Friday, 18 July 2014

Public Battles, Private Wars

A few months ago I wrote about a book set in the 1960s, arguing that it could legitimately be seen as a historical novel.

As policeman get younger, so it seems does history. I've been reading Laura Wilkinson's Public Battles, Private Wars, which is set in the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5. The events described happened just thirty years ago – nowhere near the agreed minimum for a historical novel. (Few people will accept that anything less than forty years ago could possibly be described as historical.) Yet the world described is barely recognisable: nobody has a mobile phone, or an Internet connection. The story starts with Mandy Walker trying to get on in life by attending a typing class: there are no word processors and the typewriters have ribbons. Will younger readers even understand what Laura Wilkinson is talking about?

It's not material changes that mark this off as a different world, though: it's a whole way of life and the social attitudes that go with it. Mandy lives in a mining village. Life is defined by the pit and the men who go down it. Women stay at home, cook, and bring up the kids. Their sons will, in turn, go down the pit. Their daughters may dream of escape but their highest aspiration is likely to be to work (like Mandy's schoolfriend Ruth) as a local primary school teacher, trapped forever in the mining community.

Not many people much under fifty will have any conception of how important mining used to be, not only economically, but socially. The destruction of the mining industry destroyed whole communities and, with them, a way of life. Ancient certainties about the roles of men and women crumbled. The Labour movement was divided and never really recovered. There are still families split by ancient memories of scabs and picket line violence.

It’s impossible to write about the Miners’ Strike without being political. It was, ultimately, a political strike. The irony was that people were striking for the right to see their sons inherit jobs that were dirty, dangerous and, in some senses, degrading. And the women who supported them were fighting to maintain a way of life in which women would always be second class citizens. (Life in a pit village was defined by your work in the pit and women were, by law, forbidden from working as miners.)

Laura Wilkinson’s characters are caught in this dilemma. Writing from a committed feminist perspective, she highlights the way that Mandy’s life is limited by the pit, her marriage and the hierarchy of the village. In the book, as the strike continues, Mandy grows and develops as the men move inexorably toward defeat.

At times, as a man in 2014, I found revisiting the Guardian Women’s Page of those days intensely irritating. But (returning, belatedly, to my initial point) it is a historical novel. The attitudes expressed were the attitudes of the time. Reading it gives an insight into huge social and political changes that young people who have grown up with New Labour and post-feminism can have little understanding of.

There are all kinds of reasons why historical novels can be worthwhile. One is that it is only by understanding our history that we can truly understand ourselves. Watch The Call Centre and see the young people of South Wales earning their living by selling home insulation on the phone and mock their salon tans and their limited ambitions if you will. But the reason that some of the main employers in that part of the world are call centres goes back to the events of 1984 and, if some of the young people seem to struggle with their lives, those are the lives that Britain gave them when it closed the pits with no idea of what would come next.

Writing this, I feel an anger that I had forgotten for thirty years. Sometimes we should feel angry, and Laura Wilkinson has written a worthwhile reminder of why.

Laura Wilkinson's Public Battles, Private Wars is published by Accent Press and, at the time of writing, is available FREE on Kindle.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Beyond the Call of Duty

His Majesty's Confidential Agent has been written as the first of a series of books which will follow the adventures (initially real, but increasingly fictional as the series goes on) of James Burke. My hero owes more than a little to Flashman and, although it's not intended as primarily military history, you can't set a series of adventure stories around the Napoleonic wars without there being a lot of military stuff in them. So it was interesting for me to read Fred Lilley's book Beyond The Call Of Duty. His hero, Charles Sherrington Bagshott, has been at all the most exciting British military engagements from Burma in 1853 to Sudan in 1883, bravely fighting for Queen and country.

I really, really wanted to hate this book. Any book which starts (apparently without any irony) with the famous aphorism Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, is alien to our modern way of thinking. Surely people rejected this notion once Wilfred Owen had thoroughly discredited it in World War I? Lilley, though, seems to have missed modern attitudes to colonial warfare altogether. In a blog post of his, he claims, with an innocence that one almost has to admire, that British troops never took reprisals against civilian populations. Anybody who knows anything about the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, to name just one example close to my heart, will know that that is rubbish.

