Sunday, 27 November 2011

Artful Chapter 1 Judgement Day

The sun climbed up the London sky like an invalid part way through convalescence. If it could have wheezed it would have wheezed. If it could have coughed it would have coughed. It would have been a thick, phlegm-heavy cough which would struggle to clear the stinking, oily airs which lay like a sodden blanket upon the city.

In the streets below, a line of torches escorted a column of men towards the river. Their legs shuffled due to the heavy chains which linked them together. The men were of all sizes: short and wiry, short and fat, tall and fat, tall and thin and all sizes in between. They were of all ages: men in their twenties and men in their sixties. All except one. Bringing up the rear was a boy of perhaps twelve years old, dressed in men’s clothing which hung upon him loosely.
Whereas the others in the line looked beaten and despairing to a man, the young boy gave a huge grin. He swaggered along, jaunty as possible, whistling tunelessly.

‘Good luck, Dodger,’ came a call from the gathering crowd.

‘You show ‘em, Dodger,’ cried another.

‘I’m off to be Her Majesty’s High Ambassador to the New South Welsh,’ he said, flourishing his hat. ‘When I’ve sorted everyfink out I’ll be back. Fourteen years in the diplomatic service is nothing to a young gentleman like me.’

‘Shut it back there,’ called one of the guards.

The boy turned towards the crowd. ‘You’d have thought that Vicky would have given me a less common guard of honour,’ he said.

He started to whistle once more and acknowledged the applause and cheers of the crowd.
One small part of the crowd looked very out of place. Most of the spectators were obviously members of the East End community, poor, shabbily dressed and grimy with dirt. Half a dozen, however, were very different and these caught Dodger's eye.

They were a family which had got caught up in the throng and looked very nervous to have done so. The father was a man in his late thirties, tall and upright with fine mutton-chop whiskers. His wife was small and very slight and he held her close to him as if to protect her from the crowd. The steely look upon her face, however, suggested that any protection which he might offer would be quite redundant.

The parents held tight hold on three children. The mother kept hold of the eldest girl who was aged about fifteen and had a sharp face fixed with little eyes which darted here and there with great suspicion. A toddler of perhaps two or three was cradled in her mother's arms, looking with great anxiety not at the crowd but at her eldest sister.

It was the middle daughter who held Dodger's gaze transfixed. She appeared to be a couple of years younger than he but upright in posture and well nourished. She was very pale and her face held a scatter of freckles as close to each other as stars in the night sky. Her eyes were wide and agog at the sight of the criminals. She wore a straw hat but this seemed perched upon her head. The reason for this was that her hair was a mass or wayward curls which seemed to frolic about her head. Her head turned from side to side, staring at each of the convicts as they passed. She looked as though she was about to burst into tears.

When Dodger came up beside her she turned and stared directly at him. Her eyes opened wide, so wide that they made her hat jiggle slightly upon her head.

He gave her a grin and waved his hand at her. She waved back and was roundly told to stay still by her sister.

As he turned the corner, Dodger glanced back. The little girl was still staring at him. She raised her hand but he could not for the life of him tell whether it was to say farewell or hello.

While they marched along, Jack became aware that one of the convicts kept sneaking glances towards him. He was a little man, skinny as a gutter-cat, with one sharp, nervous eye. The other was hidden by a ragged black patch. He stroked his mouth as he walked, with a hand which had both middle fingers hacked from it.

The line of convicts got jumbled up and they were forced to halt. The skinny man took the opportunity to sidle up towards Jack and jabbed him in the ribs. ‘Do you recognise me?’ he asked. His voice was a low sneer.

Jack shook his head.

‘Well you should do. You’re one of Fagin’s boys ain’t you? In fact, you’re his prime boy, the pick of the bunch, so it’s said.’

‘You may know me, but I don’t know you,’ Jack said. The man made him shiver, as if an icy blast had sneaked in through a crack in the door.

‘You should know me,’ said the man. Flecks of spittle bubbled on his lips and he wiped them ineffectively. ‘My name's Crimp and you should know me because Fagin's the reason I'm convicted and being sent off to the ends of the earth. And I expect you had a hand in it as well.’

Jack shook his head. ‘I’ve never seen you before, guvnor, honest.’ Jack was a good judge of people. Crimp did not look much of a man but Jack guessed that he meant a lot of trouble.

He spat on Jack's foot. 'If it weren't for the big boss I've had swung no doubt. And all because Fagin did the dirty on the boss and me.'

'So where's your boss? Is he going on the ship?'

Crimp gave a high-pitched laugh. 'Don't be so stupid. He's safe from the law, being as how he is the law.'

Jack eyed him narrowly, hoping that the line would start up again so that he could get away.

The man leaned closer. ‘Do you know how long this voyage lasts?’

Jack shook his head.

‘Seven months,' Crimp said, 'eight months, sometimes more.' He grabbed hold of Jack’s chin and jerked his head around.

‘So there’s plenty of time for us to get better acquainted, Jack Dawkins. And plenty of time for me to remind you of how the old Jew did for me.’

A big man with curly hair stood watching the incident. He scratched his head thoughtfully, shrugged his shoulders and turned away.

The skinny man slid away from Jack but remained watching him with narrowed eyes.

As the line of convicts shuffled down the road towards the river they saw long masts rearing from the decks of countless ships which lay berthed against the banks of the Thames.

'The Transportation Fleet,' said the old man beside him.

'We're not going on them, are we?' Jack asked, his eyes widening. 'Them hulks, all round the world?'

'That's the plan, son.'

'Well it's a blooming nonsensical plan if you ask me. I doubt any of 'em would cross to Southwark without sinking.

'Shut up,' called one of the guards.

In surly, grumbling silence, the convicts trudged up the gangway of the first ship. As he neared the deck the young boy saw three rats bolt down the plank towards land.

The man behind him sucked in air in a loud, horrified gasp. 'They know it's cursed,' he cried.
'Not half as much as you are,' cried one of the sailors, making his friends laugh at the jest.
The ship Jack had been assigned to was called 'The Hornet.' It was already ancient when it had been pressed into service to supply the fleet at Trafalgar. Before that, or so it was rumoured, it had been a slave ship running from Bristol to Africa and the West Indies. As the men were shoved below decks to the damp and fetid cages awaiting them they well believed the rumours to be true.

One elderly man who had spent his years tramping the highways became wild-eyed with terror at the sight of the pent up, noisome gloom and began to emit a fearsome howl of distress which only ended when two guards knocked him unconscious.

'The bastards,' said the young boy but not so loud that they could hear him.

'Let's hope they've killed him,' said a huge man with a sprawling, knotted beard. 'It'll mean more grub for us.'

'Don't believe it, Trench,' said Crimp pushing himself into the large man's shadow. 'They'll eat his grub themselves or sell it to us, what's starving.'

'Shut yer mouth, Crimp,' said the bearded man. 'I'm sick of the sound of yer already.'

Crimp laughed but it was a laugh devoid of humour. He turned his eyes towards Jack. 'What you looking at?' he growled.

'Nothing, honest.'

Crimp grabbed him by the throat. 'Well see you don't look at me in future. Not unless I tells yer to. It's me who will do the looking, and the catching.'

'Leave him be,’ said the big curly haired man who Jack had noticed earlier in the day. 'He's only a boy.'

'I can guess yer interest, so I can,' Crimp sneered at him.

The man did not answer but gave a quick glance towards the guards and saw they were looking elsewhere. He took a step towards Crimp and seized him by the hair. He twisted it violently, causing the little man's back to arch over, exposing a scrawny throat. The big man ran his fingers slowly from one side of the throat to the other.

'See here boy,' the big man said to Jack, turning Crimp as though he were a doll. 'This neck is little stronger than a rabbit's.' He jabbed his finger at Crimp's gulping Adam's Apple making him squeal. 'One chop and we'll be eating his grub.'

'Enough,' said Trench. He squared up and gave a belligerent stare. 'What's your name, friend?'

The man released his hold upon Crimp's hair and sized Trench up and down. 'Beresford. Want to make something of it?'

Trench shook his head. 'No, I won't make anything of it. But just remember one thing,' he said, indicating the skinny man. 'I can hit Crimp, I can punish him, but you can't.'

Beresford stared at Trench for a moment. 'Fair enough,' he said. 'And the same goes for the boy. I can punish him, but neither you or your creature touch him.'

Trench nodded. 'It's a bargain. The same goes for the boy.'

He stalked off, Crimp running after him.

Jack grinned up at his protector. 'Thanks very much, mister. My name's Jack Dawkins.'

'Mine's Beresford.'

'Just Beresford? Ain't you got a first name?'

'If I ever had, I've forgotten it.'

Jack nodded sagely. 'I think Beresford is right enough for you.'

The big man grinned and ruffled his hair.

A whistle sounded and a platoon of Marines hurried down the steps and took up position, muskets cocked and pointing at the convicts. They were followed by a skinny navel officer of about forty years of age. He glanced about him sourly and stood to one side of the stairs.

