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Remembering, rather than researching

Backhall JolimontPeople often mention that research must be hard work. But I have been lucky to have lived in old houses for much of my life, and good friends have also lived in old houses. For many years, my social circle surprisingly did not include anyone who lived in a modern house. It was natural that conversations with those friends frequently contained references to the people that built their homes, so long ago. The family names of people who lived in the 1890s are as familiar to me – as were their places of work, and their activities and their travels – as friends and colleagues’ lives are today. 

So when it came to writing about people living at the end of the 19th century, it is more a process of remembering. The faces of the new characters changed, of course, but their milieu is similar to the old familiar friends. To me, the 19th century is not a foreign place.

Extensive new research lays the groundwork, and ensures the accuracy of my writing, but the atmosphere is all based on memory and experiences.

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Inspiration in the English Countryside

Woodspring PrioryI have just returned from England, where I was doing research for my next biography.

I was lucky to find an historic location that was essentially untouched, set in coastal meadows, and protected from the sea breezes by grass-covered dunes. The only sounds were bumblebees foraging among the spring flowers, and the bleating of sheep. Fat, wooly ewes shepherded their new lambs among the tender green grasses, unconcerned with strangers in their midst. Lush fields surrounded me, outlined with spring-fed, water-filled ditches. May trees were flowering, defining hedgerows, their white blossoms adding their sweet scent to the air. The sky was an intense blue on the day of my visit, dotted with small white clouds scudding across the sky. 

Here, in this peaceful, sheltered place, stood a cluster of golden coloured stone buildings dating back centuries. They seemed tranquil, but within their walls, they harboured secrets of earlier times. Long ago, monks had worked and lived here. In later years farmers had taken ownership of the gothic buildings, adapting them as barns and as a farmhouse. 

The subject of my next book came here on a visit around 1880, not knowing that his actions on that day would lead indirectly to his death a world away twenty-one years later.

The story has started to unfold…


Brexit: The UK leaves Europe: Observations from a tourist.

Changing topics: I arrived back in Canada a week before the UK voted to leave Europe. The vote was no surprise to me. I had spent most of my trip in the country, which the politicians clearly had not done. The London-based establishment had been so obsessed with their own specific interests that they had neglected their own citizens’ concerns and desires. Along train lines farmers had posted signs encouraging people to vote ‘Leave’. Fishermen in the southwest were still angry about the Spanish taking their fish. Farmers were being paid to keep fields fallow. The concern I was indirectly hearing was of the loss of the British (or English) ‘culture’, the global homogenization of every-day life; the eradication of what was once special, and unique. The taking away of what people still hold dear.

London is another world. Already cosmopolitan, such eradication of values has already happened there; it is of no concern. But in the country, and in smaller cities and towns it is still important enough for people to make a stand for the preservation of what people consider important in their lives, and what they deemed they have already lost, and would continue to lose under the Euro blanket.

After returning, and watching the arguments still taking place up until the vote itself, I heard wealthy London businessmen selfishly talk about “how bad a ‘leave’ vote will be for this city, ah, um, I mean the country.” And others shockingly talking about the “white” vote in the country, ruining their plans. Those are the English people they are talking about, and they were turning the vote into an ugly, reverse racist arguement. It was a divisive, fracturing, campaign and vote.

Regardless of the greater concerns for the security of Europe; the stability of the economy; the ease of trade across Europe; it was all indicative of a government that had either disregarded – or ignored – its citizens. A very bad position to be in.  

End of observations. 

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On to a new subject…

Finally, the subject(s) of my new book is/are gaining ground, and becoming an influence. Questions are forming about him (or rather, ‘them’).

I am looking forward, this summer, to travelling where one of them stood, in an ancient building, in an ancient landscape, and trying to capture some of the sights and smells that influenced his experiences in the 19th century. After all, it was an important period in his life, and one that ultimately would inform both his life and – had he but known it at the time – his death. An inconsequential day, a peaceful day, by all appearances, but by the vagaries of the cosmos, a defining moment.

