As a fiction writer there are many everyday challenges you would only normally share with criminals, except hopefully in the case of the writer you don’t put any of them into practice. Today’s challenge is to dispose of a body. To be fair, the body in question is in New York in the summer of 1854 and the character did die of natural causes. However, I’m now faced with a 10 year old, a nine year old and an eight year old who risk being homeless if their landlord finds out that they are living without an adult in the ‘house’, or in reality ‘shack’. Their alternative … a life on the streets. Their only hope is to keep the death of the mother a secret. Not an easy thing to do in any day and age, and a high risk when the mother died of cholera, although thankfully they don’t understand the risk at this stage. It’s an almost unimaginable situation in Britain in 2015, but was all too real in the period I’m writing about.
You don’t have to look too far into history to realise how lucky we are – though it is something which is rarely appreciated and probably wouldn’t win many votes in the current election if that was the message politicians were giving. In some ways dipping in and out of a world so different to our own is like undertaking real time travel and helps to bring some perspective to modern day lives.
I don’t think I appreciated that when I sat through history lessons at school, or maybe it was the teachers not understanding it themselves that meant they failed to convey that to us. Historic events are far more comprehendible when viewed in the context of the impact that they had on real lives of ordinary people and not as a list of facts on a page. Literature can play a major part in that. I’m reading Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray at the moment. For all the times I have been aware of events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, it is the first time I have understood the reality of the stock market crash that went with it and the bankruptcies it potentially led to. Similarly, in teaching the reality of the Second World War teachers could do little better than use some of the brilliantly written Foyle’s War television series. Anthony Horowitz has done the most amazing job of providing programmes which challenge perceptions and attitudes. The series raises many of the human angle issues that can so easily get lost when concentrating on national strategic alliances and significant events.
At the end of the day, what modern history boils down to is the actions and attitudes of people; the impact they have on each other and the world around them. When people look at current events and say ‘it’s history repeating itself’, they aren’t far wrong. It may be different people and different places, but the underlying attitudes that cause the problems remain much the same.
Meanwhile in New York in 1854, I’ve got a body to get rid of!