'Convicts rise for Captain Flowers,' he cried. His voice was every bit as sour as his glance.
A portly figure came down the stairs and gazed upon them. He looked bluff and genial, but there was something in the way that the posture of the Marines changed which suggested that it might be best not to take him for granted.

'My name is Captain Flowers,' he said in a voice as genial as his looks. 'I am charged with the duty of transporting you to New South Wales. What you choose to make of your life there is up to you. It will not be easy for you. Transportation is a punishment and you do well to remember this.'

He glanced around at the convicts who shuffled in their chains. Not a man of them seemed in any doubt that they were being punished.

'However,' Flowers continued, 'for those of you who repent of your wickedness, obey the laws of the colony and work hard, you may perhaps find some opportunity which would not be made available to you in England. In truth you may take this one last chance to redeem yourselves and make your lives anew.'

He paused again as if expecting some sign of appreciation, applause perhaps or three cheers. There was none. With a sigh he resumed.

'Until we reach shore, however, you will find no such opportunities. My only advice to you is to bend your spirits to the arduous journey ahead of you, to keep up your strength and health, to follow the regulations of my officers and crew and to avoid bad company.'

One of the Marines chuckled at the thought of this. The Captain glared at him. He nodded to the sergeant who instantly frog-marched the man up the stairs.

Some of the convicts grinned at the look of fear upon the Marine's face. The more intelligent of them took note of the Captain's swift and summary punishment. He may have looked a soft touch but in his case looks were clearly deceiving.

'You will probably not see me again,' the Captain continued, 'until we dock in New South Wales in seven months' time. If you do see me it will be because you have been brought before me for some misdemeanour. For your sakes I hope that this does not occur. Good day gentlemen.'

'Silly old fool,' muttered Crimp.

Beresford looked at him and shook his head as if wearied by the foolishness of mankind.

The sour, skinny officer had remained behind when the Captain left. He stood there still, nodding his head as if acknowledging to himself that he had been correct about something all along yet regretted that he had been.

The convicts eyed him expectantly.

'My name is Lieutenant Case,' he said. 'I am second-in-command of the ship. When the Captain sleeps, I remain awake. What he proposes, I dispose. Where he leads Sunday Prayers, Lieutenant Case leads the daily curses.

'For all intents and purposes there will never be occasion for you to see Captain Flowers, not unless you've done something that will only be answered by the cat, the keel-haul or the rope. But you will see more of me. And some of you may even come to prefer the thought of the cat.'

He gave one last, lingering look at the convicts then padded up the stairs.

At that moment there sounded a dreadful clamour above their heads. The convicts stared up fearfully as if their eyes could pierce both dark and deck. The noise continued, a gallop of feet, a clatter of wood and metal.

'It's the crew getting the ship ready to sail,' one of the convicts explained.

'How do you know?' asked Crimp.

'I was a sailor for twenty years, you oaf. I know everything there is to know about ships.'

'Will this one get us to New South Wales?' asked a young man anxiously.

'Some of us,' said the sailor. 'But not all.'

They heard the slow rasp of the anchor being weighed, the thunder and slap of the sails being lowered and then the ship lurched, bellied over and began to wallow its way into the river.

Within minutes the ground was awash with the vomit or men who had never before travelled on anything other than their own two feet.

Jack was one of them. He tried to reach a bucket but never made it. But he saw a more useful receptacle. He consoled himself that the contents of his stomach drenched Crimp from waist to feet.

He spent the whole of the first week being sick. Some of the convicts had been in the navy and guessed that they were now crossing the Bay of Biscay, the worst stretch of water in the world for rolling seas and erupting stomachs. But eventually they rounded the northern edge of Spain and headed out to the comparative calm of the Atlantic Ocean.

Jack was never sea-sick again but became gripped by a fierce hunger for food, any food, no matter how rank and unpalatable. Fortunately, there was sufficient as most of the convicts had little appetite for the scraps put in front of them.

The ship crossed the Atlantic, docked for a few days in Brazil for fresh water and provisions, then tacked south-east towards the southern tip of Africa. They remained a week at Cape Town, cramming every last shelf, cupboard, hidey-hole and piece of deck with food and water before beginning the last, terrible leg of their voyage to the forsaken continent of the south.

This is the first chapter of my new novel, Artful. It will be published soon so look out for it on most ebook platforms.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Like a wet rag

Don't mistake me. My wife and I are moving to the Cote d'Azur, the famous Riviera of the South of France, the haunt of Russian aristocrats, English gentry and the fabled artists and writers of the Jazz Age. I shall be living in a town which has welcomed Robert Louis Stevenston, Katherine Mansfield, Maupassant, Jean Cocteau and, I'm certain, numerous other writers and poets. I am over the moon at the thought of it. And we are flying out in just over a week.

However, I am absolutely shattered. The amount of work and emotional impact of making such a move is draining. There is the sheer amount of clearing out and getting rid of years of possessions. We must have got rid of over six hundred books, many of them long treasured. They've all gone to good homes, principally because of the charitable work of Toni at the Wellington Bookshop.

Then there is the bitter-sweet experience of saying farewell to so many friends and discovering just how much we like them and they like us.

I feel like I have gone twenty rounds with Yogi Bear. Bruised and cuddled in equal measure.
But in a week we will be ensconced in a hotel and in a week and a day flying like the birds south for the winter. It will be the best of bon voyages. In the meanwhile, however, I am like a wet rag.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Who might I want to be?

Although I spent much of my youth dreaming up intricate day-dreams where I was some intrepid hero or plucky adventurer I have actually always been rather comfortable in my own skin.
However, I sometimes wonder who I might want to be if, by some chance, I woke up and was no longer myself.

After long deliberation I have decided that the only other person I would want to be is Gene Kelly. I love his films, particularly 'On the Town' and am captivated by his creative and inventive dance style.

He was a great choreographer as well as dancer although it seems that his perfectionism may have sometimes made him a tyrant.

I also like his liberal views and, especially, his opposition to the excesses of the McCarthy investigations.

I'm glad I'm not him, of course, and my dance style leaves much to be deserved. However, rather pleasingly, I can emulate Kelly's shuffle while looking contentedly up in the air. It's the closest I get to his genius.

If you weren't you, who would you want to be?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

First World War Story #Samplesunday


Mitchell had not meant to desert. It was a June morning and he was taking a message to B Company. He was highly regarded by his officers, an intelligent and trustworthy man, steady under fire. He trudged along the pitted earth then stopped in surprise. In a gash in the earth a butterfly was sipping from a tiny flower. At that moment he started to run.

He saw a line of trees on the horizon. He swerved and headed for them. He was panting by the time he reached them and tumbled into the long, protective grass. He lay there for a moment, dazed by what he had done. The sunlight glittered through the branches. I must go back, he thought. If I go back now no-one will realise I've been missing. Then his eyes closed.
When he awoke there was the faint smudge of dawn above the German lines. He had slept for twenty hours. His stomach rippled with fear. The officers would think he had deserted.

He staggered up. The night was fading and, as he watched, the fragile lines of the trenches came into view. What had made him run? He should go back. If he went back now he could say he had got lost. If he delayed he would be shot as a deserter. He went fifty yards towards the lines and stopped. He would not fool Captain Bell. He darted back to the cover of the trees.
He had to think this out.

The sun had risen far above the horizon and the day was light and clear. He was not thinking at all but was listening to the sounds of birds chirping in a nest above his head. He had not heard sounds like this for years. Even when on leave the men were driven to fill the unfamiliar silence with their own clamour. The birds sounded sweet, and they paid no regard to the war and the killing and the waste.

He stood up and turned his back on the trenches. He plunged into the trees, walking fast to keep himself from thinking. He walked for hours and only gradually noticed that there was a sound following him. He reached a clearing and halted, feeling naked and vulnerable. Somebody was near. A snigger sounded close behind him. He spun round but no-one was there. It must be a madman hiding in the trees. Again, the laugh came loud and clear and he spun around once again to find nothing. Then his hand reached up and touched his mouth. It was working furiously, jabbering a mad, crazed cackle in a voice he could not recognise as his own. He shuddered and willed himself to stop. He failed. For an hour he stood rooted in the clearing, his mouth giving out great gusts and whoops of laughter, his eyes raining tears of anguish and fear.

At last the clearing fell quiet. He was exhausted. He looked around with dull eyes. He knew he had to think but three years of noise and slaughter and the swift obeying of orders had left his brain stale and weary. He banged his forehead as if he could pummel his mind into functioning.

Gradually, his thoughts began to clear. He had been away for thirty hours now. No-one would believe he had been lost for so long. Could he have been captured? He imagined himself telling the tale to the officers and their praise for his escape. But then he thought of their questions and the report he would have to write and knew that he could not pull it off.
He looked around wearily. He could not stay here for ever. There were rumours of mutineers' camps in the forests but he guessed they would soon be discovered. Or perhaps he could find some peaceful village where they would shelter him. But no Frenchwoman would hide a British soldier when her own men were dying at the Front.

