Reading Zami: A Spelling of My New Name, I was thrilled by the description of a table laid for a party. Alongside crudités, caviar, pretzels and mixed nuts is a bowl of sour cream and onion dip, made from Lipton’s onion soup mix. Growing up in Australia it was a staple, but I hadn’t eaten it in years.
December is, without a doubt, party season. Those weeks in the lead up to Christmas are all twinkly lights, and carols playing, and people keen to make plans before the cold and dark of January descends. My Decembers have often featured work Christmas parties, parties at home on Christmas Eve, and a good few days of family and pyjamas and party leftovers. I wouldn’t swap it for anything; I love being busy in December.
There’s something romantic about the idea of a wandering knight who arrives in a troubled village, vanquishes the dastardly villains and solves the townspeople’s problems, and then rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Instead of referring to a love story, the original meaning of a “romance” was a tale of any kind not written in Latin and springs from the French word for novel, or roman.
I seem to have been writing about war for much of my life. I gave my first military lecture, aged 15, on the Battle of Austerlitz, at school, where I was secretary of the Montgomery Society. Monty was an old boy and my headmaster Tom Howarth had been one of his close intelligence officers.
Military history has always been my passion ever since my grandfather, unwilling to talk to his children, had filled my head with his vivid tales of the Somme and Passchendaele.
If you think about the people we meet every day, they are multi-dimensional, flawed, both sweet and sour, a mix of light and dark. They make mistakes, have moments of weakness in which they are not their best selves and then redeem themselves, promising they’ll do better, only to make the same mistakes again.
That’s true of all of us. And yet there are so many readers that prefer the protagonist in a novel to be a hero, someone who makes amends after the slightest indiscretion, who can see the good in everyone, even in the face of extreme adversity.