During the latter part of last Thursday afternoon, after a sun-splashed if chilly week, the heavens opened and the rain came bouncing down. The gate that leads into our garden was sodden in no time. The M1, which we had just joined to begin our journey to the event at Oadby Library, quickly became waterlogged: there were treacherous sheets of water to negotiate as the traffic on the approaches to the various cities that we passed built up towards rush hour. By the time that we reached the Leicester ring-road, we’d encountered virtual gridlock. Irate drivers were crawling along for a few yards at five mph before juddering once again to a standstill, their progress and tempers not helped by the rain, Leicester’s amazingly laid-back traffic lights system and the fact that in several places on the dual carriageway two lanes merge into one (every driver being reluctant to yield to another).
This was not an auspicious start to an event that had been planned months in advance and strenuously published, by Chris and Jen at Salt Publishing, by myself and by various other kind tweeters along the way. I had known not to expect too much, as the library had already warned me that only three tickets had been sold – and indeed would have ‘pulled’ the event had I not insisted that I should be happy to speak even if only one person turned up to hear me.
I arrived precisely on time, at 6.30 p.m., later than intended, and my audience – consisting indeed of just three people – had all got there before me. I barely had time to notice that Oadby has a lovely library before I hastened into the ante-room where they had assembled, together with the librarian, Anne Sharpe. However, by this time I had already experienced the first of several wonderful surprises. The first person that I met after Anne was Rosalind Adam. We are mutual bloggers and Twitter friends – I’ve been enjoying Rosalind’s blog for some time, though we had not met before. It was a delight to be able to talk to Rosalind in the flesh. We each agreed that the other was exactly what we had expected – and that this was not always the case when meeting someone previously encountered only through the ether. At the moment, I’m particularly excited about a book for children on Richard III that Ros has just finished writing and hope to be able to review it on this blog in due course.
I was a bit slow on the uptake at registering the second surprise. I’ll have to excuse myself by offering the explanation that I was busy sorting out my books and papers for the readings. I’m also quite short-sighted, but I prefer to wear my spectacles only when I’m driving. Anyway, the event was about to start when I looked up and recognised that the only male member of the audience was Colin Marshall, for many years the manager of the campus bookshop at Leicester University and still employed by the university today, although he has now ascended to a higher plane and is in charge of all the retail operations on the campus there. Colin’s presence introduced one of those occasions when my life as a novelist collides with the day job – and this time it was the most enjoyable collision imaginable. Colin has for several decades attended the conference for which I have organised for some fourteen years the speaker programme. He was also awarded the Booksellers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. His presence at the event was not entirely a coincidence, as he had been kindly told about it by Professor Christine Fyfe, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor in charge of Teaching and Learning – and the Library – at Leicester University, whom we both know. However, there was also a real coincidence at work: Colin and his wife Sandra live in Oadby and she had quite separately seen the event advertised by the library and decided that she would like to attend. Having the opportunity to meet Sandra was the third lovely surprise of the evening: she’s funny, sensitive, extremely well-read, loves dogs and cats (she told me that she and Colin have managed to organise their lives with such symmetry that they have four children, three dogs and two cats), is a great companion and raconteur and furthermore is living proof that Colin is a dark horse!
Ros, Colin, Sandra and Anne therefore constituted my audience at Oadby. It was the smallest audience I’ve ever had. I’ve attended other writers’ events that have managed to attract only small audiences and I’ve found that they divide into two categories: small and dismal, and small and select. I’d like to state unequivocally that, thanks to Ros, Colin, Sandra and Anne, this event was of the latter type. It began quite formally with a reading from In the Family and a Q & A session, but before long had turned into a lively debate about writing, literature, other crime writers and future events at Oadby Library. We overshot the allotted time by half an hour, so that I had barely time to conclude with my ‘world première’ reading of the first chapter of Sausage Hall, third title in the DI Yates series, which I’m grateful to be able to say was very well-received.
