Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Merry Christmas

Well, we're in the final countdown to Christmas here at home and I doubt I'm going to get the chance to blog much (or at all) before the Big Day, so this is my chance to wish the best of Christmases to all the people who read this. I hope you all have a lovely time.

I was in Wales last month and we caught some early snow. I thought a photo of the scene there might be an appropriate picture to post as my "card" to you all.



Thanks for being here.

Here's wishing you a very Merry Christmas and the Happiest of New Years.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Eight gifts writers will love - and seven of them are free!


Here are eight Christmas gifts for the writer in your life – and only one of them costs any money at all.

Just by reading this, you're giving gift #7. So thank you and have a very Merry Christmas.


1.     Buy their books

This is pretty obvious. It's also the only thing I'm going to suggest that will cost you money, but with many Kindle books setting you back less than the price of a cup of coffee, it surely can't be the money that's putting you off. Go on – once you've bought it an e-book will sit on your Kindle until you get around to reading it. If you enjoy reading blogs, free reads on the Internet, and all the other stuff that writers do without actually getting paid, you don't even need to read the book. Just buy it and consider it your contribution to the arts.


2.     Read their books

Okay, I just said that you should buy the books even if you don't read them. But authors really do appreciate being read. And if you get a book out of the library that helps the author too. For more about libraries and how you can help your author friends get their books more widely available, check out last week's blog.


3.     Review their books
You know how much writers like getting reviews. And, by now, you should know how important they are. It's Christmas: the season of giving. Give an author a review. You can read more about this HERE.


4.     Talk about their books

You've read a book and you've enjoyed it. Tell your friends. They don't have to buy it; they don't even have to read it. But just talking about it helps get a buzz going. And maybe they will read it and enjoy it and then they'll thank you for telling them about it. It's like karma and stuff, man!


5.     Like them on Facebook

Most authors have a Facebook page. Mine is at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams/. It's always nice to be "liked" and apparently publishers care about this sort of thing.


6.     Follow them on Twitter
I'm not a huge Twitter fan, but I have an account (it's @TomCW99) because it's the law, apparently. If you follow me, you can re-tweet my tweets. You may even enjoy some of them. Photographs of cute animals: what's not to like?


7.     Read their blogs

Oh, wait. You're doing that already. Well tell your friends to read it too.


8.     Smile and wave

I blog about once a week and I know that quite a lot of people read me because Google tells me so (and would they lie?) But people don't often respond in the comments section below. It's lovely when they do. It means I'm left with less of an impression that I'm talking to myself. I read everything that people write here and I generally reply if there's anything sensible I can say.

It's lovely to hear from readers, whether through the blog or on Facebook or Twitter. I know I'm not the only author who feels like this. Why not just say, “Hello” to a favourite writer? Or even me. You can contact me on jamesburke.confidentialagent@gmail.com


Well, there you are. Eight ways to make a happy writer this Christmas. But whether you do them or not, whoever you are and whatever you're reading, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you all the very best for this time of year.


Merry Christmas!

Friday, 4 December 2015

Support your local library - get it to stock my books

If you live in Westminster (in London) you can get my books out of the library. You can in one or two other places too. In some cases, librarians of charm and intelligence (are there any other kind?) have discovered my books because they are just remarkably thorough and wonderful human beings. In Westminster (although I am sure they are lovely people) they stock my work because someone asked them to.

Most libraries have a way for people to request books that they should stock. It's usually easy enough and it costs you nothing. Could you do it for me? I'd really appreciate it.

If your library doesn't stock my books, you can still ask to borrow them as many libraries can get books from other sources. You may end up being charged for this, though.

Having their books in libraries makes a lot of difference to authors. Besides the warm glow of satisfaction I get when I see one of my books on the shelves, it means that other people see it too: people who may try it and enjoy it and tell their friends about it. It gets books to exactly the people most likely to read them and talk about them and that sort of publicity is priceless. And, at the same time, it actually gives money to authors. Thanks to the wonder of Public Lending Rights (PLR), writers get paid every time their books are borrowed. OK, it's a very (very) small payment, but given that most of my sales are on Kindle and that e-books generate very little revenue for writers, PLR is worth having. So that's free publicity AND getting cold hard cash. It's about as good a deal as most authors are ever going to get.

So...

Give an author (ideally me) this gift for Xmas

  1. Ask your local library to stock their books, then
  2. Tell your friends that they're worth reading, then
  3. Go to the library and borrow them. Even if you've read them before. Then
  4. Go back to stage 2 and repeat.
Thank you.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Yes, I know it's still November


It's almost December and I'm afraid it's that time of year when I have to mention that Christmas is coming and that if you want to buy books for Xmas, now would be a good time to think about ordering them.

This is my Christmas cactus, so it must be that time of year again.

However convenient e-books are, there's no doubt that, as gifts, paperbacks have the edge. There's something about unwrapping a book on Christmas Day that a digital gift just can't replace. Fortunately, all my books are available in paperback.

