Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.
Hello Tim! So first of all thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. So you're obviously a writer of AH nonfiction books, you're written multiple books for Sea Lion Press and many more for Pen and Sword prior to that, how did you first get into counterfactual history and what do you think attracts you to the genre?
It started off as a ‘leap of the imagination’ when I was about nine or ten. I had already been interested in the Ancient World and its history, certainly since I was eight when our form-teacher at primary school (who was also the History master) started to teach us the basic outline of Roman history and the main Greek myths. I had already read a few of the basic 1960s illustrated children’s history books (mostly pictures with captions) of both British and Classical history before then – led by the well-known Ladybird books. This interest in history in general, but with a particular slant towards Ancient History, continued at my next school where I started (age eight to nine) to read both books of myths and children’s novels. Then I started to take the popular and ‘improving’ childrens magazine, ‘Look and Learn’ – the idea of my mother, who was a Montessori-trained teacher and had been thinking up how to engage children in learning enthusiastically for decades. I came across the magazine‘s now famous strip cartoon serial featuring an alien but Roman-like civilization on a distant planet, ‘The Trigan Empire’ , which was written by Mike Butterworth and drawn by stunningly evocative artist Don Lawrence. This really caught my imagination, not least visually – and is now being reissued as a classic in comic book form. It was a British equivalent of the American ‘Marvel’ comics for its fans – though I amid that even at the time I thought that the stories did get a bit repetitive.
This caused me to make the leap in my ideas of thinking ‘Hey, what if the Roman Empire had continued to our time and turned out like this?’ So I started to wrote about how the Roman Empire could have developed and brought in all sorts of parallels from real history – and this was going on at the same time as I was reading and learning real history too. My mixture of text and illustrations was certainly underway by my mid-teens, but the more detailed ‘text only’ history – the first part of which was the basis for my recent Sealion blog articles – was only written when I was a student and doing a History degree. I was also doing shorter timelines and other ideas, on periods of history that interested me – mainly King Arthur, the Byzantine Empire, and the English Civil Wars period. From then on, I’ve revised bits of these and done other drafts as and when time allows. But I had no idea that anyone else had done this sort of thing – let alone as a serious topic – until I came across an article by the historian Arnold Toynbee on Alexander the Great when I was at university.
Your books are essays rather than fiction. They're history books basically, talking about counterfactuals as a way of exploring the history rather than as a setting for stories. What's your opinion on AH fiction, do you view it as something very removed from what you're doing or something with similar aims?
I first read Alt Hist fiction with Kingsley Amis’ novel ‘The Alteration’ when I was in my mid-teens. This was set in a world where Henry VIII had been deposed by the European powers as a heretic usurper and replaced by his (fictional) nephew King Stephen II, the Reformation had never taken place, Martin Luther had become Pope and reformed the Catholic Church, and the latter had developed into a rather sinister authoritarian organization with overtones of modern totalitarian police states. The modern Catholic Church had police powers and a ‘thought control’ agenda mixing ideas and personnel from the Nazi era and the Soviet state, and to rub it in had historical senior Gestapo and KGB officers as cardinals. It was a very thought-provoking introduction to a new form of fiction that I had not known existed, and gave me some new ideas – but I was more focussed on the back-story of how this society had come about than in the, rather weak, story itself. As the son of a top electronic engineering research scientist was I more interested in the analysis than in the narrative?
I did not read any more Alt Hist fiction until my late thirties, apart from Len Deighton’s ‘SS-GB’ about a Nazi victory in 1940, and was unaware of most modern non-British authors. My own literary fiction reading was mostly ‘classic’ C19th or early C20th authors, ‘straight’ historical novels and sagas, and detective thrillers. There was a much narrower market available before the internet. When I did read Alt Hist I was, as with Amis, really interested in the worlds that had been created – and I was drawn to the more imaginative explorations of unusual ideas, not to the sort of military history narrative where the focus is on all-action campaigns in a limited number of well-covered settings. Some of this fiction can be cleverly crafted to point out lessons on how history and society develops and how easily a lot of things could have been different , the ‘butterfly effect’ for example. These can include some eye-catching twists of events and examples of what we take for granted turned upside down or seen in a new light. This has parallels with bits of my own work where I’ve done the same things in my narrative histories, for the same reasons. The crucial element of this sort of fiction to me has been the overall ‘message’ that history and modern life could easily have turned out a lot different – there is no such thing as historical ‘inevitability’, though major social or economic ‘trends’ in development (as well as climatic and medical ones, as we are now seeing!) may limit options available.
