Friday, 16 September 2016

James Brooke (2): Headhunters and Pirates

In last week's blog we saw how James Brooke became the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Becoming the ruler of the country, though, was just the start. Now Brooke had to decide what to do with it. 

Brooke had been very impressed with the native Dyak people of the country and he decided that his primary objective was to improve their lot. Being a Victorian gentleman, he set out to do this the only way he knew: by bringing the advantages of civilisation and trade. At least they were spared the dubious benefits of Western religion. Brooke was not an enthusiast for missionary work and managed to keep church missions out of the country for many years.

The notion of the noble savage was still a popular one in the first half of the 19th century and Brooke became sentimentally attached to the Dyaks. He thought them a noble people who lived off the land. They survived by hunting and subsistence agriculture. He saw them as victimised by the Malays and exploited by the Chinese whenever they traded with them. He was probably right in both regards, but the Dyaks were far from innocent inhabitants of a new Eden. Brooke, in fairness, recognised this. The Dyaks were headhunters. They would store the heads of their enemies hanging from the ridge poles of their homes. The heads are often dried out and appear shrunken, hanging there like macabre bunches of coconuts. I've seen them myself.

I'm sure that as a civilised gentleman of his period Brooke was uncomfortable with the idea of casual murder, but it was not the immorality of killing that was his principal concern. The practice of headhunting made it very dangerous for people to leave their own tribal territory, and this made trade between tribes almost impossible. With his early 19th-century ideas of the value and civilising influence of trade, it was the effect of headhunting on commerce that most concerned him. Over the period of his rule, Brooke managed to more or less eliminate the custom of taking heads and this was one of his most impressive achievements. It did resurface during World War II. When Borneo was occupied by the Japanese, the Allies tacitly encouraged the Dyaks to take Japanese heads. It is said that here and there you can see, hanging from ridge poles, small heads with little round spectacles. I must admit I have not seen these personally. Headhunting actually continues into the present-day when there is communal violence in the area. It is reported in the local press, but there seems a tacit agreement that this is not something that Malaysia wants discussed by the wider world.

Brooke thought that he had brought comparative peace and prosperity to his private kingdom, but the political intrigues of the Malay court were to ensnare him again. There was a perennial problem of piracy in the South China seas. Brooke realised that this was not a case of individual captains plundering here and there but a concerted effort by warlike Dyaks whose economy depended largely on piracy. These so-called Sea-Dyaks posed a threat to the peace of Sarawak. They had long-standing relationships with the original Malay rulers allowing them to move up-river and plunder the interior. Brooke decided that they had to be stopped. Unfortunately for the Sea-Dyaks their activities had also come to the notice of the Royal Navy.

The local naval commander, Captain Keppel,  met with Brooke and they agreed that the best way forward was to strike at the pirate strongholds in Borneo.

The campaign against the pirates started early in May 1843 and continued until almost the end of June. At this point Keppel was ordered to China and his duties then kept him away through the winter. Brooke continued to have trouble from pirates while he was away and, when Keppel arrived back in Singapore the following summer, the two men planned a decisive strike against them. This took place at the beginning of August 1844.

A fleet of small boats, supported by HMS Dido and the Phlegethon, a steam powered paddle ship owned by the East India Company fought their way upriver to the main pirate base at Beting Marau.

Attack on Beting Marau
Beting Marau was, by Dyak standards, a large settlement. Women and children lived there as well as men of fighting age. The British started their attack with rocket fire and pursued the enemy with overwhelming force. The British claimed that several thousand Dyaks had engaged in battle. The British lost 29 killed and 56 wounded. Nobody knows how many Dyaks died – probably over a thousand – but when news of the massacre reached England there were protests in Parliament.

A commission of enquiry into Brooke's rule was held in Singapore. Nowadays we tend to concentrate on their view of the massacre and the events that led up to it. At thetime, the enquiry was much more concerned with the legal status of Brooke rule and whether or not the Royal Navy should have concerned itself in the internal affairs of a country which, it turned out, was not actually part of the British Empire at all, the Rajah owing his loyalty to the Sultan, rather than to Queen Victoria. The question of the massacre was dealt with, though and evidence was given that large scale piracy presented a real danger to both British and native shipping in the area. The Royal Navy, it was decided, had acted properly in moving against the pirates in order to prevent this danger. There was no doubt that the pirates at Beting Marau were armed and resisting, so the massacre was, by the standards of the day, a justified military action.

Although he was exonerated, Brooke was bitter about his treatment. It was especially galling as, far from making a fortune by exploiting Sarawak’s natural resources, Brooke was losing money hand over fist. He estimated annual revenue at between £5000 and £6000 and out of this had to cover the salaries and costs of his administration, his own living expenses, and the upkeep of the two ships he maintained. By 1859 his family and friends in England were trying to put together a loan (more realistically, probably a gift) to bail him out of his financial troubles. Brooke himself wrote:

"If no more is to be had £5000 will satisfy me, as a return for my private fortune – but I should like £10,000 – I am most anxious to raise this money and so to avert the necessity of applying to a foreign power – but with the conviction forced upon us that no monetary assistance can be gained in England… France will be more just and more generous than England – more iniquitously unjust she could not be.”