At the end of the evening, we took a quick look round the library and had our photograph taken there. Ros had to leave at this point: she has kindly already written about the evening on her blog. We said goodbye to Anne, our charming and extremely well-read hostess, and retired to the car park to release our dog, who had accompanied us for the ride. Then Sandra, Colin, my husband, the dog and I adjourned to the pub down the road (The Fox) to continue the conversation. Eventually, Sandra and Colin went home and we headed back North through the rain-sodden night.
There are some evenings, unfortunately all too rare, when, as a writer, you really feel that you are making progress in the most worthwhile of ways, by talking to a group of sympathetic and interested readers. (The size of the group is immaterial.) For me, the event at Oadby Library was such an occasion. Anne said that she would invite me back again later in the year. I’m looking forward to it already. I’d like to thank her for her wonderful hospitality, and to thank Ros, Sandra and Colin for braving the elements to visit the library last Thursday and for contributing to the marvellous conversation that took place there.
I’ve written before about my interest in the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. The whole nation’s awareness of this monarch and his deeds was triggered earlier this year by the discovery of his skeleton in a car park in Leicester.
As a result of both this and the television series The White Queen, based on several novels written about the Wars of the Roses by Philippa Gregory, I’m sure that both historical and fictional accounts of Richard’s reign must be achieving buoyant bookshop sales at present. If so, it’s a bandwagon that I was happy to jump on myself when I visited Blackwell’s Broad Street last week, by buying a book that I’d not encountered before, Richard III and the Murder in the Tower.
The topic, of course, is a familiar one. This book, which was published in 2009, is yet another enquiry into the fate of the princes in the tower, Edward IV’s two sons Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York. Unlike many of its predecessors, however, it is a scholarly and very balanced account which, whilst not attempting to provide a definitive answer to the question of who killed the two princes (and indeed whether they were killed), presents all the facts that are known about the events leading up to their disappearance and sets down the possibilities of what could have happened to them.
The author, Professor Peter Hancock, is an American academic, which may be the reason why he is able to tell his story with such dispassionate flair. It’s a curious fact that most English people who are interested in this story become heated partisans of either Richard III or Henry VII; I’ve noticed that the same phenomenon applies to discussions about the next English civil war that was to take place in the middle of the seventeenth century, one that was arguably even more bloody and brutal than the dynastic fight to the death between the houses of York and Lancaster. On some topics, English people have a reputation for showing undemonstrativeness to the point of being phlegmatic, but many are fiercely curious about their own past and correspondingly committed to allegiances to historical characters who may or may not have been supported by those of their ancestors who actually knew these people. (From what I know of my own antecedents, for example, I’m pretty convinced that they were Cromwellians, not Royalists, though I should have preferred them to have been the latter.)
To return to Professor Hancock, he has painstakingly examined all the available documents relating to the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII and, although he has not turned up much new material, his keen eye for detail and astute interpretation of the facts have resulted in some very plausible alternative accounts of what may have actually happened. I won’t say what these are, for obvious reasons. He also encourages readers to consider the actions of the protagonists from the point of view of their contemporaries and the mores that prevailed at the time, rather than through the filter of what we now consider to be acceptable civilised behaviour (though it should be added that struggles for power today are conducted with just the same naked savagery as they were in the Middle Ages).
If I have any quibbles, they are all minor ones. Professor Hancock devotes a chapter to each of the key players, including Edward IV’s mistress, Jane Shore, except, inexplicably, Elizabeth Woodville, his queen. I should have been fascinated to know what he makes of her role – my curiosity whetted further by Philippa Gregory’s fictional rendering of this enigmatic consort. The text is also somewhat repetitive in places, perhaps because it was written over a long period of time, perhaps because the structural device of considering each of the main players makes repetition inevitable; if the latter, it is a small price to pay for the all-round appraisal that such an approach allows. Finally, Professor Hancock has a few favourite words that grate on the ear. The one that I dislike the most is ‘assumedly’, which he uses in the sense of ‘I assume that’. However, I confess I prefer this to that other conjectural phrase so often cropping up in history books: ‘He [or she] must have …’
I finished reading this book on the same evening that the final (tenth) episode of The White Queen was televised. I’d enjoyed the serial up to that point, but was dismayed by the ham acting and poor fight choreography that characterised its conclusion. From the melodramatic deaths of Edward of Middleham and Anne Neville at the beginning to the risibly shabby reconstruction of the Battle of Bosworth that was meant to be its climax (it appeared to be carried out by half a dozen extras having a mock skirmish in a wood on a Sunday afternoon), for the entire hour this dramatisation teetered perilously on the brink of farce. Professor Hancock’s book, which I picked up again after it was over, provided a refreshing contrast. I recommend it to anyone who is intrigued by Richard III and the fate of his nephews.
