“Chop, chop…” said the Carpenter to the Oak Tree – How do Authors use Heritage?

I wasn’t old enough to watch the television adaptations of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series when it first aired on ITV between 1993 and 1997. I was only really just aware of the later additions to the pantheon in the early 2000s. It was actually a University that one discovered the series, via an impulse purchase from HMV after a particularly heavy night of drinking. One needed something simple to watch, to fill the silent void left by Rum, bad decisions and a kebab that had somehow left it’s scent on the bedclothes. Purchasing a boxset of all of the Sharpe episodes felt like a natural action for an Historian. How right I was. How quickly one fell in love, with the uniforms, the sound of cannons and Sean Bean’s beautifully crafted rough Yorkshireman and his remarkable ability to make the word “Bastard!” rattle windows and the soul of the watcher. Eventually, after creating a drinking game, looking into what we shamefully called “Sharpe at Sea” – Hornblower… – I began to read the source material. I found a complex and well researched narrative, rich with reference and smothered in adventure. It wasn’t the first time i’d read Historical fiction, far from it but it was a turning point. Now as I get more and more involved in the narrative of our shared heritage, discovering what individuals and groups consider to the most important aspects of the meta narrative and equally how we “Get in to History” – That’s not a subject for one blog post believe me, I have an entire post just about how I found History and Heritage, let alone those who I know, love and talked to. It is of Historical fiction that we now turn our eye.

*A note of appreciation to all those who have contributed to my slim research for this post. Twitter has allowed me to connect with some of the most remarkable people and there words are featured below, with respect and thanks.

With Historical fiction we have a multiple routes of access. Is it the style of the Author? Well that is incredibly important, this Author has opened books and despite a claim that he never leaves a book unfinished, there are books that technically are unfinished, mainly because despite the interest in the subject or the idea of the book’s overall narrative, the eyes cannot make the brain comprehend bad writing… I have just noted as well that the subject is sometimes the lure. I work in a building formerly occupied by Oliver Cromwell so of course I have an interest in any fiction around his life and times, equally I am a Victorian Historian when it comes down to it so my love of that era in both contemporary fiction and modern fiction is a big lure. These facts are not, however, the subject of this particular post – I’m not a book-blogger, that’s the realm of friends of mine and the many other excellent bloggers out there. I’m here to consider HOW author’s of Historical Fiction use history. Where better to start than with an Author?

I reached out to a number of Authors via Twitter and many responded. The first was L J Trafford, who writes on a subject of which my understanding and awareness extends to when I studied the Roman Empire during my Primary School education. For L J Trafford however, it is an all encompassing subject matter but like all good Historians, they have reached in to a particular area and focused on it; specifically the year 68 to 69ad – described as the Year of 4 Emperors. A small amount of background information is as follows – “The Roman emperor Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.  During his rule, he was disdained by his people because of his vanity and inadequacies as leader.  He had one wife executed and he murdered another with a fatal kick.  All this resulted in a great conspiracy against him and he was forced to commit suicide on June 9, AD 68.  What followed was a year of chaos as four different men of high social standing declared themselves emperor, each with his own army of loyal supporters.  They clashed until only one remained, a man who would become the head of a new dynasty.” – It almost begs to be turned into Fiction!

L J Trafford says of the subject – “I write about 68/69 ad The Year of the 4 emperors so it’s pretty dramatic stuff to write a book about. I also wanted for myself to understand the machinations and swirling alliances of the era. I like writing Romans because they have a very different morality, views and lives to us and I find that interesting to explore.” – It is perhaps the last line that interests this Author the most – I like writing Romans because they have a very different morality, views and lives to us and I find that interesting to explore. – This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of why Historical Fiction is so important – with fiction, with the lure of escapism, we can drift off into a different world – one inhabited by goblins, elves and dragons or one where an event has changed our own accepted narrative – post-apocalyptic or steampunk perhaps. with Historical fiction alas we don’t have that – it is our history and it is real – Perhaps we can recreate that though? The Past is a Different Country…. We can perhaps look back with such an amount of removal from the subject and the ways and practises…. That is perhaps the fiction that we find – “It is so different to now, it’s almost unreal…”

It is on the note of escapism that we must continue. The next author I spoke with happens to be someone I know, alas not extensively, in reality and beyond Twitter or Facebook. His name is Jemahl Evans and the main reason we spoke was entirely built on a monetary footing – Not only did and does Jemahl use Heritage and History in his works, set in the 17th Century, but he directly referenced my beloved Oliver Cromwell’s House! “An old vicarage with a leaky roof….” is a badly worded quote from “This Deceitful  Light” which is the second in his Blandford Candy which is a fabulous romp, worth your time! I asked Jemahl to launch his book at Oliver’s Old Vicarage (NB the day we spoke on the telephone, we had a torrential rain storm in Ely, the House leaked….) When I eventually met Jemahl, I discovered a warm and witty Welshman, and I knew when I began considering Historical fiction that I had to talk to him.

