Friday, 31 March 2017

Nothing to see here ...

A couple of weeks ago was one of my casually rambling blogs. I try not to do those too often but I'm afraid that today has a certain rambling element to it as well. I do have an excuse, though, because this week I appear as a guest blogger for Karen King, writing about Argentina and the adventures I had researching Burke in the Land of Silver. Go and have a look!

I generally try to post on this blog once a week, but I am going to take a bit of a break from social media, including blogging. I'm not Steven Fry: I'm not storming off in a Twitter sulk, refusing to speak to any of you ever again. But there is a lot else going on in my life at the moment, so I'm going to row back a bit on Twitter, Facebook and this blog. Never fear: I'll still be posting occasionally and I have some exciting guest posters lined up to go some way to filling the gap my absence might leave in your lives, so please do check back here from time to time.

It will be interesting to see what happens to readership of this blog when I'm not writing about it on Twitter and Facebook. I know that a Facebook mention or a tweet does generate more hits on the blog. Relatively few of you 'follow' me on Blogger, which is understandable as following on Blogger only seems to make sense if you have a Google+ account and so few people have. Still, it makes me feel wanted and impresses publishers, so if any of you could, there is a 'Follow' button at the bottom of the right hand column. And if you could call by even if you don't see it mentioned on Twitter, that would be lovely.

To make up for taking a break from writing to you every week, I will be talking to anyone who wants to come and listen at Waterstones in Windsor on 25 May. Yes, I know that's a long way off, but I'm not going to be on social media plugging it for a few weeks, so here's the advance notice. I'll be talking about James Brooke, the hero of The White Rajah. There's no official publicity for it yet, but I've been assured it's really happening and it's at 7.30, so if you live near Windsor and are free that evening, it would be nice to see you.

OK, I'm starting as I mean to go on by keeping this post short. Normal service will be resumed eventually. Until then, enjoy the peace and quiet.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Random ramblings

Friday already and time for another blog post. I doubt that whatever I say is going to get as much attention as last week's on 'Historical Notes'. That was one of those that seemed to catch people's interest for some reason. It hardly "went viral" but it got far more views than most of my posts do. This week's post is, I think, going to be one of my occasional mild rambles.

It's odd what does and doesn't draw people in. I'm still trying to work out why a post on how we spent our Christmas holiday in 2013 is by now easily the most read item on my blog. I've asked if anyone knows why but no one seems to have any idea.

Claims or denials of expertise seem to be quite popular.  One of the most widely read posts here was by Kirsten McKenzie who wrote about how her experience in the antiques business provided her with the expertise she needed to write her historical/time slip novel, Fifteen Postcards. There was a lot of interest, too, in my own post about why, although I spend a lot of time researching my books, I don't feel I'm an expert at all. Two writers; two very different points of view – yet both pieces stand out for the number of people who read them. I think there's a lot of interest in what does or doesn't make an expert nowadays with books written  about the need for constant practice and motivational posters telling us that if we only work harder we can somehow excel in our chosen fields. As the person who wrote the piece denying my expertise, I'm a bit cynical about all this, but there's no doubt that the idea of immersing yourself in a subject and becoming a leading authority certainly fits with the zeitgeist whether you're Stephen Hawking writing about theoretical physics or Zoella, who is now a recognised authority on make up the teenage girls.

One thing I am definitely not an expert in is writing blog posts. Practised: yes.  I generally post about once a week  and nowadays I regularly get over 2,000 page views a month –  small beer by the standards of many of these things, but gratifying to me. I have been known to point out that if visitors to my blog bought 2,000 books a month that would do remarkable things my sales figures. If some of you would take the hint I'd appreciate that. What I write, though, attracts very different levels of interest week by week and when I post, I have very little idea what sort of response I'm going to get.

