Reburial of a king

I’m just back from Leicester where I attended a service in the presence  of the mortal remains of King Richard III.  This was such an extraordinary experience, even now, a day on, I’m still trying to process it all. As a long standing member of the Richard III Society, I was overjoyed when his skeleton was found in what were the foundations of the old Greyfriars, a Franciscan friary destroyed at the Reformation.  My interest in Richard goes back to childhood.  I was born in Leicester and grew up with the old story that the King’s remains had been thrown into the River Soar after the monasteries were dissolved. Growing up, I read widely about Richard and always felt history and, let’s face it, Shakespeare, had painted him with an undeservedly appalling reputation.

Slab which was in Leicester Cathedral - now in Richard III Visitor Centre

Slab which was in Leicester Cathedral – now in Richard III Visitor Centre

Some years ago I attended a Local History conference at the University of Leicester and one afternoon we were taken on a tour of Leicester’s historical sites.  On entering the Cathedral I discovered a slab in the ground which stated Richard III was buried at the Greyfriars.   I was so surprised I asked the archaeologist who was taking us for the tour how to find Greyfriars.  He told me that no-one knew exactly where the friary had been but pointed vaguely in the direction of a road called, unsurprisingly, Grey Friars and I wandered around for some time without finding anything to indicate a location.  I know now that I tramped past a certain car park several times without realising how close I was to walking over King Richard III’s remains and the man who pointed me in the right direction – Richard Buckley, the archaeologist now famous for his discovery!

When I arrived in Leicester, I made straight for the Cathedral and was flabbergasted at the long line of people queuing up to see the coffin.  Some of the pilgrims had been waiting over four hours to gain entry into the Cathedral.  I noticed that the area around the Cathedral had been re-landscaped since my last visit.  There was rich12now a large square in front of the main doors and camped out on the grass were film crews and journalists from all over the world with their ladders, tripods and photographic equipment .  Next to the grassed area, Channel 4 had set up a portable tv studio from where Jon Snow conducted interviews and reported on events.  The atmosphere was unlike anything I have experienced before, a buzz of expectation and excitement that carried on throughout the day and night.  I found it quite overwhelming that this story had touched so many people and during the course of the day I met visitors from Australia, Germany and the Philippines who had travelled to Leicester to pay their respects to a king who had died over 500 years before!

The new Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester is marvellous.  Built over the car park area where the grave site was discovered, it tells the story of Richard’s life and death in a variety of interactive and interesting ways.  As you enter you find yourself in a palace where characters talk about events in the King’s life.  It’s akin to being in a room with them, a witness to all that is happening.  Quite amazing. On the first floor of the Centre there is a display about the science and technical knowledge used to find the body and the subsequent examination of the bones. All fascinating stuff.  But for me, the most poignant moment was entering the room which displays the grave site.rich13 It has all been done with such sensitivity and respect. The floor is glass so you can see the site of the grave and get a feel for the choir where Richard was buried by the friars. Every so often a projection of Richard’s skeleton, as it was found in the grave, is cleverly cast into the grave itself, showing how he was buried in haste after Bosworth. I spent a long time sitting by the gravesite, reflecting on the appalling treatment meted out to a man who was, after all, an anointed king of England.

Sitting by the grave many visitors wanted to be still and pause a while yet they also wanted to talk.  I had many conversations with people, some wearing a white rose or Richard III funeral badge or in the case of one German lady, a velvet cap similar to the one he wears in the famous National Portrait Gallery painting.  She and her photographer husband had flown in from Frankfurt to pay their respects and would have travelled anywhere to be part of this astounding event.

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Later that evening, I queued with about 600 other people who had been lucky enough to be given a ticket for the Richard III Society service in the Cathedral. We took our seats just in time for the seven o’clock start, filing past his coffin which was draped in a specially designed pall, covered in figures not only from his lifetime but with those members of the Society mostly responsible for finding Richard in the first place. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was because members of the Society and Philippa Langley in particular, persevered with what most people thought was a mad idea, that the grave site was eventually discovered and Richard’s remains recovered.

