Although I only published my first book at the age of 52, I’ve been writing stories all my life. So I suppose it’s been a long time coming. A lot of us could say the same thing. We all have a book or two in us.
My chosen field is history. It’s an interest and a passion I’ve felt for a long time, ever since I picked up my first illustrated child’s history book from the library. I think it was the tales of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marion, Friar Tuck and the Merry Men. I was hooked. I’ve not looked back since.
Many people tell me they found history a dull subject in school and were put off at an early age. That’s a shame. They’re missing out on great stories and entertainment. Also, if you don’t know a bit about your history, I think you also deny yourself the chance to learn about the story of humans and their interraction with eachother and the world around them.
As a result, we end up making the same mistakes over and again. So. . . read about history, if only to see how people have messed up over the centuries and then at the very least we should learn how not to do things. You can ignore the boring parts and concentrate on what interests you – and that may well be Robin Hood. I now know he probably didn’t exist and if he did he was probably just a bit of a bad boy. . . but that doesn’t spoil a good story.
I went on to study history in greater depth at the UEA in Norwich back in the Eighties. That meant having to put the facts ahead of a good tale. Oddly enough. . . fact often turned out to be stranger and more interesting than the fiction. As for my two books published so far. . . A Moment in Time and A Place in History. . . they began with a blank space. I was working as a night sub-editor in Norwich at the EDP about 15 years ago, and they launched a new weekend supplement. It had a gaping hole on the back page. Off the top of my head I suggested doing brief historical profiles, fairly light-hearted in tone and approachable, done in the style of the Guardian’s Pass Notes. . . with a question and answer format. I also based the tone on the kind of random conversation you might have in a pub. I’ve researched that bit as often as possible. At first, I wrote out a couple of pieces on well-known Norfolk figures – Nelson, Tom Paine, Boudicca – or Boadicea as I still like to call her – and the slot was duly filled for several years to come.
To keep the editor happy – and as a sub-editor myself – I always turned in exactly 1000 words, not 999, not 1001. It’s a good way to discipline your writing. To my surprise, I started to get a reaction. People would write in, email, occasionally phone. Admittedly, most of the time it was to point out where I was going wrong. . . I mistakenly wrote that Ridley and Latimer, two Tudor Protestant Reformers burnt by Queen Mary in the 1550s and known to history as the Oxford Martyrs, had been executed at Tyburn in London.
Well. . . the clue’s in the name. . . they were actually martyred in Oxford. I had dozens of people contact me to tell me just how wrong I was. Schoolboy error!
My biggest dread was that one of my lecturers at the UEA might track me down, and remind everyone that I’d spent three years not turning up to his lectures. Well. . . that’s not quite true, but you get the point. In fact, I got a very good response, and before long people were suggesting out of the way and little known subjects, which I was able to seize upon.
One reader wrote to me about his distant ancestor, who was an Elizabethan sea captain and had fought a duel in Ber Street, Norwich. . . a work colleague who was a keen sailor told me about Hardley Cross, a Tudor stone monument by the riverside in a beautiful spot near Loddon. . . another reader let me know about an enigmatic marker near Cawston Heath to Sir Henry Hobart and Sir Oliver Le Neve, two Norfolk squires who fought another duel there. Hobart was the heir to Blickling Hall, and he was killed in the duel.
A sportswriter from Wisbech told me about Tom Hickathrift, the Fenland Giant, who may – or may not – have lived at Tilney All Saints, while another colleague told me about the strange and slightly haunting medieval pictures of saints at Binham abbey. A very atmospheric site on a winter’s afternoon.
All these stories needed investigating – and that’s part of the fun, to get out there with my notebook and camera, usually getting hopelessly lost on a back road somewhere in Norfolk, and eventually finding my way home.
These are my inspirations. I also keep a keen eye on the news, so when I read that the remains of Saint Edmund’s treasure may be buried underneath a tennis court in Bury St Edmunds, that sparked off another idea. Edmund was the last king of independent East Anglia, and he was killed by invading Vikings in the ninth century.
