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The Godmother’s Tale

What follows was first published in 2016. I reprise it here specifically for those who enjoyed the reading, for UK Crime Book Club, of some chapters of Reconquista, in their series of lockdown books for younger readers, and for anyone else who may enjoy reading about the inception of that book.

Once upon a time there was a boy. His name was Luke and he was twelve years old. Luke had fair hair and grey eyes and he was slim and clever. He was very good at maths.

So good at maths that he used to go to Cambridge University at weekends where he would speak the language of numbers with a young professor. At home he would write long and complicated formulae and equations, with lots of numbers and squiggles which his family didn’t understand.

One Spring Luke and his family were to go on a journey to visit his god-mother, who lived in a far-away place where the sun was hot and shone for most of the year round. Her home was just outside an ancient town, which had walls with battlements and towers and a castle in one corner, on the highest point.

Luke’s god-mother puzzled over how to organise things so that Luke would enjoy his visit. She could speak different languages, but she wasn’t fluent in number. But what she could do was create worlds. She was a writer and she wrote books and stories. So she went out into the town, to particular places which she loved, so as to seek inspiration to write a story for Luke.

The town was old and beautiful, with narrow cobbled streets and ornate balconies at the windows of the houses. It had fountains and perfumed jacaranda trees in tranquil, shady squares and the wider roads were lined with orange trees.

First the god-mother went to Plateros, a square in the old town, which was once part of the Jewish quarter, where all the silversmiths lived. There she saw the Church of San Dionysio, the patron saint of the town, which, before it was a church, had been a mosque. From the square she looked down to the cathedral, which had a separate tall bell tower, standing all on its own, which looked suspiciously like a minaret. And she understood that her story had to include all these different cultures and religions, the Christian, like the church, the Jewish, like the square and the Muslim, like the mosque and minaret. She would give voices to people from all three.

Then she went to the Alcazar, the castle or citadel, with battlements and towers over a thousand years old and she climbed the tallest tower. The wind blew on her face and it smelled of the sea, for the sea, though she couldn’t see it, was close by, just beyond a range of hills. And she realised that the sea would play a big part in her story.

As she stood on the tower she looked down at the surrounding countryside below she remembered the history of the town and she imagined…..

The town is under attack. Outside the walls an army tries to force its way in. Men with long pikes, wearing metal helms and leather breast plates mass at the foot of scaling ladders. Knights on horseback ride back and forth, encouraging their men. And in the wind the flags and banners blow, the rearing claret lion of Leon and the golden castle towers of Castile.

Inside the defenders hurl rocks down on to the way attackers, pushing the scaling ladders away from the walls. But it’s no good, because the besieging army is too strong and has too many weapons, giant mangonels and trebuchets which throw huge rocks into the town and burning smoke bombs filled with oil.

The townspeople are desperate. What can they do? The ruling council can’t decide. Should they surrender? What will happen to them and their town if they do? The army outside is a Christian army from the north, led by King Alfonso. But the people in the town are a mixture, some Christian, some Jewish and some Moors, people who originally came from North Africa, before they crossed the narrow sea to Al Andalus.

But in reality the townsfolk have no choice. They must surrender to the King.

So King Alfonso and his knights and soldiers come into the town. He and his courtiers and knights stay in the Alcazar or castle, but ordinary soldiers are billeted on the townspeople, who are forced to take them into their homes and feed and look after them. In a house in Plateros Square three pike-men are foisted on a Jewish family. Simon, the silversmith, has no choice but to take them in. His son, Nathan, finds them interesting.

Now, a word about Nathan. He is one of the heroes of the god-mother’s story. He is fourteen years old, with fair hair and grey eyes, small for his age, but quick and clever. He is always bickering with his older cousin Rebecca, who lives with Nathan and his father. She is fifteen and is another of the heroes of the story, and, really, she and Nathan love each other like brothers and sisters do, but that didn’t stop them fighting.

Often the peacemaker was their friend Atta, a Muslim. He and his father move in with the family when their own house is destroyed during the long siege. Atta is the same age as Nathan, but he is tall and skinny whereas Nathan is slight and not so tall. Atta has floppy black hair and dark eyes and he wants to become a doctor like his father.

One addition to the household in Plateros is more welcome than the soldiers. This is Thomas, a kind young English doctor, at the court of the King. He brings food for the family, from the King’s stores. And they need the food, because there isn’t much left in the city after the siege. Everyone is hungry.