Would you ever write a more narrative style book yourself?
My own approach to how to write Alt Hist was made entirely on instinct, doing what I felt most comfortable at. My interests and talents have always lain in description and analysis than in writing dialogue - and I have never been drawn to the sort of (usually thriller) novels that are all short, pithy dialogue and have more action than plots or description. It seemed more logical to tell the story of how these alternative worlds came to be, at what point things had changed from how they actually turned out in real life, and what happened then. Setting stories in these alternative world, with the history and culture in the background but not dominating , was a possibility but one that I found less interesting . I wrote some early stories set in alternative worlds – one where the Princes in the Tower don’t get killed in 1483 but escape, and one set at the Turkish siege of Constantinople where a stronger Empire beats off the Turks. None engaged me for long, except one set in my imaginary ‘Rome Survives’ space age world of the C26th AD – and I found that I was less interested in that than in the question of how Rome had got to that point. I always went back to telling the history instead.
Most AH essays, including your own, don't really pick a path to follow, they just talk about the real history and ways it could have gone different without exploring any one in particular. But your recent series of Roman Empire essays instead picks a diversion and follows it through in almost a narrative style. Why did you choose to do it that way and what do you think are the advantages of it?
The ‘Rome Survives’ narrative arc , which I followed from the first premise of Marcus Aurelius not dying in 180 through to the imaginary reunion of the Empire in the C6th, is the ‘narrative’ side of my essays discussing the various scenarios involved in this in my first published Alt Hist book – ‘If Rome Had Survived’, Pen and Sword 2011 (2nd edition 2020). It complements that and explains the alternative version of events on which I based that collection of essays – just as the earlier part of that narrative and its predecessors for the Late Republic and Early Empire underlie my essays on Rome in my Sealion ebooks, ‘Eternal Caesars’ (already published) and ‘Facing The Barbarians’ (still to come).
The writing of one long narrative of alternative events in the Empire over centuries came first – and has been revised as I learnt more of the period and increased my understanding of historical processes. Getting the latest version of this narrative out in print and seeing what the public thought of it was always in my mind as the follow-up to my books of essays; none of it was on computer. But actually having the time to do it was a result of the March lockdown – which meant that I could not travel around the country collecting research information in libraries and archives for my ‘straight’ history books as usual. Various research job projects and my own books have normally meant that I do not have the time to write this stuff up for publication – my earlier drafts had been following me from house to house in my notebooks since the late 1980s!
As to the advantages – for one things, you can explore ideas and how they would turn out in detail, and take time to go off down various avenues – cultural, economic, military, and so on, or individuals’ careers. It is less of straight theory and assessing how likely certain AH events would be, more applying that theory and seeing how it affects lives and careers ‘on the ground’. You can pick the lives of major actors , some from real life but with subtle or major changes to their careers, or ordinary people – and play around with culture too. Like Harry Turtledove with his alternative William Shakespeare having to write propaganda for a restored Catholic regime imposed by a triumphant Spanish Armada, for instance; Kingsley Amis putting an AH Lavrenti Beria and Tony Benn into ‘The Alteration’ as fanatical modern Catholic cardinals. My own fiction indeed moves forward into these periods for later books, and I have put altered versions of the Medici dynasty, Shakespeare, Sir Christopher Wren, Mozart, Captain Cook, and Beethoven into them. You can also have your imaginary world mixing up a differently evolving state with real ones – I have the Romans dealing with the C13th Mongol invasions and later clashing with the Aztecs, the Incas, the Native Americans, and an exiled state of Norse Vikings in the Americas. The possibilities are endless, and are not only great fun – you can point out serious ideas about the evolution of states and societies in the process. For example, given the lack of a concept of racial supremacy and different attitudes to slavery in Rome you can have an Alt Hist Roman North America which does not have much black slavery, and relies on using prisoners of war instead – with lessons for the present day
You've also written 'straight' non counterfactual history books, of course, to what extent do you find your style differs between the two or is it very much something with the same voice?