Packing so many campaigns into one book, means that the book reads more like a series of very short stories than a single novel. It provides an instant summary of the British Army actions in the mid- 19th century and, somewhat my irritation, it proves to be very good.

Because I researched the Indian Mutiny quite carefully for my own book, Cawnpore, I read that bit with particular care, in order to see how historically accurate this novel is. The answer is that, like most people (probably including me in some of my books), Lilley gets quite a lot of the fine detail wrong. He does, however, have a good grasp of the general sweep of history and of the role that the British Army played. More importantly, in terms of reading pleasure, it's really rather well written. It's not a long book and it races from one thrill packed incident to another without too much time for the reader’s interest to flag. There are some attempts to make Bagshott into a rounded and credible figure (he's given an Indian wife and twin sons, for example) but he remains somewhat two-dimensional. This is probably inevitable, given the sort of book that it is, and not necessarily that much of a bad thing. Lilley sees the British Army as officered by brave, patriotic men who are convinced of the rightness of their cause and don't think too much about the politics of the situations they find themselves in. Bagshott epitomises these values to the point of caricature and any attempts to turn him into a "real" person with self-doubt and moral uncertainties would undermine the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of the book.

When I was born, Empire Day was still celebrated every 24th May. In my lifetime, the Empire has gone from being a source of pride to something that the British feel vaguely ashamed of. My books, The White Rajah and Cawnpore, both try to show that the relationship between colonisers and the people they colonised was less black-and-white than we tend to see it nowadays. To that extent, Beyond The Call Of Duty is a useful antidote to the contemporary view that British colonialism was a wholly bad thing that is best forgotten about. That doesn't make its underlying assumptions and attitudes right, but it does make an interesting read.

Buy it for a Guardian reader for Christmas.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Is that a sword on your cover?

Yesterday was the official publication date of ‘The White Rajah’. This book was first published in the USA in 2010. It sold well for a book published by a tiny independent publisher, but Accent are giving it a chance to reach a wider audience. I took the opportunity to make some minor changes as well. I rewrote a couple of scenes that I hope will read better this time round, but it’s essentially the same book.

Accent have produced a fabulous cover. The background is a contemporary picture of Kuching, where James Brooke made his capital once he became the White Rajah. The dagger in the foreground is a kris and I thought I’d celebrate the new publication by writing about kris. Most kris are really too long to be called daggers but too short for swords. They’re a distinctive weapon common in South East Asia, being found throughout Indonesia and Malaysia. They’re usually depicted (as in the cover illustration) as wavy, though they come in a variety of shapes and sizes with marked differences from one area to another.

Some old kris are as small as any dagger and the largest are the size of a sword. There isn't even any agreement about how it should be spelt. Although 'kris' is the usual English spelling, I have also often seen it spelt 'keris'. Wikipedia throws up even more variants: 'cryse', 'crise', 'criss', 'kriss' and 'creese', although these appear obsolete terms used by European colonists. Generally, the usual spelling in the West is 'kris', while 'keris' is more popular in the East.

Despite the variety of spellings, sizes and shapes, kris are easy to recognise. What are the attributes that define them?

The first thing is that all kris have, to a greater or lesser extent, "watered" blades. That is, the blades contain striations along their length. Some legends say that this pattern, known as the "pamor", is made by the waves of the hair of a spirit inhabiting the blade. In fact, the waves are the result of the kris being made from thin bars of iron or steel which are beaten together. This approach reflects the antiquity of the blades, which were originally made by swordsmiths who lacked forges sufficient to melt steel and enable them to make a blade from a single piece of metal. Damascene steel has a similar watering, although the technique, which produces extremely tough blades, almost certainly postdates the earliest kris. Some later kris, though, may have damascene blades.

The top of blade is wider on one side, maintaining a sharp edge. The other side is decorated with a curl in the metal, which resembles an elephant's trunk (the 'belalai gajah'). A good example of this is shown in figure 1.

FIG 1. Detail of a Kris Ksay Cantrik from Jogjakarta, Java.