Of course it's gratifying to think that I'm reaching a lots of people through these posts but it's the responses that I really enjoy. Writing can be a very lonely business and it's always good to hear from people. Apparently there were technical issues with commenting on the blog, but I think these have been cleared up and anybody should now be able to type their response in the 'Comments' box below where everyone can see it. If you do  want to write to me but don't want to share your thoughts with the world you can reach me by e-mail at

I wrote a few weeks ago about the excitement of getting my first payment for Public Lending Rights. Since then, my local library has added The White Rajah to the books that it has available for loan electronically. By now, I think, most London libraries have at least some of my stuff  available online. I do recommend this service. The book is downloaded to your phone or tablet (you may have to install some free software, but it is easy to use) and then you have all of the advantages of Kindle but without having to pay anything. And, unlike the case when my boys are pirated (and, sadly, they all too often are) I get paid every time you download it. If your local library doesn't have my books, could you ask them to make them available? There's usually an online form to do this and it does make a real difference to me.

Speaking of excitement: it seems that I'm going to be giving a talk on James Brooke, the eponymous White Rajah, at Waterstones in Windsor on 25 May. There is a date for your diaries. I'll be writing much more about this once it's all officially confirmed.

That's about it for this week. (I told you I wasn't an expert at writing blog posts.) I have noticed that posts with photos of Tango dancers tend to be well received so, before I go, here's a picture of my amazing tango teacher, Alexandra Ward, with her partner, Guillermo Torrens.

Original photo: Tom Mason

Alex is currently touring in Tangomotion. If you can't make Waterstones in Windsor, see if she's playing near you. It will be an evening with less history but more music. And she's certainly much prettier than I am

Friday, 17 March 2017

Some notes on Historical Notes.

Somebody was on Facebook this week asking whether it's a good idea to put a historical note at the end of historical novels.

I'm a huge fan of historical notes. A good historical note can provide an excellent jumping off point if you want to learn more about the period the book is set in. I used to love Walter Scott's historical notes on the Waverley novels. Some of these would run to several pages long and were a worthwhile read even if you hadn't looked at the novel itself. Nowadays historical notes are rather shorter but they are still often an important part of the book. In George MacDonald Fraser's footnotes in the Flashman novels not only provide fascinating historical detail but are also an integral part of the humour.

Historical notes allow the author to explain where they have taken liberties with the facts. Many people resent historical errors that are not acknowledged and will say that a book is hardly historical at all if it has blatantly departed from the known facts. Acknowledging things you have changed in a historical note can go some way to warding off such criticism. Possibly more importantly, when a book deals with important historical issues the notes can provide confirmation that the events recounted did actually happen. I was shocked, for example, in Deborah Swift's story, Past Encounters, to read about the treatment of British prisoners of war by Nazi Germany. I thought perhaps the horrors had been exaggerated and was reassured (in a horrible sort of way) by an endnote explaining that such events really happened and providing some references for those who wanted to follow them up. Lawrence Hill’s wonderful The Book of Negroes similarly provides notes to confirm that the terrible events of the book are real.

Many authors now provide bibliographies, either as part of a historical note or instead of one. The Book of Negroes supplements its historical note with several pages of suggestions for further reading, while Nicola Barker's The Cauliflower has no historical detail in her endnote but an extensive list of books for those who want to know more about the character at the centre of her novel.

Obviously all my books come with historical notes.

Back Home is in some ways the least historical of my efforts. All the others are based around specific historical facts, while the events of Back Home are entirely fictional. It was only when I came to write the notes this that I really recognised how firmly embedded in the history of 1859 the book was. So here, as an example of how one historical novelist deals with end notes, are the final pages of that book.

1859 was an interesting time in England. Victoria had already been on the throne for twenty-two years, but in many ways this was still the England of the early nineteenth century. In London the great slums, or rookeries, were slowly being demolished, but those that remained were a horrific reminder of an earlier age. We were only twenty years from the time of Sherlock Holmes, who bridges the Victorian and Edwardian eras, but policing and social order in 1859 was nothing like the situation in the 1880s.   
London was growing massively from a city of under a million people in 1801 to almost two million in 1841. By 1861, the population (boosted by Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine) was 2.8 million and the city was the largest in the Western world. John Williamson [my narrator] naturally compares the metropolis with Calcutta, a famously populous city, but in 1859 London actually had many times more inhabitants than Calcutta, which had a population of several hundred thousand in the 1850s. (For this, as for various other bits of useful historical trivia, I am grateful to my editor, Greg Rees, who seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of such detail.)
It was a time of enormous social and technological change, and John Williamson found himself caught between the old eighteenth-century world and the modern world that is emerging from its decay.
 Most of the story takes place in London, centring on Seven Dials. I’m a frequent visitor to the Seven Dials Club, so it’s an area I know reasonably well.