Books are great gifts. They show that you respect the intellect of the person that you are giving them to and they show your own intelligence at the same time. Most importantly - let's be honest here - buying books supports authors. In these days of ridiculously cheap (and often free) e-books many people have got out of the way of ever ponying up actual money to pay for their reading material. Once a year you have the chance to impress your friends with your erudition and taste and make a small gesture towards those authors whose work you will miss once they've starved in their garrets. This is especially true if you enjoy reading their blogs through the year.

It's Christmas. (Well, it soon will be.) Do the right thing. For your friends, yourself and authors everywhere: buy a book.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Tango

The last couple of weeks have seen blog posts from guest writers talking about how they got into writing – whether by genetic disposition (Jenny Kane) or by going on a residential writing course (Maggie Cummiss).

Guest posts like this always get a lot of interest. Perhaps it’s because a lot of my readers are themselves writers, so they want to know how other people have made their way into print. But a lot of people seem to be interested in my posts about tango and I'm sure I have already written something about how I started writing, so I wondered if some of you might be interested in how I moved into the strange world of Argentine tango.



When I started to ski I looked for something that would keep me ski fit out of season and what I came up with was ice skating. Eventually I took up ice dance, the evil love-child of figure skating and ballroom dance. One of my fellow ice dancers turned out to be a tango teacher and she persuaded me to give that a go.

After the strict tempo rigidity and formalised postures of ballroom dance, the freedom of the fluid tempo and constant improvisation of tango came as a revelation. Here was a dance where you could let the music take you and sweep you along and where your partner would move naturally with you. People complained that tango stretched their ability to balance, but after years of staying upright on blades a few millimetres across, the idea that I could rest my whole foot on the ground was an unprecedented luxury. And moving from getting up before dawn to practice in a freezing ice-rink to staying up late on a sweaty dance floor was very heaven.

We started to learn a very theatrical style of tango – showy and fun, but more Strictly than anything than an Argentinian would recognise as their national dance. Still, my partner and I knew no better and, caught up in the romance of it, we eventually booked our tickets to Buenos Aires.

Maldita Milonga, Buenos Aires

 With all its dirt and poverty, crime and corruption, its economic insanity and political failure, it remains, for us a city of wonders. We love the buzzing streets, the friendly people, the food, the cafes, the bookshops and theatres, the zoo, the parks. Over the years we've been robbed (Buenos Aires pickpockets are true artists), we've found ourselves staying in an apartment without electricity or water, we've been lost, soaked (in summer it doesn't rain often but when it does there can be catastrophic floods) and baked. And we still love the town and have met some wonderful people. Most of all, for us, we have heard marvellous music and seen some fantastic dancers. But on that first visit, most of this was before us. What we mainly realised was that we couldn't dance tango at all. The style we had been taught may have looked quite glitzy but had nothing in common with the close embrace and sensuous movement of the dance we saw in Buenos Aires. We came back to London and got a new teacher.

Bianca is from Eastern Europe and has an acerbic teaching manner. But, as someone explained, ‘She is so harsh because she cares so much.’ A brilliant technical dancer (and an astonishingly sexy one) she took our dance to pieces and slowly put it back together again in something that approached an Argentine style. We went back to Buenos Aires and found ourselves taking the floor without making quite such fools of ourselves.

A couple of years later we moved on. Bianca was great, but we wanted to explore other styles and we started lessons with Alexandra Wood. You may have seen Alex on TV (she appeared on Strictly and turns up from time to time on other shows) or in the stage show (or DVD) Midnight Tango. A lovely dancer and a fantastic teacher, she built our confidence while remorselessly drilling us in the basic steps from which all the other fancy moves flow.



By now a horrifying amount of our lives is defined by tango. We go out dancing socially far too often (you can dance every night of the week in London if you want to) and have danced in Paris and Reykjavik. My partner has even danced in Seoul. Whenever we can afford it, we are off to Argentina again. We have cleared out a room in our house so that we have space to dance. We have adapted to a life that only really gets going after 10.00pm (2.00am in Buenos Aires). We both own ridiculous numbers of shoes and the first question my partner asks when looking a new dress is: ‘Can you dance in that?’ Our music collection is dominated by tango in all its forms, from the deeply traditional orchestras of the 1930s to tango covers of Beatles classics.

Tango by the Seine

Tango (we are assured by Argentines we know) has been scientifically shown to ward off heart problems, depression and even dementia. There’s no doubt that it improves posture and general fitness. It’s clearly true that it brings a whole new social life and the knowledge that in any big city in the world you need only a pair of shoes and the address of the local tango club to find yourself among friends.

With Burke in the Land of Silver I was able to combine my love of Argentina and my love of writing. There’s no reason why I should ever have to choose between tango and writing, but, if I ever did, I think it is writing that would be cast aside while I hit the floor to lose myself in dance.



Bianca teaches in London. Details at www.rojoynegroclub.com

Alex divides her time between London and Italy. Her website is at www.alexandrawoodtango.co.uk


If you have questions about taking up tango, feel free to post them here.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Guest blog: Maggie Cammiss shares her writing journey

Another guest post this week as Maggie Cammiss tells us about how she came to write her first novel (published by Accent Press, who also publish my books). Everybody starts differently and it's always interesting to see how people get from that first idea to seeing their words in print.