The widening of the blade allows it to form a guard (the 'ganja'). The guard is usually made from a separate piece of metal. This is placed across the top of the blade, providing a stronger and more effective protection for the user's hands. Although this is made separately, during the forging of the weapon it is attached to the main part of the blade. This is also clearly visible in figure 1. At the top (in figure) a gap is clear between the main part of the blade and the guard, but the two are firmly joined beyond that point.

Some people suggest that the shape is derived from the shape of a stingray’s ‘sting’. The idea is that people used the sting as a weapon and then produced metal weapons based on the same shape. Unlikely as it is, the oldest kris are very small and thin and the resemblance there is more marked.

The details of the decoration at the top of blade vary considerably. The example shown in figure 1 could be regarded as typical. The example shown in figure 2 shows how, in some cases, these elements are reduced to a minimal symbolic representation. However, they are always present even if, as here, the cross piece is omitted.

FIG 2 Detail of peninsular kris

The tang is very narrow. This is a significant weakness of the kris as a weapon. European sailors fighting natives armed with kris would typically use a belaying pin (essentially a large, heavy stick) to disarm their opponents by striking the kris blade, which would snap at the tang.

The hilts are usually made of wood, although they may be of horn, ivory or bone. They are sometimes described as offering a pistol grip. The kris is usually held with the fist around the grip of the hilt and the thumb on the top of the hilt. (This would not be the case with the very long kris of the Philippines, which are, effectively, swords and will be held in the usual way.) This is easiest if the grip is very sharply angled (see figure 3). However, most kris hilts are much less angled. This may be because, while some of the blades are very old, wooden hilts do not survive well in the conditions prevailing in Southeast Asia, so the furnishings seen on most kris nowadays are of comparatively recent manufacture. They have not been made for use in battle, but as decorative objects.

FIG 3 The grip on the hilt. The hilt here will have been made for someone with smaller hands.

The hilts of kris are always carved into symbolic decorations, often with a religious element. Many hilts represent the garuda bird, which carries the god Vishnu in Hindu myth. Sometimes these images are elaborate, but, in many cases, they are very stylised and can appear quite plain. Examples of two extremes of decorative style are shown in figure 4.


Although the most common image is that of a more or less stylised garuda, other patterns are seen. Sometimes, the figure is that of a crouching man. The Erotic Museum in Berlin has several examples of hilts which represent people engaged in sexual acts.

A particularly interesting type of hilt is tajong, known in the West as a "Kingfisher" hilt. This is characterised by a long "beak" extending from the end of the hilt. Carving these takes considerable skill, and such hilts are rare. The workmanship would have made them valued when they were originally produced, but their scarcity nowadays means that they are worth considerable sums to collectors.

Although Western collectors attach great significance to the hilts, it is important to remember that the culture is that produced the kris saw the true magic and value of the weapon as lying in the blade. The blade will be preserved as the furniture is changed. This is particularly the case with kris that have been traded by collectors. It is common for hilts to be removed from blades so that a particularly good hilt can be matched with a particularly good blade to make a more saleable piece. My own collection includes kris where the orientation of the hilts to the blade is wrong, indicating that the hilt has been replaced. Whilst the furniture of a kris can provide useful clues as to its provenance, they can never be definitive.

The hilt usually sits in a small metal cup (the 'pendongkok'), separating the hilt from the main part of the blade. Figure 2 shows a relatively elaborate example of this. Once the hilts are removed, the cup, which is not attached to the blade, is easily slipped off and therefore often changed when hilts are changed. In some examples held by Western collectors, the cup will be missing.

Kris sheaths are also distinctive. Sheaths are made of wood, although they may be covered with a metal sleeve. The end of the sheath might be tipped with a chap of bone or ivory (the 'buntut'). They are distinguished by a wide wooden crosspiece (the 'sampir') which protects the guard of the weapon. This is often described as "boat shaped". The sampir may be a relatively functional rectilinear shape or an elaborately carved piece of decorative work.

FIGURE 5 Scabbard with metal sleeve. Jogjakarta.