Seven Dials today

I think the first time I came across Seven Dials in literature was in Disraeli’s Sybil, in which the heroine is rescued from a mob there. It is depicted as a place of utter lawlessness. Reading about it in other works of fiction and non-fiction, different people seem to describe it very differently. To some, it is just a noisome slum, to others an unspeakably vile place. Williamson’s version veers towards the negative, but his Seven Dials is by no means the worst you can find in literature.

Seven Dials in the mid-19th century
It’s odd looking at the town you live in, in a period not that long ago. My grandfather was a policeman in Soho, no distance from Seven Dials, less than fifty years after the time of this book. I have a picture of Victorian London made up from books written then (Dickens is brilliant for period feel), stories that have built up about the town, modern novels and, for all they’re full of errors, films set in the nineteenth century.
There are a lot of books that can help you understand Williamson’s London. The one I started with was The Victorian Underworld by Donald Thomas. It’s a brilliant overview, though (like many other books) it relies rather heavily on Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Mayhew’s enormous work is more than most people will ever get right through, but it’s well worth dipping in and out of. I’ve read several accounts of coining, but Mayhew’s is the best. He confirms Williamson’s statements about the discounted rate for buying forged currency. He is also full of fascinating details, such as the areas most habituated by prostitutes. (Williamson’s first trip out with Susan to the Burlington Arcade reflects Mayhew’s opinion of that locale.) Another source of local colour is Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand Book to London and its Environs 1862, recently republished by Conway.    
For more about coining I turned to the records of the Old Bailey. Williamson is over-optimistic about the sentence coiners might expect – looking at sentences around this time we see Thomas Ferryman (Sept 1858) receiving five years for what seems to have been an extensive amount of forgery. Richard Pike (Jan 1859) was given four years for forging shillings, while Joseph Pomeroy (Jan 1860) got ten years for forging sixpences. However, the same records suggest that convictions for coining were rare. As Michael suggested when the police raided them, it was essential for the police to find actual coining equipment to get a prosecution. It was much more common, therefore for people to be prosecuted for possessing or passing the coins. Here, sentences were much lighter. In the summer of 1859 most of those convicted got a sentence of only a few months or one or two years, although sentences for repeat offenders were much higher. This is presumably the reason that Williamson saw it as not being a particularly serious offence.
Passing banknotes was, for all the reassurance Williamson gave to people using them to pay for funerals, taken more seriously. In 1857 William Stone got five years for passing a forged fiver, while Joseph and Thomas Collins both got ten years (although they both seemed to have been heavily involved in forgery). Forging the notes meant even longer sentences: in 1857 John Bolyne got fifteen years for forging £5 notes. Interestingly, despite this, Michael's concern about forging £10 notes was not shared by many others. Mayhew says that forged tenners were quite common. 
The forging of foreign currency was also surprisingly common in London with Turkish and Russian money being produced in quantity by some forgers.   
It was not unusual for juries to recommend mercy and sentences to be reduced on this account. I've seen no suggestion that the death of a child would incline juries to clemency although mercy might be recommended on lots of grounds – for example, ‘being a stranger to the country’ or extreme old age. Eliza Clark (May 1862) received a much reduced sentence because the jury considered her to have been ‘the tool of another person’. Williamson might have believed the assurances that he was giving to bereaved parents.   
Ever since I learned that Karl Marx used to cabal with his Communist comrades in Great Windmill Street, I have always hoped to read more about his life in London. Marx is as I imagined him from Francis Wheen’s immensely readable biography. His concerns about money and the unfortunate Mr Biskamp are reflected in his published correspondence with Engels.   
A nice overview of this time and place is provided by Liza Picard’s Victorian London. 
For more about life on the farm in Devon [where the story starts], you can read Henry Stephens’ Book of the Farm. This excellent work would have enabled anybody at the time to establish a model farm and Mr Slattery was obviously guided by its precepts.