It was a solemn and moving sight, the coffin, draped in the black velvet pall with a simple crown on the top; a crown very similar in description to the one that Richard wore on his helmet at the Battle of Bosworth.  markpic

The service was led by The Reverend Alan Hawker and The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester. The sermon was preached by The Right Reverend Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester. Members of the Society read about Richard from contemporary sources. Philippa Langley’s reading from Sir George Buck’s biography was very touching. Buck was Master of the Revels in James I’s reign, he also served as a government envoy to Queen Elizabeth I.  His biography critically analysed the accusations made against King Richard and then defended him, uncovering hitherto unknown sources such as the Croyland Chronicle and the Titulus Regius which justified Richard’s accession to the throne.

There were many moments to reflect silently on this very surreal occasion.  How was it possible that a King of England, lost for over 500 years, was now here, in this Cathedral about to be reburied in the county where he lost his life?  There was an odd merging of timelines – 1485 – 2015, the king whose name was so completely blackened by the Tudor propaganda machine yet who was, by all accounts, a loyal man, a fair and conscientious ruler; from medieval England to the 21st century. The sense of time shifting back and forth was bewildering!  It still is.

rich15As I walked thoughtfully back to my budget hotel room, I was thinking about the connection I have always felt to this enigmatic man.  When I reached the Travelodge I was amazed to find that on the site of the hotel had stood the Blue Boar Inn, the place where Richard III had supposedly spent his last night on earth!!

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Celebrating Magna Carta

Yesterday, 3rd February I was at the British Library.  I had been lucky enough to win tickets in a ballot for  what the British Library were calling  the Magna Carta Unification.  What this in fact meant was that for the first time ever, the four surviving copies of Magna Carta were in one place, unified for the 800th anniversary of the granting of the Great Charter by King John.    Two of the copies are already housed in the British Library, the other two copies were loaned by Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals.  I think all those of us attending – and there were 1215 of us through the doors yesterday – felt privileged to be there, we had won our tickets out of almost 50,000 people who had applied.

Why is Magna Carta so important?  Well, today particular clauses in the document are held up as the origins of our democracy.  Back in 1215 it was a way for King John to get the Barons off his back.  The document was sealed at Runnymede in Berkshire, a beautiful meadow which is nowadays used for picnicking by the River Thames.  It’s geographical importance in June 1215 was that it was between Windsor, where King John was staying and Staines where the Barons were camped out, ready to fight to protect their rights.  And make no mistake – in 1215 it was all about the Barons’ rights, not your average man in the field’s.  However, it is seen as the beginning, a first stage in the long, bloody path to a democratic society.  It was the first document to suggest that the King wasn’t above the law of the land – if only Charles I had read it!  Its most important clauses though are 38 and 39.  Clause 38 states: : “No official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.”  Clause 39 is possibly the best known. “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights and possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

Unfortunately King John, being the rotter that he was, reneged on the deal as soon as the Barons tried to enforce the terms of the Charter.  The King persuaded the Pope to agree  that Magna Carta was illegal and unjust, especially to the King, harming his royal rights!  The Pope declared the charter was null and void.  Unsurprisingly this led to full scale civil war which only came to an end when John died in 1216.  Nevertheless, some of the principles outlined in the Charter are relevant today and are the very foundation of our (unwritten) constitution as well as the constitutions of many other countries, including the United States.

Yesterday’s event at the British Library was a mixture of fun and facts.   It began with a fascinating talk by historian Dan Jones (author of ‘The Plantagents’ – a brilliant book in my opinion) and presenter of the recently aired television programme ‘Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty’.  He explained a little of the background to the granting of Magna Carta and talked about the four copies we were about to see.

Then we were led into the British Library itself, greeted by a variety of medieval characters,  including knights, barons, bishops, jesters, soldiers and peasants.  On the stairs  a medieval scribe was painstakingly writing out a copy of the Charter while a knight stood  reading it out aloud.  A nice touch!  Then we proceeded to the  Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery to view the documents. All four were remarkable in their own right and quite different from each other.  One of them housed at Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages, had been slightly damaged in a fire in the 18th century.  This was the only charter with a seal attached (although somewhat melted!). It was a very moving moment, to see what, eventually, became the basis for our democracy, written on parchment in ancient script.

photo courtesy of British Library

Photo courtesy of British Library

On the way out of the exhibition gallery we were given a ‘goody bag’.  Among the postcards and pens and chocolate Magna Carta seals, was a ‘golden ticket’ which entitled the holder to free entry into the Magna Carta exhibitions being held throughout the year at the British Library and Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals.  There was also a certificate on which a scribe entered my name in beautiful calligraphic script and which was subsequently sealed.