Maggie Cammiss

It’s taken a while but I think I’ve arrived. This summer I put ‘novelist’ in the ‘profession’ column of my brand new marriage certificate. But my biggest challenge these days is applying backside to chair and actually getting the writing done. I live in a beautiful part of the country and the temptation to down tools and go for a walk on the beach, whatever the weather, is always there. Self–control has never been my strong point. 

I’ve always been an avid reader – my mum made sure I joined the public library as soon as I was old enough – and my love of the written word was reinforced in my first career in public libraries. Later, I moved into film archives, where I discovered an interest in history and current affairs, and in 1989 I joined Sky News, when the 24 hour news channel first launched. I wasn’t a journalist and my background in libraries and archives presented an unconventional route into television.  

Working in rolling news was a bit like being in a revolving door; there was always something going on, no matter what the time, day or night. But the shift patterns meant I had time to concentrate on my growing love of writing. I read mostly fiction and that was what I wanted to write. But there’d be no paddling about in the shallows of short story writing for me; I decided to jump straight in.

Like a lot of people who tell you they would write a novel if only they had the time (!), I had this naïve idea that, because I was a keen and critical reader, writing a novel wouldn’t be too difficult. I was soon disabused of that notion; writing convincing dialogue is hard, I discovered. But I was determined. I went on a residential Arvon course and began collecting a library of how-to books. I joined a local writing group, bought myself some notebooks and set about coaxing the characters in my head onto the page.

I’d been warned that my characters would have their own opinions about what was going to happen. I didn’t take this very seriously. They are my creations, I thought; they will do as I say. Wrong. My characters always know their own minds. I’ve been taken up so many literary cul de sacs I’ve developed a reversing light. But I’ve learned to wait and trust my subconscious; the solution will reveal itself in its own time – usually in the dead of night. Which is why I keep a notebook by the bed: to jot down those elusive thoughts that would otherwise vanish with the dawn. It helps me believe that I’m in control. 

It’s a bit of a cliché these days, but the old advice to write about what you know certainly worked for me. The 24-hour rolling news environment provided me with all the inspiration I needed for my debut novel No News is Good News and I used the familiar setting of a television newsroom as the background to the novel. It concerns a young producer whose career is compromised by an intriguing storyline which eventually threatens her job and reputation. There’s a romantic element to the story, as well as some dramatic twists and turns. I joke that I changed all the names to protect the guilty, but I promise you, the characters and storylines are entirely fictitious.    



I didn’t have an agent, but I’d read about Accent Press in Writing Magazine and I submitted the novel via their website. To my surprise and delight, Accent took the book on and it was published last December. Since then, I’ve been working
hard on the next novel, which is set in the same fictitious TV newsroom and features a minor character from the first book, with a whole new set of personalities and problems to grapple with. It's now in the final editing stages, so look out for it in 2016.
                                                                          
My advice to anyone contemplating writing a novel and beset with doubts – don’t talk about it, just get on with it. Otherwise, how will you know? 


Twitter:  @maggiecammiss 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Guest blog from Jenny Kane

I'm very happy to have Jenny Kane back as a guest blogger this week.



Jenny is the author of the best-selling Cup of Coffee series (Another Cup of CoffeeAnother Cup of Christmas, and Christmas in the Cotswolds), the modern/medieval time slip novel Romancing Robin Hood. Her latest novel Abi's House, was published by Accent this summer and a special Christmas novella, Christmas at the Castle will be available from 14 November.

With so many books to her credit, you could reasonably ask where all this creativity comes from. Apparently it's genetic.

Inheriting the Creative Gene

Officially, I have been a writer for the past eleven years. Deep down however, I suspect I have always been a writer; I have certainly always been a creative person. How could I not be, when I was influenced from childhood by my grandmothers? Both of them, like me, were physically incapable of sitting still and doing nothing. Plus they had imaginations that would have made Roald Dahl proud.

From an early age I remember watching my maternal Nan performing plays, poems, and comedy sketches on stage for the WI, all of which she’d written herself.

I vividly recall sitting in the audience of one charity production where my Nan’s poem, ‘Hats’ was performed to shrieks of laughter and delight. I was only ten, and as I sat and laughed alongside the rest, I was struck by how wonderful it would be to be able to make people happy like that- if only I wasn’t so shy...

My paternal Nan, on the other hand, was a knitter extraordinaire. There was nothing she couldn’t produce out of wool with just the aid of a pair of needles and a decent drama to watch on the TV at the same time. I never saw her glance at what she was knitting, and I certainly never saw a pattern. The jumpers, gloves, toys, or whatever she was making, seemed to magically appear at a speed that would be the envy of any conjurer. Her creativity boggled my young mind.

Both my grandmothers loved to read, but neither of them had any time for books that contained waffle. If a story didn’t grab them instantly it was jammed back onto the library shelf before the second page got so much as dabbed with a damp finger.

Standing with my Nan in Princes Risborough library, getting restless while book after book was dismissed with the words “If you ever write a book Jenny, make sure you get to the point faster than this lot!” ringing in my ears became a regular feature of my grandparental visits. This advice stayed with me, and I have always made an effort to grab my reader’s attention before the end of the first chapter. I have to confess, that as a reader, I’m just as picky as my Nan’s were. I am notoriously hard to please!

