Tuesday, 29 April 2014

What a holiday in Scotland told me about the world of my book

I'm just back from a long weekend in Scotland. We visited Leadhills in the Southern Uplands. We went because we'd been told that the area was spectacularly beautiful. The scenery was, indeed, impressive, but I ended up by being more interested in the history of the place.


Leadhills is named for the fact that Leadhills were full of – yes, lead. Nobody is sure when people started mining lead in Leadhills. It may have been as long ago as Roman times. By the 17th-century mining was very important and the area was flourishing. The lead was so plentiful that, at first, it was mined by opencast mining, just digging the lead out at the surface. Over the centuries, though, the miners began to follow the veins further and further into the mountains using a system known as "drift mining". Eventually shafts were sunk and the mines grew into huge enterprises. The development of larger mines and increasingly sophisticated operations meant there was a need to improve the technology that kept the workings dry.

Burke in the Land of Silver starts in 1792, so I have naturally developed an interest in this era. It was the start of the Industrial Revolution. At school I was taught about the importance of the development of the Spinning Jenny and the development of new technology at Ironbridge in Shropshire. Nobody mentioned Scotland, which is odd as James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, was a Scot, working in Scotland. Watt was not alone, though. In Leadhills, William Symington was developing steam power himself. The photograph shows the stonework that supported a beam engine of his at the mines in nearby Wanlockhead. The date, if you can't read it, is 1789.


Symington wasn't just copying existing technology. He was working on ways to use steam engines in entirely new situations. His monument, at the graveyard in Leadhills, shows his greatest achievement: the world's first steam powered vessel, the Charlotte Dundas.

Leadhills, toward the end of the 18th century, was poised on the edge of the modern world. The miners were educated, literate men. Their library (founded in 1741) was the first subscription library in Britain.

Despite this, children worked in the mines, pulling the lead ore out by hand. Even younger children worked outside barefoot in the winter cold, washing the ore in the streams. The miners were encouraged to build their own houses, which offered decent shelter from the elements and which, at the time, were regarded as models of workers' accommodation, but they were tiny places to raise families and the graveyard was well filled.

From Leadhills we travelled to New Lanark, to visit another memorial to those changing times. New Lanark was the site of a cotton mill built by David Dale in 1786. It became an important landmark in industrial development when it was acquired by Dale's son-in-law, Robert Owen, who had become the mill manager in 1800. Owen built housing for the workers which represented a massive step forward in the accommodation provided for ordinary people at that time. The housing was subsidised and Owen also introduced compulsory medical insurance, which gave his workforce effectively free healthcare. Later he introduced free education, insisting that children in the workforce went to school rather than work in the factories before they were ten. Schooling was available until the age of twelve for those who wanted it and adult education classes were provided in the evening for the workers. The mills were a triumph of engineering with a complex belt system powering several floors of looms from one huge engine. Waterwheels were also used to provide cheaper supplementary power – an early example of an attempt to use renewable resources whenever possible. Owen was a great reformer, one of the founders of the Cooperative movement, and he saw the opportunity for social improvement alongside the immense technical developments of the day. New Lanark employees worked 12.5 hours a day with Sundays put aside for recreation and, later in his life, he argued that the working day should be reduced to 8 hours.

New Lanark is, even today, an impressive complex of buildings (many now converted into highly sought-after flats) but it was Owen's ideas for social development that were his most important legacy.

The decades around 1800 marked a time of massive change. In many ways, they were the start of the modern world. Burke in the Land of Silver is rooted in the history of those times.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

In 1800 the world could be a very small place

When my wife was young, she lived in a small village in mid Wales. One day, one of her neighbours decided not to shop in the local market town but to travel away to the big city. When she got there, she found a junction that was controlled by traffic lights. She was so freaked out by this bit of modern technology, that she had to be guided through the town by a friendly policeman. True story.

There are many anecdotes about how, until comparatively recently, people didn't travel the way they do today. Laurie Lee's famous novel, Cider with Rosie, describes how, in the middle years of the last century, many people never travelled more than a day's walk from their village. So we have this notion that people's lives used to be very limited geographically.

In fact, around the beginning of the 19th century, when His Majesty's Confidential Agent is set, the world was not nearly such a big place as we think. The Napoleonic Wars were, in their way, world wars. British forces clashed with the French and their allies throughout Europe and the Middle East. The French supported Indians fighting the British in India and Britain invaded South America. In London's National Army Museum there is a map showing the movements of one private soldier during this period. Over the course of just a few years, he travelled halfway round the world.

My story follows the life of a real person, James Burke. He was born in Ireland but went to France to fight under the French flag. The French sent him to Saint-Domingue (now part of Haiti). There, he surrendered to the British and returned to this country. Eventually he was ordered to Buenos Aires. He also travelled to Spain and spent time in Brazil. He will have seen much more of the world than the average man of the mid-20th century.

Colonialism in those days made the world, in many ways, a very small place. It also allowed for adventures on a very grand scale. I hope you enjoy reading about them.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

If it's Easter, it must be time to visit Wales

I seem to have got into the habit of posting a picture from Wales around Easter time. Lambs seem particularly popular with readers, so here's this year's lamb picture.

And here's a bonus.

I love Wales which, coincidentally, is where my publisher, Accent Press, is based.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Pink for a girl?