But life isn’t safe in the ancient town. There is a curfew, no one is allowed on the streets after sundown or they are taken to the dungeons of the castle. There are riots in the marketplace and brutal crack-downs.

So many townsfolk decide to leave, to quit their homes and, carrying what belongings they can, travel in search of a safer, better life. Many of those who leave are Moors or Muslims and many Jewish people too, because they fear that they will not be liked by the Christians. So long columns of people, heavily laden wagons and donkeys stretch along the roads leading out of the city.

Atta and his father decide to join them, to become refugees. They’re afraid because Atta’s uncle is a powerful man at the court of the Emir of Granada, an enemy of King Alfonso, so they fear they will be treated as traitors, even though they’ve done nothing wrong.

So Atta and his father abandon their home and all their things, taking only what they can carry. Nathan is very sad to see his friend leaving and is unhappy to be left behind. Yet at least he is with his family. But only two days later things get even worse for Nathan and his father, because one of the family had a secret plan.

So, the god-mother’s heroes are scattered far and wide. How could she bring them all back together and end the story? She didn’t know. And Luke was arriving in three weeks time. She had to find the end of the story before then.

She went out again into the town to look for inspiration. She visited Plateros, but couldn’t find an answer. She went to the castle, but couldn’t find an answer there either. Then she went up into the tower and looked again at the countryside. Nothing, no inspiration.

Then she saw the sunlight glinting on something far off. The god-mother screwed up her eyes to see. It was something reflecting in a town on a hill-top many kilometres away southward, a window or a mirror maybe. She’d been to that town recently and had stood on a high tower in its castle, just like the one she was standing on now. And she had seen the ocean and the coastline, the Bay of Cadiz, the beach stretching away southwards, down to a large cape which pushed out into the Atlantic.

This was Cape Trafalgar, where there had been a famous navy battle and Admiral Lord Nelson had defeated the Napoleonic fleet. Cape Trafalgar, Tarif al Ghar as it used to be, the Cape of Caves.

That was it, the god-mother realised. There would be a climactic battle between the Armada of the King and the pirate ships belonging to the evil warlord Don Raul. Rebecca, Nathan, Atta and other characters would take part.

The god-mother went home to finish her tale and send it to Luke. He liked his story and when, many years later, his story became a book, he remembered the heroes and their adventures, even though he was fully grown. The book is ‘Reconquista’ and it was long listed for the Children’s Novel Award 2016.

Thank you for visiting the land of Al Andalus with me. This is a true story, some of which actually happened.

Enforcing the law

On Wednesday the world watched as an enraged mob, whipped into action by their leaders, including the outgoing President of the United States, stormed the U.S. Capitol in order to derail the process of endorsing the recent and overwhelming Presidential election results. As the attempted overthrow of legitimate government took place, elected representatives were removed to or found places of safety and thugs ransacked offices, stole Capitol ‘souvenirs’ and took selfies.  Pipe bombs, molotov cocktails and guns were found and a policeman, a female insurrectionist and three others died.

There are many questions to be answered; will Trump be removed, by the 25th Amendment powers or by impeachment; why was there such a lack of preparedness among those whose job was to protect the Capitol ( the Capitol Serjeant at Arms has already resigned and the Chief of Capitol Police is going ). Many of the questions relate to events which lead up to the insurrection, which didn’t occur spontaneously ( a quick look at QAnon substantiates that ) and the attitudes and beliefs  of the people involved. Mistaken and sometimes reprehensible beliefs which have been encouraged by lies in social and mainstream media and by Republicans. There were plenty of Damascene conversions and, as someone on Twitter pointed out, a ‘traffic jam on the Damascus road’ in both Houses, so keen were Republicans to condemn what happened.

It has not gone unnoticed that the protection given to public buildings during the Black Lives Matter march was hugely different to that given to legislators on Wednesday ( see photo, left, of the Lincoln Memorial steps on the earlier occasion ). As I write this there have been 82 arrests. There were 14,000 at BLM marches and there were no pipe bombs found at any of the latter.  Reports that off-duty policemen were with the insurrectionists have yet to be proved correct, but there certainly appeared to be a reluctance, for whatever reason, among some police to prevent the mob from entering the building.

