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, 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.