History & Fantasy in Bristol. A day of two halves.

Actually, the first – and really irritating – bit of my day wasn’t even in Bristol. It was in the gridlocked traffic around Swindon where I got thoroughly stuck, thanks to an accident and road closure just ahead and at a point on the route where I had no hope of escape. So I never did get there in time to chat on Ujima Radio – which just goes to show the risks of arranging single-guest events. I’m always an advocate of having at least two authors along, in case of unforeseen gremlins. And thank goodness for mobile phones – since texting from in a stationary car with the engine turned off and handbrake on doesn’t contravene the law.

Happily Cheryl Morgan and Lucienne Boyce were at Ujima to have what sounds like a fascinating conversation about what history is versus what people think it might be, touching on issues like the persistent and false belief that multi-cultural communities are a recent development in England. The briefest glance at a city like Bristol’s history shows that for the tosh that it is.

Anyway, once I got out of the traffic jam, the day improved enormously. I got to Bristol without further incident, met Cheryl for lunch and we discussed life, the universe and future plans for my writing with Wizards Tower Press, of which more news as various projects develop. Then we went to the Bristol Museum and Gallery. I love visiting local museums, especially to look at their paintings and not just for any big names like Pissarro or whoever they might have on hand. It’s the local artists I like to find and in this case, I was very interested to discover the work of Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838). She was a female artist specializing in portraits along with some larger pieces, who was good enough to be exhibited at the Royal Academy. The whole family were successful and commercial artists including her mother (unlike a good many of those big names) living at various times in England and New York. Tell me again how women didn’t get to do anything noteworthy in days of yore. And as anyone will know who’s heard me talk about using visual references, work like Rolinda’s is a source of invaluable historical detail and unexpected inspiration.

Then we headed to Foyles in Cabot Circus, and that’s a lovely bookshop with great staff, well worth checking out if you’re in the area. It was a pleasure to meet Helen Hollick and Jack Wolf, along with Lucienne and we sat down with Cheryl to discuss the relationships between history and fantasy. We touched on what does or does not constitute ‘accuracy’, and the challenges of making the past accessible without obscuring the very real differences in how people thought and felt – and those are important, especially if we’re hoping our writing will make readers think (as well as enjoying an engaging, exciting read), whether it’s fantasy or history or as was apparent for us all, somewhere between. We talked about the challenges of the correct versus the appropriate language in our writing, in using real people and real events – and not for the first time, it was soon apparent that formal, academic education is in no sense required for an author to do solid research to underpin their work. All that’s needed is the curiosity and the common sense to spot what assumptions or agenda might lie behind a source.

We had a good audience, in terms of numbers and most importantly, in terms of people keen to listen and think and ask questions and discuss. Oh and a handful of local steampunk fans turned up in splendid costumes which added a further dimension to chatting about the relationship of history and the modern day. As with all good events, we could have gone on talking as a panel and then informally afterwards for hours. As it was, we writers headed out for a meal before we went our separate ways, and yes, the conversation did continue round the table in many, varied and fascinating directions.

I had an entirely uneventful trip home, so a day that started mired in frustration got better and better and now I have three new-to-me authors to add to my Must Read list.

3 comments

  1. That sounds like a fantastic day.

    And while I’d love to defend an academic education – I find that mine gives me a lot of tools and a lot of hooks for further research – I learnt my history (and read a fair few books) from people who learnt in the 1960s from people who learnt in the 1930s (and in some cases, I learnt from people whose teachers learnt in the early 1900s), so it took me a while to work out how short-sighted and biased many of the things I had been taught were. An earnest amateur who starts out at the cutting edge of things we know today (for instance, about the contributions of women and their subsequent erasure) can easily have the advantage.

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