A love of words, crosswords, and word puzzles in general- usually completed at a coffee shop table - was something that was very much part of my childhood. This love of wordplay was inherited by my Mum, and has been passed on to me as well. I spent a great deal of my childhood (and indeed my adulthood) playing with words in cafes, so perhaps it is not surprising that I ended up writing a series of stories set in the fictional Pickwicks Coffee Shop.


My latest novel, Abi’s House (Accent Press, June 2015), was written in dedication to my grandparents. Set in the Sennen Cove area of Cornwall, Abi (recently arrived from London), creates a new life for herself not far from Penzance, where my paternal grandparents lived.

On Abi’s arrival in Cornwall, she meets Beth, a young woman who has recently inherited her grandfather’s cobblers shop. My maternal grandmother’s family owns Wainwright’s Shoe Shops in Buckinghamshire, where I spent many hours with both my Nan and my Grandad, who was the chief cobbler!

Both of my grandmothers influenced my writing, and the way I approach the production of my stories, more than they ever knew. Their creativity and encouragement (my maternal Nan was forever telling me I’d make my mark on the world with words, long before I even contemplated trying my hand as a writer) carried on into the next generation, with my Mum, an excellent artist and needlewoman in her own right, cheering me on.

And now, proving that the creative gene is strong on the female side of my family, my daughters have picked up the baton. Both had poetry of their own published before either of them reached their teens, and now one is writing a screen play. Watch this space!

But what about the male side of might family you ask? From them I hope I learnt the importance of something equally important- the value of always being a little bit kinder than you need to be.

Jenny xx

***

Links to all Jenny’s books can be found on her web site- www.jennykane.co.uk

Keep your eye on Jenny’s blog at www.jennykane.co.uk for more details.

Twitter: @JennyKaneAuthor

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JennyKaneRomance  

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Five books I recommend - and an astonishing offer if you buy them this week

It's sometimes easy to forget that the point of this blog is to sell my books. So this week, I'm unashamedly selling books – though only one of them is mine.

Until next Wednesday (28 October) Accent are offering five of their historical novels for the bargain price of 99p (99c in the USA) for all five. One of them is Burke in the Land of Silver. So, effectively, you can buy Burke in the Land of Silver for 99p and get four other books thrown in for nothing. It's stunningly good value. Is there a catch? No, there isn't – except that all five books are by authors who have several novels out with Accent and if you enjoy them you may well want to read more.

What's included in the bundle besides the first of the James Burke series?

Best of the lot (and I hope I'm not offending any of the others) is Just One Damned Thing After Another. I keep on enthusing about this book. I read it because it's published by Accent, but I'm so glad that I did. Jodi Taylor knows a lot about history and sticks it into her novel, but it's hardly most people's idea of historical fiction. It's a time travelling romp that owes more to Doctor Who than any other literary source. The quintessentially English heroine hops from disaster to disaster as she travels through time, pausing to recuperate with regular cups of tea. The history is well-researched and interesting, the action is dynamic and gripping, but most of all it is very, very funny. I'm working my way through the whole series. It's brilliant and the bundle is worth buying for Jodi Taylor's book alone.


Jane Jackson writes historical romance. Unlike some romance writers, I know that Jane researches her books carefully. Crosscurrents is set around the Industrial Revolution and, while it has its share of ebony curls, broad shoulders and muscular thighs, it also has an astonishing amount of details about hot air-engines and their advantages, or otherwise, over steam power. Ms Jackson has a fine eye for clothing and furniture and fills her story with details of both, painting a deeply textured word picture of Cornwall two centuries ago. Her books are very popular and Crosscurrents is a good introduction to her world.


I haven't read James Green's Another Small Kingdom, but I reviewed a later book in his series set in the early years of the USA on behalf of the Historical Novel Society and I was impressed. His work is definitely worth a read.



George Rees is new to me. I've only had the chance to read the opening pages of An Eye of Death and that has certainly encouraged me to read more. It's a murder mystery set around the world of Elizabethan theatre.



So that's four books free when you buy Burke in the Land of Silver for 99p. Or, if you prefer to look at the other way round, Burke in the Land of Silver free when you buy four books for 99p.

Click on myBook.to/HistoricalSet to be taken to the appropriate Amazon page. But do be quick: the offer expires next Wednesday. Once you've bought the books, they sit in your Amazon library like any other and you can read them whenever you want.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Me, myself and I: writing in the first-person.

Back at the beginning of September, somebody on Twitter asked, ‘Is writing from 1st person viewpoint a bit too "masters degree" writing and not suitable for commercial fiction?’

It was a question that surprised me a bit as my John Williamson stories are written in the first person and I never thought of them as ‘Master’s degree’ writing at all. But it didn't seem the sort of thing that you could sensibly discuss in 140 characters, so I had to let it go. But now I’d like to return to the question where I can give a considered answer. (Just one reason why I prefer blogs to Twitter.)

