• Arthur Conan Doyle

    Sir Arthur’s favourite of all his many novels was not one of the Sherlock Holmes puzzlers read so avidly today.  It was the one he called The White Company.  This is the novel he wished to be remembered for.  Sadly, nowadays it’s little read.  If you’re familiar with the New Forest, however, you’ll find it endlessly fascinating in its descriptions of places as well-known today as in the late fourteenth century.  If you’re a medievalist you’ll love it.  He gives a lively picture of what it was like during The One Hundred Years War as the action follows the adventures of three men-at-arms travelling from the Abbey of  Beaulieu, via Lymington and Christchurch before crossing by boat from Lepe to northern France and then on down to Aquitaine to join the army of the Prince of Wales, Edward, the Black Prince.

    Unlike today’s action-heavy medieval novels Conan Doyle takes his time to describe the landscape, the changing seasons, the customs, arms, clothes, the food and drink and all those other details that are fascinating to medievalists.  Here’s a thought, though.  Were readers better educated in his day?  I ask this because he does not limit his vocabulary to the familiar and well-worn but uses the apt word to specify his meaning.  Given that his book was a massive bestseller and wasn’t short of readers or popularity for decades, the unfamiliar words clearly didn’t put anybody off.  I’ve had to add a glossary to my own novels set in the same period because, I’m told, readers will not want to struggle with words they don’t know.  But  I wonder what readers really think about this?  It seems commonsense to use a word like arbalest, for instance, when that’s the exact word.  Those massive cross-bow missile throwers are no longer used in warfare today but how else to talk about  them without  circumlocution?

    In the pages of  The White Company I must have found over twenty words unfamiliar to me but it was a great joy to look them up in the O.E.D.  Here are some – you might know them already but they were new to me.  For instance, there’s  camisade – a shirt worn over armour for a night attack;  galeasse – a warship with oars and sails and bigger than a galleon;  rovers and hoyles – the first refers to random shooting by an archer, the second when a specific mark is aimed for.  There are many more.

    Maybe you won’t find a use for them in your everyday life but what about a culpon – a cut or portion –  or a rammocky lurden?  No translation needed.  In fact, I think I’ll use it right away…

  • Today!

    Today is what used to be called Empire Day. To me it’s important because it’s my birthday.  My wish is that I’m forty and am Queen Elizabeth I.  That would mean that the immortal Thomas Tallis would compose his magnificent forty part motet for me as a birthday present.   Champagne and Tallis = paradise.  Happy Birthday to all you other Empire Day babies and many more of them. Ge be!

  • Balls

    I was on a boat the other day and it was raining.  As is often the case nothing much was happening so we got to talking about this and that.  Somehow the question of balls arose. I can’t remember how we got there, maybe one of the chaps was trying to show his credentials as they sometimes do  when there’s only one woman on board, but anyway,  balls it was.  I once wrote a play called Balls, I told them.  It was terrifically successful if you count the number of  men in raincoats sitting at the back.  Indeed it was successful anyway because it ran for three weeks with full houses.  The reason there were  men so attired was nothingto do with the weather.  It was possibly because of the title and also because the reviews mentioned full frontal nudity, as it was called in those days.   Sadly for most of them it was a naked fellow who featured.  The reason I wrote the play, apart from the fact that it was commissioned, was to subvert a few of the gender stereotypes prevalent in those far-off days.  I say in  far-off days but it seems they’re not so distant.  I was in a toy shop the other day, looking for a birthday present for a four year old and was swiftly conducted by the young man running the shop to a wall of  glittering bangles and beads until I mentioned that she’d asked for some more brio rail track. What reminds me of all this is that  The World of Books is similarly limping along in an olden days mind set.  ‘Ditch the sexist book covers’ headlined a short piece in the Daily Telegraph the other day.  Dame Jacqueline Wilson was pointing out that  pink covers are pigeonholing girls and putting off boys.  Even books with gritty themes are made ‘sugary’ with ‘feminine’ covers when written by a woman author.  She’s not alone in this view.  Amanda Hocking also says that serious subjects written by women are too often given ‘girly chicklit’ covers with glib titles when those penned by men are not.  I’m humbly aware of all this myself as my own series was blighted at birth by ridiculous frilly-looking covers.  I wonder why publishers and sales directors do this?  What era are they living in?  It will be interesting to see what difference ebooks will make.  Final question though, how many thousand years will it take to tame the testosterone-effect and civilise the human race?