His distress is obvious. In part it is explained by his state of health. Years in the Far East had left him a sick man and he was now spending much of his time in England. Relief, though, came from a friend of the family – Angela Burdett Coutts of the banking dynasty made a loan of £5000. In the years that followed Miss Coutts and James Brooke became good friends. She took a lively interest in political decisions involving Sarawak, which was by then a constant source of irritation at the Foreign Office because of its ambivalent status with in regard to Britain with. Her massive wealth also provided much-needed security as Brooke tried to negotiate with a European country – by this stage almost any European country – to help keep Sarawak financially viable and reasonably independent.

Angela Burdett-Coutts (National Portrait Gallery)

Brooke’s later years were not entirely happy. As his health deteriorated, he spent longer and longer in England and was increasingly preoccupied with the whole question of who was to inherit Sarawak on his death. He fell out with one nephew and dabbled with the idea of handing the country over to the British – or the French – or the Greeks – or practically anyone who could pay him off with enough money to restore his fortune and who would guarantee the defence of the country. The Dutch had taken to attacking Sarawak’s trading ships, so the defence of the country was quite a significant issue.

In the end, he passed the country onto another nephew, Charles. Rajah Charles proved to be everything James Brooke was not: a natural bureaucrat, organised and methodical and, truth be told, quite dull. James Brooke had taken a wild province of warring tribes, poverty, and political intrigue and turned it into a small but respectable state with peace and comparative prosperity for all. Unlike most British colonisers, his love for the native Dyaks meant that it was ruled with the consent and, indeed, approbation of the local inhabitants. The economy, though, was a mess and the country's relationship with the great powers the controlled the oceans around it was uncertain. Brooke's achievement was to create a nation, albeit a very small one. His nephew was to build on that to make a state that was to remain independent through three generations of white Rajahs, their rule only finishing with the Japanese invasion in World War II.

About 'The White Rajah'

The White Rajah is a novel quite closely based on the life of Sir James Brooke. Like the true story of his life, it raises issues about colonialism and our attitudes to what we now call Third World countries. But like his life, it also has pirates and rebellions and battles. And there's an orang-utan who, if I'm entirely honest, probably wasn't there in real life. It took, as you can imagine from this blog, quite a long time to research and write and is available on Kindle at the embarrassingly low price of £1.99/$2.99. You can use this book link to buy it, wherever you are in the world. Please do.

Friday, 9 September 2016

James Brooke: or how to find and rule your own country

Time for some regular history this week.

As you might possibly have noticed, a couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk on the life of James Brooke. Brooke is the real-life hero that The White Rajah is based on.

Although I have cut down the presentation quite a lot, it's still more than enough for one week, so I'm splitting it into two parts. In this first part, we look at Brooke's early life and how he came to rule his own country.

Portrait of Sir James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant
National Portrait Gallery London. Used with permission

James Brooke was a child of British colonialism. Born in Benares, India in 1803, his father was the chief of the East India Company’s provincial court. He spent his first 12 years in India, a pampered child in a country where an Englishman could live like a lord. When his parents, apparently finally noticing his lack of education, send him to school in England, it was a rude surprise. He ended up in boarding school at Norwich but ran away after two or three years and moved in with the family of Charles Keegan, a retired Indian civilian and friend of his family, who was living in Bath.

Eventually his father retired from India and he, too, returned to Bath. Reunited with his family, James eventually settled with them, but as soon as he was 16, he returned to India and commissioned into the East India Company's army. He was posted to the 6th Native Infantry and became a Sub-Assistant, Commissary-General. He was not, though, by nature a logistician. In fact he had always wanted to be a cavalry officer and when war broke out with Burma he overheard the general in command complaining they had no light cavalry to act as scouts. Lieutenant Brooke immediately offered to raise a troop and he was allowed to call for volunteers from among the infantry. He formed them into a reasonably efficient irregular cavalry, which operated ahead of the advancing column. It was typical of his character – and, indeed, normal for young officers in those days – that he led from the front and the result was that, early in the campaign, he was wounded and invalided back to Britain. His recovery was slow and it was not until 3½ years after the injury that he was able to leave England to rejoin his regiment. However, his ship was wrecked off the Isle of Wight and, though he survived, his health was again affected. He was forced to apply for six months further leave. By the time he was ready to re-embark, it was winter and bad weather delayed his departure until March 1830. The weather continued stormy or – in the days of sail just as bad – excessively calm and his voyage on the Castle Huntley was very slow. It was not until 18 July that he reach Madras. The maximum amount of leave that he could take was five years and that was up on the 30th. This gave him 12 days to get from Madras to Calcutta which was impossible. Although he looked for temporary employment in Madras so as not to break his contract, this was refused and he resigned from the Company's service.

It seems likely that Brooke was quite happy to leave the Army. Although he had proved an able soldier in action, his was not a personality well-suited to the tedium of administration when there was no actual fighting going on. It seems likely that he could have remained in the Company's service – his father was lobbying with every evidence of success for this to happen – but he probably didn't really want to. Instead, he chose to stay on with the Castle Huntly, exploring the waters of the Eastern Archipelago and calling at the British possessions of Penang, Malacca and Singapore before sailing on to Canton.

That mad-cap voyage, during which the still-young Brooke seems to have spent much of his time simply having fun and getting into scrapes with the local Chinese, proved to be a crucial influence on the way his life was to develop. Back in England he announced that it was his intention to buy a ship and to sail in search of adventure (and profit, of course) in the Far East.

Eventually he managed to persuade his father's put up money and let him buy the Findlay "a rakish slaver-brig, 290 tons burden". In May 1834, he set off to sail to the East and a new life as a merchant-adventurer.