That the US police are not impartial is one conclusion. As if more convincing of this was needed, given the regularity with which unarmed black men and women are killed by police, without the killers suffering any penalty. Hence the calls to ‘defund the police’ ( though I recognise that, in certain respects, this relates to very specific types of police ). Impartial law enforcement is crucial to justice, which, together with the legal system which sustains it, is crucial to democracy.  Without the rule of law and real equality provided under that law only the strong and powerful will thrive, reducing any voting system to a sham and paving the way to authoritarian tyranny. This is basic level Civics, but something which seems to need restating. These are also ideas which I explore in Oracle.

While the book is, I hope, a fast paced mystery tale, somewhat in the same mold as Plague and involving the same central character, pursuing the murder case in it is fraught with difficulty because the police, the law enforcers, have become politicised.  So who can one trust? Even the police do not trust each other, fearful that their colleagues are members of a banned and criminal organisation, the former extreme right-wing political party Golden Dawn.

Oracle doesn’t offer any answers, I don’t know what those are, other than a thorough and committed programme for change. That is likely to take years but has been done in the past.  Perhaps this is one of the things high on the list of problems to tackle which the new Biden-Harris administration is going to have to undertake in the US. I wish them luck.

N.B. This article has been amended. The photograph of heavily armed National Guardsmen above left was taken during the BLM protest, but the Guardsmen are standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, not the Capitol.  I apologise for the error. The point however, remains good. There was a huge discrepancy between how BLM and MAGA were treated.

Listening

It is estimated that audiobook sales have more than doubled in the last six years, with a significant rise during the pandemic. There has been double digit sales growth in the English speaking markets  for the last three years ( the US is by far the biggest market for audio books, but the UK and Australasian markets are growing rapidly ) and more audiobooks are being produced than ever before. UK book sales are still overwhelmingly (80%) of printed books, but the digital market has grown at the expense of print during the pandemic, possibly after the Treasury reduced VAT on digital books to zero, in line with printed books, in May 2020.  Digital fiction sales is the fastest growing element of this market.*

In terms of retail, the giant Audible (Amazon) dominates, but there is an increase in subscription services like Scribd and, this year, local libraries are seeing an unprecedented surge in audio book borrowing. This is probably also tied in with COVID, as reading, of whatever kind, has increased during our different stages of confinement.

Incidentally, Neilsens also finds that audiobooks reach the younger market, with big numbers in the 18 – 24 age group. In the UK the average audiobook user is an urban male, aged between 18 and 34, who listens while working, commuting or running outdoors. Given that women read more than men and younger men in particular, this is tapping into a new market, good news for the book industry.

Claret Press, my publisher, is expanding its audiobook offering too and the recording, by Essential Audiobooks, of Plague is well underway. The reader, RSC Associate actress and voice coach, Alison Bomber, is on the final few chapters, then there’s the editing and the music and finally the audiobook comes into being.

I haven’t heard it yet, though I have heard Alison read and she’s very good. By a strange coincidence I met up with Elizabeth Bergstone, the actress who read the audiobook of my short story collection,  The Village, only last week. A long time Los Angelina, Elizabeth now lives in North Carolina, so we had been corresponding during the recent US elections. Originally from south London, she was over to visit her sister for Christmas. She gave me lots of tips about online speaking, having listened to my recent talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries ( she thought my delivery poor ). I learned a lot, for example about Forvo, the online pronunciation dictionary ( which tells me that the name of the engineering genius Sir Joseph Bazalgette, is pronounced with a soft, not a hard ‘g’, as I had thought, so that caller to my session was correct ).

The good news is that Essential Audiobooks provide a ‘taster’ for promotional purposes, so I’ll make that available here as soon as I have it. I don’t know if the upsurge in audio will continue into this new lockdown period, when only essential workers will be commuting, but there will be plenty of joggers, like me and plenty of walkers and gardeners too, who will be outdoors at the first sign of spring.

And already the days are growing longer… but there’s still time to enjoy a book!

*Data from Neilsens, AAP, IBIS.

Political movies

Maybe it’s because I’m preparing a talk on Politics and Prose for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries ( it’s free and happening on 25th January if anyone is interested, see Eventbrite Politics and Prose ) or it may be coincidence; but over the holiday I’ve been watching a number of excellent films depicting the world of power and politics, some based on real events.