Back Home is published by Accent Press and is available as a paperback or e-book. It was runner-up for Rosie Amber's Book Team's historical novel of the year 2016. It's rather good and ludicrously underpriced. Please buy it.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Tangling with tango

I have a guest on my blog this week: fellow Accent author Jennifer Macaire. Jennifer has been inspired by my posts about tango to tell us about her own experiences. Her husband was a professional polo player, so she had lots of opportunities to learn in Argentina. Unfortunately, she ended up in France with a less than satisfactory experience. 

Hello Tom! Thank you for having me as a guest on your blog. I saw you liked tango, and I admit, I love it too. Once, I even got the chance to learn with a professional.

When I was six, my parents enrolled me in the local ballet school. They were fans of Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp; the American dance theater had come to our town and we'd been entranced ... so off I went, my expectations soaring. Reality is cruel. I couldn't tell my left from my right. Even when watching the teacher I'd raise the wrong arm, put the wrong foot forward, trip, and generally bumble about. When the time came for the annual show, we students lined up to get our tutus. My name was called. I dashed forward. Scarlet! - I wanted deep ruby red with a sparkle of sequins on the bodice. My heart pounded. My ballet teacher handed me a gray-green package. Surely there was a mistake? I tore it open. No. It was verdigris. I choked back tears and stumbled off to put it on. The show must go on. In the audience, my parents who had gotten there early, sat in the front row and craned their necks. Where was I? I was hidden behind the curtain in the far back. I could see the teacher, I could see the students, performing our pliés, jétés, and whateverétés - I could not see the audience from where I stood, and no one could see me. The teacher smiled happily. The ugly duckling was not going to ruin her show. After, my furious parents pulled me out of the school and I never attempted ballet again. But many, many years later, an Argentine neighbor organized a two-day tango class in our humble village.

Dancing the dream: Buenos Aires

I signed up. I'd been to Argentina several times, spent my honeymoon there, and had watched people dancing tango. It looked so mysterious and gliding, sexy and daring. Women were invited to wear high heels and skirts. I happily dressed and went to the town banquet hall, where twenty villagers stood in various postures of shyness. I joined the line and we were introduced to the teacher - a daunting elderly man with a military bearing and piercing dark eyes. He lined us up, showed us how to walk dragging our toes, turn, fling our legs out, and turn again. You can tell already, by my vocabulary, that I was not the best student. He paired us up, and the music started. basic steps at first, then twirls and whirls. He tapped me on the shoulder."No. Like this. Come here." He took my hand, placed my other hand on his shoulder, and we started to dance. After about two minutes he stopped. "You must learn submission. I am the man. I lead." We tried again. I let my body go all loose, tried to imagine my arms and legs were tied to his, and I couldn't move without following. I stepped on his foot. He stopped."Hopeless," he stated. "Next!" I moved to the back of the line. My tango days were over. I watched until the end. The next day, there was a show with professional dancers, and some of the more talented villagers. I applauded, and ate alfajores. There are some who are born to dance - and there is me. But tango bug stayed with me. I love the music, and I love watching it.

The nice thing about being a writer is having imagination and being able to write about doing something impossible. So, without further ado - I present Jennifer Macaire - tangoist exceptionnelle! The basic tango walk is 2 slow beats, two quick beats, and a slow beat. The quick beats are 1 beat of music. Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow. Three full walks forward, followed by a side step and lastly a drag step. I'm wearing high heels and a scarlet dress with sequins. My hair is pulled back in a chignon, and there is a red rose in it. I have ruby lipstick. In the crowd, Robert Downey Jr is watching and thinking he's going to ask me to star with him in his next film about a modern woman who is sent back in time to the early 1900's in Paris to spy on the Nazis - she's a dancer at a nightclub, and her name is Mata you can tell, I love time slip books!

 Alas! Jennifer’s experience is all too common, which is a shame, though it makes an excellent story. There are some terrible tango teachers around, but there are many very good ones as well. If you are interested in learning the dance, I can recommend teachers in London (and Berlin, Reykjavik, and Istanbul, for that matter). I’ve even been known to teach beginners myself. If you want advice on starting tango, feel free to email me on

Jennifer blogs at Her book, The Road to Alexander, is the first in a series of time-slip books. The second will be published by Accent this summer.