“I am not overly concerned with the process of historical change as an author, but I am fixated by the personal stories of the past no matter how biased, anecdotal or apocryphal. That is what really drives my reading and research. The Seventeenth Century is also not a period I have studied academically, and that was quite deliberate. I felt that retreading ground as an author that I researched for my degrees would only lead to me getting sidetracked by the ‘History’. It is fiction.”

The concept that takes some time to consider, in my opinion. Jemahl, to give extra context, to discuss how much he uses Primary resources, how his Kindle is packed full of contemporary histories. He also talks about the huge glut of research that is available and which has been used. Is it perhaps one of the greatest honours to Historians that many years on, an author uses their hard work to create a fictional text that can allow for the subject to be accessed by a much wider audience? Yes, I think it is. We are all to often assaulted by great and worthy historical texts that are written to be read by individuals who are academic and knowledge seekers, wishing to rehash a subject, an argument and a perception. (My Medieval Historian is a frequent single voice chorus of Revisionist history.) Alas, as much as this is hugely important, it can be intimidating to an individual who is seeking an understanding on many levels, but who have encountered a negative front from academics. Information and knowledge should be shared and Fiction allows that to happen. The works of authors such as Jemahl Evan and L J Trafford do just that. Long may they continue.

My final note, on History and Fiction, comes from an unexpected source. I have used two examples of Author’s using connection to some of the greatest era’s of global history, utilising information from Historians and evidence. The last point comes from Robert Rankin. Robert Rankin, the Father of Far Fetched Fiction, may seem like an unusual choice for a comment on the subject of Heritage and History but having read nearly all of his books, there is a constant theme. Brentford and it’s inhabitants, it’s buildings and it’s very soul are crafted in to something truly remarkable. When I approached Robert for a comment, I received this.

“I would say that I use my heritage and memories constantly, my fiction is built upon my fact, the things I have seen, experienced and love. Such really is the nature of my being. But, that said, surely it is the nature of everyone’s being.”

If nothing else can be taken from this rambling text, if nothing else can be gleaned from reading anything I’ve written here to date, I hope that the above can be crafted by better wordsmiths than me, comprehended by better minds than mine. In the above quote, we see the true spirit of Heritage. “My fiction is built upon my fact, the things I have seen, experienced and love. Such really is the nature of my being. But, that said, surely it is the nature of everyone’s being.” Our heritage should be deeply personal. It should sing to our souls and it should evoke thoughts and feelings, it should challenge us. Heritage is wide and wonderful and the concept of channelling it into a creative art form, be it writing, be it theatrical (NB that’s another blog post Dear Reader, as yet unwritten) or song (NB equally another unwritten blog post) should be supported. To allow us to understand our rich past, to allow us to become aware of our shared humanity, we need fictional characters and narratives, rooted in our past; be that the Roman Empire which is a concept far removed, a culture so disjointed in comparison to ours, or be it 1960’s Brighton viewed through the kaleidoscope of an Author’s personal inner eye, it should all be celebrated in equal measure for this is one of the easiest routes in to our shared Heritage.

Reading List

Jemahl Evans’ Blandford Candy Series – “The Last Roundhead”, “This Deceitful Light” and “Davenant’s Egg and Other Tales”

L J Trafford’s Four Emperors Series – “Palpatine”, “Galba’s Men” and “Otho’s Regret”

Robert Rankin’s back catalogue is extensive and wonderful – a personal favourite is “The Brightonomicon”


“Do you have an appointment?” – Shared Heritage and access to it.

First off, I’m sorry – I’m about to do something that my friends would tell you, I do often in private, but this time I’m doing it publicly. I’m going to misquote a song lyric. The whole reason why I’m doing it is because it amuses me deeply and because I know that the inspiration for this article is well known for meddling with songs to amuse people (or exasperate them…) so here goes. (For the original wonderful piece of music check here for my preferred version)

“At 16:49
Close to St George’s Hill
A long haired man they called M Ward
Came to trace the people’s will
He tried to defy the landlords
He chose not to deny the laws
He was most displeased
And intend to reclaim what was lost!”

Before I go on Dear Reader, I best quickly make two points – Politically I am left wing and one of my greatest passions is folk music. 