First was The Death of Stalin, Armando Ianucci’s 2017 very black political satire of the Stalinist Soviet Union. It is a fiction, but its characters are based on real people who were part of the Stalinist ruling elite. These are played by a stellar cast which includes Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin and others. The crude and barbaric terror of the Stalinist period is shown, full throttle, where the answer to any problem was murder and truth was what the most powerful said it was.  It’s a mesmerising and very funny film, in an absurdist way, but it’s also not comfortable watching. If you haven’t seen it, I can definitely recommend it.

The second film was The Ides of March, (2011) a George Clooney contemporary political drama starring Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, himself and others. This was less of a hit than The Death of Stalin and my other choice, but it’s an efficient and, in its way, thought provoking film which captures the tight-knit nature of U.S. politics – the intern is the daughter of the Committee member, the rival campaign managers are well-known to each other (each trying to exploit the other’s known foibles ). It’s a quieter film which depicts an inhuman and corrupt world – hardly news – but does so through the prism of one man’s ambition and where it leads. Again, recommended.

My third film was The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Aaron Sorkin’s 2020 depiction of the trial which followed the anti-Vietnam War riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Directed by Sorkin after Stephen Spielberg, whose project this was, had to withdraw, the film was on restricted release in September, but, given the COVID pandemic, went onto Netflix only weeks later.  If I hadn’t known that this was based on real events ( and court transcripts ) I wouldn’t have believed it possible. The real Chicago Seven plus Bobby Searle, the eighth defendant (and only black man) and their lawyers are portrayed by another stellar ensemble cast, including Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton and others. Like The Death of Stalin, this has attracted criticism from academics about it’s veracity, but, again like The Death of Stalin, it has been critically very well received.  Anyone who remembers the wit of The West Wing won’t be surprised by that on show here, it made this viewer laugh out loud a few times, though with a bitter twist. This truly was a ‘political trial’.  It’s also a clever depiction of a moment in time rather in the way that the TV series Mrs America captured the spirit of the 1970s political backlash to the 60s. I strongly recommend you watch this film.

The real events in Trial, like the shooting by police of Fred Hampton, Black Panther supporter of Searle, in circumstances not dissimilar to the shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in 2020 Kentucky make it very relevant to today. As does the ‘truth is what I say it is’ attitude of the Soviet powerful in Death, not unlike that of Trump and other populists. Political stories have a gripping relevance and political storytelling deepens our understanding of our world.

The first two films were based on written stories; The Death of Stalin on La Mort de Staline, a two volume graphic novel by French writer Fabien Nury and artist Thierry Robin, The Ides of March on Farragut North, a play by Beau Willimon ( Farragut North being the Washington DC metro station at the heart of think tank and consultancy territory ). The Trial of the Chicago Seven was written as a screenplay by Sorkin. Incidentally the U.S. TV version of House of Cards had an executive producer by the name of Beau Willimon. Now there’s a book about politics and power which has been translated to the screens, small and large, to very good effect.

I’ll be exploring how politics is depicted in stories, as well as discussing what a ‘political novel’ is in my talk on 25th January.

Meanwhile, may I wish that 2021 be a year in which we return to life as we used to know it, but that we appreciate it more; that the vaccine is given to everyone and the dread COVID is either eradicated, or mutates into something much less dangerous. Happy New Year!

Zemiology

No, I didn’t know either. At least I knew nothing of it until I looked it up.

Zemiology is the study of social harms, from the Greek zemia, or harm. It’s a relatively new academic discipline, which grew out of critical criminology and it seeks to generate real world action in pursuit of justice.

That’s where I come in, as justice is the theme of Oracle. I found out more when I had a chat with Sharon Hartles, of the Open University’s  Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative (HER​C).  She is also a member of the British Society of Criminology (BSC) and a researcher and postgraduate with the University of Strathclyde. A published critical criminologist, Sharon is currently conducting research on Primodos.

As I understand it, too often the crimes of the powerful are difficult to address under our current law and legal system, referred to as ‘black letter law’.  Actions which have a harmful impact on  others in society, like ignoring safety regulations ( or watering them down ) in pursuit of profit, or despoiling the planet, are not ‘crimes’ in law ( though they may breach certain regulations ). As an example, even after the appalling events at Grenfell Tower there are still no prosecutions and, indeed, it is becoming difficult to find a ‘crime’ with which to prosecute anyone, individually or as representing an institution or corporation. Yet facts were known, the wishes of the residents were ignored and the likelihood of fire foreseen.