The long hours passed and night fell. He wondered what his mates would think of him. Perhaps he should go back. But if he did he was certain to face the long silent walk with the firing squad, the click of the rifles as they were readied. Only a madman would return. Then he thought back to his laughter in the clearing and shuddered.

He looked up at the stars and as he did when a child he asked them for the answer. But they were far away and silent. Finally, on the edge of sleep an answer came, yet one so lunatic that he truly did begin to think himself mad.

The following evening he knocked at Captain Bell's door.

'Mitchell,' Bell cried. 'Where the hell have you been?'

'I ran, sir,' he replied, calmly.

The captain looked at him in astonishment. Every deserter they caught claimed he had got lost or captured.

'Surely, Mitchell, you mean you got lost?'

'I wasn't lost. I was running from all this.'

The captain leaned back in his chair. 'You do know the penalty for desertion?'

'I do, sir.'

'So why on earth did you come back?'

Mitchell shrugged.

'Because of King and Country?’ Bell said. ‘Or not to let your mates down?'

Mitchell realised that Bell was trying to give him a way out.

'I came back because I'm not a deserter,' he answered.

The captain stared at him, his eyes giving nothing away.

'You did desert,' he said finally.

'I ran. But I'm not a deserter.'

A candle began to gutter, causing the shadows of the two men to shudder then to shrink and to grow.

'I don't know whether you're a hero or a fool, Mitchell,' said the captain quietly.

'A fool, I suspect, sir.'

'You're certainly an honest one.'

Bell stood up and stared at Mitchell. 'Get some rest,' he said.

Mitchell's eyes narrowed, cautiously, uncertain. 'Is that all sir?'

'That's all.'

Mitchell did not move.

'That's all. Believe me, that's all.'

Mitchell saluted and left.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Republishing out of print books

Now that ebooks are becoming so well established I've begun to muse on the books which are now out of print which I would love to see republished. My current suggestion would be Alf's Button by W.A. Darlington.

This concerns two soldiers in the Great War who discover that one of their tunic buttons has been made of Alladin's Lamp. As soon as some spit and polish is applied the Genie appears, to the consternation of the Tommies. The Genie offers them the usual choices but the two soldiers seem unable to make any sensible decisions. Alladin did not have it so difficult.

What would yours be?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Separate Tables

Just watched the classic 50s film Separate Tables again. It was based on two Terence Rattigan plays, released in 1958, nominated for seven Oscars and won two. It has an impressive cast: Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Wendy Hiller, Gladys Cooper, and Burt Lancaster. Niven won the Oscar for Best Actor and Hiller for Best Supporting Actor.

It is a sublime and sensitive portrait of people imprisoned by the constraints of society and their own personalities, facing a moral dilemma which manages to combine the parochial and the universal.

The acting is peerless, every one of the actors having an intensity and honesty which is remarkable and memorable.

If you want to see a window into the mores and customs of a certain time, one which has long gone but is also eternally with us, then watch this marvellous film.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Monty Python Economics

The lead article of the British Newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, quotes a cabal of City big-wigs who claim that the only way to save the British economy is by abolishing the 50% top rate of tax for the highest earners and increasing personal tax allowance. They claim this will attract entrepreneurs to the country.

Sheriff of Nottingham One : Robin Hood Nil.

I find it incredible that anyone seeks to reward the rich (many of whom got us into this mess in the first place because of their relentless, reckless gambling greed) while expecting ordinary people to endure all of the austerity.

I ask a few questions.

Are the rich solely motivated by money? What about loyalty, patriotism, wishing to do good for good's sake?

How will a few of the already rich make such an improvement in the economy when so many people are being thrown out of work with a consequent decline in tax yield?

How much more money do the already wealthy need? How much can one person or family spend in one life-time?

Why weep for the rich while slashing at the poor?

I am reminded of two songs, the first the theme song to Robin Hood.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood with his band of men.
Takes from the bad, gives to the good;
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.

The second is from Monty Python's Flying Circus

Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore
Galloping through the sward
Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore
And his horse Concorde
He steals from the rich
And gives to the poor
Mr. Moore, Mr. Moore, Mr. Moore.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Healing my injury

I've just got back from a Reiki session with Yvonne Bottarelli at the therapy centre at Marlborough House in Taunton.

It was magic. I feel healed and free of pain. The trauma of my injury slipped away like an iron gauntlet being unlocked and falling to the ground. I can hardly believe it.

Just to put this in context; I had a fall over three years ago and broke my ankle and shattered and dislocated my elbow. I was phobic about broken bones in general and dislocated elbows in particular having seen my mother struggle with two dislocating elbows throughout her life.

The people at Marlborough House have helped me incredibly in a number of ways. Nabeeh Marar has helped with the phobia and Daniel Hayward with the injury.

I was recommended to try out Reiki and booked a session with Yvonne Bottarelli. She was marvellous. Her inspired healing has made a profound difference to my injury, gradually weaving improvement, strength and health.

And now, today, at the final session I had booked with her before moving to France she worked what I can only describe as magic.

I feel I have got my arm back again. I feel whole and wonderful.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Four Men in the RAFA

My wife and I went up to the Royal Air Force Association Holiday home in Weston-Super-Mare on Sunday to celebrate my father's 88th birthday.

He introduced us to his three new pals, three men as old as he. They had been placed at the same dining table for the week's holiday and clearly hit if off immediately. Peter was from Malta, Jimmy from the Midlands, Bill from Wales and my Dad from London. The only thing they had in common was that they had all served in the RAF during the Second World War and had all chanced to be placed on the same dining table.

Yet there was more. They had a defiant and good-humoured grasp on life, a willingness to try out new things and stretch their resilience.

I spent some time talking to Jimmy. He looked frail and was in a wheel-chair. His hearing was bad. He had the most impish, naughty smile and was clearly a favourite of the female staff.

He told me that he had been a rear-gunner on a Lancaster Bomber. I calculated that he would have been twenty one years of age at most. On one of the raids the plane was shot to pieces and the crew had to parachute out. He landed badly. Indeed all of the crew were injured in one way or another.

'It was at Eindhoven,' he said. 'Eindhoven in Holland.'

'What happened then?' I asked, expecting him to say that he had become a prisoner of war.

'I don't remember much,' Jimmy answered. 'The next clear thing I remember is waking up in hospital in Roehampton.'

'Roehampton?' I said. 'How did you end up there?'

'Dutch partisans,' he answered. 'They got every one of us out, injured though we were.'

He leaned forward and touched me on my knee. 'I've been very lucky,' he said. 'Very lucky.'

Friday, 4 November 2011

Claire Tomalin's Dickens: A Life

I can't put down Claire Tomalin's biography of Charles Dickens. I feel as if I am living in the nineteenth century, an observer of the writer's life, perhaps a servant or maybe a butcher's boy who calls with the chops and sausages and is astonished by his energy and sometimes alarmed by his mania.
For make no mistake, Dickens was a man of phenomenal energy and life-force. His constitution must have been magically strong. Charisma is too small a word to encompass him.
The beauty of this biography is that Tomalin's shows him warts and all yet indicates that the warts were, perhaps, an essential part of his towering, monumental personality. In fact there were more than warts, there were huge failings as a human being. Yet, I am reminded of the fact that we are dealing with a man who was born almost two hundred years ago and that some of these faults would not have needed to surface in the way they did in another era.
As I read with mounting distress the harsh way he treated his wife Catherine and his young lover Nelly I thought for a moment, why doesn't he just marry the girl? But he couldn't. Divorce was not an option, especially not for a man who did so much to create the notion of the happy family enjoying the Christmas turkey.
My favourite part of the book so far takes place when Dickens was in the midst of his marital break-up, a break-up considered so terrible that many long-time friends deserted him. He was starting a new weekly magazine and insisted that it be called 'Household Harmony.' His best friend Forster suggested that such a title would raise a few eyebrows. Isn't it delicious that the great spinner of words could not see what a terrible error of judgement such a title would have proved. In the end, Forster's arguments prevailed and the magazine was called 'All the Year Round.'

Friday, 28 October 2011

On our way to the Cote d'Azur

Nine or ten years ago I decided to take a week's holiday in Liguria, Northern Italy. I flew from Bristol airport to Nice arriving late in the evening. Because of the late hour of my arrival I had already booked a hotel from England. When I told the bus driver where I wanted to get off he gave a shrug which I could not fathom.

When I got off I began to understand. The district I had arrived at was something like the Vienna of Carol Reed's film, 'The Third Man.'

The streets were dark and had an atmosphere of mystery and threat. People hurried past in buttoned up clothes, avoiding the gaze of others. Any moment I expected to hear the sound of a zither and Orsen Welles lurking in an alley. I hurried on myself, keen to find my hotel.

