Sunday, 27 February 2011

World Book Night

It's now the final week before the big day. Two boxes of special editions of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas are on my kitchen floor waiting to go to their new homes. It looks as though the Bury Free Press will be coming along to record the giveaway, but BBC Look East are being remarkably coy. They won't let us know till perhaps the day before. I expect they are waiting to see if an earthquake will interrupt the popular uprising that is now enveloping mid Suffolk!

We have invited some local people other than the ones who will receive free books. The hope is that they may join our little reading group, or that they will at least badger recipients into handing over their copies once read. World Book Night are keen for the free books to circulate as widely as possible. We are inserting a bookplate with contact details, though of course World Book Night have announced online facilities for tracking, and for recording feedback. Let's hope I don't regret this and end up with an inbox clogged with timewasting mail!

The ladies at our local bookshop, from where I collected Cloud Atlas last week, are convinced they will all end up on EBay. I'm a romantic - I see them floating around the globe much as the book's cover has it: "Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies", and touching lives everywhere. Besides, they have World Book Night's imprint all over the place. Oh dear, wait - won't that make them some kind of "collectable"? I beg you, if you come across this or any of the other World Book Night titles please just read it and pass it on to someone you like!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


I LOVE quizzes - and I LOVE winning. So the best thing for a clever-clogs show-off like me is to win a quiz. I know this can be boring for others, even other teams that I go up against. But if you are in a competition, hell you just want to WIN, don't you? I was brought up in the days of competitive school sports days, of choir competitions, of trying to be top of the class. What is so wrong about accumulating knowledge and using that store to have fun? Does Usain Bolt apologise when he's just broken another World record? No!

Anyhow, I was in a (nearly) winning quiz team last weekend in aid of our local carnival fund. The declared aim of the organiser was to have an event which would be fun for everyone, and she mentioned those annoying teams who always seem to win everything. What a challenge! It was a very good quiz, I have to admit - a sort of cross between bingo and Blockbusters (give me a P, Bob?). You needed a line of correct answers to score points, so you can see how they were trying to keep down the "show-offs", can't you? We won one particular round, after which we were entitled to choose the category for the next one. Knowing our strengths we went for "Films and Literature". Pride goes before a fall, they say. We managed to achieve almost a full house of answers without creating a complete line - what rotten luck!!! Worse was to come when we discovered that all our answers were correct!!!!!! Ah well, we did get some extra points for being within 11 years of the date of the oldest surviving working English post mill. Being a historian counts for something... And we scored highly on "name the city where you can see this landmark", since one of our number has been round the world a few times!

So we came second, winning the chocolates instead if the wine. I will comfort myself that I, my husband and two friends (known as the Four Squares) have won the annual village quiz 4 years in a row, and still hold the trophy. And a new pub quiz series we embarked on last month we won first time! If we can hold our nerve to the end of the year we could be sharing £300. Yes, I LIKE winning.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Village Recorder's annual report

Whew, at last! All done for another year! As a Suffolk Local History Council Recorder for a nearby village I have to put in a couple of sides of A4 each year, summarising events there that might otherwise be passed over. I always fret, and feel guilty that I haven't been putting in enough time 'on the ground'. But they now have a fabulously enthusiastic History Group, so that gives me useful contacts.

The idea about having such Recorders is to provide some reference points for future local historians. In my own village a group of us put together and published a book of reminiscences and photographs from the late 19th century onwards. It was amusing (and frustrating) how often certain events were mis-remembered, or had varying interpretations put on them. It is to be hoped that past Recorder's reports, kept on file at the Record Office, will eventually provide some solid evidence for future history writers. In this way, a community can be represented contemporaneously, not through the fog of frail human memory.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Name dropping

After I moved to Suffolk and began to take a more serious interest in history, I discovered a small out-of-print volume about our village written by a former vicar. Some years later it came to my attention that his son Diarmaid had grown up to be a historian too. In fact he was eventually exalted to be a Professor of the History of the Church at St Cross College, Oxford. In my time at Queen Mary he had chaired a seminar that I had attended, and later I followed his BBC4 series on the history of Christianity. I finally had the chance to meet him in person last year at a talk hosted by the Bury Past & Present Society on the topic of the historical forger, Robert Ware. The great man confessed he had once written a book in which he had relied on a so-called speech by Cranmer to the newly crowned Edward VI that had been concocted by the above scoundrel. Afterwards I couldn't resist doing the groupie thing, introduced myself and my friend, and got him to autograph one of his late father's local histories.

Friday, 11 February 2011

World Book Night developments

So things are gradually coming together! Pick-up point for our books will be the local bookshop. We might have preferred the library with all the bad news lately in that area. But our own branch looks safe. The Bookshop could also do with some interest as it struggles against the 'big boys'. That's another story, however. We are hoping to begin the actual give-away at our village pub where Reading Group has met for the past 3 years. Bury Free Press seem anxious to attend and take photos, so I am trying to gather as many people as I can for that. Look East, a local TV programme, might also be interested...

