Friday 24 August 2012

Humpty Dumpty, potatoes (lack of) and infanticide - summer in Cambridge

What type of egg was Humpty Dumpty?
Summer school is finished - and I can get back to books and blogs and the other parts of normal working life. I am very sorry to see my lovely students go and hope to keep in touch with at least some of them.

It's been wonderful to watch my students flourish, find their voices and piece together how stories work. Most of them seem to have learned something, some of them a lot. One of the best things has been to hear their reflections on the course at the end - which bits they remember, which had the most impact. One young man said the turning point was when we talked about the premise of Humpty Dumpty. (What is the premise of Humpty Dumpty? If you can answer that, you probably know what you're doing.*)

I have my favourite memories of what they have done, too. A young Chinese woman wrote a story about the rape of Nanjing - her home town. At other times, we laughed over the cultural differences that tripped us up and the Chinglish that occasionally crept into her work. One young man who had grown up during a revolution in south America told me how he had watched soldiers shooting each other from the mango trees of his parents' plantation, and how the soldiers had called a daily ceasefire so that his mother could pick corn for the family dinner.

They wrote about a mad, cross-dressing murderer obsessed with chairs; about a gentle, surprise romance in an old people's home; about a deadly bus journey across the desert; about a young soldier in the Second Word War who loses his brother; about a psychopath who sees himself as the Big Bad Wolf; about a woman executed for infanticide in 17th-century New England; about the Irish potato famine, and the effects of the First World War on the women left behind.

They have boundless imagination, and have been brave in their experimentation. I am proud of them, pleased with them, and impressed by what they have achieved. I am humbled by their courtesy and gratitude and wish them all well in the future. Some of them we will see in print some day, I'm sure. It has been worth doing, 100% - even when doing two or three 12-hour days in a row, or the day I got up with a fever, vomited, and cycled into college to teach anyway, because I didn't want to miss any time with them.

Thank you, lovely students. Have a great fall (and not in the Humpty Dumpty sense of the word).

*Humpty Dumpty is about something broken that cannot be fixed - the immutable finality of death, or other irreversible change.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

In search of pigeons

My current work-in-progress is set in Rome in the late sixteenth century. There is a huge amount of research I need to do, particularly into details of the geography of the Vatican.

But some things are proving very tricky. Were there many pigeons in Rome then? I have had the same problem with pigeons before. How many pigeons were there in Venice in 1576? Clearly not the tide of pigeons that sweeps over the Piazza now. I suppose people probably caught and ate pigeons then. There are never any pigeons in paintings from that period of Venice or Rome, but nor are there any rats or spiders, so that's not a reliable source.

Not a pigeon in sight

This week, my summer school students have been writing historical fiction. They all came back, astounded at the amount of research they needed to do. Did young women in 1921 wear pyjamas or nightdresses? What did the interior of a bank look like in 1850s Massachusetts? When was spray paint invented? Were there typewriter erasers in 1940?

They have steered clear of more distant historical periods because of the burden of research. But I'm not actually sure it's any harder to research Canterbury in 1375 than Wild West frontier towns in the 1850s. But please, does anyone know the pigeon population of Rome in 1580?