It was a disaster. A brig needed a large crew to run and the venture could never be profitable. Eventually Brooke decided to give up the enterprise and return to England.

That should have been that. Brooke should have learned the lesson of his youthful escapades and settled down to responsible employment. But he seemed incapable of settling down to anything. His father's pension meant that there was no urgency in finding alternative employment and he remained in England doing nothing in particular. Not that long after his return, though, his father died, leaving him with enough money to relaunch his idea of voyaging in the Far East.

This time he bought a schooner, the Royalist, which was much better suited to the sort of business he had planned. After a proving voyage in the Mediterranean, he set off  again in December 1838.

Brooke’s head was filled with romantic notions and trade was a secondary consideration for him. He had decided that the power of the Dutch was in decline and that now was the time to expand British influence in the area and that he was the man for the job. His goal was Borneo, which he considered ripe for improving trade with Britain. His initial plan was to start his adventures at Marudu Bay in the north of the island. When he arrived in Singapore, though, the political buzz was all about Muda Hassim, the Bendahara of Brunei. Essentially' a Bendahara runs the place, though he is nominally responsible to the Sultan. However, the legitimacy of the Sultan lies with the bendahara. If you think of Muda Hassim as the Sultan of Brunei, you will be hopelessly wrong in terms of the formalities of the Brunei court, but you’ll have a fair handle on the realities of the situation.

A few months before Brooke's arrival in Singapore a British brig called the Napoleon had been wrecked in Borneo. Muda Hassim had treated the crew with every courtesy, fed and clothed them at his own expense, and arranged for their safe return to Singapore.

Brooke was not a man to set out a plan and stick to it, but rather somebody always more than willing to take advantage of any change in his circumstances to strike out in a new direction. He decided to seize this opportunity to develop a relationship with Hassim. On 27 July 1839, the Royalist slipped quietly away from Singapore and headed to Borneo.

The politics of Borneo in the mid-19th century were Byzantine. Power was held by Malays. The indigenous people – the Dyaks – were relatively powerless. When Brooke arrived in Sarawak, Hassim was occupied in putting down a rising, of Dyaks, who were supported by a faction within the Malay community – the Siniawan Malays. In fact, they were almost certainly supported by elements within the Malay court who were trying to reduce Hassim’s power. By now the uprising had been going on for four years. Hassim had been in Sarawak for months and nothing seemed to have changed since he moved his court there.

Hassim saw Brooke’s arrival as providential. Although there were only 28 men on board the Royalist, Hassim looked at her six cannon and the White Ensign hanging at her mast and saw her as a symbol of British power. If he could get Brooke involved in the war, he thought he could finally bring things to a conclusion and return to the seat of power in Brunei.

For while, Brooke refused to be drawn in. In fact, he returned to Singapore and made various other short expeditions before coming back to Sarawak in August 1840. By now, the Dyaks had been defeated  and mostly come over to Hassim. However, the Siniawan Malays were holding out. Hassim again asked Brooke for assistance. Here is Brooke’s own account of his attitude to intervening in what was, effectively, a civil war in Borneo.

I may here state my motives for being a spectator at all, or participator (as may turn out), in this scene. In the first place, I must confess that curiosity strongly prompted me; since to witness the Malays, Chinese [yes, there were Chinese too, immigrants who essentially monopolised trade], and Dayaks in warfare was so new, but the novelty alone might plead an excuse for this desire. But it was not the only motive; for my presence is a stimulus to our own party, and will probably depress the other in proportion. I look upon the cause of the Raja [Hassim] as most just and righteous; and the speedy close of the war will be rendering a service to humanity, especially if brought about by treaty.

Brooke was already clearly far from a mere spectator. He provided advice and encouragement to Hassim. He was there as Hassim’s forces pushed the rebels back to their main position at a town called Belidah. He encouraged Hassim to attack, but "my proposal to attack the adversary was immediately treated as an extreme of rashness amounting to insanity.” The Malays preferred an approach where a chain of fortified positions was constructed, moving closer and closer to Balidah without any open assault. Brooke's frustration grew he saw this "protracted" warfare as "extremely barbarous". Trade and agriculture were both disrupted and there seemed no prospect of peace. Finally, in October, he sent for two of his six-pounder guns and some of his men to be despatched from the Royalist to Balidah. By 31 October the guns were up and the rebel defences were breached. Still, though, the Malays refused to storm the place. On 3 November Brooke left them in despair. His diary tells what happened next:

I explained to [Hassim] how useless it was my remaining and intimated to him my intention of departing; but his deep regret was so visible, that even all the self-command of the native could not disguise it. He begged, he entreated me to stay, and offered me the country of Siniawan and Sarawak, and its government and trade, if I would only stop, and not desert him.

Brooke did not immediately accept this offer, but did continue to support Hassim’s efforts in the war, in which the men of the Royalist were soon to prove decisive.

With the end of the war, Brooke suggested that Hassim might like to follow through on his promise to give him the rule of Sarawak. The fighting over, though, Hassim was not so sure. On the one hand, he wanted to retain Brooke's support, possibly as offering some sort of protection against Dutch expansionism and certainly to bolster his own position in the intrigues between himself and other powerful Malay factions. On the other hand, he was concerned that he should not be seen as yielding territory that technically belonged to the Sultan, or as suggesting that traditional Malay laws could be set aside in favour of an Englishman. Negotiations extended for almost a year, during which factions in the Malay camp tried to poison Brooke. Eventually, though, Hassim agreed, drawing up and signing a document giving Brooke the government of Sarawak. On 24 November, 1841 he was ceremoniously declared Rajah. 

