Tuesday, 19 August 2014

James Brooke

In June, Accent republished my first novel, The White Rajah. It is a new edition, with some passages rewritten since it first came out. It's still the same book, though: the story of the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.

When it first came out, I wrote a piece for this blog explaining who James Brooke was and why I thought his a tale worth telling. For those of you who missed it that time round, here it is again:

I was on holiday in Sarawak when I first heard of James Brooke. The museum in Kuching had an exhibition of Sarawak's history with a large display on 'The White Rajahs' next to a much smaller display on 'The Colonial Era'. I was confused. The White Rajahs were clearly, well, white. Why was it that while the tone of 'The Colonial Era' was rather disapproving (it mainly seems to have consisted of killing the Governor), 'The White Rajahs' display hinted at a Golden Age?

The answer seems to have been the extraordinary relationship the first White Rajah, James Brooke, had with the people of Sarawak. Sarawak then was a province of a much bigger country ruled by Muda Hassim in Brunei. Hassim gave the rule of Sarawak to James Brooke as a reward for Brooke's help suppressing a rebellion there. Brooke insisted that Sarawak was not part of the British Empire and he set out to rule as an enlightened despot. He succeeded to the point where his family was able to govern for three generations, their rule ending only with the Japanese invasion in World War II.

My book explores some of the moral ambiguities of his rule. (He did kill an awful lot of people for what he saw as the greater good.) There is no doubt in my mind, though, that he was one of the good guys. He protected the natives of Borneo from the worst of the depredations of the Malays and brought peace and comparative prosperity to an area that had known more than its share of war and hardship. It is unusual to see Third World countries celebrating a period of rule by a European but Sarawak does. This seems mainly because it was rule by a European, not European rule.

Unlike most colonial rulers, James Brooke lost money hand over fist in Sarawak, keeping himself afloat only with financial support from friends in England who believed in what he was doing. It was the sheer cost of restoring the country after the Japanese invasion that was a major factor in Brooke rule ending and the British government briefly taking control before Sarawak became independent as part of Malaysia.

I'm not blogging about his life because there's already more than enough about him on the Web. (Wikipedia is a good place to start.) Anyone wanting to get intimate with the man can read his published diaries, which I used as a research source.

This is not the first novel about Brooke. There have been many. Even Conrad's Lord Jim was based on him. This story takes a different look at the man. It starts by assuming that he was a good man but that he did terrible things and tries to understand why.

The book opens with a brief excerpt from a journal of the period and I can do no better than to repeat it here.
“When his Biography comes to be written, there must be in it, dark chapters as well as bright ones, but while those who loved him the best, could fondly and sadly wish it had been otherwise, they will ever be able to think of their leader, as the Father and Founder of a nation and as one of England’s greatest sons.”

Monday, 18 August 2014

The love that dare not write its name

Earlier this year, I was invited to write on Adrian Smith's blog, A Torch in the Wind

It had always worried me that The White Rajah is often judged as a 'gay book' because the main character is gay. This issue keeps on coming up, so I'd like to reprint my blog post here so that I can share my thoughts with people who may not have seen it on Adrian Smith's site.

When I was growing up, homosexuality was illegal. Most of the books discussed on this blog would have been considered obscene and publishing or owning them might well have exposed people to criminal action. Interestingly, some commentators consider that it is a passing reference to (heterosexual) sodomy in Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was one of the reasons for its prosecution.

Now, of course, we live in a more liberal and enlightened age. Anybody who wants to read about homosexual relationships will have no problems in finding books that cater for their interests. But I do wonder if we have, perhaps, not taken advantage of the hard-won freedoms of the gay community to make a more liberal publishing environment, but, rather, built a gay ghetto which is, in its way, as restrictive as anything that may have preceded it.

When I set out to write my first novel, The White Rajah, I was not planning to write a “gay book”. I was writing about real historical character, James Brooke, the eponymous White Rajah. I think there is little doubt that he was inclined toward his own sex, though it’s not clear, in those days, whether he had an active sex life. I wanted the reader to be able to see Brooke through the eyes of someone who travels with him and shares his adventures. I therefore invented a lover for him, and it is John Williamson who tells his story.

As I wrote, the relationship between John Williamson and James Brooke became more important to the novel than I had expected, and I ended up with what I thought of as quite a powerful love story at the heart of what is, in the end, an otherwise straightforward historical novel.

Against all the odds, The White Rajah was represented by a very reputable agent who pitched it to four leading publishers. All of them rejected it. The consensus seemed to be that it was “too difficult” for a first novel by an unknown writer. Now that could be that, being a first novel, it just wasn’t that well-written. As it’s a first person account by a mid-19th century writer, it certainly uses longer sentences and a more challenging vocabulary than a lot of modern novels. But I couldn’t help feeling that part of the problem was that there is a distinct absence of female characters but there’s still sex.

