Saturday, 30 April 2016

Leicester City, King Richard III and A Profusion of Smells

This Week I'm in Leicester

So my work as a Clerk of the Court takes me north to Leicester, slap bang in the middle of England. I check in at a little hotel, former home of artist and architect Ernest Gimson. Immediately, I fall in love with its art deco touches and 1920s oil paintings.

The Belmont Hotel
When I've dumped my bags, I'm out exploring.  Writers love to explore - I think we're born inquisitive or as they say in Leicester, born nosey-parkers. Presently  the colour  blue features everywhere you look - blue blue flags, blue scarves and hats; even the cathedral is lit up in blue. That's because, on Sunday 1 May, this little city's football team Leicester City will play the mighty Manchester United for the Premier League cup.  Only a few months ago, the bookmakers were offering shorter odds on Elvis Presley turning up alive.

Even the Cathedral's Blue
Leicester has history, too; stone-built and elegant, and lots of tantalising smells. Because I write historical fiction I must capture colour, sound and every stinky aroma going,  I cram into a curry house by the railway. Sipping a glass of lassi (yoghurt with mint and a little salt, served as an apperitif). I make jottings in my writers' notebook. Close-packed bodies/Shrinivas incense/cracked black coriander seeds spitting in an iron skillet.  Cobra beer, tawny gold/fat baked potatoes seared in tumeric.  It's vital to get it right so I use a technique learned in yoga nidra class.

Sipping a glass of Lassi
 I transport myself back mentally to the same curry house, then a coaching inn, the year 1826. It's the time of my novel in progress. No 21st century morals then. I recall that the French emperor Napoleon, embattled and exhausted, once sent an urgent missive to his wife: 'Home in three days. Don't wash.'

Plump Coriander Seeds
When my court case is over I have time to spare and waving cheerily at all the blue-capped lads and lasses who have been so kind, I pay a fleeting visit the grave of King Richard III. Richard reigned for just two  years in the 15th century.  He's known  for 1) having a hunchback  2) supposedly murdering his two nephews, the 'little princes in the Tower' and 3) dying in battle on Bosworth Field.But what became of his body? Did he escape? Did he die  in a ditch? Was he kidnapped, held captive? Did he die a brave warrior's death?

Laid to Rest in Leicester Cathedral
Then in 2012 some workmen dug up a car park in Leicester. They unearthed something strange -  bones, swords, stuff like that. To put it bluntly, the grave of King Richard. This answered so many of the unanswered questions -  yes, 'Richard Crookback', as Shakespeare called him, did have a scoliosis of the spine. He died very bravely in the battle, his wounds showing clearly that he fought for hours. The little princes? We still don't know. His coffin didn't contain a signed confession, that's for sure.

The Princes in the Tower?
He wasn't, I think, the nicest of men -  but it was a rough, tough time to be alive.  There's something about the grave of a warrior king and I bow my head. This one has been beautifully put together. He has an oak and yew, lead-lined coffin crafted by his 17th great grand nephew, a modern carpenter. There are stained glass windows depicting the discovery of the body, the inquest (yup, we still needed an inquest after 534 years)  the months of squabbling between the City of York and the City of Leicester. Should Richard of York return there to be buried? A valid point say you, but the tradition is that a British soldier dies where he falls.

The Well on Bosworth Field
On 26 March 2015 his body was carried from Bosworth field to a final burial in Leciester cathedral I suspect that, more than anything, Richard would have liked to be laid to rest as one more English warrior soldier.

Outside the cathedral I sit on a bench with bluebells at its foot, soaking up the sun. I draft  my last few chapters. I need to take the reader to the inquest.  In 1826 the Coroner's inquest for the dreadful, bloody crime I've depicted would have been held in a local pub or dancing room. It must have smelt like Leicester cathedral, only much, much worse. Cheap tallow candles stinking of animal fat, fried fish, sweat, local-brewed ale, naked fear.  I take a good sniff, then write....

Bloody thou art, 
Bloody will be thy end...

Duchess of York (Richard III, Act 4, Scene 4)
William Shakespeare 1554-1616

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