In fact it seemed less of a hotel and more a venue for petty criminals and ladies of the night. I felt distinctly uncomfortable, reminded of my stay in the less salubrious quarters ofNaples.

Still, I had only booked for one night.

My plan was to head across the border to San Remo so the following day I caught a train from the central station in Nice. A lovely older lady, as fragile as a china doll, apologised for the state of the train. 'It is not a good advert for the Cote d'Azur,' she explained. It may not have been, but the journey certainly was. I split my time between talking with her and gazing out at the scenery with excitement. There was something truly fascinating and beguiling about the coast.

The lady left the train at Monaco and I travelled on. By the time I had reached the last town on the French border, I had made up my mind. I would postpone my journey to Italy by a day and see what the French Riviera and this border town had to offer. I hopped off the train.

I did not know it but I had arrived at the town of Menton.

I walked down from the station, loving the warmth of the air and the calm and attractive buildings. I went into the first hotel I saw, the Hotel Moderne, and was surprised to see a virtual double of a friend on the Reception desk. 'We have a room with a balcony but for one night only,' the Receptionist said. 'It overlooks the church so you'll hear the bells.'

I snapped up the room there and then, threw my bag on the bed, and went off to explore the town.

I was entranced by everything I saw. I eventually ended up in an old square with a strange statue staring down upon me and ate at one of the lively restaurants which crammed around it. As I sat there, I felt a warm sense of peace inveigle itself into me.

Then I strolled back along the Promenade to my hotel.

It was as I walked along that the magic happened.

Four beautiful young black women strode out into the busy road and halted the traffic. They then began a lively and good-humoured dance. They were replaced immediately by two young men who made the road an arena for their athletic and daring display. Any town that allows this to happen must be something special, I thought. Talk about life-enhancing.

I had fallen in love with Menton.

Now, after many years of visiting the town with my wife Janine, we are on the count-down to moving there. Only five weeks to go.

A Storm Hits Valparaíso

I’ve just found out that David ‘s Gaughran’s forthcoming novel about the the liberation of Argentina will not be available until late December.

That’s a shame. I’ve been interested in the Spanish Wars of Independence since reading The Liberators by Robert Harvey. I was hoping to have David’s book in my digital Christmas Stocking. Never mind, it will make a good New Year read.

If you’ve not read any of David’s work, I recommend his short stories and his book on indie writing; ‘Let’s Get Digital.’

His blog can be accessed by clicking on my blog list on the side bar.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Kobo to become a publisher

Kobo has just announced it will follow in Amazon's footsteps and become a publisher, dealing directly with authors.

This is good news for all authors, including, let us hope, indies. Not such good news for traditional publishers, booksellers and agents though.

This just goes to show that the world of writing is in greater turmoil than at any time since, well, you choose the dates: the invention of printing, perhaps?

Personally I think that what is happening is akin to the infant phenomenon that was Dickens writing and publishing Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist in cheap, monthly serial form. He was told that such a move would be the death of his ambitions to be a man of literature. He chose to ignore this advice.

Good on you Kobo.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

New cover for The Lost King: Resistance

Just uploaded a new cover for The Lost King: Resistance.

The picture is courtesy of jgmdoran. Thanks for letting me use this. You can get it with the new cover from Smashwords immediately. Kindle may take 24 hours.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Clearing the Clutter

I have always been a hoarder. Not of objects or possessions but of books and paper work. Much of the paper work has been essential to my teaching and training career; a lot to do with my interests in things as diverse as history and NLP. A huge amount is made up of my writing; an accumulation of stories, half written novels, plays and notes that go back to childhood.

My books have been accumulated over a life-time. Each is precious, either because I have enjoyed reading it or was looking forward to enjoying the reading of it.

Now, however, we are in the final stages of our move to the South of France. We will be leaving our two bedroom, three reception house for a one bedroom apartment with a terrace as big as the living room and a view across the Mediterranean to Corsica. We are renting this apartment, fully furnished, for we are going on what I delight to call my 'Gap Year.'

Space, therefore, will be at a premium. So my wife Janine and I are busy sorting out what is absolutely essential to take, what can be stored and what can be given away to friends or charity.

Many treasured things can go to our friends who will love them or need them most.

It feels a good process, although not an easy one. Most difficult is giving up my books, some of which have been friends of mine for far longer than any human friends. Thank goodness for Kindle and Sony Reader because I can at least replace the physical books in this way. It is hard, nonetheless.

Then I think about our new apartment and the beautiful view which will be ours every day and I gird myself to select books to dispose of.

My writing, however, the sheets of half-formed stories and epics, that will prove perhaps more difficult.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Back to Work

It's now been over a week since my Mum's death. The funeral was held yesterday and was lovely, a celebration of a long life well-lived.

Now I want to get back to work. I have written well over 50,000 words in my current novel and had planned to spend October finishing it off. Well, I've lost some time so I'll either have to increase my daily word rate or delay publication by a week or so.

The problem is that I have a deadline. We will be moving to France on 1 December and there is much to do to get ready for that move. Fortunately, we have already decided that this is to be out gap year and have decided to rent an apartment rather than to buy. This will minimise the tasks we'll have to do considerably. Still, there is still plenty of things to keep me from my writing.

Including writing this post.

I normally don't read the whole of a novel until I've finished it but I am now pondering reading the whole of it before picking up again.

One useful tip I've found, by the way, is to upload it as a PDF file on my Kindle. This gets the closest to the eventual reading experience and I am able to annotate it - although this isn't as easy as making pencil notes on a print-out. A good tip is to make your font large as Kindle can't make a PDF font look bigger. I found that a font size of 20 is the minimum.

Anyway, back to work. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, 14 October 2011

My Mother in the Chapel of Rest

My wife and I have just been to say a final goodbye to my mother in the Chapel of Rest. She looked beautiful.

I am so impressed at how the people who prepared her body in death have been able to capture the essence of my mother in life.

Thank you.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Big School

My collection of short stories: The Big School, is now available on Kindle and on other e-readers through Smashwords. It concerns the adventures of young kids in the 1960's/70's. This was a time when the schools were crammed with kids because of the Baby Boom.

It is also a time of great change. Some of the things the characters do had been going on for generations. But change, nevertheless, was in the air.

I would have liked to have been Eric, the hero of the stories, but am probably more like Malcolm, the narrator.

Monday, 12 September 2011


I’ve had a phobia about broken bones, (cured by NLP) and dislocated elbows since the age of three when my mother dislocated both elbows. I watched them come out of place periodically and the agony as she had to manipulate them back. Compounded with my erroneous belief that I had caused her to fall it is not too surprising that I developed the phobia.

So, the worse thing which could have happened to me was to suffer the same injury. Yes, folks, I had the same injury.

It wasn’t caused by cage fighting an exceptionally large and vicious canary as I told my friends. It was caused by me slipping on a inch high path. I broke my right ankle, shattered my left are and, terror of terrors, dislocated my elbow. It was a terrible trauma, the worst thing to have ever happened to me. I still have intermittent pain some two years after the accident.

Today I went to the doctor to see about a tingling pins and needles I have developed in this arm. I saw a temporary doctor and she was rough. I know she was only doing her job but as she woman-handled me I was astonished at how the phobia swept back. And the pain. I felt quite wobbly.

Why am I blogging this? Five reasons.

One is because it made me remember how dreadful I felt when I had the accident and how powerful phobias can be. This, I can use in my writing. I now believe that a phobia can explain why people will do weird things which are otherwise inexplicable.

Two is to thank my arm for standing up to the accident in the first place.

Three, to thank the people who have done so much to help me, Nr Dunkley the surgeon, Dr Newmarch,my GP and the therapists at Marlborough House in Taunton, Mr Marar, Daniel Hayward and Yvonne Bottarelli who have worked marvels. I have recovered from my morning wobble speedily due to their techniques.

Four, to thank the accident for forcing me to stop focusing on my training business and start to fulfill my dream of being a writer.

And finally, to acknowledge, in the biggest forum I have, that I have an injury, am getting over it and the pain and can live with the growing pains.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Ben Kane's The Silver Eagle

I enjoyed the first novel in The Forgotten Legion series and rushed to buy the second, The Silver Eagle. I found much of the book a splendid read. I like the characters a great deal, especially Brennus and Fabiola. Fabiola is a great creation, a slave woman who makes the best use of her looks and her intelligence to thrive in a world dominated by dangerous men. Kane introduces a lot of interesting minor characters who caught my imagination, sometimes more than the major ones. Sadly, he has a propensity for killing off some of these or letting them drift away from the narrative. Hopefully, some at least will return in later books.

I thought that the links between the Romulus and Fabiola sections worked better in this novel than in the first. I had to flip back to catch up with events far fewer times in this novel. The whole narrative flow worked better.

The best parts of the novel are where Kane focuses on the harsher aspects of life. He magics us to the cruelty and squalor that must have been everyday experiences for the Roman soldiers; shows the fragile hold that slaves had upon their own lives and illustrates well what Tom Holland says in Rubicon: the Romans were often very different from ourselves. Best of all are his battle scenes which are well researched and described with great skill and command of the narrative.