My books of AH analytical essays are written in the same manner as my normal History books, or at least the ones on particular subjects and eras (mostly Classical, Anglo-Saxon and ‘Celtic’ Welsh Scots and Irish, Viking, Medieval, Tudor, and Stuart subjects). The tone and layout of my Chronology series - on Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Crusades, the Early Medieval British and European world to 1066, and Medieval Britain from 1066 to 1485 –is different, though. These books are more’ serious’ and are designed as guides to what happened when, what the original sources say , and how reliable the latter are ; they are intended for undergraduate university students, postgraduates, and researchers and are divided up into a chronological list of years (months where we know that much detail) and within that frame into geographical areas. Most of them are designed around transcriptions of my own research notes used in various jobs, and my work there has ranged from the Classical period to late C18th Britain.
My narrative style for the Roman AH series is the same as when I am writing real history, in my longer narrative sections of ordinary History books where I am telling a story and have a lot of facts to rely on and use plus my own interpretations of unclear matters – eg in my books on the Medieval Scots kings; the rulers of the Viking Hebrides, Man, and Orkney plus the NW Highland clans (‘Lords of the Isles’), and the medieval dynasties of the Welsh Marches (’Kingmakers’). Sometimes I have been switching between AH fiction and real history if I have several projects on, so using the same style for both is natural – and I find it a rest to switch from fact-constrained ‘real’ history to my imaginary versions.
You often hear stories about hostility within historical academia to counterfactuals. Is that something you've encountered?
Yes, definitely in certain quarters. I have found since I was a student that a large number of academics whose work is based around research are inclined to approach History in a detective-like manner of rigorously sifting the evidence for facts, and tend to treat it entirely as a form of science where speculation is discouraged. All must be based on proven fact and the latter have to be ‘logged’ in minute detail and cross-referenced, along with plenty of references to other historians’ work – and preferably mainstream, ‘acceptable’ writers and researchers at that. Your chain of thought and your own sources have to be revealed in detail , and every link in these ‘chains’ has to be able to stand up to a degree of scrutiny which at times verges on the obsessive.
New ideas and ‘guesswork’ are often frowned upon, and as with a lot of academic disciplines there is a lot of following fashion. Anything not based on proven evidence is seen as being ‘dangerous’ to ‘proper’ analysis. I have known quite well-known and senior figures in History dismiss any idea of AH having a value, let alone writing about it, with horror. Probably the same sort of academic hostility greeted new theories and ways of exploring History (and other subjects) right from the time of the control of the subject in universities by the hard-line doctrinal Catholic ‘schoolmen’ in the medieval period. Or the Marxist domination of historical theories in certain quarters in the C20th?
I have never felt constrained by theory or fashion, and have followed my own ideas and ‘hunches’ – and I recall the hostility that met me at college as a postgraduate when I suggested doing a PhD thesis on comparisons between the expansionist religious/ideological tone of Oliver Cromwell’s ‘revolutionary’ Puritan Britain in the 1650s and the behaviour of Revolutionary France in the 1790s, Russia after 1917, and modern Iran. There is far too much inflexibility in many academic circles, and it is a major achievement to see historians like Professor Niall Ferguson able to branch out into doing seriou AH essays that make important points about the historical process (and able to get them published!). I have always felt that AH can be used to make serious points and show the unexpected ways in which History can develop – and how one ‘minor’ event can alter the whole course of history. The more flexibility on understanding History the better, in my opinion.
One of the things you've said is you've been thinking about counterfactuals for 40 or 50 years. Obviously back then the online community around it didn't exist, do you think your style would be very different if you were growing up now when access to that community is available?