So where did this post come from? What is the kernel which it formed around? As with most things I’ve ever written it came from a fairly common conversation with a friend/colleague. I believe we had been discussing the follow up to another project that I had got my friends involved with and the narrative drifted and zig zagged as it tends to, until we came to discuss a moment in the life of the marvellous Matthew Ward of History Needs You.


Having been doing a talk about a mile away and on route to another engagement, Matthew decided to visit a site of great importance to himself personally and of equal importance to the Meta Narrative of English History, Left Wing Political History and to Global history – St George’s Hill, Weybridge. I’m going to dart off in to the history of the site, to give some needed context to the story. Bare with me reader, passions may be about to be inflamed.

A fairly clear explanation of what occurred is provided by The Surrey Digger’s Trail – “The Diggers first broke the ground on St George’s Hill on 1st April 1649 as they set out to make the earth a ‘common treasury for all’. The Hill is the place usually associated with their project and ideas, and it is from here that their influence, and the practice of Digging, spread to many parts of England.” The route of this movement however requires some deeper exploration. “The Diggers”, a Gerald Winstanley and his followers would quickly be known, were a group of working class individuals (technically labouring classes) who chose, in defiance of “The Masters”, to begin to plant and grow crops on common ground, the intention being to become self sufficient and to retain control of the produce they toiled over. After 5 months however, a court case would force the Diggers from St George’s Hill – the idea and the dream they had however wouldn’t be so easily crushed. They had come with one aim – “to make the land a common treasury for all” (I encourage you all to read more in to The Diggers and the Wigan born Cow Herd (Gerald Winstanley) who would lead them.)

It comes now to the modern day and to the story we previously mentioned that inspired this post. Matthew Ward, between appointments, felt the understandable urge to stand on the site where The Diggers had made their stand back in 1649. Now alas, we get to the crux of the issue – St George’s Hill is now occupied by…. a golf course. Not to be deterred and expecting it to be quite a common occurrence for the owners, to be presented with curious individuals or groups wishing to see the site, feel the earth beneath them and bask in the knowledge of what went before. Alas, Matthew was to be confronted with an entirely different greeting. The greeting came from a robustly built gentleman, in a dark suit.

“Hello Sir how can we help?”

“I’d like to pop in and have a look at the site The Diggers claimed, on St George’s Hill.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Well no, I’m on my way between appointments and as I was close I thought I’d pop by.”

“Unless you are a member or you have appointment you can’t come in.”


“Because those are the rules.”

Matthew relayed that he asked if he could make an appointment and was told he needed to call or email, when he asked if he could have the details he was told to check the website. Returning to his car, Matthew began to check the website as instructed, only to be hailed by the Gentleman in a Dark Suit with a tapping on the car window.

“I’m just checking the website.”

“You can’t do that here. You need to leave!”

“What, why?”

“You haven’t got an appointment”

“I’m just….”

“Can you please leave sir….”

“I’m just setting my satnav up if you don’t mind entirely!”

I am reliably informed that the Gentleman made a noise that sounded like “Hrumph” – Matthew, for anyone lucky enough to know him, has a remarkable sense of humour. It would prove to be spot on during this encounter as he began to write a tweet to express his displeasure, he noticed the time; 4:45 pm. Matthew decided to wait for four minutes…. posting his tweet of displeasure at 16:58…

So what does this have to do with the wider issue of Heritage? This is one guy, denied access to one bit of land. What is the impact? Well the impact is enormous and this is the perfect example.

Heritage belongs to everyone, well on certain levels. My heritage, my personal heritage is mine, my family heritage is equally mine but shared amongst my relatives, who we choose to that with is our prerogative as family, as individuals. How we interact with our heritage is equally very personal. There is no denying this. However, when the site is of national importance, when that site or building is much larger than the sum of a single individuals memory then the rules change – St George’s Hill is not governed by the same rules as the shoe-box under my bed, with the family photos in. Sites such as St George’s hill are shared, they are “common ground.” But then again, in this day and age, that common ground may also be private property.

The problem described above, of shared heritage becoming private property, is not going to be one that is easily solved – building’s don’t simply repair themselves, landscapes don’t simply retain their natural elements, heritage cannot preserve itself and equally preservation, required for the longevity of our physical heritage, costs money. I won’t write here that all museums, stately homes, visitor centres etc should be free at the point of access. I can’t. Why? Because I’m a realist. I work in a heritage site, a building to be precise, and it needs care, it needs attention and it needs to be heated. It requires lights, otherwise it’s a bit dark, it requires gas because otherwise, it’s a tad cold. It requires water because otherwise it wouldn’t be deeply unsanitary. At the end of the day, money makes the world go round and heritage cannot be spared from that mechanism.
The National Trust, English Heritage, Historic England and many other organisations rely on charitable donations, legacies, membership fees and the sale of paraphernalia in their gift shops, to keep afloat, to pay for repairs and to make sites accessible and to cover the cost of interpretation. That is unavoidable but equally their mission statements are all aimed at sharing and revealing the rich narrative of our shared heritage (I won’t go on about what I dislike about some of these organisations, that will be another blog post) However, despite the inevitable cries of “How much?!” when it comes to access, you can still gain access. You can still walk in the footsteps of the “Great and Good” or indeed the ordinary individuals not born on satin sheets.  This is not the case with all sites as has been shown in the above anecdote.

