Authors are often asked what the inspiration was for their novels, and you can see their faces freeze into polite boredom at the question. It’s as tedious as being interrogated on what word processing package they use, or how many pages they write a day. What interests me is not the first spark, but the leap between idea and book. It can be a mere hop and a skip, or a taxing long-jump, but in each case the real work begins not with the concept, but with turning it into something so artful and freestanding that the original seed is as invisible to the reader as the fluttering key that becomes a sycamore. Sometimes, as time passes, it becomes invisible to the writer too.
I’ve been thinking more about this since writing a novel of my own. After Flodden is set in the years running up to, and the months following, Scotland’s greatest military defeat. In two hours, on a September afternoon in 1513, the king, James IV, his son Alexander and a great many of the country’s ruling elite were killed, along with 10,000 or more ordinary soldiers. That wholly unnecessary, foolishly rash encounter had a devastating effect on the people of the time and, more subtly, on subsequent generations. Yet over the years so little has been said on the subject by historians and novelists, politicians and poets, it seems reasonable to infer that the subject remains painful or shameful.
The germ of the story came to me some years ago, when I was reading about James IV, and browsing the Lord Treasurer’s accounts for his reign, as one does on a quiet afternoon in Edinburgh’s Central Library. The daunting figure of James’s secretary, Patrick Paniter, began to emerge from the letters sent from James’s court across Europe, to kings and popes and diplomats. Paniter was a towering intellectual figure who conducted much of the king’s business as he saw fit. Such was his position that James once told Pope Julius II to trust no letter from him that did not bear Paniter’s signature as well as his own.
A scholar but no gentleman, a man of the cloth, despite no priestly training, Paniter was in charge of the guns at Flodden. He was an ebullient and perhaps an arrogant figure. His high-handed style of writing was described by one editor as displaying ‘a Corinthian glitter’. It was that phrase that first piqued my interest. Then, as quickly became apparent, it appeared that down the centuries Patrick Paniter has slipped through the net, meriting little more than cursory attention in histories of the period. It seemed to me that, given the power he wielded in James’s affairs, he was worth examining.
In his recently collected Spectator columns Allan Massie writes of historical fiction, ‘It gives you what all novelists seek – and often despair of finding: the outline of a plot … There are signposts along the way. You know you have to get Caesar to the theatre of Pompey by the Ides of March 44BC. You know your destination. What a relief!’ Yet while helpful, the signposts Massie refers to can also become hurdles, as reality interferes with fictional freedom. How much leeway dare a writer allow themselves, in changing or eliding or ignoring events, in reshaping character, or altering facts? Depending on one’s temperament, plotting the known against the imaginary can become a fiendishly difficult exercise. That dilemma took on a deeper significance for me when a retired librarian recently asked how much responsibility a writer feels when recreating history, given that many readers will use the novel as a history book, and never seek out the real facts. I suspect that if writers of fiction set in the past gave that too much thought, they would freeze before typing a word.
Writing After Flodden was an act of imaginative inquiry. I did not think of myself as writing a historical novel or righting ancient wrongs; rather I was exploring a set of characters and questions that interested me. That these figures lived half a millennium ago was almost irrelevant, except when it came to wishing I could move them about the country more quickly than by horse. To my mind, however, they were unknowable not because of their era but because of who and what they were, how they thought and behaved. One could feel the same about a contemporary cast of characters from a very different background or world, whose motivations or experiences feel equally alien, and thus as intriguing.
But it swiftly became clear that writing about the past immediately hangs a label around a book’s neck. Whether you are a Barry Unsworth or a Philippa Gregory, a niche has been found for your tale even before a page has been printed. It’s like naming a child before it has been born. What in my case was conceived of and written like any other novel, is now part of a genre. As I was soon to discover, there are countless online sites for readers of historical fiction, and shelves devoted to it in bookshops and libraries. One day no doubt there will be historical book festivals to compete with their criminal rivals – perhaps there already are. I am not complaining, but it is noteworthy that more than in any previous age of publishing, books need a category if they are to sell. Is it the readers who like certainty or is it the publishers, or booksellers? I do not want to believe it’s the writers.