Thus, events like Grenfell become referred to as a ‘tragedy’ or a ‘tragic accident’, yet they were foreseeable and avoidable and these events and others like them will continue to occur until the law adapts to make punishment of those who enable such events both possible and direct. Zemiology presupposes that isn’t likely to happen, as the powerful have co-opted the law and the legal system to protect their power and interests. An idea not unfamiliar to readers of Plague.

Sharon was a mine of information about this new discipline. I think it’s going to have to feature somewhere in Oracle, probably among the young idealists protesting against environmental damage who Cassie encounters at Delphi. Perhaps the charismatic protest leader is a zemiologist? We shall see.

I await the return of the final edit of Oracle, which has to be fully revised and returned to Claret Press by 31st January, complete with drawn image. I sketched the Palace of Westminster for the pages showing the start of each ‘daily’ section in Plague and I have undertaken to do something similar for Oracle, as that too is organised over a small number of days. Something I’ll be thinking about over the Christmas period.

Good news from elsewhere, however, as I learn that the recording of the audiobook of Plague has begun. I will write separately about this as it nears completion, suffice to say for now that Essential Audiobooks of New York are producing the audio book which is being read by actress, voice coach and associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Alison Bomber.  Alison has just moved to the Czech Republic, but is already working on the recording.  More on this later.

For now, may I wish everyone reading this a happy and peaceful Christmastide, where ever and with whomever, you are managing to keep it. Here’s hoping for a much better 2021.

 

And rest…

Phew! I finally get to look forward to Christmas after the whirlwind of activity – talks, discussions, events, giveaways – which has accompanied the publication of my first crime thriller back in September. All something of an eye-opener to this writer, whose adventure books set in 13th century Spain never generated this much activity and interest. Even in a world reduced by COVID I’ve been very, very busy, almost always online. It’s been tremendous fun, by and large, and I’ve worked with and met some great people, online, on social media and, not least, the readers of my book.

I’ve learned what to avoid  – the number of ‘umms’ and ‘ers’ in my delivery when I was talking to my own slides, unable to see myself or others last Wednesday for the Libraries, was excruciatingly embarrassing. Nonetheless, it prompted contact from a U3A crime fiction reading book group who have chosen Plague as their book for March and want me to do a talk for them, which I’m happy to do.  The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster people also seemed pleased, they have asked me to do another talk in January, this time about ‘Politics and Prose’ – political fiction in a time of increasing citizen journalism and social media commentary. That’s something I’ve blogged about in the past ( see Stories of Democracy on The Story Bazaar web-site ). The more one does, the more one is asked to do.

I’m beginning to realise that what works well is behaving naturally, and letting my genuine enthusiasm shine through. I’m definitely more comfortable when interacting, either with other speakers or with questioners.  That is, in part, why the Secrets of Subterranean London discussion worked so well. If you haven’t watched it, you can find a link here and on the Events page.

It is the first in a series which Claret Press hopes to produce and Claret’s number of subscribers increased after the broadcast. The second, on Crony Capitalism, is  scheduled for January and I’ll be taking part, with a well-known economist and an activist ( names cannot yet be revealed but I’ll be writing about them and it nearer to the event ). Siphoning public funds into the pockets of allies and associates is, of course, one of the corruptions taking place in Plague, as Cassie says to the villain on page 246 ‘You’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies…’  Its topicality astonishes me still.

Yet now I’m looking forward to relaxing over the holiday, I need a break and January is already filling up fast. Aside from anything else, I have to completely sign off on Oracle by 31st January and there’s all the work associated with the preparation of a book for publishing – meta data, Netgalley etc. and a whole new round of promotion and publicity to agree.

One piece of encouraging news is that I now have an Italian literary agent. Factotum, or Zecchin, Bellaciccio & Aragno have signed me, and other Claret authors, with a view to selling the Italian publication rights and having Plague ( and the next two Cassandra Fortune books ) translated into Italian. Katie, from Claret Press, told me half an hour before the live broadcast of Secrets, that a representative from Factotum would be watching, in order to decide whether or not they wanted to sign me up. No pressure there then. Fortunately, it worked out well.

But – bring on the mulled wine!

Wishing everyone a joyous and safe Christmastide – the year turns on Monday, as Saturn and Jupiter conjoin closer than for almost 400 years and Spring – Spring! – is on its way. Here’s hoping for a better year in 2021.