I decided that I would like to see the book published before my dotage, so I sent it to JMS Books, who specialise in LGBT titles. They took it straight away, for which I remain very grateful. The trouble is that it is now seen as an LGBT book. Unfortunately it fails to satisfy a lot of LGBT readers, who complain that it does not have enough explicit sex scenes in it. Straight readers, on the other hand, seem much more interested in the sexual orientation of James Brooke than in any of his quite significant historical achievements.

What nobody seems happy with is the idea that you can write about somebody who has adventures, achieves quite remarkable things in his life, and has a satisfying romantic relationship, but who just happens to be gay. For both straight and gay readers, the sexual orientation of the main character becomes the point of the book.

I find this quite remarkable. Living in 21st-century London, I accept that I will have friends and colleagues with a diversity of sexual orientations. My favourite comedy club was a gay comedy club, but that didn’t mean that the audience was exclusively homosexual or that the jokes all related to gender issues. I like drinking in a gay bar, because the ambience is more civilised than a lot of other bars and they sell the drinks I enjoy. When I first went in there, I was worried that I might not be welcome, but they are as happy to serve straights as gays and it’s simply a very successful town-centre watering hole. If I’m out dancing, some couples embracing on the dance floor will not be the conventional male-female pairing. I was talking to a gay friend about this and he said that a few years ago straight men would be uncomfortable dancing with other men, but this has become so normal that it is no longer an issue for most people.

It goes without saying that, particularly as I used to work in a “creative” industry, many of my colleagues were gay, although the business was a very mainstream publisher.

So when I work, drink, or socialise the sexual orientation of the people I am working, drinking, laughing or dancing with does not define what I am doing. Yet when I am reading, it seems that it does. I am either reading a “gay book” for gay people, which has to emphasise gay sexual behaviour or I am reading a “straight book” (or “book”) where everyone seems much happier if nobody is gay at all. (Often there’s a minor character who’s gay, so everyone else can demonstrate how liberal they are.) The distinction is particularly ironic as many of the writers of M/M fiction are heterosexual women, as are many of its readers.

It’s not just my personal paranoia. I was delighted when Foyles (one of London’s most prestigious bookshops) stocked my titles, but I was surprised to see that they were shelved in a department dedicated to GLBT literature.

Obviously, it’s a good thing that, after centuries of repression, gay people can write and read books that cater for them. A gay press was an essential part of the battle for equality. But is it still the best way forward? Or have gay readers and writers created a ghetto that is itself discriminatory and a sort of repression, all the more damaging for being self-inflicted?

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Book Reviews

I review the odd book for the Historical Novel Society. Here's a couple that are covered in the most recent edition of their magazine.

ENGLAND EXPECTS by Sara Sheridan
It's 1953 and Mirabelle Bevan, ex-SOE agent, is adjusting to the peace by running a debt collection agency in Brighton. It doesn't take much to get her playing detective, though, and when a woman asks her to recover the lost betting slips of her murdered brother, Mirabelle and her assistant, Vesta, are soon investigating. Mirabelle, with her helpful police friend, Superintendent McGregor, finds herself up to her neck in bodies. Is it all the work of the Masons? Will Vesta ever allow her boyfriend to make an honest woman of her? And can Mirabelle and McGregor ever be more than just good friends?
It's a solid piece of detective fiction, but the 1950s setting lets it down. Although it drips with period touches, details are wrong. ("Red tops" and "dolly birds" were not terms in common use in 1953.) More significantly, there is no feel for the social realities of the time. Did I not mention that Vera is black? There are frequent references to her colour, but a black woman working in 1953 Brighton would be a constant source of wonderment. Here, her colour is almost incidental. However angry people get, no one ever uses the N-word. You wouldn't know that this is the era of signs reading 'No dogs, no blacks'. There's a similar failure to understand the pervasiveness of sexism. Many pubs, even in the 1960s, wouldn't serve unaccompanied women. Yet Mirabelle and Vesta simply have to put up with the odd bit of male condescension.
Setting books in recent history is always tricky and readers may, by now, not expect too much accuracy. If the occasional howler doesn't worry you and you like light detective thrillers, this may hit the spot. But if you just want a detective thriller, why not buy a contemporary one? And if the 1950s are your bag, there are many stories written in that period that are readily available. Some of them are noticeably better than this one.

This is the sequel to Keane's Company and is probably best read after that book.
Keane is an exploring officer in the Corps of Guides under Wellington during the Peninsular War. In the story, Keane describes himself (and is described as) a "spy" and he often reports directly to Wellington. He moves from being a combat soldier to being a scout, to hunting down enemy agents as what we would nowadays call a counter-intelligence officer, and back to being a combat soldier. He kidnaps enemy generals and seduces their mistresses, advises commanders on the disposition of their troops, develops new ciphers and is attached to Portuguese irregulars to ensure that they stay loyal to the Allied cause. A summary of the plot comes close to suggesting that he wins the war single-handed. While there is a fair bit of reasonably convincing military detail, the plot eventually veers off into a series of Boys' Own adventures and implausible triumphs.
The Guides were actually more like scouts, tasked with mapping the land and observing the movement of enemy troops, and they reported to one of Wellington's staff officers. The version of the Guides that Gale gives us certainly makes for a better story than the real thing, and having junior officers talk directly to generals is a common narrative device in historical novels (although the Wellington we see here bears little resemblance to contemporary accounts). The degree of fictionalization in this approach combines with carelessness over details until the whole thing fails to ring quite true as a novel of the Peninsular War. On the other hand, it is pacily written and succeeds as a spy thriller set against a more-or-less credible historical background.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Paris: city of culture and beauty and really interesting sewers.