Probably not as far as writing books goes. I write in what seems the most natural way to get my point across. I do write some ‘action’ fiction, but only with a modern and comparatively ‘real’ background to it; if there is an AH background to a story it is the latter that I am more interested in and cannot wait to explore. I was as interested in the ‘back stories’ of the Shire and Gondor as in the storyline when I read J R R Tolkien, and ditto in the ‘back story’ of Narnia when I read C S Lewis. But I would certainly have been writing short AH articles and essays a lot earlier if I had seen these published online and known that there was a market for them. My writing essays on AH for my Pen and Sword series , the first book of which was published in 2011, was then a new venture for me – as a quicker way to get my points about the real and fictional history of various eras published than laboriously transcribing all my earlier drafts.
And to extend on that, you've been involved in Historical research and publishing for a long time, you won the London University History Prize in 1979 and started academia as a career in 1982 upon getting your PHD. How do you think the job has changed over the years? Just in terms of internet publishing and being able to research online it must be a game changer.
Undoubtedly. When I started as a historical project research officer at UCL in London in the early-mid 1980s most basic work was transcribing original material by hand from original documents, involving long hours in archives – mainly in London and Oxford. This had been the same when I was doing my PhD on Oliver Cromwell’s foreign policy, which involved transcribing piles of original (and hard to decipher) British state documents and original letters in C17th handwriting in the Public Record Office and the Bodleian Library. Most of my time went in basic transcription, not leaving a lot for analysis and writing things up, and the same applied when I was researching C16th and C17th MPs and peers and Irish noblemen for later research projects.
As I was studying copies of foreign papers a lot had to be translated from Latin or French too - all of which took time, as did travel to the various archives out of London. Now that original material, old books containing transcripts of sources, earlier historians’ analyses, and articles are often available online it is much quicker and easier to do research, and writing books has speeded up enormously. It is also invaluable if you do not have the time to visit archives or the material is unavailable - as the recent experience of closed archives and libraries during the lockdowns has shown. I have also started to publish some articles in online journals and on websites and blogs, which I had no idea of doing until recent years; and getting known is easier with an international internet community to deal with. But access to a lot of articles in academic journals is ‘subscription only’ and is designed, cost-wise, to benefit those who belong to institutions rather than individuals working independently - the scales seem more weighted now in favour of the ‘big battalions’.
Any fact that you thought was true in 1979 but which you have changed your mind on since due to new evidence emerging?
I’ve long been a fan of historical mysteries and ‘whodunnits’ and have had my own theories on them since my teens, including the murder of the Romanovs in 1918 (and hence the identity of the various pretenders, starting with ‘Anastasia’) and the long-running saga of who if anyone killed the Princes in the Tower in 1483. Also questions such as whether the hunting-accident that accounted for England’s King William ‘Rufus’ in the New Forest in 1100 was arranged by his enemies, and who was the original ‘King Arthur’. My musings on these will shortly be out in my ‘Royal Mysteries’ series, and I have kept on updating my mental and physical notes on these matters as new theories and facts emerge.
It is noticeable that in some cases even the wonders of modern science or the opening of archives has not solved cases. And archives can be sifted before they are opened up and inconvenient evidence can be got rid of early on, of course. Despite the DNA tests and the archival evidence I am no clearer if Czar Nicholas II and all his family were killed or not , though the new evidence has shown ‘Anna Anderson’ was unlikely to be the real Anastasia - barring major ‘fiddles’ of evidence. The question of the Princes in the Tower is still unresolved though I hoped that science had ruled some theories out by now, and I wish that the authorities would allow a DNA test on the bones in Westminster Abbey.