I thought he was poorly served by his editor on a few occasions. It could do with a little trimming over all. There are also careless errors in the text. Secundus, a one-armed veteran, was lucky enough to be able to raise his arms above his head for example. (Unless he carried the severed limb with him as a talisman this was surely beyond even the skills of the best healers.) On other occasions there are times when a word cut would have helped. 'Romulus looked over himself,' might have been better without the final word. Also, on occasion, modern idiom sneaks in when it shouldn't.

I know that we can be too picky about words but and the historical novelist has to tread a difficult path to give the sense of the past without distracting from the story. I am surprised that Kane continually uses accurate Roman ones, pilum and scutum, for example, which can sometimes slow the dialogue. Yet, at the same time, he calls ancient pirates Corsairs which conjures up the eighteenth century rather than the first century BC. I don't know if the names Ahmed and Mustafa were current two thousand years ago (especially for a Nubian) but again, they make me think of Moslem culture rather than Roman. Kane takes his research about Roman life very seriously so I was surprised to be brought up by these things which slowed my reading.

My biggest problem with the book is all the mystic foretelling of the future. However, this may be just about my personal choice so I won't harp on about it. I am sure that the people of this time were superstitious and would be able to read into events some explanation derived from a piece of liver or a bird flying backwards a few pages previously. On occasions, however, we are led to believe that the prophecies are really accurate rather than being explicable in some other way. I also found Tarquinius became more and more omniscient, soothsayer, military strategist and even a tour guide to Alexandria. I hope he calms down in the next novel.

Despite these criticisms I thought the book was a good read. The concept is a great one, showing how the powerful machinery of society can wreak havoc with individual lives, sending people from one end of the earth to another. The interesting thing here is how the characters deal with this maelstrom. The characters are interesting and I like the way he teases out their relationships under strain. I admire his ability to let us walk in Roman shoes, particularly those of the under-class. Kane interweaves historical narrative with the personal story with a light hand. His historical characters act in a believable manner and, in particular, he gives us a great insight into Brutus and, maybe, a believable motive for the later actions of the man. I shall definitely read the rest of the series and recommend it as one of the best novels set in a world which is a mixture of the strange and the disconcertingly familiar.

Friday, 9 September 2011

New e- reader promised by Waterstones.

James Daunt, the Managing Director of Waterstones, today announces they will launch a new e-reader which, he hopes will be at least the match and, hopefully, substantially better to the Kindle.

He has taken the lessons from Barnes and Nobles Nook and plans to emulate this. He hopes that the loyalty of Waterstones customers will mean they will choose to buy from them rather than Amazon.

He plans to have the e-reader available from Spring of 2012.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Trafficked: The Diary of a Sex Slave by Sibel Hodge

Sibel Hodge should be applauded for tackling this difficult and emotive subject. Trafficking is one of those things which everyone knows takes place but few people want to face. This novella relates the experiences of Elena, a young woman who has been snatched from her village and taken into a life of sexual servitude.

Hodge avoids sensationalism and sentimentality by writing in a restrained and controlled style. This serves to heighten the brutality and squalor of Elena’s new life. Slowly but surely we experience a terrible atmosphere of claustrophobia, hopelessness and despair. As a male reader, one of the most disturbing things is the collusion of the many men she comes into contact with, whether users of her sexual favours, taxi-drivers and even policemen.

I would have liked for the control and restraint in the writing to have been relieved at the height of the story as Elena’s heroism is in danger of getting a little lost in the objectivity of the prose. I also thought that the character of Jamie would have benefited from a more in-depth analysis of his character and motivation. However, I am aware that this may have removed the focus from the objective description of the dreadful life which Elena has been condemned to live.

This is an honest, tough and unremittingly recital of the inhumanity which some men descend to. All is not hopeless, however, and this well-judged and nuanced book allows us to see that a glimpse of better things in the end.

A dark and stormy day

It was a dark and stormy night is one of the most parodied openings to a novel.

It, and the fact that it is raining a storm here, got me wondering if weather affects people's writing. I like to write when it is calm generally but find that stormy weather does imbue my writing with increased pace. Weird but true.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Long Ships

A copy of ‘The Long Ships‘ by Frans G. Bengtsson has just been brought by the postman. I think it is also known as ‘Red Orm‘ in some countries.

I first read it at school and haven’t been able to get it until now through Amazon.

I started to read it and was immediately beguiled. The energy, the characterisation and the lightly worn historical verisimilitude are simply wonderful. It is one of those books which live with you for ever so I’m delighted to now own it.

I have a lot to do today but I’ll begrudge each moment until I can relax and plunge into the book.

Friday, 26 August 2011

A 5 star review for The Lost King: Resistance

I've just read another 5 star review for The Lost King: Resistance. It's by MegaReader who seems to read very widely about this period. Thanks very much, indeed.

The other great thing about this review, by the way, is that when I looked at MegaReader's other reviews I found lots of other novels which look really exciting.

Two things in one, a great review and a pointer to other novels. Fantastic.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Which places inspire you?

I have written before about my favourite place in the world, where I feel inspired. This is the lovely town of Menton. It is nestled between Monaco and Italy, a paragon of a frontier town. It is said to be the Pearl of France.

It has many literary associations, mainly because consumptive Victorian writers came here to recover their health or to die. Writers who visited or stayed here include Robert Louis Stevenson, Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola and Jean Cocteau. WB Yeats died in the next village. I love it.

I get my inspiration from two places. One is a lovely cafe overlooking the Mediterranean. I imagine Greek Triremes sailing past on their way to Marseilles, or even Odysseus searching for the Western Seas. I get my best ideas for stories here, for characters and plots. I scribble furiously in my notebook then glance up and look at the shimmering sea. Time for a glass of wine, I think.

The second place is sitting on a bench looking at the view of the old town.

My wife and I conjure with our life dreams here. I love Menton and we visit three or four times each year.

Now we are planning to take a senior gap year there, starting soon. Can't wait.

Where are the places which inspire you?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Back in circulation

I've not been blogging for a while because my wife and I have decided to move to France and have put our house on the market. Enough said for all those who have had the trauma of even beginning to move house. Back at the helm now, though.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

How about an indie writing prize for the UK

Prizes such as the Man Booker and Orange Prize generate a huge interest in their authors, as do prizes in the US such as the Pulitzer. I have found a few such prizes in the USA but how about one for indie writers in the UK?

If you know of one, please let me know because I can't find one.

If there isn't one and you'd like to think about planning one then contact me on twitter or on

Who first thought of indie publishing?

When most people think of indie publishing they think of Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo or Diesel. But who was the person or persons who first came up with the idea?

I want to thank them for making a life-time's dream come true.

Let's hear their names.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

What Rating would you give to Credit Ratings Agencies?

So, Standard and Poor’s have down-graded the US economy.

Given the fact that the masters of finance seem to have such trouble doing basic sums I wonder what rating ordinary people would give to financial institutions, including the Credit Ratings Agencies.

For me, none of them would include an A or any sort.

What do you think?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Ten people who screwed up my country

I’m feeling in need of a good rant so here is my list of ten people (plus) who I believe have screwed up Great Britian.

William the Conqueror. For stealing English lands and concentrating it into the hands of his robber barons who ruled the country as an alien elite. (And arguably, still do today.)

Richard Cromwell, son of the more famous Oliver, for making a mess of his time as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth and thereby allowing the Restoration of the monarchy to England.

William Pitt the Younger for fighting against Republican France and allying himself with countries dominated by tyrant Kings.

Lord Liverpool, the reactionary Prime Minister who did his best to make Britain a country fit only for the aristocrats and the wealthy.

Arthur Balfour for thinking that the Conservative Party had the right to reverse the will of the people by organising the House of Lords to obstruct the measures of the radical Liberal Party who had been overwhelmingly elected to office.

Stanley Baldwin for allowing the country to suffer more than it should have done in the Depression of the Thirties, refusing to re-arm adequately and presiding over a government which appeased Hitler.

Jim Callaghan for being an incompetent Chancellor of the Exchequer and even worse Prime Minister. As an indecisive, inadequate leader he dithered his way into defeat by my next villain.

Margaret Thatcher. For being a small-minded hysteric who set out to destroy the working class and, in the process, destroyed much of the industrial power of this country. She also encouraged the belief that Britain was still a powerful nation with the right to interfere in other nation’s business, encouraged the flow of money from the poor to the rich and soiled and derided the notion of society.

Arthur Scargill. For his hubris in thinking he had the right and the power to defeat Margaret Thatcher, an act which led to the destruction of the mining industry and its communities and a legacy of distrust for collective action.

The bankers. I don’t know all their names and don’t care to research this. They have ruined the economy which they are supposed to be the custodians of yet still get their fat bonuses while ordinary people are losing their jobs and their homes.

