dark Ages was changed to encompass the end of the Roman Empire and the Norman conquest in 1066 in Britain. It is now classed as a section within the Middle Ages or the Medieval Period although the term has fallen out of favour with modern historians, who prefer the label Migration Period. The migrants were Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings. At the moment I am focusing on the Angles, Saxons and a couple of Jutes. Vikings may come later.

Unlike the Romans, the Britons were not writers. What we know is based on scant archaeological evidence and the writings of a small number of Christian monks. The general view was that the people lacked the intellect of the Romans of classical antiquity and were a backward people in terms of culture and civilisation. The concept of light versus dark, ignorance versus knowledge, superstition versus science all contributed to the caricature of this time.

However, with the development of technology and some very exciting discoveries (such as the Sutton Hoo burial and the Staffordshire Hoard) it is now accepted that the Anglo-Saxons were more sophisticated than originally thought. Their intricate crafts and elaborate burials indicate quite an evolved society. We still don’t know about their motivations, plans or ideas though.

My favourite quote about the period comes from the Italian philosopher who formed the idea of a Dark Ages in Europe: Petrarch. He said, in the 1330s, of those who had gone before him: “Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom”

The Dark Ages to me is a time of mystery – in a good way. It is a blank canvas for a writer’s imagination.

Eamonn Griffin: The Challenge of Historical Fiction

Eamonn Griffin discusses historical fiction, and some of the challenges in setting a work of fiction inside a well-known event such as the 1666 Great Fire of London

The Prospect of This City begins in the days immediately prior to and continues into the first few hours of the start of the 1666 Great Fire of London. Having the Fire be a setting for a novel-length thriller narrative was not an idea that I had come across. This was both surprising and pleasing to me as the Fire seemed like an obvious event to use to structure this kind of story. This apparent lack was enough in itself to assure me that there were stories here; stories that had not been told before.

That’s not to say that the Fire hasn’t been a feature of much fiction, occasionally conjoined in story with its immediate predecessor in terms of a nationally-significant event, the bubonic plague outbreak of 1664 – 5. Harrison Ainsworth’s 1841 historical romance Old St Paul’s is a melodramatic yarn of obsession, thwarted love, prophecy, destruction and redemption across the two disasters. GA Henty’s 1895 When London Burned covers similar terrain. This linking of Plague and Fire is also an organising feature of Mary Hooper’s At The Sign of the Sugared Plum and Petals in the Ashes (grounding their narratives in Plague and Fire respectively), and continues to the present, as indicated by CC Humphreys’ two – book deal for novels entitled simply Plague and Fire.

The Fire, though it appears as backdrop in novels as diverse as in Rose Tremain’s Restoration,Edward Rutherfurd’s London and Tom Holland’s vampire saga Deliver Us From Evil, has often been confined in writing as a subject for younger readers. Children’s novels set in and around the time of the Fire such as Pippa Goodhart’s Raven Boy may be also considered here.

            I felt secure, however, at the project’s outset that there was a space for a Fire-set novel and that this wasn’t over-worked ground, particularly as I had no interest in conflating Plague and Fire. That’s a position that hasn’t since altered.

As the Fire was not ended by human agency, but rather by the prevailing winds changing and by the exhausting of the fuel supply of London’s goods and property, there was the challenge and opportunity to invent a climax that was not tied to a fixed historical conclusion.

            The Fire has been used in more allegorical ways. Peter Ackroyd’s first novel and Jacques Roubard’s non-fiction memoir, both titled The Great Fire of London make reference to the symbolic power of the destructive event, though neither are concerned with the history. The use of the Fire for its symbolic potential was something that I was interested in exploring from the beginning of the project.

            The use of an event of national or wider significance to echo / refract a protagonist’s dilemma is a standard fictional ploy. One significant recent strand of this concerns 9/11 and in particular the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers, referenced in novels as diverse as William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’sExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

            I wanted Prospect to use a historical event to make some kind of commentary or at least allusion to recent happenings. In Prospect, the faith-driven terrorist Challis plots to engineer the destruction of a major city landmark in ways paralleling those of Mohammad Atta and his cohort. Prospect, I thought, could consider the contemporary world. But it would not site its drama in the aftermath of 9/11, as in the novels mentioned above. Instead, Prospect would prefigure the present day in the past.

I was interested in the idea that history repeats itself. Indeed the Fire was rumoured at the time to have been a revisiting of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against James I in which the destruction of Parliament by dissident Catholics was barely averted, and so we should perhaps not see occurrences like 9/11 as necessarily unique, but merely the most recent and vivid iteration of a pattern of events played out before and will doubtless be re-enacted again.

             For a novel to go too far in the direction of the factual/historical, the effect might well be akin to an animated textbook. Go too far in the other direction though, and the end result might well be pastiche, romance, or maybe fantasy. That may not necessarily make for bad fiction, but unless the genre boundaries are understood by author, the publishing profession and readers alike, the possibility of a text being rejected because it does not align itself in a genre-appropriate fashion is raised.

            Thus, authors who are associated with historical fiction are keenly aware of the need to be identifiably, if not authoritatively, persuasive in their genre credentials. At one end of this spectrum, the author might be a recognised historian and/or have a parallel career in academia.

Contemporary British examples include Roman scholar Harry Sidebottom and the above-mentioned Mortimer, who publishes Elizabethan-set thriller fiction under his middle names James Forrester.

The title The Prospect of This City is derived from a map. The phrase appears in an inset picture and accompanying description of London of The Prospect of This City as it appeared from the opposite Southwark side in the fire time’ within Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1667 diagram of the extent of the damage to the city.  I’d bought a print of the map as one of my first acts of the project. Those words stuck, and so became the title and, over time, provided me with the book’s climax.

Historical fiction is undergoing something of a commercial and critical renaissance, Hilary Mantel’s back-to-back successes with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies being perhaps the most conspicuous example of the turn in making historical fiction respectable again.

That said, the historical in itself does not necessarily lend itself to accuracy in terms of genre identification; the temporal location of the (or indeed, any) novel’s events doesn’t necessarily provoke a kind of novel in itself.

            The concept of genre is usually bound up with that of with questions of narrative. Genres often indicate plot archetypes – romance, thriller, science-fiction, and horror – though may not always communicate much by way of specifics. The term ‘historical novel’ doesn’t necessarily do this in quite the same way, though it may suggest an approach that the author might take in telling their story. Jerome De Groot in The Historical Novel  focuses on the ways which the genre ‘fundamentally challenges subjectivities, offering multiple identities and historical story lines’ (2010: 139). This definition was where I was headed, though in the early parts of the project I was burdening myself with the assumption that there was an imperative to deliver history and fiction rather than fiction that was in some way historical.

The Prospect of This City is out now, and is available in ebook and paperback here:getBook.at/prospect