Going underground

Like any place inhabited by humans for centuries, London is a multi-layered city, its history piled up beneath the feet of the people who walk its streets. This was the subject of last night’s tremendous discussion with Dr Tom Ardill of the Museum of London and award-winning Blue Badge Guide Fiona Lukas.

Tom showed us just how Londoners from the Romans onwards had utilised the natural tributaries of the Thames. First the Walbrook in the Roman city, which soon became clogged with waste, then, later, the Fleet, which met the same fate, becoming notorious for its floating bodies of dead cats and dogs ( and sometimes humans, falling into the noxious Fleet was a death sentence ). It wasn’t surprising that, by the thirteenth century Londoners of the City were seeking for a fresh water supply further afield and they lighted upon the Tyburn. In order to bring its waters to the City they constructed the Great Conduit which ran south then east across London.

Engineers installing gas pipes along Oxford Street in the 19th century stumbled upon the remains of this and, in the 21st century, Crossrail again unearthed it. The Tyburn also supplied water, supposedly, to a set of Roman baths near North Audley Street and Oxford Street. There are references to these baths in a number of sources and a detailed description, but no physical evidence has yet been found. It is here, in ‘Plague’ where  crime is committed and where the detectives first meet George Bindel London sewer man extraordinaire.

Another fascinating element last night was Tom’s explanation about the plans of the Tyburn Angling Society, a quixotic enterprise which seeks to ‘daylight’ the River, bringing it back to the surface ( and destroying millions of pounds of Mayfair real estate, including Buckingham Palace, in the process ). As he pointed out, there are cities elsewhere in the world where this has been done, like Seoul in Korea and it is being done,  on a much smaller scale, with the River Quaggy in London.

Fiona’s description of the modern travails of London Transport with new London Underground stations was very interesting, especially the example of the new, very deep and very modern, Westminster station .  I never knew that the two District line tube tunnels were on top of one another not along side, but, when I thought about it, this made sense of the way the inside of the station was designed. I certainly wasn’t aware of the difficulties encountered because of the proximity of the station to the Houses of Parliament, not least the secrecy about why designs for the new station were repeatedly vetoed.

Learning about the ghost stations, often abandoned because too many stations had originally been built ( which meant that the tube journeys were taking too long, so often were the trains stopping and starting ) was also fascinating. Down Street, where Churchill’s wartime cabinet used to meet when the Cabinet Office War Rooms were unavailable, or Brompton Road. There is also Aldwych, formerly Strand, a station I used to walk past every day on my way to work in Bush House, close to, yes, a bona fide Roman Baths.

My own contribution was limited compared to the experts’ but I was able to talk about Whitehall, the formation of Thorney Island and its development into Westminster and cite a quote from Cassandra in ‘Plague’ about the concentration of power. My favourite contribution, however, related to a different exhumation, that of the remains in Old St Pancras Churchyard, removed to allow for construction of the London Midland Railway. A young Thomas Hardy oversaw the works and composed this piece of jolly doggerel ( which parodies, I think, the first of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems – any Hardy scholars reading this please tell ).

‘We late-lamented, resting here, Are mixed to human jam, And each to each exclaims in fear, ‘I know not which I am!”

The whole of ‘Secrets of Subterranean London’ will be posted on Youtube next week and I will post the link to it here when it is. In the meanwhile I’ll be talking about ‘Plague – A Novel of London’ for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries at 6.30 p.m. GMT on Wednesday 16th December, if anyone is interested in hearing more. It’s another FREE event, but to attend you must register on Eventbrite.

And the lucky winner is…

Actually, there were twelve of them, all members of the UK Crime Book Club, from Perth to Hampshire, Denbighshire to London and many points in between. Twelve signed copies of Plague have been parcelled up and despatched.

I announced the Giveaway over a week ago and promoted it during my live streamed Author Chat with Caroline Maston, one of the co-founders of the Book Club last Sunday.  Our discussion ranged from whether or not ‘Plague’ could be turned into a graphic novel – answer ‘Yes, but I’m not sure I’d want it to be’ – to what I considered to be the most important element when starting to plan out a novel – my answer was the theme or idea behind it.