Friday, 2 September 2016

Presenting the fact behind the fiction

This time last week I was in mid-Wales, talking about James Brooke as part of the Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival. Rather to my surprise, a respectable audience (most dressed in Victorian costume) paid good money to come and listen. (None of the money came to me. The council no longer funds the Festival, so they need all the cash they can raise.)

This was a new experience for me. I was not talking about my book (although it may have been mentioned once or twice) but about the historical character it was based on.

When I first had the idea of writing about Brooke (so long ago he was practically a contemporary character) I did a lot of research. Frankly, I think I did too much. My first attempt at writing about him got bogged down in the realities of his life. I had an editor who suggested that I might be better off writing a straight biography, and at that point I realised I was badly off course And I put the novel on one side until I had managed to forget most of the research I had done. Now, decades later, I had to try to remember it all again.

It's an odd idea, when you come to think about it. Although there are writers of historical fiction who see themselves basically as historians who write novels (and some actually are historians with doctorates and published research), most of us are novelists who prefer to write stories based around real events. Asking us to lecture on history is a bit like asking people who write hospital romances to remove your appendix. So why might people prefer to get their history from people like me than from experts who really know what they're talking about?

Having done it, I think it does make sense.

It turns out I do know quite a lot about James Brooke. Not as much as the man who wrote the definitive biography, which I read all those years ago, but more than people who are going to turn up to hear a talk at a Victorian Festival. But, and this is significant, I don't know all that much about Brooke. That definitive biography has so much information, so many facts, that it is practically unreadable. Professional historians, it often seems, can get so involved with the minutiae of their subject that they miss the wider story. What the public (by which I mean people without history degrees) want is a narrative. They don't want the bare 'facts' about Brooke, but they want his story. They want to know how a rather over-indulged young man, who flitted from one project to another as the fancy took him, ended up ruling (and, on balance, ruling rather well) his own private kingdom in Borneo. And that's what I can tell them, and what can sometimes get lost in the work of learned scholars.

Me, trying to prove I've done some research

Preparing a talk on Brooke's life differs from writing a novel because you have a responsibility not to simply make things up. There are historical novelists who will say that they never just invent stuff (though that must limit their ability to write dialogue, I always think). I make stuff up all the time. In fact, part of my talk was on the way that writers (including writers of non-fiction) started making stuff up about James Brooke even in his lifetime. But my talk was (as far as I know) entirely truthful. Making sure that all my facts were right was a bit of a shock to my system. I had to return to my notes, check things in books, and generally spend quite a bit of time on it. I was relieved to find that most of the detail in The White Rajah was accurate, but there were some bits of history I had changed for the convenience of the plot and then completely forgotten about the reality. At least, though, I only had to satisfy myself to my own satisfaction. Real historians (good ones at least) can't just read something somewhere in a book and take the writer's word for it. They have to chase up the original source and confirm that the book they read got it right. They have to look at alternative possible truths, or versions of the truth, and weigh them against each other and explain their reasons for coming down on one side or the other. It takes a long, long time and, in the end, people really don't care. The world is happy to believe that Alfred burned the cakes, Canute tried to turn back the tide and Harold died with an arrow in his eye. We don't want a detailed discussion of why the first of these is false, the second a misinterpretation of something that probably didn't happen anyway, and the third is argued about by real historians on, it seems, an almost daily basis. I have read the details of the negotiations that led to James Brooke being appointed Rajah of Sarawak and, trust me, you really don't want to know. They were, essentially, diplomatic negotiations which involved the competing interests of different elements in the court at Brunei, Brooke's personal interest and his perception of what would most further British influence in the region. They went on a very long time. Somewhere in all this, there was an attempt to poison Brooke, which isn't that important historically. In my talk you get told about the poisoning attempt and about the outcome of the negotiations. That's why people like me can be more interesting than some academic historians.

Does this mean that historical novelists should move into writing non-fiction about their periods? I'm not sure that it does.

My books about James Burke (a real person, so I'm stuck with the confusingly similar name) are set in the Napoleonic Wars. Besides reading non-fiction about the period, I read Bernard Cornwell's wonderful series of books about the fictional Richard Sharpe. They provide a lovely feel for the period and the brutal realities of soldiering. It seemed perfectly natural, then, that when I wanted to study the battle of Waterloo for Burke at Waterloo, I should read Cornwell's non-fiction Waterloo. I'm picking on Cornwell because he is hugely successful and big enough to take it and Waterloo has garnered a lot of 5* reviews on Amazon, so it obviously provides many readers with exactly what they want. But it really, really isn't the place to go if you want a historically accurate account of the details of the battle. There are hundreds of historians who will tell you exactly who was doing what that fateful afternoon. I went to a two-day conference on Waterloo at which I listened to a brilliant talk by a man who has spent at least three years just researching the events at La Haye Sainte, the farm in the centre of the battlefield. I'll go to Cornwell for a general overview of what it might have been like for a rifleman there, but I'll go to a professional historian for an analysis of the type of ammunition used by the Brunswickers in their defence of La Haye Sainte.