My interest in Richard III was kindled when I was a young bookseller, because my boss was a member of the Richard III Society. I’ve subsequently read several books about the Wars of the Roses and also visited Richard’s castle at Middleham. That he had strong links with Yorkshire has increased his fascination for me.
Few English kings have inspired such intense posthumous opinion as Richard. Henry VIII, Charles II and George III have all had their fierce supporters and detractors, but none has had vitriol heaped upon him as Richard has. He could hardly have been as wicked as he was reputed to be; his shimmeringly evil reputation, much enhanced by the distorted character that Shakespeare created to please his Tudor mistress, even had the unintentional effect of giving him the same kind of glamour as Milton’s Satan. Shakespeare was also responsible for exaggerating his physical deformities; unlike Dorian Gray three hundred years later, the fictional Richard’s evil soul was supposed to have been made manifest in an ugly face and twisted body.
The Richard III Society was founded to put the record straight, but, like almost all societies that support the memory of controversial historical and literary characters, it quickly became so partisan that some of its published ‘research’ stretched the facts. Nevertheless, it is to one of its present-day members that we are indebted for the discovery of Richard’s remains under a car park in Leicester. Amazingly, modern science, in particular miraculous DNA matching techniques, proves conclusively that the bones did belong to this last Plantagenet king. I am sure that a great book will come out of the story of their discovery and testing (which, as last night’s Channel 4 programme showed, has been meticulous).
In the popular imagination, Richard’s worst act has always been his reputed murder of his two nephews, the so-called ‘princes in the tower’. They were the heirs of Edward IV. The elder of them, Edward V, was never crowned king, but the title was reserved for him, even so; the next King Edward was crowned Edward VI. There is no proof that Richard killed the two princes. It is known that they lived in the Tower of London for many months and gradually disappeared from view; first they were seen playing frequently, then infrequently, then not at all. Although it is fairly certain that bones discovered in the tower in the late 1990s belonged to the princes, there is no conclusive proof of who murdered them. Was it indeed Richard? Or did the order come from Henry VII (the preferred candidate of the Richard III Society) after his accession? Of course, I don’t know, though I’d rather like to think it was Henry myself, partly because Richard has always been such an underdog, partly because Henry was a cruel cold fish of a man. He was certainly capable of killing them.
Whoever it was, the outpouring of emotion that this murderous act has generated is illogical. Perhaps it is because they were children; perhaps because one of them was a king and kings were sacred. Yet there can have been no king between William I and Richard III who did not commit murder, except, perhaps, Henry VI, who was himself murdered for the national good; and, although the Tudors themselves considered the murder of kings to be taboo, Shakespeare’s own queen, Elizabeth I, herself killed an anointed queen, Mary Queen of Scots. I conclude that Richard’s infamy stuck because of the genius of Shakespeare himself. The beauty and the irony of these famous lines have touched every generation since they were written in 1592:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
The bones retrieved from the car park were of a slight and delicately-formed man; he did, indeed, suffer from scoliosis, but it probably only made one shoulder appear slightly higher than the other; otherwise, he may have cut an attractive, even a refined, figure. I should never want to lose Shakespeare’s magnificent villain, but perhaps now that the real Richard has been found, he can co-exist with his alter ego. There is surely room in our heritage for both of them.