I thought that King Edward II had been murdered at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire after his deposition by his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer in 1327, and am not so sure nowadays. Did he escape, on his own or with the connivance of powerful figures in the elite, and end up wandering around Europe in disguise and ending his days as a hermit in Northern Italy? This possible solution to a notorious royal murder mystery, which I have covered in my book ‘Kingmakers’ which deals with Mortimer and his family, was reactivated in the 1920s following research into an obscure letter in Italian archives accredited to a diplomat who allegedly approached the ‘deceased’ king’s son and successor Edward III to arrange a meeting with his father in secret, but was little known until it was publicised and further work was done on the theory by medieval historian Ian Mortimer in recent years. Some mainstream historians discount it as unlikely and unproveable, but I think a good case can be made out that Edward did escape and survived in exile for a number of years, whether helped or not. It could lead to a major reassessment of one of our more notorious queens, his wife Isabella the ‘She-Wolf of France’, who was long treated with hostility for her temerity as a woman and an abused wife in leading a rebellion to depose her feckless, wayward husband – and has been assumed to have been a murderess as well.
There are also major ‘facts’ that have long been assumed about British history that are now being disproved and at the least reinterpreted due to scientific studies. These upset common textbook assumptions that I was taught were ‘definite’. Most notable is the study of field and woodland plants in England for the post-Roman period in the C5th and C6th, when it was presumed that the near-contemporary literary account by monkish historian Gildas about ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Romano-Britons by incoming Continental ‘Anglo-Saxons’ was on a large scale. The Britons were supposed to have been driven out of most of what is now England (‘Angle-Land’) by these invaders and left their towns in ruins and their farms empty to revert to wasteland - but the studies of plants show no break in cultivation. Logically this implies no major disruption; and the equally ground-breaking studies of DNA show that most of the ‘English’ population can trace their lineage back to the Neolithic inhabitants. So even if there were ‘invasions’ of German mercenary troops and traders plus their families, this was on a much smaller scale and some now doubt that it was that significant – a reversal of all that I was taught about the period.
Which major historical figures do you feel most drawn to, and have you found any interesting facts about them?
Some of the obvious well-known ones who I learnt about early on, such as Alexander the Great – who made major efforts to reconcile Greeks and Persians by cultural fusion and mass-marriages as well as being a spectacular military achiever. I do question his administrative skills and excessive risk-taking, though! Also some more methodical and subtle, and equally adaptable, figures who achieved a lot despite major problems and seemingly hopeless odds. The Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus (ruled 1081- 1118), who restored the Empire’s fortunes and contained the Turks and the Crusaders when one or both seemed likely to overwhelm his crumbling realm – a brilliant improviser who stood in the way of the tides of history. Also the little-known emperor John III Vatatzes (ruled 1222 – 54) of the post-1204 Byzantine ‘successor state’ at Nicaea, who pulled the remnants of the Empire back together and put it on track to regain its capital, and the restored Empire’s emperor Manuel II (ruled 1391 – 1425) who rode out the storms of the first major Ottoman attacks and the arrival of Timur and his hordes from Turkestan.
Interestingly, Alexius I was aided by a regiment of axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon refugees from the Norman Conquest in 1066, who travelled to Constantinople and fought for him against an invasion by more Normans who had conquered southern Italy and Sicily. These warriors ended up being overwhelmed by the Norman cavalry at a Hastings-like battle near Durres in what is now Albania in 1081 – a long way from Sussex. If that was put in an AH story it would be called ‘implausible’. In another bizarre twist, when Manuel was looking for Western European help against the Ottomans, in person, he ended up spending Christmas 1400 with the English King Henry IV, a traveller who had visited Jerusalem, at his palace at Eltham in SE London.
What projects are you currently working on that we can expect in the future?
My current research plans are on hold until such time as travel is safer and libraries and archives can be guaranteed to be open; if I sign a contract with a publisher I need to specify when the books will be ready and at present that is impossible. But in the meantime I am finishing off my six-book-long imaginary history of the Roman Empire surviving to the present era, for Sealion. Also I have a series of five or six British ‘Royal Mysteries’ books complete and lined up for publication by Pen and Sword, covering from ancient times to the C19th -the first one, on King Arthur, is due out early next spring. Then comes one on the Anglo-Saxons. I also have a series on C20th children’s literature and its cultural background and locations used, but getting a publisher and date fixed for this is more problematic.
Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus, Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.