The White Rajah is a story about James Brooke, a real person in the mid-19th century. It was the first book I'd ever written and I found it difficult to get hold of Brooke’s character. An editor told me that all the incidents around Brooke seemed to work, but there was a hole where he should be. I just didn't know how to fix this. Then I tried putting a fictional character (John Williamson) at the centre of the story as the narrator and have him describe what was happening to Brooke. I'm not saying that the result is perfect, but it seems to work. I certainly found it much easier to write.

Telling the story from the point of view of this fictional narrator meant that it fell naturally into the first person. I've long been a fan of Macdonald Fraser's ‘Flashman’ series, which is all written in the first person, so it seemed to me a natural thing to do. It's much easier in the 19th century when, I think, people were more inclined to put their thoughts on paper, often in quite a formal way. In The White Rajah, Williamson is looking back over his life from a moment of crisis and writes about his experience in order to decide how he should move forward. It seemed to me credible that he would do this and I certainly wasn't trying to produce a ‘Master’s degree’ novel.



The White Rajah was successful enough for my publisher to ask for a sequel. I had already decided that I would like to write about the Indian Mutiny and John Williamson's position at the end of The White Rajah meant that it was quite credible that he might have moved on from Singapore (where we left him) and arrived in India in time to be involved with the events that were unfolding there. Having written The White Rajah as a first person narrative, I naturally carried on in the same way with what became Cawnpore. Rather to my surprise, I found Cawnpore massively easier to write, partly because of the first person narrator. By now, I felt I knew John Williamson and as soon as I started writing in his voice it was easy to see things as he would have seen them. In Cawnpore Williamson is the central character, rather than observing someone else, and it was easy to write as him. The central theme of the story is the difficulty that most of the British had coping with the India they were governing. Williamson, after years in Borneo and alienated from the British community in India by both his class and his sexuality (he is a homosexual from a farm-worker’s family) is both inside and outside the European community and through his eyes we see both Europeans and Indians struggling to behave decently whilst failing utterly to understand each other. Williamson offers the chance to see the events of the Mutiny through someone who is at once distanced from them, yet intensely emotionally involved. I would have found this much harder to do in the third person.

Are first person novels inherently uncommercial? I don't think that this is the case. I've already mentioned Flashman, which was spectacularly commercially successful, but there are others. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is a particularly impressive example. Bridget Jones would be another.


First person narrative is harder in action-adventure type novels as these do not favour overly self-reflective heroes, but Andy McNab’s Nick Stone shows that the approach can work even in the sharpest of commercial thrillers.

Writing in the first person imposes quite a tight discipline. Most obviously, it means that you have to maintain one point of view throughout. Nowadays (it was not ever thus) frequently changing point of view is considered a failing. I have seen writing advice that suggests you could draft your story in the first person to ensure that you keep tightly focused on your main character and then, if you need to, rewrite it in the third person. It's an interesting approach, which I think might help some people. It certainly does not suggest that writing in the first person is intrinsically difficult.

Why aren't more books written in the first person?

One of the main problems is that sometimes you really do want to be able to move your point of view. In many stories (including my own James Burke books) the hero is not alone. Sometimes you want to follow what is happening to other major characters. This means breaking away from the main character and is pretty well impossible in a sustained first person narration, although some authors have dealt with it by alternating chapters of first person narration with chapters told from another point of view.

The reader may need to have information which is not available to the hero and this is difficult to cope with in the first person. Sometimes the narrator will say something like, "I did not know it at the time, but Dr Death was already using his evil personality ray to turn my own men against me." Sometimes such an approach can be made to work, but there are obvious problems with it and it can be used only sparingly, if at all.

There's also the question of tension. Although readers generally know that the hero will survive to the end of the book, the fact that they are telling the story does rather take the edge off incidents where they face imminent demise. I've heard of a story in the first person which ends with the protagonist’s death, simply breaking off in mid-sentence. I've never read it, or met anybody who has, and I can't help feeling that if it really exists it probably has very limited appeal.

Writing in first or third person is an author's response to the technical problems of telling the story in a way which flows naturally and draws the reader in. It's not a decision between a commercial or a literary form. That said, I found that when I wrote the more blatantly commercial James Burke books, I moved naturally to the third person. Even so, I've produced enough examples to demonstrate that the answer to the question on Twitter is no, it's not ‘Master's degree’ writing and, yes, it is suitable for commercial fiction. If you're a writer, it's worth experimenting with. It gives you a new way of looking at your characters and allows you to experiment with different styles. If you're a reader, don't be put off by books in the first person. It is no more true that they will inevitably be dull and mannered than it is that every book written in the third person will be exciting and contemporary.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

HMS President

For five years I've been going to dances aboard HMS President at her permanent mooring on the Thames Embankment near Blackfriars Bridge. Only now, though, have I learned about her history, thanks to a tour by the captain.

The President was originally called the Saxifrage and was launched in 1918 as a Q-ship. Her mission was to patrol the sea lanes off southern Ireland (this was before an independent Eire) playing the part of a merchant vessel. German U-boats would surface to board merchantmen, placing explosives aboard any that held materials they considered as “war supplies”. The idea of the Q-ships was that once the submarine was on the surface, the Q-ship would run up its naval colours (a legal requirement) and open fire on the sub. Its main offensive capability, though, was not its gun, but its prow. As the ship was not really a merchantman, it carried no cargo and its lower deck was filled with a huge engine that allowed it a dramatic turn of speed. A hidden rudder allowed it to turn very tightly and ram the submarine.