It will be interesting to experience that place, and that time, and to absorb some feeling of the place, to transfer it onto paper to set the scene, and start the story…

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Shades of past lives – reflections on influence

After five years of research – not totally continuously – it is weird to come to a halt, so to speak. The book is finished, the edits completed, and the mind should have turned to the new project, and turned off from this all-encompassing subject…

But he is still there, the subject of the book. He still influences one’s thoughts; and he references and shades one’s reading; and his experiences still colour one’s own life. Not family; not even a friend; but a presence that one has gone after, cultivated, grown, encouraged. And he is unaware of this concentrated, one-sided attention – at least, one thinks so. Then the (very) few missing patches – here and there – are filled in; linking together the story and revealing a life that disappeared long ago. But there are clues that linger into the present. Still here, if you open your eyes, your senses, your mind.

And wonder about the almost palpable ‘weight’ of those who have come before, living their lives: are they aware, or unaware of what they leave behind? What cosmic energy allows that legacy? What influences are we leaving behind, as we simply live our own lives?

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Researching in another language…

Having recently received a sheaf of letters from an archives in South America – all written in Spanish – I was faced with important, but unreadable research. Growing up with English as my primary language, I had also studied French in school (like any good Canadian), but had not required any other languages. With English and some French, I had successfully navigated around Quebec and Europe, and I found that simply pronouncing German signs usually produced an understanding of their meaning.  However, never having been to Iberia, I had not embarked on Spanish. So, with the subject of my next biography having spent some time in South America – time critical to his story – I had to break that barrier.

With the sheaf of unreadable letters on my desk, the work of translation had to begin! Fortunately, Spanish is one of the “Romance languages”, and has some similarities to French, and even English. Translating the letters led to a further level of difficulty when the letters turned out to be mostly of a technical nature, and included 140 year-old jargon. But the meanings slowly revealed themselves, and another piece of the intriguing puzzle that was my subject’s life started falling into place.


Do you like your subject?

I have heard authors interviewed who have just completed a biography, as to whether they liked their subject. I have thought that an odd question, given that a good biography should be impartially based on facts – a retelling, as it were – of actual events. Liking, or not, should have no bearing on the subject or the telling of a great story.

So, having completed a biography where – thankfully – lots of great details came to light during research, I had to ask the same question of myself: Did I like my subject? Not at first, I had to admit, though he was intriguing, his family background fascinating, and his own travails were riveting. He did not initially appear to have much moral fibre, which led him into great difficulties. Of course, this, in itself, can be the basis of a story worth telling.

But tracking someone over the course of their lifetime gives you an greater understanding of their life, their interactions, and their development as a person. As their life unfolds, their experiences broaden, and their changing reactions to a variety of circumstances are revealed. And knowing a man as closely as it is possible to know him, after the fact, allows you to answer that question. Yes, I like him.

Rewarding Research…

Research is sometimes fun, mostly very hard work, but always rewarding. During the course of assembling the background for my first biography, I was thankful that small town newspapers actually existed, and stalwart reporters actually reported. The minutiae of details that made it into print in the late 1800s and early 1900s is staggering, when seen through today’s eyes. We may have Twitter, texting, email and Instagram, but they are essentially ephemeral mediums. Here right now, and then replaced with something even newer.

Not so with old newspapers. Within their pages was the only means for people to keep in touch with the events in their town. Who was staying at the local hotel? Who had just left town to visit a sick relative? What colour was their cat? (I’m not kidding…)

Like today, people were intensely curious about other people’s lives. With no other alternative to keep up with their neighbours, this marvellous recording of lives exposed the ebb and flow of society. Contained within yellowing sheets of acidic paper is a great richness of information, just waiting to be mined.

Hardships in the 1800s…

While preparing my recent book, I was impressed – and sometimes amazed – at the hardships people took for granted in the late 1800s. Admittedly, in another 100 years from now, people will likely look back on our lives and consider them the dark ages, as they live in Virtual Reality, with the heady possibility of molecular transport as per Star Trek.

City of MontrealBut in 1888, people seem to have thought nothing of embarking on a forty-three day ocean voyage, with unknown destinations ahead. Researching one of my recent lectures revealed trains snowed-in for two days while travelling through the Rockies in 1874, and losing the ship’s rudder in the mid-Atlantic in a January storm in 1879. Both events seemed to be taken as minor aggravations, rather than the disaster some travellers face today when they are confronted with a forty-five minute flight delay.