 

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I felt the British Library got the balance just right – the event was informative and fun and I felt extremely fortunate to have been able to attend.

 

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Reading to bring people together

I’ve been running a book group since 2008 and although some people have come and gone, many of the founding members are still with us.  All members have the opportunity to choose which books we read and the person choosing, hosts the evening.  It’s a simple but effective way to go about things.  Over the years we have become familiar with each others’ tastes and although I wouldn’t consider our group high-brow or particularly literary, many of the books we choose are likely to have come from the Man Booker or Orange prize lists.

Our members say that one of the benefits of belonging to a group like ours is that they get to read titles which in  the normal run of things, they wouldn’t read.   Some of the group love crime novels but in all eight years we have been running, I think we have had two novels that would fit that genre.  We aren’t the kind of group that sits down with a glass of wine and generally forgets to talk about the book, as many groups do.  Mostly we take it quite seriously and score the book in question with marks out of ten.  Then each person gets a chance to say what they thought of the book individually. Afterwards the discussion is thrown open. Occasionally the ‘host’ for the evening will bring along reading group questions downloaded from the internet but usually we just allow the conversation to take us where it leads us.  Often we end up talking about plays or films we have seen but on the whole, the book is the star of the evening.

Now I have been asked by our local Literary Festival organiser to lead a group of people who are slightly older, perhaps a little isolated, as a way of making friends and socialising.  The book chosen for the first meeting is a very easy read and this is important since we have no way of knowing the reading tastes of our members.  I am hoping to use a similar formula with this new group as I have done with my established group – I am hoping the members will offer suggestions of books to read and discuss.

One thing I didn’t mention about my established group was that for the first year or so one of our members was male (he took himself off to write books and has since published his first non-fiction book about a WWI soldier).  When he departed we became an all female group and I admit that I do miss some of his book choices.  This leads me to wonder if the new group will be all female and if not, will there be difficulties in members reading what others have chosen for them, especially if there is a male or female bias in the plot?

Having attended/run many groups as part of my psychology training, I am fascinated to see how this new group will come together and gel. Hopefully there will be give and take.  Hopefully some real friendships will come out of the group and the experience will be an enriching one for all concerned.  Reading is a solitary occupation, as is writing.  However, to share in the enjoyment (or otherwise) of a book is an experience that has the potential for bringing people of different lifestyles, ages and preferences together.  If they are isolated, lonely or just wanting something different to do for an hour or so a month… well, so much the better.

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The world is awash with books

You only have to read any one of the writing magazines and social media pages to appreciate just how many books are out there now – both hard copy and e-books. We are bombarded with adverts for cheap/free e-books from first time authors.  Now as a reading addict, I must admit to viewing these advertisements with an ever-growing wish list – I just can’t seem to help myself.  On occasion I have purchased some of the cheapie offers… and really wished I hadn’t.

Now, running a writers’ group with the aim of encouraging our members into print, I am, of course, very keen to see all writers who work hard to produce a novel they can be proud of, achieve success.  My question is – what is considered success?  If just getting a manuscript into print, physical or electronically, is a measure of success then I’m afraid I have a major problem with this.

I’m delighted so many writers have been able to sell their work by self-publishing and those able to self-promote often seem to do very well out of it.  My difficulty lies in the quality of some of these books.   Self-publishing often means that the author does everything themselves – writing their magnum opus, of course, copy-editing and proof reading it, formatting the book, designing the cover and promoting it.  In my opinion, if you can leap over all these hurdles you deserve a medal for perseverance!  But for me, the important words above are copy-editing and proof reading.  Here is where my problem lies.

