At the very beginning of writing ‘All the Winding World’, I knew there would be maritime elements in the story. So I popped down to my old University town, Southampton. I didn’t rate Southampton much when I was a student, but now that I’m fifty, I found it was delightful to explore the old town and the docks area, and to have the chance to rediscover all the things I had forgotten from countless lectures: the types of ships that were used in medieval times, the products traded, the building of the town walls because of French attack. etc.
I also visited a beautifully reconstructed medieval wine merchant’s house. The multitudinous nature of its walls was astonishing.
Seafaring was very important to the medieval economy and to national security. It could potentially move goods, horses and soldiers faster than any other form of travel. And it was often safer.
Close to the beginning of ‘All the Winding World’, a ship of reluctant conscripts sets sail on a fool’s errand to fight for King Edward I in Gascony. The ship is a cog – the workhorse of the medieval fleet. It could hold 12 horses, and perhaps 30 men, plus tonnes of cargo. It had one central sail, and when heading off to war, it would be equipped with platforms fore and aft designed to hold men fighting in battle, or archers shooting at other ships. These platforms were known as castles.
The knights and men-at-arms said prayers to Saint Nicholas before they embarked, as he was well known as patron saint of sailors. The sea may have been marginally safer than the roads, but it was not something to be taken for granted.
I’ve been thinking about the launch of my novel, and wondering if it is similar to the launch of a ship. There has certainly been a large amount of sparkling wine involved, but none has been wasted. I wouldn’t dream of breaking a bottle against a box of books.
I do hope that my book goes to unknown places, and finds new ports and harbours, distant inlets and quays where it can unload the story from its hold.
But thinking about it, each copy of this book is a like a ship, and so what I have done is release a fleet into the world. Each one will be read in a different way, each one will be remembered or forgotten, sailed once or numerous times, passed on or kept and treasured.
This week I had the privilege to share my opinion about other people’s books in The Big Issue , a publication for which I have a great deal of respect. I was asked to select my ‘Top Five Books about Medieval Britain’. It was not easy making such a selection, but I was glad to have the opportunity to share books that have inspired me, and that I feel deserve a wider readership. (Readers, it seems, can be ships too!) I chose Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, Medieval Comic Tales by Derek Brewer, The Hanged Man by Robert Bartlett, Company of Liars by Karen Maitland and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer.
As our books sail out of their home port, they cease to be exclusively ours and belong instead to the wide world. Each one becomes specific to the reader. The books I selected have taken up a permanent place in my book harbour, as, I hope, All the Winding World may do in others.