Am I right to avoid non-fiction? Perhaps not. The suggestion of that editor all those years ago gets repeated every now and then, most recently by a publisher I definitely respect. Do any of my readers here (including those who write historical fiction) have their own views that they might share? Please comment on this page if you have.

For now, at any rate, I'm back to writing fiction, this time in the Peninsular Campaign. I've been spending a lot of time with maps of Spain and contemporary accounts of troop positions and lines of march, but James Burke's adventures with the guerrillas do not feature in any history I've read. I am, though, available to talk about the real historical background to all of my books. Not everywhere is as lovely and as broke as the Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, so I'm not necessarily free, but let me know if you're interested and we can sort something out. Contact me at

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Tango etiquette: or how to persuade someone to dance with you without saying a word.

This week's blog post is something completely different, but it's a response to a specific request I got to write about a tango thing. It's not about the dance itself, but about the social rules, the codiglia as the Argentinians call them. I'll be taking a quick tour of tango around the world, so it may interest non-dancers. If you think it's not for you, normal service will be resumed next week.

Recently I got caught up in an online discussion about how to invite people to dance at a milonga (social dance). Someone wrote to me to ask what my experience was of getting dances at different clubs in different cities.

I have danced in London, Buenos Aires, Reykjavik, Paris and Istanbul, which may seem like a lot of places to non-dancers, but makes me considerably less well-travelled than serious aficionados. Everything that I say is based on that limited experience. In the end, it's just my opinion, but what you have to remember is that the same goes for everyone else. I do get irritated by people who say that they know the only 'correct' way to behave at a milonga. The right way to behave is how most other people behave and, if in doubt, in the way that will give most people a pleasant evening. For example, I've seen film of milongas in Finland where electronic signs say that men should ask women for this dance and, a little later, that women should ask men. As far as I know, that system is unique to Finland, but if I ever dance in Helsinki, that's the system I will use.

Let me transport you to Buenos Aires a few years ago. (Places change, so the clubs may no longer be as I describe them.) It's afternoon in a great barn of a place called the Nuevo Salon. The largely elderly clientele are dancing a traditional tanda - four dances one after the other. The music ends and couples leave the floor, returning to their tables. As the music for the interval (the cortina) plays, men rise to their feet and cross to women who stand to meet them. The next tango starts and, apparently approving of the music, more men stand and, as if by magic, their chosen partners rise to greet them.

Confiteria Ideal: Buenos Aires

How, in this huge hall, have the hundreds of men and women managed to sort out who is going to dance with whom? That is the magic of the cabeceo.

The cabeceo is the look that a man casts towards a woman to show that he would like to dance with her. The woman returns the look and the man approaches her. As he does so, she rises to her feet, he extends his hand and the couple take to the floor. It's exotic and romantic and Europeans often insist that it's the only way to invite a woman to dance.

Unfortunately, this simple view of the cabeceo is wrong in almost every particular. For a start, men (wise men who know the rules) don't randomly cabeceo any woman they would like to dance with. They look for women who appear interested in dancing and, in Buenos Aires at least, the woman will signify her interest with the mirada (literally 'glance'). This is a meeting of eyes, brief enough to be plausibly denied but bold enough to make it clear that a cabeceo would be favourably received.

The mirada/cabeceo duet can be enormous fun. I'm standing there, running my eyes along the followers sat (or, in London, more often stood) beside the floor and I catch a tiny flash of interest from a stranger's face. I stop and return my gaze to her. There is a half-smile, the faintest flicker of an eye-brow and I walk toward her, extend my hand and there we are, no words spoken, holding each other as we dance. It is one of the smoothest and sexiest of social exchanges that doesn't involve actual sex. If that's how you expect to get your dances in London, though, you'll spend a lot of time standing around waiting to strike lucky, for few women in London even know what a mirada is, let alone use it routinely. This, on its own, makes the cabeceo far from ideally suited to the London tango scene.

Dancing by the Seine: Paris

Back in the Nuevo Salon the men are offering their cabeceos and, if they read the signs correctly, they are being accepted. Here's the second problem. Remember that in London the woman accepted with some tiny acknowledgement of the offer. But when I tried this in one famous Buenos Aires venue I was met with blank looks. Eventually a kind lady explained the rules. In this venue women did not acknowledge the cabeceo with anything so forward as even the tiniest of smiles. Rather they would glance away and then return your glance to check that you were still looking at them. That was it. Otherwise they would just keep their expression neutral with a look uncomfortably similar to that you would get if a woman was "blanking" you in London.

Mirada noted, cabeceo delivered and invitation accepted, you might think nothing else could go wrong. You'd be mistaken. More than once I have walked towards the woman I have invited and, milliseconds before she gets to her feet, the woman sitting directly behind her stands up. I've met some good dancers that way, but dealing with the embarrassment of the moment can be more than a trifle awkward.

Based on my experience, those enthusiasts who say that the cabeceo is simple and avoids misunderstandings and embarrassment have either been very lucky or have spent their lives dancing in a limited number of venues with lots of partners they know well. Of course the cabeceo works smoothly if leader and follower know each other. My wife and I can catch the shortest of glances across a crowded room and know that we want to dance together. But the whole point of the cabeceo is that it should allow you to dance with strangers. As I said earlier, when this works, it works really well. In some venues, it is normal not to ask your partner's name. You meet as strangers, dance as intimates and part as strangers. I love it when this happens, but life is seldom as simple as that.

