Monday, October 22, 2012

Festive October in Bristol, Bath and Cheltenham

So the Bristol Literature Festival 2012 is over – and I almost wish it could have gone on for ever! (Though I’m sure the hard-working volunteer organisers must be glad they can have a well-deserved rest now.) It was a fantastic week of events with some great authors giving talks and readings – Helen Dunmore, Emylia Hall, Iain M Banks and many others. The programme was a mix of poetry, short stories, readings, sessions for writers, events for readers, activities for children and more. This was the second Festival and I’m already looking forward to the third.

 My particular interest is in historical fiction so I thoroughly enjoyed the two events I attended. The first was Michรจle Roberts, Georgina Harding and Patricia Ferguson who read from their books and discussed their work afterwards. Many themes were touched on, especially war and its impact on non-combatants. A couple of nights later I saw Andrew Miller and Clare Clark, who answered questions about their work and its relationship to history.    

On the last day of the Festival, 20 October, I was delighted to be one of a panel of historical novelists discussing some issues around writing historical fiction. With me were internationally-published author Helen Hollick (whose work includes an Arthurian trilogy,  a series on pirates, and books on King Harold) and Jenny Barden (whose debut novel, Mistress of the Sea, has just been published). Helen Hart, author and publisher of SilverWood Books, chaired the meeting and kept us in order. The topics we covered were the place of historical research in historical fiction, how historical novelists can tap into support and community networks, and the historical novel and self-publishing.

·         For those who were unable to attend the historical fiction panel on 20 October, hand-outs from the talk will shortly be available on SilverWood Books’ Learning Zone.

In fact, October has been a wonderful season for literature. I managed to see Richard Ford  in Bath as part of Topping and Co’s literature festival. The author came with lunch as well – so not only a brilliant reading but excellent food too!

And I was thrilled when my historical novel, To The Fair Land, was chosen to feature in the Locally Sourced series at Cheltenham Literary Festival. I did a reading in the Festival bookshop on 8 October, and also fitted in a fascinating talk by Llewellyn Morgan on his book about the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

For more information about the historical fiction panellists see:-

Helen Hollick’s website
Jenny Barden’s website
Lucienne Boyce’s website
Helen Hart at SilverWood Books

Bristol Festival of Literature  - 
Topping & Co Booksellers of Bath - 
Llewellyn Morgan can be found on Twitter -


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Strange Carryings On

I’ve just read The Weekes Family Letters, the correspondence between Hampton Weekes (1780-1855) during his time as a student at St Thomas’s Hospital in 1801-2, to his family at Hurstpierpoint in Sussex. Hampton Weekes came from a medical family: his father and younger brother Dick were both doctors (surgeon-apothecaries). His Father Richard had studied at St Thomas’s before him, and Dick was due to study there when Hampton had finished. His mother was dead and his step-mother Elizabeth died in 1802. She brought with her a daughter, Fanny. Hampton also had two sisters, Mary Ann and Grace, who with their step-sister helped run the family’s medical practice.

Besides being illuminating about the practice of medicine and the attitudes and beliefs of eighteenth-century practitioners and patients, the letters give a vivid insight into the life of a close and affectionate family. (The exception is the step-mother, who the Weekes children were not particularly fond of.)  They share advice on what to wear, who to make friends with, medical case histories, and local gossip. They discuss the weather (the Thames is “frozen over in part” in January 1802), horses, tenants, the family business. Hampton’s father scolds him about overspending and going too often to the theatre. It’s the ordinariness of the letters that opens the family’s life up to you, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the detail of what they sent back and forth to one another by carrier.
While Hampton was in London he was given all sorts of commissions from his family, and “Knowles’s waggon” was kept busy transporting goods ranging from the homely to the bizarre. A new carpet for the best parlour “that will not show the Dirt”, a chamber-pot stand,  a sofa. Fish – not the sort people eat but counters for games – made of ivory, bone or mother of pearl, they came in various shapes, but fish-shaped ones were most popular.  

For his brother Dick, who was interested in mineralogy and botany, came fossils, shells, plant cuttings, the “snout of a sawfish” killed off the west coast of Africa, an elephant’s jaw, and “philosophical ink” – invisible ink. For his sisters fashion advice – ladies are wearing “hair tippets forming a triangle upon, or between ye. shoulders”.  Also for the girls lace, sheet music, and a shawl which they divided between them.
Food and drink featured a great deal. From London came a 60 pound-tub of “cambridge butter, excellent for toast”, a barrel of oysters which “I would advise you to eat the evening they arrive”, coconut, figs.  To London from the country came hares and pheasants, pears (“eat them as soon as ever they are ripe”), hogs pudding, sausages, apples, and empty barrels to be filled with porter and sent back.
Being a medical family, it’s only natural that Hampton was given orders for medicines and equipment. He sent James Powders, a thermometer, blister salve, forceps, scalpels. He also sent human body parts. Most of them were dissected and prepared by Hampton himself. A femur. A leg and foot – Hampton was going to throw them away but thought he might as well dissect them. An entire “Skelleton”. The testis of a London Bridge watchman – as this specimen was “offensive we could not keep it in the surgery”, Hampton’s father told him. A box of bones with instructions on macerating and bleaching them. The bones of a sailor aged about 30 who died from “inflamm. Of ye. Mucose membrane lining ye. Trachea”.   A stomach. To his friend William Borrer a female skeleton “by the Cobham stage” – what an image this conjures!  
Eighteenth-century carriers must have been a tolerant breed. Or perhaps they didn’t bother to enquire too closely about what was packed in the baskets and boxes they transported. Imagine the consequences of one of these packages being lost, stolen or falling off the back of the wagon, especially in an age when people detested dissection of corpses and riots against it were not unknown. I can’t imagine Royal Mail showing the same tolerance today!
A Medical Student at St Thomas’s Hospital, 1801-1902: The Weekes Family Letters, John M T Ford, (Medical History, Supplement No 7), (London, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1987).