Phew, I enjoyed this. If you’d like to comment on who you believed screwed up your country please add a comment.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

1914. Great Britain declares war on Germany.

The First World War led to over 15 million deaths and 20 million casualties. It also ended the political, economic and military dominance of Europe. Four empires, Austria-Hungary,Germany, Ottoman and Russia disappeared. Two empires,France and Great Britain were terminally weakened. The war has haunted every generation since then. Worse still, it was refought, on an even more catastrophic scale, twenty years later.

I have been horrified and fascinated by the Great War since I was a child when I stood with my parents in silence on 11 November.

This fascination grew for two reasons. The first reason is that, unlike with the Second World War, I never read a convincing justification of why the war took place at all. The second is that the torment of the fighting men in the Great War seemed so dreadful. The thought of living in a trench for any period of time is appalling. The thought of clambering out of it and advancing into a hail of machine-gun bullets is beyond belief.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course. I have always assumed that nobody really had an idea of the horror of what they were embarking upon. As the years pass, I begin to suspect that they were much more aware than I realised, and therefore, much more culpable.

I began to wonder why the governments of Europe didn't end the war when they realised how terrible the casualties were. I had assumed that there was no mechanism to end the war. So I have recently been shocked to read that the Swiss and American governments made strenuous efforts to get the belligerents to the negotiating table but without success. Could the ruling class have really been that arrogant and unyielding?

And only a few days ago I read a second piece of information which made me question the whole madness of the politicians and the times.

When Lord Kitchener was made Secretary of State for War he appears to have been the lone voice who predicted that the war would last many years and cause terrible casualties. 'It will be over by Christmas' seemed to be the belief not just of the public but of the politicians as well. I assumed that the politicians did not believe Kitchener's wild prophecy.

Two days ago, however, I read 'Kitchener's army: the raising of the new armies, 1914-16 by Peter Simkins.

In fact,Kitchener told the Liberal government that the war would last beyond 1917 and that Britain would have to build an army many millions strong to throw into the balance when France began to feel the strain. The government immediately began to put his plans into effect, asking for half a million men to enlist immediately. These were the men who would be slaughtered on the Somme in 1916.

It is clear, therefore, that British politicians were prepared to launch a war knowing that it would destroy the lives of a generation.

I can only assume that they were not the only European government who knew this.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

How do we know when we are in a time of transition?

I love reading and writing about times of transition. I’m not so sure that I would like to live in one.

Of course, the people who live through transitions may well have no idea that their world is changing. Take the latest budget crisis in the USA. I suspect that the activists in the original Boston Tea Party had a sense of change and that they wanted to drive that change. They succeeded, big-time, helping to create a new nation without the need to bend the knee to a monarch, a nation destined to be the greatest economic power in the world.

What an irony if the present day Tea Party would have initiated an equally seismic change. It is not just their political opponents who felt they were in danger of destabilising the American economy, maybe setting it on the path towards decline. All empires have trod this path and there is often no foretelling at the time which factors may start them on the road.

However, we have to go back less than a century to find one event where it seems astonishing that there was no such foresight. This was to prove an event which destroyed empires and peoples on an unprecedented scale, an event which has haunted the politics, imagination and soul of the continent.

On August 2 1914 the German Government conquered Luxembourg and signed a secret treaty with the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Empire invaded Germany. In a move which meant that Great Britain and eventually the USA joined the war, the German government sent an ultimatum to Belgium and Britain began to mobilise.

The First World War proved to be Europe’s suicide attempt.

It would never have the same wealth, power and influence again. Four empires would fall, two more would live on weakened and on borrowed time. Worse than that, the whole savage conflict would be replayed a generation later.

I will look tomorrow at the extent to which people thought they were living on a precipice and what those who suspected they were actually did at the time.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Ben Kane's 'The Lost Legion'

I've just finished Ben Kane's first novel 'The Lost Legion.' Here's what I thought about it.

Ben Kane's novel 'The Lost Legion' is a gripping novel set in ancient Rome. Kane writes about the last days of the Roman Republic but with an unusual approach. He chooses his main characters from people on the margins of Roman society, those who inhabit the underbelly of the Republic and provide the essential services to keep the wealthy in a life of luxury. This means that the society they describe is almost as much of a mystery to them as it to the reader of two thousand years later.

Kane opens the book by giving us Tarquinius, a character from the long-conquered Etruscan society, moves swiftly to introduce Brennus a giant of a Gaul and then to Romulus and Fabiola, slave siblings who are sold into two of the most awful worlds of Rome, the brothel and the circus.

Kane chooses to develop different streams of his novel, never an easy task but one which he manages with skill. I never felt I had to go back to re-read what was happening to one of the characters even when there had been a gap since I had last read about them.

I particularly liked his portrayal of the clever, beautiful Fabiola. Many epic historical novels tend to side-line female characters but Fabiola is not a woman content to be side-lined by anybody, (including, I suspect, the author.) I look forward to seeing how she will develop.

Kane seems to me to be historically accurate, adept at capturing the essence of Romans such as Caesar, Crassus and Mark Antony. This dedication to authenticity led to one of my few niggles. He uses the accurate Roman words for weapons, almost all of the time. This gave me pause; I'd rather he dispensed with the Latin and said swords and shields for ease of reading. Because of his accuracy I was also somewhat surprised to hearRomulusdescribed as a teenager and wondered whether Alexander's soldiers would have been as fair of skin and hair as Kane suggests.

These tiny niggles apart, I loved this book. I have bought the next one in the series and look forward to branching out to his book about Hannibal.

Bad news, Great news

The bad news is that I have been ill with a nasty infection this weekend. The good news, correction, the great news is that I have received my first royalty payment from Amazon.

I’m so impressed at the speed and efficiency of this mammoth organisation.

Leslie Dunn, my ex-father-in-law (there should be a term for this) has just published a collection of short stories called ‘Funny Peculiar’ on so I shall nurse my germs while reading this. You can find this on:

Thursday, 28 July 2011


I wrote this morning about how I became interested in transitions following my move from London to the English Midlands when I was almost nine years of age. (Don't worry, I didn't go on my own; I went with my family.)

This story captures the sense of transition I felt at the time.


The fields were piled with snow. The narrow trees stood stark against the sky; hideous witches whispering dreadful spells. David hated living in the country and longed to be back in the familiarLondonstreets. Yet he was drawn to tramp out here to watch the boundless landscape and shudder.

He pulled his coat closer. The light was failing and the trees looked more threatening by the minute. He decided it was time to go home.

He turned. Three boys were silently watching him. One was large and thick-set. The second was tall and wore a woollen hat. The third was much smaller than the others. Even under his coat he looked thin and cold. They stood unmoving for almost a minute and then the largest boy slouched towards him. 'What you looking at?' he asked.

'Nothing,' David answered.

The boy eyed him narrowly. 'You're the new kid aren't you? The one fromLondon?'

David nodded.

'I expect you want to be in my gang,' the boy said.

David thought for a moment, wondering how best to answer. 'Okay,' he said.

'Not so fast,' said the boy. 'You have to pass a test first. Come on.'

He led the way towards a line of trees and plunged beneath an overhanging bough. They came out onto a rough green above a noisy, splashing stream. The banks leading down to the water were steep and high; more than twice the height of David.

'That's our den,' said the boy, gesturing to the far bank. 'And this is our bridge.'

A large tree had toppled over and completely straddled the stream. Its huge roots reared up in front of him like the heads of a hundred serpents. Its boughs rested on the far bank, a tongue of land gouged out by the stream, its narrowest point guarded by a hedge of impassable bramble. It was very nearly an island, the perfect den. David grinned at the sight of it.

'The bridge is the only way to get to our den,' said the boy. 'You can join our gang if you dare walk across it.'

David looked at the tree and then down at the stream rushing below. He dreaded heights. He wasn't certain that he even wanted to join the gang. But when he looked at the den he made up his mind. He put his foot on the tree trunk. It was wet and slippery. He had never even climbed a tree before; still less done anything like this.

He had taken only four or five steps when his foot slid. His heart lurched. If he had been further out he might have plunged down the bank. Cautiously he clambered down from the tree.

'He's chicken,' said the boy with the hat.

David felt the blood drain from his face.

The large boy looked at him with contempt and then nimbly led the others swaggering across the bridge. They never looked back. David watched them in bitter silence before turning and racing blindly away.

The snow thawed at last but then a savage wind began to blow. Day and night it never ceased. Occasionally it would drop to a growl but most of the time it bellowed like a wounded beast. Every day David went to stare at the bridge and wonder what it would be like to explore the den on the other side. If he saw the gang he would quickly find a place to hide.

One morning David trudged across the fields in his usual journey to the bridge. The gang were dangled in the roots of the tree and were watching him.

'I tell you what,' called the boy with the woollen hat. 'Why don't you have another go at trying to cross our bridge?'