I’m not saying that traditionally printed books from the top publishing houses don’t sometimes contain errors.  We all know they do.  But they are also scrupulously edited and pared back so that, on the whole, these books as presented for purchase in our major bookshops – and online – are well executed.  The dross and waffle (if any existed in the first place) has been spliced away and we are left with a book that is usually a pleasure to read.

Not so for many self-published oeuvres, I’m sorry to say.  Many that I have read would benefit from the ruthless stroke of a red pen in many, many places.  What could have been an amazing work of fiction turns into a dreary, never-ending saga leaving the reader losing the will to live!

So the world is awash with books and at one time I would have rejoiced in this fact.  However, if it hasn’t already happened, I believe the very discerning reading public will get wise to the fact that many self-published books are not worth their very cheap price because the quality of the finished product is sub-standard.

So my plea to all writers involved in publishing their own works – the editing is vital to the successful outcome – please give your manuscript to either a professional editor or someone who isn’t a friend or relative and will be honest.  It might mean that your precious work is halved in size but it will also mean that the end-product will probably be a joy to read.

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Evolution of a group II

It’s a while since I posted and in that time much has happened to our writers’ group.  I first dreamed up the idea  at the back end of 2011. Originally I started it to be in company with other writers aiming for publication. At first the little group met at my local pub where we could never be certain of having the room to ourselves. We read out our work to the clatter of dishes from the kitchen and the sounds of the bar staff moaning about their employers.

Eventually I found a much more suitable meeting place, in the Shakespeare Centre. We now had a room where we could meet and read out our work in peace. Our group was publicised in various writing magazines and on websites and membership grew steadily. We now have about 25 people either paid up members or considering membership.  Thanks to the hard work of one member in particular, Ellie Stevenson, author of a novel about the Titanic – Ship of Haunts – and a collection of short stories, we have now published our first anthology.(Find Ellie at: https://www.facebook.com/Stevensonauthor/info)

Shards from the Bards: A Bardstown Writers’ Collection contains contributions of stories, poems and articles from some of our members.  We are currently planning the book launch evening at our local Waterstones store and this will be combined with a presentation of awards to local students who submitted entries to a competition for the best cover.  We are also awarding prizes for a cover for our Halloween anthology to be published next year and for the best logo design to be used by our writers’ group .  Prizes will be presented by the Director of the Stratford Literary Festival, Annie Ashworth.

As a result of producing the anthology we are in talks with local libraries to publicise and read from our anthology.  We also have plans to take an active part in Stratford Literary Festival 2015.

Shards from the bards cover

Suddenly life has become even busier than it was before and I didn’t think that was possible!

Looking back, it wasn’t that long ago when I wondered if our group would survive as we had a bit of a rebellion in the ranks. In one week I had four resignations of members, one because he wasn’t finding time to attend meetings and the others, well, let’s say disagreements over giving and receiving feedback.  As a result of these events, we, as  a group got together and wrote guidelines for what we would all like from feedback given by fellow members. This is now prominent on our website so everyone can see what is expected before coming along to meetings.

This group has grown like Topsy.  When I started it,  I never imagined that within a few years we would have so many members, a formal Committee, one anthology published and another in the  planning stages.  As with all groups, it is thanks to a small core of hard-working people that Bardstown Writers has flourished and continues  to do so.  I wonder where we will be in another few years’ time.

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Tied up in knots

Well, I’ve got myself so tied up in knots with researching/writing my novel that I feel completely paralysed by the need to be factually as accurate as I can be.  As a result I haven’t written anything of consequence for months.

So just as an experiment I decided to write a contemporary novel to see if the creative juices flowed any quicker… hey presto, I’m writing on a daily basis and having that itch scratched regularly.  It feels good.  I think my problem is that as an historian, I am a pedant and can’t conceive of putting any words on paper that don’t at least have a reference to check the accuracy with.  The pedant got in the way of the creativity and consequently I’ve been stifled.  How do other writers of historical novels do it?  I don’t know.  I’d love to ask.  Hilary Mantel, I know, researches fanatically.

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

I guess that’s one reason why her novels take so long to write.  I had the opportunity to meet her recently when her two books on Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, were staged at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.  She is a charming and generous person who listened to my difficulties and explained her own.  I’m not comparing myself to Hilary Mantel though – if my historical novel ever sees the light of day, it won’t be in the same league unfortunately.