The legend of the mystical Argentine cabeceo has given rise to all sorts of legends that I can tell you from my own experience are just rubbish. Argentine women will not actively solicit dances, they say: one woman used to look out for me and half rise from her chair, smiling at me as the cortina started. The legend says that Argentinians will never offer a verbal invitation: not only has my wife been invited by men simply asking her, but I remember a woman approaching us as we sat together and asking Tammy if she could borrow her husband. The way that people invite each other varies from milonga to milonga: there is no straightforwardly 'right' or 'wrong' approach.

In the most rigidly formal milongas, men and women are seated by a hostess on opposite sides of the room. Experienced dancers, known to the hostess, will be sat at the front, next to the floor. Visiting gringos are likely to be in the corner at the back. You know as soon as you are seated exactly where you are in the pecking order. (I was once given a bad seat by a hostess I didn't know and I smiled sweetly and said I thought there'd been a mistake. I was promptly promoted.) You will stay in the same seat all night. If you are a regular, you will be given the same seat whenever you arrive. Thus everyone knows where you are and women know in which direction to make their miradas. Similarly, you know where the women you want to cabeceo are going to be sitting. It's a system that works well if you are familiar with the club and the etiquette. If you are a stranger, sat on your own in a poor seat surrounded by people you don't know, it can make for a really miserable experience. It's worth trying it once, in a spirit of anthropological enquiry, but it's not for everyone.

The system requires a seat for everybody at the dance. In Argentina, clubs will always sacrifice floor space to fit in more tables and seating. During the cortinas the floor clears, so men and women have an uninterrupted view of each other. The lighting is good so that people can easily see the expressions of those sitting across the room. In these conditions, with everyone knowing the rules, the cabeceo can work quite well. Contrast the situation in London. There aren't enough seats, so people constantly move as they are forced to play musical chairs. Men and women are mixed together - fine for conversation, but tricky if you want to catch the eye of someone sat three seats to the side of you. Because there aren't enough chairs, the floor never entirely clears, so you can't see the people opposite you. The women don't mirada and, because they think they look sexier without their glasses, many of them can't see your cabeceo anyway. (I wish I was making this up, but I'm not.) Plus, in London, dim lighting is the norm, so even if you have got your glasses on, seeing anybody's expression is tricky. Under these circumstances, relying exclusively on the cabeceo is really rather silly. That's even before you look at the cultural differences.

Tango on the Thames (HMS President): London

In Spanish South America women's social behaviour was strictly curtailed. A woman could not simply enter into conversation with a strange man. The cabeceo allowed men and women to agree to dance (and only to dance - they return to their separate seats) without breaking social taboos on talking to strangers. Yes, things are different nowadays - but that's where the cabeceo started. In England, though, the free mingling of the sexes has a longer social pedigree. If you want to ask someone to dance, you can do just that. It's true that you risk rejection - but a cabeceo can be rejected too (and the rejection is just as public even if slightly subtler). But the rejection of a verbal invitation can be tempered. (I'm told that "I'm sorry, my feet are tired," is the socially approved phrase.) Confusion is, in any case, much more easily avoided.

I'm not making a special case for the British here. My first evening in Reykjavik every cabeceo I offered was ignored. I had just decided that the women were seriously unfriendly when an Icelander explained that Icelandic women will only respond to verbal invitations. "Go over and ask them," she said. "They want to dance and are wondering why you are ignoring them." So I braced myself, walked across the floor and asked a total stranger to dance. And she said, "Yes," and she was lovely and I was able to enjoy the rest of my time on the Iceland tango scene.

So what does my experience tell me? It tells me that the rules are different in different places. They vary from club to club and city to city. Watch what others do and try to follow them. If you are new to a place and people offer advice, take it. Beyond that, do what works. Look for eye contact and, if you get any, then respond positively. Smile a lot. (I don't speak Spanish, Icelandic or Turkish. I really smile a lot.) If you can't make eye contact, talk to people. If there's a language barrier, smile more. If you think you are embarrassing people, back off. Otherwise, do whatever works. You have come to dance. They have come to dance.

"You dancin'?"

"You asking?"

Game on.

Friday, 19 August 2016

John Williamson and James Burke: two very different heroes

Friday is the day that I generally write my blog. This morning I really had no idea what I was going to write about. I wanted to say something about the talk that I’m giving next week in Llandrindod Wells. I am going on about that on social media because I don't want to be the guy who gives a talk that nobody comes to but there’s only so many times I can beg you to come. (Do come. Llandrindod Wells is a lovely place and you'll enjoy it even if you have to listen to me.)

Fortunately, I woke up to somebody on Twitter who wanted to know how I coped with writing two different series and which of my main characters was my favourite. This gives me all the excuse I need to talk about how I got into this writing business which, by happy chance, means chatting about James Brooke. Did I mention I'm giving a talk on him in Wales next Friday?

There are people who got into writing because they needed to make money. Two brilliant examples are Lee Child, who started writing the Reacher novels when he lost his job with Granada TV, and Anthony Burgess who started writing when he was told that he had only a couple of years to live and he wanted to leave something that might generate an income for his family. Such examples are rare – fortunately, as the chances of making any serious money from fiction are negligible. Usually people get into writing because they have an almost pathological need to write. Some people start with the idea that "writing" is, in itself, something they want to do, but for others the first novel comes out of a desperate desire to tell that particular story. I was one of those. I came across the story of James Brooke on a visit to Sarawak, in Borneo. I was completely blown away by him and spent a year researching his life. Decades later, I finally sat down and wrote The White Rajah.

