Tales from the Cutting Room Floor
In the course of my researches for the book in the London Library I came across many wonderful historical details which I would have loved to have included, but was self-disciplined enough to reject. I had to keep reminding myself that what mattered was the tale I was trying to tell and that I must not let it be impeded by historical clutter. Here are three examples:
The first tale in Mr Blackwood, A for Augustus, is set during the brief allied occupation of Paris after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. I wanted to find out where the British army was billeted, a detail which proved extraordinarily elusive. (The answer, by the way, is the Bois de Boulogne.) In tracking it down I discovered that Paris, like Berlin in 1945, was divided into occupation zones, the British occupying one part and the Prussians the other. Fortunately for the Parisians, the Pont de Jena was in the British sector, because the Prussians were determined to blow up a bridge which had been named after their catastrophic defeat by Napoleon in 1806. So bent on revenge were they that the British had to mount permanent guard on it. I longed to write in a scene in which the bridge was saved from destruction by plucky Brits. It wouldn’t have been relevant to the story, so I had, alas, to leave it out.
Once the excursionists have arrived in London they take the steamer to Pimlico, where they are to stay overnight. On the way they pass the half-completed Palace of Westminster. The new clock tower prompts the watchmaker to tell his story about what he regards as the tyranny of Greenwich meantime. It is well known that Greenwich meantime was rolled out across the country on railway guards’ watches. Until the railways there had been different times in different parts of the country – Plymouth, for example, was three minutes ahead of Greenwich – but to function smoothly the railways needed uniform time. That claim is true as far as it goes, but what it doesn’t account for is how the railways got the correct time in the first place. For nearly forty years a splendid lady, whose name I can’t now remember, set a stop watch in Greenwich and then visited every London clockmaker with it in the course of the day. The clockmakers had to display a card in their windows to certify that they had signed up to this arrangement, an arrangement that lasted, astonishingly, until the 1920s when either the lady grew too infirm to carry on, or the wireless rendered it redundant. (Or possibly both.) I would have loved to have included her in the Watchmaker’s Tale, but it would have needed a huge detour from the main narrative to get her on board.
One final example from the cutting room floor. Lord Palmerston’s tale is set in Venice, which in 1848 had declared its independence of Austria. As a symbol of its independence it printed its own money – moneta patriottica. When the Austrians re-took the city in 1850, they burned the money in a huge cauldron in St Mark’s Square. All this I managed to include in the story. What I didn’t manage to include was the story of General Ludwig Haynau. He was responsible for the wave of savage repression and reprisal that followed. Not for nothing was he nicknamed ‘the Hyena’. There was outrage in in Britain at the hangings and floggings he ordered, especially as some of the victims were women. In 1851 Gen. Haynau came to Britain and, among other places, visited Barclay’s brewery in Southwark, where he was beaten up by the workers. Queen Victoria, who had supported the Austrians throughout the insurrections of 1848, demanded that the Government send an apology. The Foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, who had supported the insurgents, was privately delighted by the attack in Southwark and delayed sending a very half-hearted apology. Good for Palmerston, say I.