One of our group is designing a commemorative bookplate for each copy of Cloud Atlas, urging the recipient to pass it on to someone else once read. They are also being asked to contact us to say what they think of the book, which could result in a torrent of emails or nothing at all! All we need now is more information from World Book Night themselves. But, as this is the inaugural, I guess there are teething problems.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Adjusting one's aim

Six years ago when I began transcribing, and consequently engaging with, the 200-plus pages of a local sixteenth century manorial survey, I began to entertain the notion of producing a book about it. The source material compared favourably to the subjects of other published commentaries; I had a growing confidence in my academic skills; more importantly, I felt that, if I could attempt a competent analysis of the text, it would add to the existing body of documentary knowledge about Suffolk – and others might want to read it.

My self-belief drove me onwards as I proceeded to record the entries in the survey. In all I took several hundred digital images of its pages. I worked on these at home, zooming in on the unfamiliar scribal hands and scribbling furiously as I unpicked the language of Tudor England. There were some pages in formulaic Latin – not too many, thank goodness, as Latin is not one of my strengths – and I'm proud to say only a handful of lines escaped translation. Really, once you have 'got your eye in', the idiosyncratic letter constructions and spellings soon became as manageable as things one's grandparents might have written in a shaky, elderly hand.

Analysis of the content gradually developed through my physical contact with the book. A mental image of the sixteenth century community began to emerge, and thus questions formed themselves as to the nature of land use, or the functions of particular characters – the tanner, the miller, the local gentry. Finally, with the textual analysis complete, I pulled together five years of research, note-making and imaginitive reconstruction into a novel-sized whole. I was not done, however.

To keep my work focused I had frequently referred to The Field-book of Walsham le Willows (K.M. Dodd, SRS 1974), using it as a model of good practice. But I was hoping to produce something broader by adding illustrations and maps, as well as imitating Dodd's chart of tenants and holdings, and three indexes. Even with all this effort I still felt the temptation to go on tweaking, to overdevelop some aspects of my study. But eventually I had to be satisfied that I had created something worthwhile and stop 'fiddling'. 'By metes & boundes' was ready to walk unaided.

History writing is one thing – seeing it in a proper published form is quite another. I had approached Suffolk Records Society quite early on, shortly after completing a basic transcription of the manuscript survey. It was from them that I received my first kindly rebuff, on the grounds that my study was too similar to other SRS publications, my unvoiced response being that my source was what it was and I couldn't change that. Then I submitted an article to the Suffolk Local History Council Review outlining my work to date, and was gratified to at least see that in print. I also knew that it would be reaching something like the right audience. And so I worked on until the last stages of indexing, when I began to apply to other publishers, five in all. Thank you Boydell & Brewer; Manchester University Press; The History Press; Carnegie Publishing and the University of Hertfordshire Press. At least you didn't rubbish my efforts, but you did all reject me. 'By metes & boundes' was either too academic or not rigorous enough for their requirements. Ah well, time to adjust my aim!

What have I actually achieved? I have uncovered a long-hidden view of my community as English society was still wrestling with questions of the Reformation. There is absolutely nothing standing in the way of me disseminating my findings amongst local historians for myself. I have let it be known that I am available for lectures. So far three history groups have invited me to give illustrated talks. Speaker's fees won't cover my expenses of the past few years – time, travel, paper, postage, printer ink etc. - but it's a start.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Mad Men

No, not those idiots on 'Top Gear', but those impossibly suave egotists who persuaded the world to spend its money from sleek offices in Madison Avenue. I have hung on every word, every gorgeous image of the four series shown so far on BBC4. And what now? Only that series 5 has been gobbled up by Sky Atlantic, so for me it's all over! Never mind that this new channel has been trailed by the likes of Dustin Hoffman - what a low blow for one whose favourite film is 'The Graduate'! I don't subscribe to Sky or its ethics. Well, kids, you know what I shall want for future Christmases - DVD boxed sets. How could I survive without knowing if Don continues with his charade; if Betty and Henry make a go of it; if Sally grows into a liberated woman; if Peggy gets her own ad agency. I love their brashness, their faults, their perseverance, and the way I feel at the close of each perfect episode.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Developments re World Book Night

Well, we have been accepted to give away 48 copies of Cloud Atlas! The books will be shortly arriving at our local bookshop, and we must try and whip up some press interest - in our part of Suffolk at least. I'm hoping all members of our Reading Group will turn up to the handover. They are now submitting their lists of recipients. I have been in contact with our local High School where ten lucky students will be accepting free copies. What I hope for are two things - that we encourage a few more people to join our group, and that those who read David Mitchell's book will tell us what they think of it - really!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Literary Luddites

At an earlier meeting of our Reading Group a reckless soul suggested we collectively buy a Kindle. I was prepared to hear some dissent, and we do have mixed feelings about abandoning paper for a microchip. However, some of us conceded it could have its uses - those who habitually pack a stack of books for their holidays could lighten their load; a Kindle could facilitate reading for particular kinds of disability; techies always like a new toy. But one or two have become almost panicked at the thought of the devil's handiwork in electronic form. I have found someone willing to lend us one for an evening so we may see what all the fuss is about, and you would think I had opened a coffer of plague-infested bedlinen! By the end of February I should be able to say whether the pestilence has taken hold or not!