I was walking by the sea this morning when I saw a crowd of people all looking towards the square near where I live. It’s Menton’s Fete de Citron on Sunday and I assumed that this was some theatre company or dance band giving an early show.
Not a bit of it. A large van had crashed into a motor-bike, there was debris everywhere and the object of the crowd’s attention was an unconscious man who was being strapped into a stretcher.
I cut up alongside and headed home. On my way I saw two old ladies racing to see what was happening. One of them was going so fast I thought she might slip and fall, or even suffer a heart attack. Her friend was some yards in front of her. I guess they were after a ring-side seat.
It made me think of a curse which goes: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Because although it’s marvellous to read about interesting and exciting times or watch them in the cinema, it’s often the opposite of marvellous for those who have to live through them.
I guess this is one of the reasons I write historical fiction. I am not physically brave and if I lived in medieval times I would be the first to flee a battle and join a monastery, or even a nunnery if that was all there was in the vicinity. Yet I can place my characters in the utmost jeopardy, as callous as a pirate captain making his prisoners walk the plank. If pirate captains ever did such a thing outside the fevered imagination of my fellow, stay-at-home, authors.
Not that I write gratuitous violence. And I avoid giving detailed, gruesome accounts of battles where you wonder how anybody is left standing let alone alive. One of my mild-mannered friends loves such scenes, the bloodier the better, applauding every abattoir of death and blood.
I do write about desperate, dangerous situations but I remember the dictum of Alfred Hitchcock and often draw a discreet veil over the details. It’s much more interesting to consider the effect such trauma has on people, or doesn’t.
At the moment, I’m going to tone down the opening scene of my novel about Alfred the Great. It needs to be grim to understand the motivations of characters later in the novel. Yet, now I’m re-reading it, I realise that the people at the scene would have intervened to stop the cruelty at an earlier stage than I’ve allowed them to.
‘Get real, master,’ they seem to say to me. ‘Walk in our shoes a little more carefully.’
May we all live in more peaceful times. And let’s hope the man in the accident gets better soon.