* * *
September 9, 2013, is the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. Already preparations for a series of events in the area are well underway, not all of them sombre. A local ice-cream maker held a competition to come up with a name for a flavour to mark the occasion, its defining taste to be ‘bittersweet’. (The winner was ‘Rose and Thistle’.) There’s also a commemorative Flodden marmalade, made from blood oranges and red grapefruits.
The usual Riding of the Marches that takes place every summer throughout the border towns will this year have a special significance. My partner’s nephew, who is Musselburgh’s Honest Lad, will be taking part in the Flodden memorial riding. While he trots down the high street of Selkirk on the first Saturday in September, I’ll be looking on from the bookshop, where I’ll be signing copies of my novel. Despite the number of horses it features, I’m glad it’s that way round.
Late in May, when I visited the battle site to take photographs, a man sitting on what looked like a dodgem car was mowing the well-tended path along the battlefield trail. When he stopped to talk, he introduced himself as Clive Hallam-Baker, chairman of the Battlefields Trust, the organisation responsible for signposting the fields where the battle took place, and for turning a red phone box in the nearby village of Branxton, purchased for £1, into the smallest visitor centre in Britain, if not the world.
It is instructive that an English society has taken the trouble to maintain the site, and offer visitors a guide to what took place, when Flodden had no impact whatsoever on English fortunes. I doubt many English south of Morpeth have even heard of it. When I asked Hallam-Baker if the village was getting ready to celebrate the event, then wondered if I should have used a less callous word, he laughed. ‘Celebrate is right!’ he said. ‘The English won!’
Is that why Scotland has done almost nothing to commemorate the battle, or the men who died? It cannot have been beyond the wit or ability of our leaders to join forces with our former enemy and turn the battlefield into a memorial worthy of the occasion it witnessed. The reason the site was neglected for so long is a reflection of apathy on the Scottish side. No doubt some felt that, since the site was in England, we could conveniently forget this most inglorious and unedifying event. I’d suggest that the near silence on the subject by the political establishment over the centuries is yet another symptom of the impact Flodden had on the Scottish psyche, draining optimism, and instilling a defeatist outlook.
Hallam-Baker, who was a founder member of UKIP, flies a St George’s flag from his house in the heart of Branxton village. He once had a dog, he told me, which, whenever he was taken across one of the fields where the battle took place, refused to cross a particular patch. There was nothing distinctive about this spot, but whatever direction he approached it from, the dog would stop, stare, and then turn tail for home. He added that a New Age friend of his once offered to douse at the site, to find out what, if any, spirits still lingered. She set off, but after a very short time phoned Hallam-Baker and told him she didn’t want to continue. She sounded spooked. “There’s too much here,” she said.
Before I left, he directed me to the field where the battle is thought to have begun. Cannon balls have been unearthed there, and it’s believed to contain a pit of bones, which archaeologists might want to dig up. ‘Leave them in peace,’ was his philosophy. Mine too. And yet with After Flodden I suppose I have myself stirred the waters, or poked in the mud of this grisly subject.
* * *
A friend who lives in Kelso tells me he heard that corpses from James IV’s army were carried to Yetholm, the nearest sanctified ground in Scotland, to be buried. He sounds sceptical. As I am to discover, every conversation with a borderer, from either side, produces another story, theory or fact. I am glad my book is a novel. If it were history, the research would have taken a lifetime. A historian might of course ask, why make things up when there’s a wealth of information to write about? Yet that is surely the point of historical fiction. Where historians work with facts, novelists can play with them.
Only after finishing the novel did I fully appreciate that what seems like a far-distant time, is not so remote. The 500th anniversary records an event that happened only ten times my lifetime ago. When one considers that supposedly enlightened modern governments still go to war, that democracy is fragile even in the west, and non-existent for half the world; that human rights are routinely ignored, even in Scotland, and that violence, be it in the shape of terrorism, domestic abuse, or street brawling, is still rife, 1513 begins to feel familiar. What at first appears unspeakably barbaric and historic, is only a mirror of our own times in more superstitious shape.
Polygon, PP331, £14.99, ISBN 978 1 84967 272 0