Kris are valued as spiritual objects. Although there is some uncertainty surrounding their origin, it is likely that the very first kris were the kris majapahit. 'Majapahit' refers to the Majapahit Empire, which was based on Java in the 14th to 15th centuries. The very first kris were made when iron was a rare and precious metal. They were very small, and may have been intended for use in religious ceremonies, rather than combat. The symbolic carving of the hilts reflects their continuing religious links.

Traditionally, the manufacture of kris was surrounded with ceremonies reflecting the fact that the early smiths were practising an art which was viewed as as much magical as technological. Some stories say that women smiths would temper the blade by drawing the red hot metal through their vulva before throwing it into water. Another version says that every kris would be tempered by being stabbed into the body of a prisoner, so that a person would be killed for every kris that was made.

Although the kris have many spiritual and cultural associations, there is no doubt that they were designed as practical weapons of war. In the areas of Southeast Asia where kris were used, they would have been be the principal weapons of any warrior. When using the kris in combat, you would ideally have two – one for attack and the other for parrying. If you are carrying only one kris, the scabbard is used to parry. Whether parrying with the scabbard or the kris, it is held along the arm, so that you block your opponent with your arm and blade is caught by your sheath or your own parrying blade.

There are lots of accounts of kris blades being poisoned. In the heat of South East Asia and before modern medicines were available to treat infection, it’s likely that many relatively small cuts could have led to death. It’s also true that blades were often covered with arsenic, though the reason this was applied was to clean the blade and show the pamor more clearly. Certainly if the original kris was actually a stingray (see above), the cuts would have been poisoned, the stingray barb being poisonous. This could have led to the idea of the kris being poisonous even once they were made of metal.

Draeger, and Smith, in their book 'Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts’ write: "Reports of poisoned kris blades abound, but there is little evidence to suggest that such practice was common." They share my view that if you were stabbed with a kris (which is a stabbing weapon rather than a cutting weapon) poison would be an unnecessary extra.

I have seen displays, showing how the kris might be used in combat. It is impossible to be sure how accurately these reflect fighting in the days when they were typically used, but the display I witnessed suggested a formalised type of close combat, almost like karate or some similar martial art, in which the weapons allowed for a more definitive outcome than could be achieved by hands alone. Certainly, the experience of British fighters that Malays using a kris could be so easily disarmed (see above) does suggest that, if combatants didn't abide by some sort of code of honour, the weapon might well be ineffective.

The style of fighting does mean that the blade will often slide along your opponent's guard and the guard was often notched. This would serve to catch your opponent's blade momentarily, and might give you an advantage.

Kris were also used in executions. It is likely that straight edged kris were preferred for this. In the West, straight kris are sometimes referred to as executioners kris. This is, in part, because of a notion that straight kris are unusual and therefore probably reserved for some special purpose, but, as we have seen, this is a misunderstanding. Straight kris are, if anything, more common than the wavy ones. Not all of them could have been used principally for executions. Nonetheless, the straight kris is particularly well adapted to the traditional manner of execution in which the victim is held with their arms out their sides and the kris is pushed vertically down through their collarbone into the heart, causing instant death. The kris may be pushed through wadding to reduce the amount of blood generated.

Although kris are functionally defined by their use as weapons, they have always been much more than that. Often beautifully decorated (sometimes with gold worked into the surface of the blade) and with hilts and scabbards so ornate as to make them almost useless for fighting, kris are symbols of status, and of craft and cultural values at least 700 years old. Collected enthusiastically by Europeans (especially the Dutch), they can still be found and bought at affordable prices in the markets of Malaysia and Indonesia. The huge variety of styles and the stories that go with them make these a source of continual fascination to any traveller in the region.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Review sites

Someone has just said that they'd like to review my book, but want to know a good site. Here's two:

(1) Amazon. Go to the book's page on Amazon (in the uk it's Scroll down to 'Customer Reviews'. Click the button to say you want to write a review. You can only write a review if you're registered with Amazon, but if you have ever bought anything from them, you are. When you've written it, click the button saying you want to read over what you've written and then click the button to publish it. Done!
(2) Goodreads. You have to be registered to post on Goodreads, but it's a nice site and it's free. 'His Majesty's Confidential Agent' is at Immediately below the details of the book is a section headed 'My Review' Click on the green text that says 'Add a review'. You can use the same text as for Amazon if you want.