David licked his lips. He heard a thudding in his ears; he was not sure if it was the wind or his own blood. He nodded mutely and climbed up onto the trunk.

He was relieved to find that the trunk was no longer slippery. He stuck his foot out tentatively, like a climber searching for a tiny toehold. Cautiously he placed his weight down and stepped out. He could see clearly every detail of the tree-trunk. Its wrinkled surface was like the hide of a crocodile. The beating in his ears began to roar louder than the wind.

His next step brought him out over the bank. There was no longer earth below him now, merely air. If he slipped this time he would plummet down to the tumbling stream below. His heart began to falter. He took one more step and then froze.

He was stuck. He dare not go forward and could not go back.

He heard the boys laughing. The large boy called out, 'You Londoners are cowards. Don't bother trying to join our gang again. We don’t want you.'

He heard them leave. Terror gripped him. He would be left here for ever.

Then a voice called out. 'You're only just over the stream. Step back and you can jump down.'

David glanced down. The boy was right. He stepped back and slipped to the ground. He bent down, dizzy and shaking. He had never felt such shame.

For the next three weeks he kept away from the bridge, dreading to meet the boys or see his place of failure. Yet every day he felt drawn towards it. He was lonely, he longed to see the den and he yearned to find the courage to dare the long walk across the air.

One Sunday afternoon he put on his coat and headed for the country. He looked around with a puzzled glance. There was something different in the air. Then he realised. The wind had stopped. He took his coat off and draped it over his shoulder. The sun was warm on his back. He could hear birds calling in the air.

He took a deep breath and started to run towards the bridge.

The gang were strolling some way from it but when they saw him they raced back to try to cut him off. He crashed through the branches and clambered onto the tree just ahead of them.

'What you doing on our bridge?' cried the large boy.

'I want to try again,' said David.

'You can't. I've told you. You're a coward.'

'Let him,' said the thin boy.

The large boy looked at his friend in astonishment. The thin boy stood with fists clenched and seemed to be bristling with anger.

'You can't stop him from trying,' he continued. 'You don't make up all the rules.'

David watched for a moment then turned away and started across the bridge. He realised he still had his coat upon his shoulder; impatiently he flung it to the ground. He reached the brink between earth and air and stopped. He glanced down at the stream then dragged his eyes away.

Some way in front of him a large meadow climbed to a line of trees upon the skyline. Half way up this meadow was a mass of daffodils. It looked like a piece of the sun had dripped onto the earth. He focused his eyes upon this and began to pace carefully along the bridge.

He never took his eyes from the daffodils. He felt the slight bounce in the tree and heard the gush of the stream below. He kept his eyes on the daffodils. He sensed that he was getting close to the far bank and risked a quick look down. The sudden movement disorientated him. With a jerk he snapped his head upright. He felt his head swim. His arms seemed to grow to an extraordinary length and flapped around like ungainly wings. He teetered, he felt his balance go, he scrabbled to maintain a foothold.

He fell.

The fall was both slow and swift. Time seemed to pause as the bank flew towards him. Then time shattered and he landed with a thud. The breath smashed out of his body and a pain like a spike rammed through his leg. He blacked out.

A voice sounded dimly in his head. It was the large boy. 'You're a bloody failure. You've had your chance. Just get lost.'

He forced his eyes open. He could barely see. The spike in his leg seemed to be exploding in size. Hot tears filled his eyes.

The thin boy called. 'Are you alright? Do you want a hand?'

A terrible shame gripped David and whipped him into fury. 'No,' he cried. 'Not from you lot. Get lost yourselves.'

The boys threw a few stones at him, jeered and left.

David sobbed and glanced down. He was almost at the bottom of the bank, just above the stream. He stared at his leg. It was bent at an impossible angle. Then he saw a point of greyish white peering through his flesh. It was a jagged edge of bone.

He gasped in horror. He was truly stuck now and nobody knew where he was.

He lay like that for a long while, numb and with no idea what to do. The sun slipped down towards the horizon and he began to shiver. In an hour or two it would be dark. He began to cry. He would be out here all night. Perhaps he would die.

Then he had an idea. He glanced up at the bank above him. If he could only climb up to the den he could crawl into the brambles and get some shelter for the night. He wiped his nose and began to haul himself up. He retched with pain. He reached up again and hauled. Again the dizzying pain sliced through him. He bit his lip and reached up once again. This will take hours, he thought dully. But he knew now that he could do it.

The light began to fail. He was getting desperate even though he had almost reached the top. He took a deep breath and prepared himself for another haul.

A noise sounded from above. He forced his head up. Standing on the tree in the gloom was the thin boy, his eyes darting round in search.

'Bloody hell,' he cried, then pounded along the tree and scrambled down to David. 'What you done?' he asked.

'I've broken my leg.'

The thin boy glanced down and gasped. 'Have you crawled all the way up?' he asked.

David nodded.

'I'll get help,' said the boy. He climbed onto the bridge but then came back. He leaned over and looked at David. His eyes were shining.

'My name's Mick,' he said. 'You can join our gang, right enough.'

'But he said I couldn't. I haven't passed the test.'

'Oh yes you have,' Mick said. 'Even Jim will say so now. You've definitely passed. You can join our gang.'

David’s head swam. ‘But I might not want to now,’ he said.

This story can be found in my collection, Pick and Mix. During the months of July and August all proceeds from the sale of the collection will go to Alzheimer's charities.

Borders, margins, transitions

I’ve finally decided what I want this blog to be about. Borders, margins and transitions.

Why these three concepts?

I’ve always liked the ideas of borders, where one people and one culture bump up against one another, for good or ill. My favourite place in the world is Menton, on the French/Italian border. It is a rich mixture of the two cultures, plus many other, more transient ones. You can walk from the classic calm of Menton to the noise and exuberance of Ventimiglia. And, if you like, you can even travel west to the other world of Monaco.

Menton, looking towards the Italian border

I also like the idea of margins and the people who live on them. TheRoman Empirein the west was not destroyed by the Huns from the distant steppe but by the Germanic people who lived on the margins of the Empire and knew its ways. The British were expelled fromIndianot by the Rajahs or by the ordinary people but by Indians such as Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, men who had been educated by the British system and were typical of neither the British nor the Indian population.

And I love the idea of transition. I think this is because, at the age of nine, my family moved from London to Chesterfield in the English midlands. It was only 150 miles away but if felt like emigrating. And it felt like going back in time, 100 years in some cases, 800 years in others. I’ll post a story later today which captures this.

I also think that in the strange frontier land where any two disciplines connect with each other is often where the most creative and original ideas come from.

I have come to realise that my novels are also about these themes. In ‘The Lost King: Resistance’, Edgar, the legitimate heir to the throne is marginalised by William the Conqueror and theNormans. The country begins a time of massive upheaval and transition. Edgar flees north toScotland. Much of The Wasteland is set in the borders between the south and north ofEngland. In this novel, Edgar also goes through a period of transition, coming of age in troubled times.

I will finish now because I am writing the last chapter of my novel which is set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last years of the twelfth century. Not surprisingly, as I write it, I discover that this is also a novel of borders, margins and transition.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Where do fictional characters come from?

I'm re-reading Joseph Conrad's Nostromo and in the prologue he tells how the idea for the protagonist first came to him. In 1875 he heard about a man who had stolen a boat full of silver during the course of a revolution. Conrad then completely forgot about the story for twenty six or twenty seven years.

Then he chanced to pick up a shabby book; the autobiography of an American sailor. The sailor said that he worked for this man who was now captain of a small boat he had bought with some of the proceeds of his theft. The sailor said that the man had been able to steal the silver only because his employers had trusted him implicitly. Yet the American sailor considered his captain to be a rascal, a small cheat, stupidly ferocious, morose and altogether unworthy of the greatness which this opportunity had thrust upon him.

Conrad wondered whether this would make the basis of a good story but eventually decided that his talents did not run to writing about a rascal who committed a robbery.

'It was only when it dawned upon me,' Conrad writes, 'that the purloiner of the treasure need not necessarily be a confirmed rogue, that he could be even a man of character, an actor and possibly a victim in the changing scenes of a revolution, it was only then that I had the first vision of a twilight country and events flowing from the passions of men short-sighted in good and evil.'

I love this story of how one of the great figures of literature was born. It sent a shiver down my spine.

I began to consider how my characters appear and are changed, the genesis and evolution of them. So many of my favourite characters seem to appear from nowhere, tapping on my keyboard and yelling, 'Write about me, write about me.'

Does this happen to you? I'd love to hear how the characters you write about came into life.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Book giveaway

To celebrate my first three months as an indie writer I am giving away free copies of my books. Any resultant reviews and tags will be most gratefully received.

5 copies of each of my titles are available. To get a free copy please email me on:

saying which title you would like.

I am keeping this offer open for 24 hours and will email everybody after 12 noon GMT on Monday.

Here are the titles.

The Lost King: Resistance. The long suppressed story of how Edgar, the legitimate heir to the English throne led the resistance to William the Conqueror.