On that subject, I’ve been asked by one of my readers – a Norwegian football fan who supports Norwich City and flies in from Oslo every fortnight to see the Canaries play – to make it clear it was the Danes who were responsible, not those nice Norwegians! I’m glad to set the record straight.
In the summer of 2018 we had a long drought, and the dry conditions unearthed evidence of ancient sites long thought lost. So the story goes on. We all keep learning, and we need to keep curious and open to new ideas. The other thing you need to write, apart from curiosity, is a bit of time.
Having been made redundant twice in the past ten years has helped concentrate my mind, and meant I have had the time to write and also to travel out and about in the lesser known parts of Norfolk, Suffolk, and even Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Essex on occasions.
The most rewarding of these mini-safaris is when you come across something unexpected. A few years back, on the road between Swaffham and Brandon, I came across a replica Second World War tank parked in a forest clearing. I stopped off. . . and found out this was the place where the Seventh Armoured Division – the Desert Rats – had camped out while preparing to land in Normandy as part of the D-Day invasions of 1944. 14,000 men had been there training with their new Cromwell tanks for several months. . . only to disappear over the water to Normandy and beyond that June, leaving just a few Nissen huts behind as evidence.
It’s also satisfying to find the answers to things that puzzled me for years. My first job in journalism at the back end of the 1980s was as a reporter in the March and Wisbech areas of the fens. Strange country, with lots of out of the way villages. I’d always been intrigued on my travels by a small sign on a lonely, bumpy fenland road at a place called Stonea. It pointed down a dirt track to an ‘Iron Age hill fort’. How was it possible? A hill fort in the fens? Eventually, after passing by many times, I turned the car down the bumpy track, and found some raised earthworks with an information board. It was still a mystery.
So I contacted an academic at the Peterborough Museum, who was very helpful and told me it had probably been a raised island in the marshlands where a tribe – likely the Iceni – had built a defensive position. Archaeological digs had unearthed severed skulls. . something bad had happened out there. The most likely story is that Roman legionaries stormed the fort there. . . probably around the time of Boudica’s revolt. As for the fate of the defenders, I doubt if it worked out well for them. There’s little to see there now. . . and few primary written sources to go from apart from one by a Roman official named Tacitus years later. . . but you can let your imagination take hold.
Finally, there’s the human factor. The peope who lived in the past weren’t dry as dust. They were as alive as we are, and probably just as confused about the times they lived in as most of us are about ours. For example, if you lived in the turbulent time of the English Reformation, with the country torn between Protestants and Catholics, you didn’t know how things were going to work out for Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth I. . . just as we now have no idea about how things like Brexit will end, or if robots are going to take our jobs.
Like us, they did the best they could. . . made mistakes. . . and just carried on with their lives. Many of our ancestors have their place in history, or their moment in time, some larger and better known than others.
I even managed to fit my own family in. In 1939 my mother, aged five, and her elder sister and brother got on a train from their home in Hackney, east London. . . and ended up in the village of Gooderstone, Norfolk, as part of the mass evacuation of children from the cities at the outbreak of the Second World War.
They never went back to London. My grandfather was invalided out of the Army, he and my grandmother were reunited with their children in Norfolk, and stayed there. Just one small story among thousands of others.
So in my books, you will meet kings and queens such as William the Conquerer, Edward I, Henry V and Katharine of Aragon, but also figures of legend such as Beowulf and Tom Hickathrift, that Fenland Giant. There are saints and sinners, soldiers and sailors, witches and clergymen, literary heroines, revolutionaries and working class heroes, dedicated philanthropists and hell-raising boxers. If that doesn’t grab your attention, there are also some colourful and very noisy peacocks.
I hope you’ll have a chance to read some of my stories – and I’m sure you have some of your own to tell.