Reviews make a big difference to books that have limited marketing budgets behind them, so if you did like 'His Majesty's Confidential Agent', please let people know. Remember that you don't need to write a long review. Just a couple of lines saying what you thought of the book will help.

Many thanks.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Take Two

If you missed my post here on the Industrial Revolution in Scotland, or if you would like to see an extended version with extra photographs, check out the English History Authors blog.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Apples and oranges

Graham Greene divided his work into 'entertainments' and 'novels'. Some people find this an unsatisfactory split. All fiction, they say, should entertain. Suggesting that some have a higher purpose and are 'novels' and not mere 'entertainment' is presumptious and unhelpful.

I think the separation can be useful. If we sit down to read a book by John Grisham, we have different expectations from if we are tackling John Updike. It helps to know what we might have coming. At the end of a long day, more people will want to turn to Wilbur Smith than Salman Rushdie. The problem comes when the same author writes two different kinds of books. Some use a pseudonym to separate the two sides of their output but, as J.K. Rowling has discovered, that doesn't always work.

I must declare a personal interest. Accent are now publishing a new edition of The White Rajah to follow His Majesty's Confidential Agent and I wish I had some way to warn people not to expect the second book to be anything like the first. The White Rajah was the first book I wrote. Like all first novels, it has its flaws but, like, I suspect, many first novels, it was trying very hard to be a serious book. It's based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak and the model for Conrad's Lord Jim. Like Conrad's protagonist, Brooke was a flawed hero. I've tried to use him and his personal relationships to say something about British colonial rule. Nowadays, we generally like heroes to be basically good people and we think colonialism was essentially bad. What I try to do in The White Rajah is to suggest that life is a bit more complicated than that. The result is a book that I hope people will find reasonably exciting (there's battles and pirates and evil plots) but which is, I have to admit, hardly a bundle of laughs. I hope it's entertaining but I don't think of it as primarily an entertainment. Graham Greene might not have thought it a particularly good novel, but I think he would accept that a novel is what it set out to be.

I hope that by now you might have read His Majesty's Confidential Agent, so you can judge for yourself how far it succeeds in its primary intention, which was simply to entertain. James Burke (an unfortunately similar name to the Rajah's) was also a real person, but his adventures are just that: intrigue and derring-do set in exciting places with wicked foes and beautiful women. I hope that the story is not without some more serious content, but my main aim was to send you away entertained.

There is, I hope, room for both kinds of book in the world. Indeed, I fervently hope that there's room for both on your bookshelves (or, more likely, your Kindle). Please buy both, read them and, I hope, enjoy them. Just don't expect them to be the same.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Bits and Bobs

The blog-chain that is 'Meet My Main Character' has moved on. Check out for another 19th century hero.

Whilst on the subject of other peoples' blogs, I have a review of Life After Life posted on 'Writers Who Rock'. Spoiler alert: I wasn't really a fan. I was rather more impressed by fellow Accent author Laura Wilkinson's novel, Public Battles, Private Wars, set around the Miners' Strike. It's currently the National Museum of Wales Book of the Month, which can't be bad. It's an interesting example of where historical novels shade into contemporary: the strike was only thirty years ago, but the world of the story is one we hardly recognise today. Well worth a look.

My second novel with Accent is a new edition of The White Rajah. It isn't even officially published yet, but it's already available on Kindle. The paperback comes out on the official publication date of 10 July. It's a very different book from His Majesty's Confidential Agent and I'll be writing more about it next week.

I usually link to these posts from my Facebook page. (It's If you haven't 'liked' it already, please do.) Unfortunately, as Facebook are increasingly aggressive about monetizing (horrible word) their offering, you won't necessarily see my Facebook posts unless I add to Mark Zuckerber's fortune, which I don't really want to do. So if these ramblings are of interest, it's probably worth joining this site. (It's the button towards the bottom on the right hand column.) Coming up we'll have more on where contemporary fiction meets history, some stuff about my own writing and a piece about the sword on the cover of The White Rajah. If there's anything else you'd like me to write about, let me know.