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Wednesday 12 May 2010

Tinned Pears

Two Saturdays ago, 1918 met 2009, when my father-in-law met his fifth great-grandchild again. The meeting was amiable and involved quite a lot of ‘and the little one said roll over, roll over’, and the very amusing sound/word ‘oink’.

I mention this because of a recent conversation I had with a reader on the term ‘historical novel’.

Throughout the history of the novel, any number of writers, Henry James, for example, have believed that it is not possible to write historical novels with any claim to honesty or real accuracy. How can you seriously do justice to the people who were alive then? Isn’t what a novelist is producing a more or less wistful twist on motives, mores and attitudes for modern tastes?

To some extent I agree. But I am, certainly in theory, comfortable with that. The novel has been going long enough for, say, historical novels of the 19th Century and later, to tell us something about the time in which they were written, as well as the time they describe.

My own confidence levels and my history are not up to portraying the eighteenth, let alone the fifteenth century. Why? As John Updike put it, nothing disappears faster than motive. I can admire Hilary Mantel, but I can’t emulate her.

In any case, as I told my reader, I am not sure I do write historical novels. Period pieces perhaps? No. I write about the ample edges of living memory, because I want to trace the progress of a lot of the attitudes towards Empire and World War 2 as they have come down to us and remain with us.

I suggested ‘generational novel’ as a substitute. No, it is not terribly good. But it is probably snappier, if less accurate, than ‘after effects novel’.

After the birth of his first great grandchild in 2002, my father-in–law was persuaded by the baby’s father, my nephew, to write down some of his experiences in WW2. He did this in ‘real’ time. That is, he wrote down, day by matching day, what he had been doing in Burma in 1942, sixty years earlier. I haven’t read this account, which was kept safely for great-grandchild number one to read in the future, but I do know he walked about six hundred miles, cannot bear the smell of tinned pears – too reminiscent of the smell of dead refugee bodies –and that the account ended when he could no longer remember because he had contracted malaria and pneumonia. When they weighed him, after being carried by stretcher for the last part back to India, he was six stone. The doctors told him he should not look forward to a long life.

Let me put it this way. Every time I hear someone explain that something awful happened a long time ago, in 2003 or 2006, but things are now different, I think of pears in tins.

It may be – I don’t know – that the recent elections mean that the UK is finally coming to terms with a new role in the world, less imperial in both money and lives. It is certainly time.

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