I’m working on another book about James Burke, this time set in Paris in 1814, so a weekend visit to Paris was in the way of another field trip.

We visited the Army Museum in Les Invalides, where I was able to look at weapons and uniforms from the period, including one of Napoleon’s famous bicorne hats. I took a photo, which, through glass and without flash, is far from impressive, but here it is.

Other Napoleonic relics include a uniform coat, spyglass and even his horse. Yes, the whole actual horse, stuffed and mounted in a corridor.

It’s easy to poke fun at the French obsession with Napoleon, but the English tend to downplay his achievements. He was not only a military genius, but he was an innovator, and enthusiastic about the administration of civil government as well. He identified the lack of a proper sewage system as one of Paris’s main problems and, under his rule, the first vaulted sewer network was built. It was only 30 km long, but it marked a major step forward in the disposal of Paris’s waste and he regarded it as the most important thing he did for the city. Of course, that meant we had to make a trip down the sewers as well.

Who says history can’t be fun?

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Let's talk about sex. Or not.

Back in the days of obscenity trials, it was clear what you could and couldn’t write about when it came to sex. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is possibly the most famous example, but other books to run foul of the UK censor included Ulysses, Lolita, The Well of Loneliness, and Tropic of Cancer. Nowadays, of course, this is a thing of the past and writers can write, and readers read, pretty much whatever they want to.

There are still things that we would all agree that we shouldn’t read and write about (I don’t expect to see graphic tales of sex with small children any time soon) but otherwise people differ quite markedly on where they will draw the line. My publisher, Accent Press, has an erotic imprint, Xcite, which has received awards for the quality of its work, so obviously there are plenty of people relaxed about Addicted to Rope or Adventures in Fetishland. Pauline Reage’s Story of O is read even by people who might normally avoid what, in the 1960s at least, would have been regarded as ‘dirty books’. Yet, in a world full of quite explicit novels, many people seem surprisingly easily shocked. This is from an Amazon review of Leslie Thomas’s The Secret Army:
But we also see a country overflowing with sexual immorality. Yes, s£x did and does take place, but open oral s£x in streets or respectable married women regularly having multiple partners, even being passed from person to person? Perhaps, but surely very rarely, and not anywhere else as a regular occurrence except in Mr Thomas' mind, I expect.

The question of how much sex is too much (or too little) is, apparently, a constant concern of publishers. One author I know, whose ‘erotic’ novella seems pretty tame, told me that her publisher had asked her to hold back on the kink, while another, writing a straightforward romance, was apparently told to include more explicit sex. It’s a particular problem for me, because The White Rajah includes some (very unexplicit) gay sex. The simple fact of having a gay character at all is apparently too much for some Amazon reviewers:
Pity that such an excellent story should be ruined by the sexual obsessions of the author.
I think Tom Williams spoiled a great yarn by introducing a 'gay' element into a well known and loved adventure.

At the same time, several reviewers on other sites have complained that I shy away from explicit details.
The one disappointment I had, and why I give it three stars rather than four, is that the relationship between the narrator and Brooke is related in very timid detail.  [Goodreads review]

Nowadays the notion that characters don't have sex and that their bedroom activities don't affect their broader relationship is simply silly. But how much detail do we need? Even well-known 'mainstream' authors often seem to feel the need to describe their heroine's enthusiastic response to the hero's thrusting organ, though I would have thought most of us could imagine it for ourselves. At the other extreme, though, we have books that avoid explicit sex but replace it with childish innuendo that I would think many adult readers find much more embarrassing. (I’m naming no names, but I have at least one mega best-seller in mind.)

Obviously, some writers are seeking to shock or excite and, for them, this isn’t a problem. But what about romantic fiction? What about old-fashioned adventure stories? What about literary efforts like Julian Barnes' dreary Sense of an Ending with its sad little paragraph about masturbation. (Uck!) I was going to say that it was a problem for everyone except children's writers, but in the age of Heather Has Two Mommies, sensible children's authors are questioning whether ignoring sex in books for children and young adults is really a good idea.

So: close the bedroom door and leave everything to the imagination? Or bring on the whips and chains and explain exactly what she means when she says that she loves him to death? I'm guessing most of us will go for somewhere in between. But where? I have a friend who was astonished by Fifty Shades because she had never imagined such things. Other friends would regard an evening with the eponymous Christian as a bit on the dull side. How can any author write a book with real characters with real lives that can satisfy all their readers without shocking any of them? And is it even worth trying?

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.