Wasteland: Book 2 of The Lost King series. Edgar enters into an alliance with the Danes. The combined armies experience swift victory against the Normans. William, however, plans his revenge.

Nuggets: Fast fiction for busy readers. These stories are phone-friendly.

Mr Toad's Wedding: The prize winning story of the Kenneth Grahame Society competition to write a story in the style of 'The Wind in the Willows.'

My collection of short stories Pick and Mix is not included in this giveaway as I am giving proceeds from these sales in July and August to Alzheimer's Charities.

Thanks very much for your interest,

Martin Lake

Saturday, 23 July 2011

'Let's Get Digital' Part 2 of the Interview with David Gaugran

In yesterday's post I interviewed David Gaughran about how and why he wrote his book, 'Let's Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should.' Today, I'm posting the second part of his interview. The book is great, full of useful information and with an entertaining and engaging style. If you don't know how to bookmark on your reader, learn how to do so before you read; I've never book-marked so much before. It also includes success stories from 32 indie writers, including, (I'm counting every half dozen in the list here to be impartial) Cheryl Shireman, Bob Mayer, Mel Comley, N Gemini Sasson, Kenneth Rosenberg, J Carson Black. You'll be encouraged by all of them.

Here's the second part of the interview.
Martin Lake: Is this in any way different to your approach to your fiction titles?

David Gaughran: So far. I charge for my two short story e-books, and I plan to charge for my next, a novel. I will have free stories in the future, but I’m not sure if I would adopt this approach for a novel. I can see the logic in some people doing that when they have written a series, hoping to hook the reader into the rest, but I’m less confident that would be effective for standalone novels (which is what I write).

Martin: I've mentioned steep learning curves. Could you tell us which people have been most useful to you in getting published?

David: Guido Henkel’s free formatting guide is superb, and I point everyone to that. But there is so much great, free information out there. Moses Siregar does wonderful podcasts. And, as well as the blogs mentioned above, Mike Shatzkin, Scott Nicholson, Bob Mayer, and Robin Sullivan all have great blogs. I find new ones every week.

Martin: What has been the most frustrating thing about self-publishing for you?

David: Formatting is my least favourite aspect. I think I can do it quite well, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a pain in the ass – especially with something a little trickier like non-fiction.

Martin: If you were to suggest 3 must-know tips for self-publishers, what would they be?

David: #1 Make sure your work is ready before you self-publish – use beta readers, learn how to self-edit, get a second a opinion. #2 Remember that you are not just competing against other self-publishers, you are up against every book that comes out of New York and London too, and that’s the standard you will be measured against. #3 The one thing that is guaranteed not to increase your sales is checking your sales. The one thing that is guaranteed to increase your sales is new work. Writing new stuff must come first. Always.

Martin: What do you think the future holds for indie writers and how can we best position ourselves to take advantage of it?

David: So much is unknowable, but right now, the conditions are favourable for indie writers, and the signs for the immediate future are very good. Amazon will probably open Kindle Stores in Spain and France next. A whole load of new e-readers will come on the market in the next few months. Lots of people will buy them and switch to e-books. Things are only going one way in that regard. But there are challenges too. Publishers are racing to get those backlists online. There will be a surge of people self-publishing for the first time. Publishers will drop their prices. Competition will increase. The best thing a writer can do is to keep producing top quality work. Readers never get enough of that.

Martin: I write historical novels so I'm looking forward to your forthcoming novel. Could you tell us something about it?

David: When I was travelling across South Americain 2005, I came across the story of José de San Martín – the Argentine general who freed half the continent in a bloody twelve-year war. He took on the might of the Spanish Empire with an army created from scratch out of vagabonds, rogues, ex-cons, runaways, and mercenaries. But the fascinating part, to me, was that at the peak of his powers, just before the final battle, he resigned and handed his armies over to a rival. Nobody knows why he did it. He went into exile and never spoke of it. So I tried to find out why. Before I knew it, I was writing a novel.

Martin: Finally, your book is called 'Let's Get Digital.' How big an influence has Olivia Newton-John been in your life?

David: I watched Xanadu at a very young age. It had a profound effect on me.

Thank you, David. I wish you continued good luck with all of your books.

Tomorrow. I am giving away copies of my books. Because half of the world is asleep at the moment, I thought it only fair to leave the details until tomorrow so come back to the blog to see how to get a free copy.

Friday, 22 July 2011

An interview with David Gaughran about 'Let's Get Digital'

Before I start the interview, a little background to give a sense of how fast things are moving. I published my first collection of short stories on Kindle on April 15 2011 and a historical novel a few days later. The months since then have been the steepest learning curve of my life. You might think that learning curves are arduous and frustrating. Not a bit of it. This one has been amazing and exhilarating. What has made it less arduous and less frustrating is finding people who are not only extremely knowledgeable but generous-spirited enough to share their knowledge and experience.

For me, foremost of these is David Gaughran. I don't know how I found him, (presumably across a crowded internet) but I'm grateful that I did. I am delighted to have this opportunity to interview him for my blog.

Martin Lake: You've just published 'Let's Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should’, on Kindle and other e-readers, primarily from Smashwords. When I read it yesterday I realised that you decided to self- publish your books as recently as April 3 2011. You began to share your experiences immediately on your blog.

What made you decide to do this?

David Gaughran: The short answer is Barry Eisler & Amanda Hocking. Even though their moves were – on the surface – in opposition to each other, I saw both as a validation of self-publishing. I was stuck in bed with a rotten flu for a week, and read everything I could. Then I decided to self-publish some shorts to see if I enjoyed the experience, and blog about it along the way. Of course, like a lot of self-publishers, I had been trying to crack the system for quite some time without any success. So, while it was quite a sudden epiphany in some ways, my mind was already reaching around for another solution.

Martin: You've collected together all of your blog posts (and more) in your book 'Let's Get Digital.'

How do you find the information? How do you keep informed of what is current?

Dave: I read widely. I’ve been reading Joe Konrath’s blog and Dean Wesley Smith’s blog for quite some time. I recommend every writer to read the last three or four years of their blogs. It’s an education. But there are so many other great blogs out there: Michael Hicks, Passive Guy, and Michael Stackpole are among the first ones I check. On top of that, I read all the trade publishing stuff: Publisher’s Weekly, Ebook Newser, GalleyCat, The Bookseller, as well as some agents’ and editors’ blogs.

Martin: Were you surprised by the quick success of your blog and to what do you attribute this?

Dave: Very much so. In my first month (April), I got 3,500 views, which I thought would take a few months to build. But a few months later, I’m getting 20,000 a month (and still growing very fast). I think there were a few key things leading to the rapid growth.

I was talking about a very hot topic – self-publishing really broke out into the mainstream in the last few months – e-books (briefly) became the #1 format, there were lots of bookstore closures, John Locke sold a million e-books, and JK Rowling decided to self-publish the Harry Potter e-books. It seemed like there was a bigger story each week, and I just had to ride that wave.

If anyone is looking for tips I would say: #1 Blog as often as you can. The more you blog, the more traffic you get. #2 Pick something you are really, truly passionate about. #3 Don’t speak at your readers – they can switch on the TV for that – speak with them. Pose questions. Invite comments. Get a discussion going.

Martin: What made you decide to offer 'Let's Get Digital’ as a free copy as well as charging for it?

Dave: Initially, I was just posting the steps as I went through them (editing, design, pricing etc.). I had the idea from the start of just collating them into a free PDF for anyone to download after – simply as a reference. All the information was out there, it was just scattered across lots of different sites. I wanted to make it easier for the next guy. That’s all.

However, I also started posting about the revolutionary change that was taking place in publishing. It became very clear to me very quickly that e-book dominance was inevitable, and that anyone who thought that publishers and bookstores were just going through a bad patch, or that e-books were a passing fad, were ignoring the change that was unfolding in front of them.

If you break it down to the essentials, the main reason you give a trade publisher such a huge percentage of your royalties is for distribution. They can get you in bookstores all across the country. That’s next-to-impossible on your own. But now their stranglehold on distribution has been broken.

People aren’t shopping in bookstores as much. They’re shopping online, they’re switching to e-books. And self-publishers can match the distributive reach of publishers in those two areas simply by publishing with a handful of companies.

I started blogging about all that stuff, and people really responded to it. The next logical step was to take all of that and put it into one coherent argument. Explaining why people should self-publish, as well as how.

As such, it became a much bigger project. I wanted to stay true to the original idea, but I also wanted to cover my costs. Charging for the e-reader version and giving the PDF away for free was a nice balance.

Some people were worried that the free version would cannibalize the sales of the paid version. But I wasn’t that worried, and in any event, I knew there would be promotional benefits to having a free book out there, which could circulate widely.

Tomorrow: I continue with my interview with David. We discuss his approach to pricing fiction, the people who have helped him, the frustrations of self-publishing, his top 3 hints for indie writers and a look at his future novel.