HOW ABOUT HISTORICAL FICTION?
An Interview with Larry Schwirian by Sue Wurster (and Larry’s short selection, OH, WHAT A PARTY!)
Recently, Journal committee member Larry Schwirian provided the participants in our BOLLI Writers Guild with a piece of historical fiction that he had written in response to the prompt, “The Best Party EVER.” We thoroughly enjoyed the piece and spent some time talking about this fact that this has been a somewhat under-represented genre in our BOLLI Journal.
SUE: So, Larry, have you written a lot of historical fiction?
LARRY: No, but I do read a great deal of historical fiction. For me, it’s a much more enjoyable way of learning about the past than just reading textbook history.
SUE: What sparked your imagination and led you to do this particular piece?
LARRY: Well, the prompt for the week was about a great party, so I googled “Great Parties in History” and discovered that the Great London Beer Flood took place toward the end of the War of 1812. I thought about what it might be like to be almost drowned in beer and created a character to get swept up in it. Then, I wanted to related it, somehow, to the war.
SUE: Has writing always been an interest? Have you been published or thought about submitting your work for publication?
LARRY: I have attempted to write poetry, on and off again, over the past 25 years My first attempt was a poem I wrote for my father’s 80th birthday. I have also tried, on a couple of occasions, to write children’s stories using alliteration (with a preponderance of “P” words), but I’ve never tried to get anything published because I never thought anything I wrote was worthy of publication.
SUE: Do you have a favorite form or genre?
LARRY: I am somewhat of a history buff and have read the biographies of many of the founding fathers. I also enjoy architectural history and have been involved on a local level with historical preservation.
SUE: You’ve been active in the Writers Guild and have taken some BOLLI writing courses as well, haven’t you? How have they helped you with your writing?
LARRY: The discipline of writing every week is certainly helpful to making improvements. Also, the critiques from others in the Writers Guild have taught me to be a more vigorous editor of my own writing I also thought that, as someone who has tried to trace my ancestry, it would be a great idea to improve my writing skills so that, someday, one of my descendants might know not just my name but also something about how I thought. Plus, meeting every week with the same small group of people and listening to their stories or their poetry is a great way to get to know people and make new friends.
SUE: And that led you to joining the Journal committee?
LARRY: Maxine asked me if I was interested, so I thought about it for a while and then accepted. I didn’t know I was going to be the only male!
Here’s Larry’s story…
OH WHAT A PARTY
It looked like it was going to be another bright sunny day on the morning of Monday October 17, 1814 on Tottenham Court Road in the parish of St. Giles in London. Alfie Appleton, a young working class laborer, was just starting his trek to the docks for another physically arduous day loading munitions onto warships headed for America; those uppity colonials ought to know better than to start a war with the heralded British Navy. To some extent his sympathies were with the Americans as they were decided underdogs in this war and had legitimate grievances with the arrogance and imperiousness of the British Crown and Parliament. Alfie had his own issues with the British aristocracy and propertied class as those of his social standing had virtually no say in the proceedings of the British government and were generally considered with contempt and loathing by those higher in social class.
It was a time when London’s population was growing rapidly due to the beginnings of the industrial revolution and men-of-means were investing heavily in new business opportunities. Industrial processes had led to a rapid rise in beer production and one new “Beer Baron” by the name of Sir Henry Meux had recently completed a large new brewing vat that was 60 feet in diameter and 20 feet tall. This vat, like smaller ones nearby, was constructed much like large wooden beer barrels with steel hoops to keep it from collapsing. Upon completion Henry invited 200 guests to dine with him inside the vat and subsequently had it filled with porter liquor.
Except for the sunny skies it was a day much like any other workday. Alfie would labor six days a week from sunup to sundown on the docks with only minimal time for lunch or “loo” breaks. Suddenly, and without warning, he was knocked off his feet by a surging wave of colorful liquid. It caught him completely by surprise as he found himself with many others swept haphazardly toward buildings and other fixed objects. After what seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes he was able to right himself in this growing pond of what he now realized was actually “beer.” After the initial shock wore off he decided, with others around him, to take advantage of this wondrous opportunity to partake of “free alcohol.” Soon, other blokes and even women folk were pouring out of adjacent buildings to enjoy this “gift from heaven.” As other nearby parishes learned of this blessed event even more people poured into the area. By the time the liquid had nearly dissipated the entire parish was intoxicated.
In the end the equivalent of over 100,200 kegs of beer (1,470,000 liters) were released with the collapse of the new vat as well as several of the nearby smaller vats. At least seven people were drowned (ah but what better way to go) and many rescue attempts to help the injured were thwarted by the chaos created by thousands of people swarming to the area. When the injured did manage to make it to the hospital “reeking of beer” hospital employees and even patients fled to join the melee. The reason this event wasn’t recorded in the annals of history as a “disaster” is because a British court ruled that the beer flood was an “act of God.” Alfie, however, preferred to believe that the incident was an act of sabotage by an American spy and that the American victory at New Orleans, by Andrew Jackson, in January of 1815 was, at least in part, due to the British fleet being delayed by THE GREAT LONDON BEER FLOOD.
Note: While “The Great London Beer Flood” was a real event, it had nothing to do with the delaying of the British Fleet on its way to New Orleans. Alfie is, of course, a fictional character but the rest of the story is true…at least according to Wikopedia. A little more than a century later, in January of 1915, Boston suffered “The Great Molasses Flood” in the North End. This time the vat was 90 feet in diameter and 50 feet high, and twenty-one people died. The incident was declared a “disaster” and in a class-action lawsuit against the subsequent owner of The Purity Distilling Company, more than $600,000 in damages were awarded.