So for the time being I’m going to be writing the contemporary novel and just enjoying the process of creating.

 

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Time for a change and the Bard’s birthday

Can this really be my first post of 2014?  Well, shame on me!  I seem  to have been bogged down for months, trying to catch up and meeting myself coming the other way.  But I’m conscious that my lack of time seems to be a constant whinge and I’m fed up with hearing myself droning on about it.  I feel it is time to do something about it.  Clearly writing has taken a back seat to the day job and the running of the writers’ group has consumed more of me than the actual writing.

Well the latter problem seems to have been partly addressed already – the group has grown up and needs a committee.  Now I hate the whole idea of committees.  When I started the group it was just for a few like-minded writers who wanted to get together to discuss our work and give feedback.  But there was clearly a need for a group like ours – people trying to get published needing support and motivation – and the numbers grew.  Members decided they wanted to produce an anthology.  This was wonderful but I could have no part in the organisation as I have no time for anything else so they got on with it.  And how they got on with it!  Before I knew it, we were applying for a grant and for that we needed a formal committee.  In the blinking of an eye my little group became a big group and that group was suddenly applying for bank accounts and grants and for that we needed a Treasurer.  As of now I am the Chairperson, there is a Treasurer, Secretary and two deputies.  We have a full committee of six people and a Constitution.

The anthology is under way – all being handled by a supremely efficient group member who has already published her own work.  We have a new member with loads of energy who has a series of children’s books on the market and she is helping with cover design and marketing.    If I had time to sit back in wonder to admire all these talented people I would.  Admire them I certainly do – time, I have none.

Why?  Because this week is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday and the celebrations for this and the annual birthday weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon are moving like a juggernaut, inexorably closer.  Every day at work a succession of journalists and film crews, carting all the attendant technology; cameras, furry microphones, amplifiers, lights and cables, traipse through the Birthplace searching for electricity sockets! I wish so much I could tell them Shakespeare didn’t have electricity and send them on their way but we long ago capitulated and this lovely 16th century house has electric power!

It seems that interest in Shakespeare and his birthday seeps into every nook and cranny of the planet.   In the past few weeks I have given tours to journalists from Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Holland and Australia.  This week promises to be even busier and on Shakespeare’s official birthday (April 23rd), we are expecting film crews from all over, in the house virtually all day.2012-09-05 18.01.10

Not that I’m complaining – working as a guide in Tudor costume brings many rewards.  Every day is different – you turn up and never know what the day will hold.  Often it is punctuated with hoards of bored French students, longing to be away from their teachers, longing to be out shopping, by the river, anything in fact that isn’t listening to a bunch of strangely dressed people droning on about a long dead playwright who doesn’t even write in French!  I can understand their predicament but it makes for a difficult day when you are trying to do your job, telling those visitors who are interested all about the social history of the time whilst having to talk loudly over the general noise of the disinterested schoolchildren.

Then there are the days when you have visits by dignitaries – HRH Princess Anne and the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins are two recent visitors for which much preparation was required. We’ve also recently been invaded by the likes of Jedward or celebrity chefs or historians filming soundbites for their documentaries, with their attendant techies and entourages.  I can honestly say it’s never boring.

Which brings me back to whinging about lack of time – it’s all about choice isn’t it?  Would I rather be sitting in front of my computer, struggling with the research,  the dialogue and the prose which writing an historical novel demands?  A novel which may never see the light of day (at the rate I’m writing it won’t!) and for which I earn nothing but backache and a dim sense of failure.  Or would I rather be in the thick of it, giving thousands of visitors an insight into the life of the greatest playwright in the world, talking to journalists, appearing on national television (oh yes… but we’ll draw a veil over that one!)?  For this I earn – not a vast amount I’ll admit but enough to make me feel I’m contributing to living expenses and the odd holiday.  There is, I’ve discovered, no elasticity in time – the week will not stretch into ten days, try as I have to make it do so.  So what is the alternative?  Basically make a choice and stop whinging – apportion my time better – accept that I cannot do everything and deal with it!

 

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