Portrait of Sir James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant
National Portrait Gallery London. Used with permission

As with most first novels, The White Rajah wasn't really a first novel at all. I made a first attempt at a novel based on James Brooke soon after I returned from Sarawak and, although it was taken surprisingly seriously by a leading London agent, it wasn't working. I knew too much about Brooke to fictionalise him. While there were other people doing things round him, there, in the centre of the story, was this historical sketch where a character should have been. It was only many years later that I decided that the way to approach Brooke's life was to tell it through the eyes of somebody else who accompanies him on his adventures. I knew that the real James Brooke had an interpreter called John Williamson. I decided that an interpreter would necessarily be close to the story. I also knew that the real James Brooke was a homosexual. Could the interpreter not become his lover? So John Williamson was born.

Williamson, although sharing the name and duties of the real interpreter, is entirely a fictional character. I gave him a back story, which didn't make it to the final edit, and settled down to have him tell Brooke’s tale. Only as I was writing did I realise that the story was turning into Williamson's story.

In the end, I don't think I got The White Rajah quite right. I wasn't prepared to commit to Williamson. It was supposed to be a story about this famous historical character, not a romance based around a man who is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. Even so, the story was successful with the small gay press that first published it in the USA and I was asked if I could write a sequel. I was more than happy to do so. In my head I had a clear idea of who John Williamson was. The White Rajah was written in the first person and this made me very close to the character. In Cawnpore I was able to develop him however I wanted. Cawnpore is closely tied to the historical events of the Indian Mutiny, but Williamson is a very minor character in those events. I can have him do whatever I want, so long as he does not change course of history. So I made poor Williamson suffer. An outsider by class and sexuality, he never really fits in to British society in India. Instead, he immerses himself in native life, in a way that was common in the early 19th century but unusual by the time of the Mutiny. When fighting breaks out, he finds himself caught between the two sides. Whatever decisions he makes he will have to betray somebody. It's not a cheerful story, but I found it easy to write and I think it is still my personal favourite of my own books.

Meanwhile, the idea that I might write books with more commercial potential than those featuring John Williamson grew in my mind. I had been told by a literary agent that I might well be able to sell a story that featured a more conventional hero – heterosexual and untroubled. Enter James Burke. Burke was based on a real person. In fact the first book about him, Burke in the Land of Silver, is surprisingly true to the historical facts. I say "surprisingly" because the idea that one man might have had affairs with a queen, a princess, and a viceroy's mistress in between engineering the British conquest of Buenos Aires seems implausible, but does fit what little we know about him. Burke is the ideal hero for a straightforward historical adventure. Brave, resourceful, apparently irresistible to women, he moves effortlessly from one success to another. Of course, if he were as straightforward as that, he'd be quite a dull chap, so my Burke is also a snob, desperate to escape what he sees as the stigma of his birth to an undistinguished Irish landowner. Burke is cynical, calculating and often cruel, but, in the end, he will always do the right thing for his country and the people who love him. I like James Burke – how could you not? And he’s huge fun to write as he brings down evil villains, saves the day at critical junctures of the Napoleonic Wars and, without apparent effort, beds yet another beautiful woman. But I will never be as involved with Burke as I am with poor John Williamson – always trying to do the right thing and always trapped in a position where all his choices will lead to pain. A damaged, tortured soul caught up in the world of Victorian Empire, which loved the James Burkes of this world but had very little use for the Williamsons. I so wanted to see Williamson come to terms with his world and find some sort of peace and he does (maybe) when his adventures finally bring him back to England in Back Home.

So that's how I ended up with two entirely different heroes in two very different sorts of book. It all started with James Brooke: to my mind, one of the most amazing adventurers in an age that produced some very remarkable people indeed. Did I mention that I'll be talking about Brooke in fact, fiction and legend at Llandrindod Wells on Friday? I've been asked to bring along some swords, too, to frighten the children and keep order if anybody asks awkward questions. It should make for an interesting illustrated lecture. It would be lovely if you could come.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Past Encounters: Davina Blake

Terry Tyler is one of Amazon's Top 1000 Reviewers and she has hit on a lovely idea to get more people writing reviews. I have mentioned that Amazon reviews are important, haven't I?

Terry has launched #AugustReviews to try to persuade readers to post just one review on Amazon during August. It can be as short or as long as you want. Just post one review (or two ... or three ... or as many as you want) and then tell the world about it on Twitter. Terry will add you to her #AugustReviews Hall of Fame so authors will realise what a lovely person you are and you can bask in 15 seconds of internet fame and the eternal gratitude of writers everywhere. You can read more about the idea on Terry's blog (which I do recommend because there's a lot of good stuff on it.) #AugustReviews is featured at If you're really nervous of writing a review, there's even a link to a handy quick-start guide to becoming an Amazon reviewer.

It would be lovely if some of you reviewed my books for #AugustReviews (nobody has yet).

Portrait of an author waiting for reviews
If you can't find words enough to express your love for my books, please review someone else's and I will forgive you.

I'll start the ball rolling with a review of Davina Blake's Past Encounters. A slimmed down version of this will be posted on Amazon before the end of the month.