Model showing her original appearance as 'HMS Saxifrage'

Q-ships were so called because they sailed from Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland. The ships had two crews: a civilian crew who showed themselves on deck, and a naval crew, including gunners, who had to remain out of sight below deck. (The fixing points for the navy’s hammocks are still preserved.) Even when ashore, the civilian crew had to behave as if they were the crew of a genuine merchantman and at sea one would even appear on deck dressed as a woman, to convince any U-boat captain watching through his periscope that what he was seeing was a genuinely civilian vessel.

Despite these efforts, the Germans soon grew wise to the idea of Q-ships and the Saxifrage was never threatened by a U-boat on the surface. Instead, like the other Q-ships, she started to patrol more conventionally armed with her deck gun and depth charges. Soon, though, the war ended. By 1922, Saxifrage’s sea-going days were over and she was permanently moored on the Thames as a Royal Naval Reserve drill ship. Royal Navy Reserve ships in this role are traditionally named President, so Saxifrage was re-christened and remains HMS President to this day.

During World War II the President was brought back into service for gunnery training. A wooden cabin had been built on her aft deck and this was replaced with a metal structure because of the danger of incendiary bombs. The cabin was later converted to the ballroom where I dance.



The President was decommissioned in the 1980s. She remained in the same berth and, being, by now, a London landmark, she was allowed to keep her name, although she is officially HMS President (1918) to distinguish her from the new naval shore establishment which has taken the same name.

View through one of the few remaining portholes.


The President’s engines are gone and her portholes have mostly been replaced with larger windows suiting her new life as a floating office and entertainment venue. Her lines can still be made out under the new superstructure (some of it added by the navy to provide more room for drill and offices in her shore-base role).



HMS President is one of only three Royal Navy warships surviving from the First World War. As part of the centenary celebrations of the war, she was painted in a modern interpretation of the ‘dazzle’ camouflage that she wore in her original role. Until 2014 she was painted in Victorian battleship livery with a black hull, white superstructure and a buff yellow funnel and masts She was the last Royal Navy ship to maintain this livery.

If you want to see her, you had best do so before January. Work on the new Thames sewer means that she will be leaving her berth at the beginning of 2016 and the owners are taking the opportunity to put her in dry dock. With luck, she will be back on the Thames, as good as new, later in the year.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The history behind Cawnpore: the final word.

I hope you've enjoyed my week of posts about Indian history. I've blogged about the siege of Cawnpore and the British reprisals afterwards quite recently, so I'm not reposting these: click on the links if you want to read them. There is a post about Nana Sahib, seen by the British as the villain of the piece, HERE.

Cawnpore, now called Kanpur, remains the largest city in Uttar Pradesh. It flourished for a while as a centre of the cotton trade, but cotton manufacture has moved on to cheaper countries and many of the mills are closed. It remains, though, a centre of industry with significant plants producing wool and leather, as well as factories supplying the defence industry.


The Cawnpore Memorial in 1860. Now demolished.

The memorial well, which marked the site of the second massacre, was demolished after Indian independence in 1947. A park was built in its place with statues of leaders of the independence movement, including Tatya Tope, who many historians believe was the man behind the massacre. The park is called Nana Rao Park, in memory of Nana Sahib.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A cultural diversion

I'm reposting a lot of old blogs about India this week, so I thought I'd give you all a treat with an extra blog about something completely different.

A few weeks back, I wrote about a production of Carmen at the Soho Theatre. Now, in my continuing attempt to inject some High Culture into my blog, I'm writing about the ballet. And I'm posting it now because Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have just two days more in London before they vanish beyond the M25, and I'd like you to have the chance to see them before they go. You'll probably have to kill someone to get a ticket, but it will be worth it, I promise.

It's ballet, Jim, but not as we know it.

There are a few men in the history of ballet who have enhanced their reputations by dancing en pointe. Frederick Ashton famously choreographed the comic lead in Fille Mal Gardée for him to show off in the tortuous footwear that, for so many people, defines the classical ballerina. So when the curtain rises on the company affectionately known as “Les Trocks” there must surely have been some mistake. For this famous company of male dancers are draped around the stage ready to dance Les Sylphides, a classical ballet which seems designed specifically to test the ankles of even the slenderest ballerina.

It’s no mistake. Chopin’s music starts and the company glides, apparently effortlessly, into their version of this chocolate box ballet. What follows is, as ever with the Trocks, an astonishing mix of virtuoso dancing and brilliant comedy. They stagger, they fall, they miss their cues – yet when they settle to perform a set-piece dance, every step is perfect. In fact, their technique is significantly better than many a more traditional company. If you are to get a laugh by collapsing on your fellow dancers, the audience needs to know that there is no question but that you did it on purpose.
Much of the comedy is straightforward slapstick, but there is also a subtle (or sometimes less subtle) sending up of many of the conventions of classical dance: the pretty-boy principal who stands around propping up (or, in this case, not) his leading lady; the endless rearranging of ballerinas around the stage because, back in the 18th century, moving around to make pretty patterns was much of what ballet was about. The audience roars with appreciative laughter as dancers fall to the ground, somehow landing in perfect splits. Splits? But these are men. For a moment, despite the chest hair peeping above some of the costumes, we’ve all forgotten. But splits? From a jump? One or two, maybe. But the whole company?