I am not going to sit here and write a manifesto stating that the only way forward is to claim all private property and restore it to the hands of the populace – sometimes these sites are people’s homes, their private heritage. They choose to allow access, sometimes through schemes such as “Heritage Open Days” and this should be celebrated, thanks should be given and respect as well, in equal measure. Equally, those who become custodians of Heritage, those who buy the land and settle on it should equally take a moment to consider their actions and responses to request to access heritage. If you, by chance, end up owning a site of huge national importance, do you have the right to refuse access? Of course you do! It’s private property, on a legal standpoint you’re absolutely entitled to preserve the privacy of private property. Morally however? It’s a different story.

You are buying in to the narrative of this country, this world. The people who have been born on that site, loved on that site. breathed that air and walked that ground. You are the custodian of a site that perhaps means something incredibly important to someone, they have a strong emotional or spiritual connection to that space, that place. How would you feel if someone denied you access to something you cared about? Something that made You; You? Imagine that is the shoe-box with the photographs in, of school, of friends and lost loved ones, of silly moments and sad ones, happy memories and bemusing ones. Imagine now, that someone has that box in their hands and they are refusing to allow you access? The pain that could bring.

Sites such as St George’s Hill, now an exclusive Golf Club, are always going to be contentious but there is compromise. Respect for the intentions of those seeking their heritage should co-mingle with the respect shown to the owners. If someone wants to access a service, exclusive to members, then they should pay. If someone simply wants to wander, without causing harm or damage, then equally this should be allowed. Churches and Cathedrals may charge for a guided tour, but then they wave such a fee for those who wish to visit simply to worship. There is a middle ground, finding it and forming a relationship of respect and access for specific purpose is surely the way forward.

Let us take a moment to breath and make this land, a common treasury for all.


How Queer – The personal perspective of LGBTQ+ Heritage

The Author wishes to begin with a slightly pointless revelation – I am a gay man. It’s really rather superfluous to announce that fact, it’s a tiny almost irrelevant aspect of my personality and the footprint I leave on the World. However, occasionally it is necessary to frame a subject with such a declaration and in the case of a post about LGBTQ+ Heritage, it is necessary. I am admittedly a caucasian, male, anglo-saxon, with historical links to Germany and to Yorkshire; some of these links are closer than others, I am a Fenman, a brother, a son, a grandson and a friend. All of these things go in to the melting pot of personal identity and from me, there spreads a web connecting to differing aspects of global history – as does your web, dear reader, in which you are the kernel and you have your own incredibly personal threads. The thread we are going to tug on now, is my sexuality.

Sexuality is a dreadfully difficult thing for some people. That may well be an enormous understatement but I’m not here to draw a line in the sand, I don’t wish to put anyone on the spot however this is about Heritage, we must grasp the nettle and feel the sting, otherwise we will allow things to fester and that is never good.

“LGBTQ+” as a subject of Heritage is a difficult one, it’s divisive even amongst those who have legitimate claims to it. There are those who would seek to share it and celebrate it, publicly, loudly and with courage. Equally there are those who would rather it be a part of a wider narrative, with reference made but without it being the sum and total. Where does the Author sit on this matter? Does it matter? I suppose it does for the purpose of this post.

I believe, wholeheartedly, that LGBTQ+ heritage should be very much in the public eye, however I equally believe that it’s position is not one that should be elevated above all others, in fact it should be one amongst equals. It is no more important than any of my other strands, nor is it more important than any of yours, dear reader!

So what is “LGBTQ+ Heritage” and why is it a fairly new field of study? Well according to Historic England “Gender diversity and same-sex love have long been part of England’s history. But LGBTQ identities as we understand them today only date from the last decades of the twentieth century. Prior to this, same-sex love and gender diversity were treated as criminal acts or moral sins, medical or emotional problems, or absorbed within accepted family and community relationships. So LGBTQ people and their histories have often been hidden, marginalised or suppressed.” A fairly apt explanation one feels. It is true that “LGBTQ+ Heritage” has for centuries been something left undiscussed, something hidden, something one shouldn’t be proud of – times, thankfully, are changing. However, as with all change, there are issues – there equally isn’t a suits all solution. The following are some of the issues the Author believes exist. The list is not comprehensive and is written from a personal position.
Who do we include?