There seems to have been a glut of World War II novels lately, at least if those reviewed by the Historical Novel Society are anything to judge by. When I was young, these books formed a distinct genre, often called 'war stories'. They were essentially stories of battle, historical only insofar as the uniforms and weaponry were of their period. Now, though, many stories take a wider perspective, looking at the impact of the war on civilians and, sometimes, on those soldiers who did not see conflict. Past Encounters falls firmly into this category, with the events of the war seen through the eyes of Rhoda, struggling with rationing and the perpetual threadbareness of wartime life in Carnforth, and also the experiences of Peter, taken prisoner before he fires a shot and struggling to survive in a Nazi labour camp.

This book works on many levels. Rhoda's life gives a convincing insight into the world of the women left behind when their men went off to war. Her experiences have interest added by the filming of the famous movie 'Brief Encounter' at the station where she works on the bookstall. The accounts of the filming are supported by extensive research, detailed in an end-note.

Peter's story is a tale of horror. I had no idea that British POWs were treated anything like as badly as this, though  the end-note says that Peter's experience is based on memoirs of other survivors (with various sources quoted). As Peter comes to realise, the awfulness of his experience is dwarfed by the atrocities of the Holocaust, so the way that people treat it is to ignore it. It's not helped by the fact that POWs are always, at some irrational level, blamed (and blame themselves) for their own fate: good soldiers don't surrender.

The book is told from the perspective of 1955. Peter has returned from the war with no obvious signs of what captivity did to him. There are no flashbacks, no PTSD. But the experience has destroyed something important: he is not the man who left Rhoda in 1940. He has lived through things that no one should have to see and, to survive, he has done things that shame him. Worst of all, he can only talk about what happened with one man who shared his captivity.

Rhoda, too, has changed. She has moved from being a girl to a young woman. There are things that happened to her during the war that she can't share with Peter. Peter has proposed in a world that both of them have left. They should have accepted this and moved on. But it's 1945: engagements are not be casually broken. So two good people are trapped in a marriage undermined by silences about the things they care about and an utter inability to understand what has happened to the person they once loved.

Davina Blake captures the social attitudes of the period with a sharp, and not unsympathetic, eye. Rhoda's mother had made her marriage work but applying herself unrelentingly to the business of being a 'good wife'. We are at first shocked by how she stands by her husband, a petty domestic tyrant, but when we see him wounded after one of those acts of unacknowledged heroism that war throws up, we see the decent man struggling to hold his life and his family together. We come to understand why his wife loves him and why he is worth her efforts. Rhoda, in time, must come to see Peter for what he is and to make her marriage work by being, in her turn, a good wife. It's all the more powerful because the message is not one that we naturally warm to nowadays. Peter, surely, should have been abandoned to a counselling service and Rhoda should have found a more fulfilling, if less "respectable" partner. But in 1955 life was not like that and Rhoda's choices are judged and defined by the standards of her time.

There is an enormous amount of incident in this book and I'm not about to discuss the details for fear of spoilers, but I was gripped. It's the first time in a while that I've struggled to put a book down. And be warned: this isn't a feel-good romance. No book that features the fire bombing of Dresden as background is going to be a cheerful read and parts of the story are brutally cruel. But it does show our parents' generation at their best, quietly and decently doing the right thing, making the best of an imperfect world. It's an approach to life that was once, I suppose, a defining characteristic of the British. For better or worse those days are gone, but Ms Blake gives a glimpse of that world and of the wartime experiences that, perhaps, created and defined it.

This is a brilliant book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The promotional bit

My own books are set back in the 19th century, but they, too, look at the impact of war on the men who were there. The Williamson Papers follow the adventures of John Williamson, who travels to the Far East in search of adventure. He ends up caught in a local war in Borneo that sees peace restored only at a terrible cost in human life. Moving on to Cawnpore, he lives through the horrors of the Indian Mutiny and the Cawnpore Massacre. His story ends back in London where, like Peter, he has to come to terms with the things he has seen and done. For a selection of the things people have said about them, have a look HERE. After you've read Davina Blake's book, I strongly suggest you have a look at mine. (Click on the book images on this page for buy links.)

Monday, 8 August 2016

Roll up! Roll up! Meet the author and see the 'orrible weapons in his books.

It's August and, with the inevitability of a wasp homing in on a jam sandwich in a thunderstorm, our thoughts turn to the end of what passes for summer and the coming of the Bank Holiday.

As usual, I'll be spending the holiday in mid-Wales. That's where I'm writing this, listening to the lambs complaining because they've been separated from their mothers. It's a lovely part of the world and I do recommend it. 

The Bank Holiday is enlivened in our county town by the Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival. The streets fill with people in Victorian costumes and the open ground in the centre of town hosts jugglers and acrobats and tents with handicrafts and vaguely Victorian themed stalls. There's a dog show where the hound we have adopted for our trips here came third in a waggiest tail competition. It's huge fun and you'd enjoy it. 

There is a more serious side to things with talks about the Victorian era given in the Hotel Commodore, which acts as the nerve centre of the Festival. And on Friday 26 August, yours truly will be presenting the life of James Brooke, first White Rajah of Sarawak. If that's not exciting enough, there will also be a display of swords of the region, including a head hunters sword that has taken actual heads. If you have a spare head, bring it along and we can demonstrate the technique.

If you are in the area (and it really is a lovely area to be in) please call by and see me. Talking to an empty room can be embarrassing and if you come you might even find it entertaining as well as informative. And once you've had enough of the town and me, you can explore the staggeringly beautiful scenery around and about.