Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Perversions of history and a surfeit of Tudors

We are a contentious lot! I have been enjoying the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and in my little world I could not imagine the arguments and vitriol this has stimulated in the press! I totally devour historical fiction and love to read the many interpretations by various authors. Afterwards I often research, read or investigate the historical truth (well truth as far as historians allow) and make up my own mind. I like historical accuracy. I try very hard to be historically accurate in the facts I present in my novels-but they are fictionalised history wrapped around some real and incontrovertible facts. This is the way I believe Mantel and co work too-we can rarely KNOW what a historical character felt or emoted, we can only imagine the unpublished reactions to events in history and we can only surmise unrecorded conversations. In other words we fill in the gaps. I would argue that even in the serious tomes which are produced by "historians" there must be some poetic licence and interpretation. Bias must also creep in to some extent but I am shocked at some of the commentary following this massively successful piece of literature.

For starters I was pleased to read a piece by my favourite historical fictioneer-CJ Sansom who specialises in the Tudor period with his infinitely splendid Shardlake series. He analysed the series and made a fairly balanced judgment; inputting some of his own opinions about the anti-hero Cromwell. This foolishly led me onto read the next few reports in the national press. I stumbled across a rather reactionary piece in the Catholic Herald- a bastion of the Catholic press (who knew they had their own press?). This piece was incredible in its bias-in my opinion, I couldn't believe that this man and his story-dead these 500 years was being used to rake up old religious differences. To claim that admiring Cromwell is encouraging anti-Catholicism is a bit OTT! He was a reformer-true and disliked Rome-but nowhere does Mantel suggest he is admirable. She humanises him, but why not? He was ruthless and ambitious-a follower of Machiavellian teaching, but he did have a human side. He wept at the news of Wolsey's death -this is a matter of record, but does that not suggest his humanity could have extended to other situations too? One can perhaps have a grudging admiration for his efficiency and powerful politics; but I am sure nobody out there would really use him as a role model! As for anti-Catholicism... I very much doubt that anyone with those intentions has awaited Mantel's novel to develop those feelings and give vent to their prejudice. The time is too far removed.

I moved onto the next column by a certain David Starkey Esq. I should have know not to read on! I have read some of his history; not all bad but not all good either-but he has spent a lifetime studying history so I assume he does get it right sometimes. He is a right wing chap of course, so in certain instances this must colour his interpretation-after all we all have our own little preferences and nuances. However, he truly slated the "deliberate perversions of history" in Mantel's work (which took 5 years research by the way-so she ain't making it up.) He doesn't appear to understand the term "historical fiction" and berates Mantel for her "total fiction" and "lack of evidence". 

I am with him on accuracy as far as it goes-but there are massive gaps in our knowledge of the conversations, emotional responses and the human snippets of history. We occasionally catch glimpses in the historical record, but as anyone  else who has done a year of a Masters in Historiography will know; all history is interpretation. After all, much early written history comes from one source. Monks. Now as much as I have a soft spot for all things monastic, they didn't exactly have no agenda! They reported according to their standpoint-which was Roman Catholicism. That isn't to say that there is no accurate history in there, but there have been extravagant claims which with hindsight can be seen as a biased interpretation. Whoever writes the history has an interest or a preference -in fact we know that the Tudors tried to rewrite history to prove their validity as a dynasty for example. So as pure as history might seem, it is open to manipulation and propaganda (see Goebbels/Hitler's interpretation of history).

I believe that historical fiction is often an introduction or taster, providing a framework to give us the feel for the time. Certainly, in my "Out of Time" books I present the story as fiction-but I research the nitty gritty and try to accurately portray the times I describe. However, I would not present it as factual. In fact I go to great pains to add an author's note explaining where and why I have taken liberties. I follow the school of Anya Seton and Barbara Erskine, flowing seamlessly (I hope) between historical periods and present day. I use these books in schools in the hope they will interest, inspire and eventually encourage a love of history and will draw the readers to extend their knowledge and engage with the physical history around us. 

So what do I think of Wolf Hall? So far so good! This week I felt there were rather too many ponderous and meaningful silences-with Cromwell's impassive face concealing his calculations for his next move. It captures the period well, it modernises the characters enough for us to connect with and the characterisation is nothing new. We have a slimmer Henry-but he was still an athletic chap at this point, the usual suspects are all there and live up to my own visualisations. The difference is, this story is from Cromwell's perspective and it is that which makes it compelling. Not because I idolise or admire him but because it is his story with Henry and Anne and the rest as the supporting cast for a change. I will read no more commentaries-I gave up when I saw the headline "Damian Lewis took inspiration from Harry and Wills". And I dread to think what lies in "Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day". All I can say is-with all the detractors I think both books and programme are refreshingly different and at least 100% more accurate than "The Tudors" ; where it was thought "less confusing" to amalgamate Henry Vlll's two sisters into one. But then that was from the US not the BBC and despite the advantage of Jonathan Rhys Davies and Henry Cavill and the Hollywood touch, it does not hold a candle (literally) to this production.
Gratuitous photo of Furness Abbey-the 1st large abbey dissolved by Henry Vlll and Thomas Cromwell in 1537

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Born asleep: A story of loss and hope

Thirty four years ago today, on a pretty similar bleak, grey day that only January can produce I was just walking into a parallel bleak grey mindset that has remained a part of me ever since. I was a patient in the then locally infamous Newham Maternity Hospital at Forest Gate awaiting the birth of our first child. A naiive 23 year old, I read every childcare and pregnancy book available to man and even borrowed my friend's midwifery book. This was either a blessing or a mistake because I devoured this too-pragmatically observing that although some awful things can happen-most people deliver safely.