In Burke in the Land of Silver, I wrote that Burke, on arriving in Buenos Aires, was struck by the fact that the buildings are mostly in shades of red, so that the predominant colour of the city was pink. He turned to his travelling companion, O'Gorman, and said, ‘I see your painters have a feminine touch.’

I put the line in as a mildly amusing introduction to O'Gorman's explanation that the houses are that colour because the plaster is mixed using blood from the cattle slaughtered in the city, giving some indication of the scale of the cattle industry there.

When Accent came to edit it, I got a polite note asking me to check if pink was a feminine colour in 1807. It's another example of the joys and frustration of writing historical novels. Colours seem a particular problem for me – see my post on the colour of Nelson's flag at the Nile.

It seemed unlikely that Google was going to help, so I went instead to a couple of online groups of historical authors. Within hours, I knew more about gender and colour than I could ever have imagined.

It turns out that the idea of pink for a girl and blue for a boy is a comparatively recent one. In 1918, the advice given to American parents was:
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
My wonderful historical writers chipped in with personal recollections of the same period:
I inherited a box of baby clothes that belonged to my dad and my uncle when my uncle went into a nursing home. They were identical --my uncle and my dad were only 11 months apart--but one set was pink and the other blue-green. They were pretty girly--especially a couple of baby bonnets with satin rosettes and a couple of Spanky MacFarland tams, complete with pompons in blue green and rose pink. I thought they were my aunts but my aunt was eight years younger and her baby clothes were in another box--more Shirley Temple.
I was flabbergasted when dad told me the pink clothes were his. He laughed and showed me baby pictures of him and Uncle George. The pictures were black and white but I recognized the clothes. I had always assumed that the babies in the picture were girls but no.
Part of the thinking that pink was a suitable colour for a boy seems to go back to the time when soldiers wore red coats. Boys would wear pink coats as a (literally) pale imitation of Redcoat uniforms. Back in the late 18th century, pink could be a dashing colour for a man – there's a nice example HERE. Back then, though, girls often wore pink as well.

Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence 1794. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

They would even use cosmetics to heighten the pinkness of their skin, as detailed in an 1807 advertisement courtesy of the Two Nerdy History Girls blog
A. PEARS, Perfumer, No.55, Wells-street, Oxford-street, having, after a variety of experiments, brought to perfection his beautiful ALMONA BLOOM or LIQUID VEGETABLE ROUGE, respectfully presents it to universal attention, as an indispensible Companion to the Toilet, and for the introduction of which he has been so happy to meet with the concurrence of every Admirer of the Female Complection.    This Composition is infinitely superior to all other preparations for admitting a free perspiration, by softening the Skin, preventing Eruptions, and firmly adheres without the least tint being removed so as stain a cambric handkerchief. It is of the consistency of Cream and of a most beautiful light red hue ; but to expaciate on the whole of its excellencies in this contracted space is impossible.
So was pink a feminine colour or not? The answer, it seems, is that at the beginning of the 19th century the question would have appeared quite ridiculous. The idea of associating particular colours with gender is, as far as I can see, a distinctly 20th century preoccupation.

So after a few hours, Burke's remark changed to 'I see your painters favour a roseate hue.'

Many thanks to the eagle-eyed editors at Accent Press and to all those who piled in with links and comments when I asked for help.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Field trip

Until this weekend, I'd never been to Portsmouth.

The home of the Royal Navy is also the home of several naval museums and famous ships, including Nelson's Victory. As the Burke books are set around the Napoleonic wars and warships feature in them, I thought Portsmouth was well overdue a visit.

Most of the museums are set in the Historic Royal Dockyards, where ships from the 19th century sit close to very 21st century warships that are berthed in their home port. The juxtaposition brings home to you how much the Navy is a continuing thread in Britain's history. It's an amazing place and I'll definitely be visiting it again.

The Victory is probably the most famous vessel there. Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Victory is still technically a commissioned ship of Her Majesty's Royal Navy, being the flagship of the First Sea Lord, who uses it for formal entertaining. Mostly, though, it is a museum, still being lovingly restored back to the state that it was in when it led the British in their greatest naval victory against the French.

The sequel to His Majesty's Confidential Agent is being polished up and it includes a description of the Battle of the Nile (another of Nelson's victories) as viewed from the gun deck of a British man o'war. Being able to walk the gun deck of a ship of that period has helped me understand better what it must have been like, though a lovely sunny afternoon safe in dry dock can give only the faintest idea of the horrors of that same deck when filled with cannon smoke and hundreds of men serving the guns amid the noise of battle and the stench of death.

Warships then and now are both beautiful and terrible things. At least this weekend, we could admire the beauty knowing that, for now, the Navy's big guns are silent.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

I'm on a horse

Observant readers will notice that I've changed my profile picture. As "His Majesty's Confidential Agent" features our hero riding round Argentina, I thought I'd show a photo of me on a horse in Argentina. This is the full picture:

This was taken at El Calafate, in Patagonia. It's cheating, really, because in the early 19th century (when "His Majesty's Confidential Agent" is set), Patagonia, although nominally under Spanish control, was not really part of Spanish America. Wild and desolate, it was left pretty much alone. Even today, as you can see from the expanse of nothing at all behind us, it's hardly over-developed. It is extraordinarily beautiful, though.