Tuesday, 30 August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Confiteria Ideal: Buenos Aires

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

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

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

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

Dancing by the Seine: Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tango on the Thames (HMS President): London

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

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

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

"You dancin'?"

"You asking?"

Game on.

Friday, 19 August 2016

John Williamson and James Burke: two very different heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 August 2016

Past Encounters: Davina Blake

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

Terry has launched #AugustReviews to try to persuade readers to post just one review on Amazon during August. It can be as short or as long as you want. Just post one review (or two ... or three ... or as many as you want) and then tell the world about it on Twitter. Terry will add you to her #AugustReviews Hall of Fame so authors will realise what a lovely person you are and you can bask in 15 seconds of internet fame and the eternal gratitude of writers everywhere. You can read more about the idea on Terry's blog (which I do recommend because there's a lot of good stuff on it.) #AugustReviews is featured at http://terrytyler59.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/augustreviews-because-every-little-helps.html. If you're really nervous of writing a review, there's even a link to a handy quick-start guide to becoming an Amazon reviewer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a brilliant book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The promotional bit

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

Monday, 8 August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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