My pregnancy was uncomfortable, I enlarged to the size of a small blue whale, had constant sickness, fatigue and raised blood pressure. My registrar (I never saw the consultant until the day of delivery-he was much too important)was contentious from the off-disbelieving my dates. As a young "primagravida" (I picked up all the terms) I was suspected of knowing nothing... or having a brain... and when I argued and said that I had felt movement at the correct time for a first baby-she dismissed it as wind.  She then reset my dates from 17 January 1981 to 28 February 1981!

I felt massive panic! I knew I was a novice at this pregnancy game but I knew my dates were not that far adrift. Cutting a long and painful story short-at about lunchtime on 11 January a baby monitor was strapped to my expanding girth and there was no rhythmic heart beat-just a dull empty crackle. 

Then, the worst 36 hours of my life began. I eventually delivered a 4lb 8oz boy at 10-30pm on 12 January 1981.The breech birth was incredibly traumatic, painful and it was only due to the skill of the midwives that I came through in one piece. The NHS at its best-and its worst! Forest Gate Maternity hospital was busy, overcrowded, under-funded and had a bad reputation due to various cases of baby death and professional mistakes.(Sound familiar?) We had many complaints and indignities throughout the process-but the skill of the midwives got us through. A catalogue of errors would have made a lawyer rub his hands and I am sure we could have sued successfully.

We discussed with our GP what action to take-we were never inclined to litigate. After all-this would not bring Jonathan (that's what we called him) back, it wouldn't make us feel better and nothing positive could come from this. As far as we could see, it would put more financial pressure on an already restricted service. Instead we made formal complaints and decided next time to attend University College Hospital-which we did, under the amazing "Prof" Brant-the total antithesis of the consultant I had previously had. Later, I had equally excellent care at Furness General Hospital with my last child in 1993. 

I blundered through the stages of grief and adopted the approach that if people ignored that we had had a baby-I would tell them! Cathartic for me -maybe not for them!There was no grief counselling then! I had my first piece of published writing in Parents magazine and campaigned for recognition of stillbirth-it was still taboo in '81! Luckily, people like Esther Rantzen suddenly began campaigning for better care and charities like SANDS (est 1978) started to gain a higher profile. I went onto have four more pregnancies-resulting in three live births.So NHS fails: one NHS successes: three! Had I litigated I think I would still be firmly locked into the anger stage of grief and may not have had other children, so I am glad I made the choice. 
Stillbirth is something, until you or someone you know experiences it, that people believe is rare and consigned to the history books. Sadly it isn't. Its still far too common. Amazing leaps forward have been made in pre-natal care and some very premature babies now survive. I myself was premature weighing only 3lbs-again because the placenta didn't function properly-but due to an amazing obstetrician Mr Garth Stoneham I survived and so did my mum. It seemed incongruous that I survived in 1957 and yet my son died in 1981. However, I do believe, that despite the standard of care I received, with a failing placenta, confusion over dates, a breech birth, I think retrospectively we would have been very lucky to have a successful outcome, but of course we will never know. 

Thankfully, according to research "Perinatal mortality rates have fallen by a third since 1982. It is felt that general improvements in healthcare, midwifery and neonatal intensive care are bringing about the gradual decline in deaths". 

I do become concerned that a lack of funds, resources and staff; which certainly contributed to my loss, is once again becoming apparent today. This always leads to a vicious circle of low staff morale, damage to reputations and possible closure. I hope that this will not happen! In an overworked system someone with problems or fitting the at risk demographic will be less secure.

According to research on 2012 "a study of stillbirths in England showed the risk to be significantly higher where the growth restriction was not detected antenatally, suggesting this is an important avenue for reducing stillbirth rates in the future. It concluded strategy should focus on improving antenatal detection of growth restriction and subsequent management of pregnancy and delivery!"

 Surely, with the correct level of resourcing this is am area which can be improved. It is very hopeful, as long as financial cut backs don't prevent such progress. I am not foolish enough to believe that all stillbirths can be eradicated; it is part of natural selection; but any improvement for mothers is good and I like to think that as few people as possible would go through this traumatic experience as possible. Which is why we must fight tooth and nail to retain the quality of the NHS and ensure that we demand the continued support for our local services. Standards must always come under scrutiny and care must continue to improve. However, continued bad publicity and criticism must reduce-we could complain ourselves out of a service at all! Newham Hospital was soon replaced by a new and hopefully better hospital; but this won't happen at Furness-more likely the maternity service in its current form will disappear. Funding restrictions can be disguised as "improvement". Thirty four years on don't let us slip into the past-to an under-funded, poorly valued system used as a political football by the Tories! It's our NHS let's fight to keep it!