About the book: After winning a prestigious award, Ashley is chosen to travel through time and interview a historical figure. Choosing her childhood hero Alexander the Great, she is sent back in time for less than a day. He mistakes her for Persephone, goddess of the dead, and kidnaps her, stranding her in his own time. What follows, after she awakes under the pomegranate tree, is a hilarious, mind-bending tale of a modern woman immersed in the ancient throes of sex, love, quite a bit of vino, war, death and ever so much more.

Friday, 3 March 2017

St Helen's, Bishopsgate: history in stone

After last week’s depressing post about publishing I'm returning this week to history.

One of the things I really like about living in London is the continuity you can feel with the past. Some buildings are pickled in aspic by the heritage industry, but the best adapt and change, their architecture reflecting the social changes since they were built.

Last year, purely by chance, I stumbled upon St Helen’s in Bishopsgate, a church set in a little pedestrianised square a few yards and a thousand years from the modern City.

St Helen's traces its history back to the twelfth century when it was a small parish church. About 1210 a nunnery was established nearby and the nun’s church was built alongside the existing building. St Helen’s therefore has two naves, the southern nave being that of the old parish church with a northern nave alongside where the “Nun’s Quire” was.

There were changes in the building which I don’t think there is any detail of, but the essential shape remained. There was a line of arches and a screen between the Nun’s Quire and the parish church and the arches were replaced around 1480. They still stand.

The Nun’s Quire. The original parish church is on the right, the other side of the arches

The nunnery stood until 1538 when it fell victim to Henry VIII's Reformation. The screen that had separated the nun’s quire from the parish church was removed so the building became as we see it today. The result is a church that has the shape of an old Saxon church, albeit with a south transept added on around 1250, rather than the cruciform shape that we associate with most traditional churches.

The layout of the church reflects the changes in worship over hundreds of years. The pulpit (1615 or thereabouts) is on the side wall of the church (you can just make it out on the right of the picture) with the chairs facing it so that everyone can see and hear. It’s a more inclusive approach to worship than that which we see in later churches where the rows of pews are arranged in lines across the nave, with the great and the good seated nearer the preacher and the poor huddled at the back, a safe distance away.

In Victorian times the church was rearranged in what we now think of as a more conventional way and the floor was lowered, so that the congregation was suitably subservient to the preacher. Windows were filled with dark stained glass, giving the gloomy air we tend to associate with churches.

In 1992 and 1993 the church was badly damaged by two IRA bombs. All the windows were blown out and the roof was lifted. The enormous damage meant that substantial rebuilding was required. The Rector and churchwardens at this time represented a more evangelical branch of Anglicanism and they wanted the church returned to its medieval layout. The heavy stained glass was replaced by windows which admitted much more light and the floor was raised to its medieval level. The reredos, which had been added in the 19th century to separate the altar from the masses, was moved to a purely decorative function against the east wall. (You can just catch a glimpse of it hidden by the second column in the photo above.) Instead of celebrating communion at an altar where the vicar stands separated from his flock, they have reintroduced the idea of celebrating at a table, moved into the body of the church when the last supper is celebrated. Unfortunately I have no photograph of the table which is tucked away in the south transept when it is not in use. Although the evangelical tone of the services would be well served by a table from IKEA the communion table is 17th-century.

The changes from a small parish church where Catholics practised their faith, to a larger well-lit parish church in the Anglican tradition, to a gloomy Victorian place of worship and now back to a more medieval layout, albeit with modern lighting and an excellent public address system, provides a physical reminder of the way in which Christian worship has changed over almost a thousand years. The church is full of memorials, fragments of ancient glass, architectural details and sword rests which reflect the changes along the way. There is a font from about 1632 which is no longer used as the current congregation prefer total immersion and have built a small pool to facilitate this.

Finally, here is a photo of a brass plate from the 15th century defaced in 1644 because it called on worshippers to pray for the dead – contrary to the biblical teaching that those who died believing in God go immediately to be with him. St Helen's provides a reminder in stone and metal work of the way in which London and the churches of London have changed through the centuries. If you are ever near Bishopsgate, I do recommend a visit.

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The third and final book about John Williamson (don't worry, you don't have to read the other two if you don't want to) Back Home is set in London. My characters are a godless lot and churches don't feature, but the streets where the story is set are still there and I walked them often. I’ve travelled to Argentina and to Borneo to research the background for my books, but I'm lucky to live in a city where there is so much history so much closer to hand.