Photo: (c)Zoran Jelenic

Yes, splits, fouettés, spins, even high lifts (though the man doing the lifting is barely bigger than the “girl” he lifts). The Trocks do it all, with a passion and élan which lets their love for ballet shine through. Les Sylphides is almost a parody of classical dance and it deserves sending up, but never have I enjoyed a performance so much and, when I’ve wiped away the tears of laughter, I realise I am still sitting through some sublime classical ballet.

Next it’s Merce Cunningham’s turn. Older ballet fans, like me, may still vaguely remember when Cunningham was exciting and new. It was pretty strange, though, even then. The Trocks dance it wonderfully, though it is so far beyond parody that I'm not sure that there would be that much difference if they did it straight. A couple of live musicians accompany them in music that the programme describes as “after John Cage”. Let’s face it, getting a laugh out of Cage’s music is not difficult but, as the sound of rustling paper gives way to the popping of bubble wrap, the audience collapses. The pastiche of the music is crueller than the sending up of the dancing, yet, even at its cruellest, it is still recognisably music (of a sort) and unmistakably John Cage.

The Trocks on Wall Street    Photo: (c)Zoran Jelenic

The Balanchine parody is nicely done, but it is nothing to the Dying Swan. I'm old enough to have seen Margot Fonteyn dance the Dying Swan as a gala piece and it was very lovely indeed. But this dying swan was like nothing you have imagined in your wildest nightmares. Shedding feathers, clutching its stomach, palpitating at its chest, there’s no doubt this swan is in a very bad way and then, suddenly, the dancer is channelling Fonteyn with that lyric pose, held for a breath – before she breaks it to gesture for more applause. It’s classic Trock – technically brilliant, beautifully moving and then crashing straight into the crudest slap-stick. Brilliant!

Finally we get the peasants dancing in the village from – well, from every three act classical ballet you ever saw really. Ostensibly, this is Don Quixote, though the programme notes tell us that “due to economic reasons” neither Don Quixote or Sancho Panza features. Peasant girls do, though. And gypsies. And an ugly hag, a virtuous mother and somebody else who hangs around in the background doing not a lot, because classical choreographers always like to put in a part for their old girlfriends whose dancing days are pretty well over. There’s a handsome hero and an ugly old man who tries to steal away the beautiful heroine. And there are fairies. Why not? It’s a traditional classical ballet – why shouldn't there be fairies? The plot, such as it is, is communicated through those mime gestures that little girls learn in their ‘First Ballet Book’ and these are shoe-horned in whether they are appropriate or not, together with the odd gesture that definitely doesn't feature in the ‘First Ballet Book.’ There are solos and pas de deux and pas de quatre and dances for the whole company and, by the end, you have seen every village dance scene you will ever want to see and, if you stop laughing for long enough, you will notice some truly beautiful dancing sandwiched between the jokes.

Photo: (c)Zoran Jelenic

There is no other company in the world like the Trocks. What started as a joke in an off-off-Broadway show has become an institution in which an astonishingly talented multi-national cast of male performers dress up in tutus and dance their hearts out. And are really, really good. And funny. I did say that they’re funny, didn't I?

I doubt you can get tickets for the London run by now. (It closes on Saturday.) But they are just starting a UK tour that lasts until mid-November. Whether you are a ballet fan or just enjoy a really good laugh, do yourself a favour and go.
Yesterday someone asked me about the journeys Williamson makes in India.

These were based on accounts of travelling in the sub-continent from the time. Several of the incidents are drawn directly from the book by Fanny Parks, who wrote about her own experiences in India in the first half of the 19th century. She was an extremely interesting woman and I recommend her book. (Avoid the expensive edited versions and read the original, which is available online for free.)

I wrote about her for 'English Historical Fiction Authors' in 2013. As Cawnpore is being promoted at the moment and I'm taking the opportunity to repost some of my notes about India, here's my account of Fanny Park's life.

Fanny Parks: A Wandering Pilgrim in 19th Century India



Fanny Parks went to India in 1822, accompanying her husband. Arriving in Calcutta, she and her husband lived respectably with the other Europeans, although she was quick to learn Hindi so that she could communicate with the servants.

After two years in Calcutta, her husband took up a post in Allahabad, 500 miles to the north-west. It was her first experience of rural India and she loved it. The time was, she said, "the most approaching to delightful that we had passed in India." Once there, her husband became manager of the ice works. The manufacture and storing of ice in the days before refrigeration was an important industry, but managing an ice plant must have had more than a passing similarity to watching paint dry. Fanny threw herself into organising the household, arranging an avenue of trees and digging a new well. (She quotes the local proverb: "Plant a tree, dig a well, write a book, and go to heaven.") It seems pretty clear, though, that she was bored.

Equipped with her workable Hindi and her horse, Mootee, she spent much of her time exploring the country. "Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab [horse]," she wrote, "one might be happy for ever in India."