Now that’s got to be one of the most controversial issues. Homosexuality has existed for as long as the human race has…. Oh wait, no. Sorry it predates that what with animals displaying the trait. (Beware the tangent) Back to my point; there are aspects of Heritage dating back to long ago that can feature a LGBTQ+ element to the narrative. From Medieval Kings of England, who Historians have outed, including Edward II. There even exists speculation about the issue of Oliver Cromwell, Richard (The short lived Lord Protector) due to his effeminate nature. Possibly entirely untrue and unless one believes in spiritualism we will probably never know. History is full of famous LGBTQ+ individuals or those who have had sexuality assumed. Do we include that in their narrative? Is it fair to do so? The Author is very private about his sexuality and so are many others. One of the most recent examples would be Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, the last Lord of Fellbridge Hall – His legacy and sexuality became the focal point of a campaign by The National Trust to highlight LGBTQ+ Heritage – this caused outrage amongst some of the staff, individuals who had known Ketton-Cremer, who had been aware of his sexuality and equally aware of his personal privacy which he preserved during his life – they, in my opinion, rightly challenged the NT on their decision to publicise this personal aspect of his life, contradictory of his choices in life. This is unforgivable, respect and understanding should be one of the very foundations on which Heritage is built. There is an ability to tell the story of LGBTQ+ people without needing to out those who never wanted it. We can consider a number of things, overarching concepts, events and narratives, featuring those who wish to be identified as LGBTQ+. We must respect wishes, even long after death.


What do we include?

Being LGBTQ+ hasn’t ever been easy. There are periods of extreme persecution and there are times where, though not a concentrated assault on LGBTQ+ people as a group, persecution and abuse are rife. Alas they still are in many countries and even in my home country of England. Perhaps including a more obvious LGBTQ+ narrative in Heritage and interpretation, we may change that… Here is to hope. What however do we include? Do we side step the sadness and talk about heroes and moments in History where LGBTQ+ people have been celebrated? Do we talk about Decriminalisation but ignore the period preceding it? Do we talk about what Pride has become, a mass celebration of identity featuring everyone but ignore its origins as a protest against oppression and a fight for the right to an identity and the associated violence and aggression that met those original marches? I would argue that we include all of the above. The narrative cannot be edited to ignore the darkness, in fact surely the darkness provides a contrast that makes the light of better days far brighter. We must not ignore the actions of the the Nazi Regime in Germany, with the persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals – thousands died, as much as we must respect the wishes of those who don’t or didn’t identify openly as LGBTQ+, we must respect and honour those who died. We must not ignore the violence of the original Pride marches or indeed the Stonewall Riots. To do so would be unfair and unkind. Time may be an ever growing tree and the roots may run deep, but we mustn’t forget the growth of that has gone before.

How do we include it?

The Author remembers seeing something on a social media platform some years ago, in which the question was posed “How do I tell my children about gay people?” the response offered was wonderfully to the point – “If you can explain to them, with a straight face, that a man flies around the world in one night and brings gifts via the chimney, you can explain to them that people love other people and that gender doesn’t matter” A refreshing response I am sure you will agree. It is that philosophy that we must utilise. Children are wonderly adept at adapting. Their unformed perception is influenced by an enormous collection of social, economic, spiritual, personal etc elements and Heritage should be one of them. Why should it be “Shocking” that one man loved another? It doesn’t need to be placed like a thumbtack, ready to pierce the foot of the unsuspecting – for as long as we make it an issue, as long as sexuality is made to be contentious, it will remain so. We can create specific sites and collections, a narrative built around LGBTQ+ issues and the associated heritage and that is entirely appropriate and I support it but that shouldn’t be the end of it. LGBTQ+ should be included as we include all things in the narrative, where appropriate, where respectful to those who are referenced would be comfortable with it.

There is an inevitable hope that by talking about and interpreting LGBTQ+ subjects, individuals and their associated heritage, we will move society towards greater cohesion.

Disclaimer – I don’t speak for every LGBTQ+ individual or group, I speak for me, a gay man. A gay with a love of heritage and History and a desire to see all represented.

Here is a new feature – A reading list – These are just a few suggestions of texts to read to further discussion and research.

From Prejudice to Pride: A History of LGBTQ+ Movement by Amy Lamé

50 Queers Who Changed the World: A Celebration of LGBTQ Icons by Dan Jones