As a woman, she was allowed to socialise with Indian women in a way that local custom would have considered quite unacceptable for men. She formed friendships with many Indian women and was even able to visit them in the zenana (harem), an area completely forbidden to men other than the immediate family and therefore a continual source of exotic rumour amongst most Europeans. It was her accounts of life in the zenana that, in part, led to the success of her autobiographical Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, two extraordinary volumes which gave an unparalleled insight into Indian life under British rule in the first half of the 19th century.

Her husband seems to have been, by the standards of the time, unusually relaxed about leaving her to travel on her own. When the two of them went to visit the Taj Mahal, he sent her ahead in her own boat and she writes about her experiences and adventures on the river as an unchaperoned woman. Her behaviour was considered improper by more conventionally minded memsahibs and she seems to have had few women friends among the European community, although she is always writing of the men she knows and visits. (Even back in England she shocked people by going out and about unchaperoned. "I shall never be tamed," she wrote "… to the ideas of propriety of a civilised lady.")

She took to wearing Indian dress, even having a burka made for herself (though she doesn't say that she ever wore it in public). She complained that "a lady in European attire gives me the idea of a German mannequin" and contrasted European women's stiff walk with "that snakelike, undulating movement, – the poetry of motion" that she saw in the Indians. Although the early 19th century saw generally good relations between the Indian and European communities, Fanny Parks was much closer to the local aristocracy than most and was regarded by many Europeans as having "gone native". She learned Urdu, which was the language of court and which she described as "Hindostanee, intermixed largely with Persian."

She was sympathetic to Indian religions and contrasted them favourably with Christianity.

"The fakir, who from a religious motive, however mistaken, holds up both arms until they become withered and immovable, and who, being, in consequence, utterly unable to support himself, relies in perfect faith on the support of the Almighty, displays more religion than the [bishop], who, with a salary of £8000 per annum, leaves the work to be done by curates, on a pittance of £80 a year."

Her enthusiasm for Indian religious observance did not, however stop her from stealing idols that she found in the countryside and adding them to her collection of Indian artefacts. On her return to England she proudly announced that: "My collection of Hindoo idols is far superior to any in the [British] Museum."

She was entranced by fabrics and fashion and learned the esoteric skill of dressing a camel. "There is but one thing in the world that I perfectly understand, and that is, how to dress a camel," she claimed. She was good enough at dressing camels to be asked to dress the camel of a local Rajah. The dress was made of "many yards" of black and crimson cloth covered in seven hundred bells, one hundred beads and thousands of cowrie shells. She drew the line, though, at actually riding the beast, saying that she would be frightened of tumbling off.

Much of her time was spent at entertainments, whether the balls given by the British or more elaborate entertainments provided by the Indians. Having animals fight seems to have been considered a great sport, with elephants and even rhinoceroses being pitched against each other. Nach dancers provided a more relaxed entertainment.

With no need to find herself employment, Fanny Parks gives the impression of a life spent in a continual round of exploring, socialising and being entertained. The realities of life in India do intrude, though. She is constantly reporting herself unwell, often through the effects of the heat. She matter-of-factly records the deaths of native friends, servants and Europeans as smallpox, plague, heatstroke and other unspecified illnesses take their toll. Even her substantial domestic menagerie suffers. "The sickness in our farm-yard is great: 47 … sheep and lambs have died of small-pox; much sickness is in the stable…" There is the occasional murder to break the monotony of death from illness sickness. The East India Company offered generous pensions. Fanny Parks reminds us of why they could afford to: most of their employees failed to survive to collect their pensions. A detailed study of the mortality rate amongst British troops in India in the 1840s suggested that almost 3% died every year. A 21-year-old soldier in the Bombay army was reckoned to have only an evens chance of surviving 25 years of service – much less than he would need to collect his pension.

The life expectancy of the native Indians was, of course, less than that of the Europeans. Besides issues of sanitation and general health, the natives suffered the effects of famine. Fanny Parks describes passing through a famine area:

"There lay the skeleton of a woman who had died of famine; the whole of her clothes had been stolen by the famished wretches around, the pewter rings were still in her ears, but not a rag was left on the bones that were starting through the black and shrivelled skin; the agony on the countenance of the corpse was terrible. Next to her a poor woman, unable to rise, lifted up her skinny arm, and moaned for food. The unhappy women, with their babies in their arms, pressing them to their bony breasts, made me shudder… I cannot write about the scene without weeping…."

In 1839, Fanny Parks returned to England to visit her family, her father having died. She complained that the country was small and dark. Even the mutton was compared unfavourably with that in India, although she was fascinated by her first experience of a steam train. Her visit was not a happy one. While she was in England, her mother died and she herself was seriously ill for three months. It was not until 1844 that she returned to India. She seems to have spent less time now exploring the country and complained of life being monotonous. Years in India had sapped her health and that of her husband. In 1848, both of them left India for England, arriving on New Year's Day 1849.

Her homecoming was unpropitious. "[I]t was bitterly cold, and I began to speculate if it were possible to exist in England." Exist in England she did, though, surviving until 1875, when she died at the age of 81.