Two major surprises during the interview. The first was a failure of technology, which left me on screen on my own, sans interviewer. Caroline had just asked me a question, about the underground aspects of the novel, when her image disappeared. I was able, fortunately, to carry on, there’s a lot to cover – the Tyburn, the War Rooms, mediaeval London, the Underground – and Sam, another administrator, slotted another question up on screen when I was obviously coming to a close. I’d only just begun to answer that when Caroline reappeared (phew).

The second surprise was a question from Mike Craven, better known as M.W. Craven, former CWA Dagger winner, who is currently sitting atop the Best Seller lists with his latest crime thriller ‘The Curator’. A darling of the UK Crime Book Club, ‘The Curator’ has just been voted the Club’s Book of 2020. Good fortune again that it was an easy question for me to answer ( so not about writing best sellers then ) and something of an honour for this crime writing debutante.  The whole hour whizzed by, with people sending in questions via Facebook – and telling me that they’d bought the book, which was very good news.

The Author Chat prompted a few more entries in the Giveaway, but, on Tuesday morning I put the names – approximately two hundred of them – into a hat, closed my eyes and chose. The nicest bit of the whole exercise followed, telling the winners that they had won. I know, it’s only a book, but who doesn’t like to get a pleasant surprise?

There was one small problem, one individual, a gentleman from Wales, didn’t respond to my messages of congratulation, indeed, didn’t respond at all. I left it a couple of days and then contacted the Facebook site administrator and said that I would try once more but might need their help. Fortunately, my message yielded a result, though not the expected one. A few minutes after I put up my plea I received a reply from a woman – ‘Dad! You won!’.

Needless to add, she prompted her father and the book is, even now, on its way.

Caroline asked me, during the interview, what was my most memorable moment as an author. She had told me in advance that she would ask this question  and I had given it some thought. My answer surprised her, I think, because I said that my most memorable moments are happening now. Like getting the surprised and pleased message from the daughter of the man from Caerphilly, or the question from an eminent crime writer, or a review in the Literary Review, or supportive responses from a book club that’s reading my book.

Right now, the lucky winner is me.

Secrets of Subterranean London

Claret Press is organising an online event which may be of interest to readers of this website. On 11th December, from 7 – 8 in the evening, I will be speaking with Tom Ardill, Curator at the Museum of London and Fiona Lukas, award-winning Blue Badge guide and expert on the London Underground.

Tom curated, with Kate Sumnall, the fascinating 2019 exhibition on London’s ‘Secret Rivers’ at the Museum of London in Docklands, which I blogged about at the time. Did you know, for example, that there is a Tyburn Angling Society, set up to try and ‘restore’ the river so as to fish in it ( an almost impossible task since it has been subsumed into Bazalgette’s wonderful London sewer system, but a charming, if quixotic, idea  )?  He is also a fellow river traveller, having followed the course of the Tyburn, as I did, but taking the southernmost arm, down to Pimlico and he ran it, rather than walked. You can read about his run here. Tom is curator for Paintings, Drawings and other artworks held by the Museum too. Of course, as readers of Plague will know, a Museum of London archaeologist appears at the beginning of the book. He bears no relation to Tom.

The other contributor is Fiona Lukas, an award-winning Blue Badge Guide, (  she was Guide of the Year for the City of Westminster and City of London ) whose speciality is London Underground. She regularly hosts the popular tour The Lure of the Underground ( listen to her podcast about it here ) and is coming with interesting facts aplenty, including about the ghost lines and stations no longer in use. I had used to walk passed the old Aldwych station everyday on my way to work and have come across others, like that at Marble Arch.  There are many other little known LU-owned places, like the Bakerloo Line depot at London Road, south of the river, which features in Plague.

My contribution will be about those bits of subterranean London which feature in the novel, although I expect Tom to have far more knowledge than I about the Tyburn itself. I’ll be touching on Plague Pits, Roman Remains – like the baths at North Audley Street, completely unmarked on the surface, the Great Conduit which runs along Oxford Street and, of course, the Palace of Westminster, with all its idiosyncrasies.

I can’t wait to ask Tom about some of the historical sites and Fiona knows all about the engineering, which is of particular interest to me. We will, doubtless, touch on the brilliant Bazalgette and his sewers. By the way, those who have read Plague will understand the reference to sewers and the ‘sewer walk’ undertaken by some of the main characters, but they may not know that the book contains a small homage to another book in which sewer scenes appear, which was made into an even more famous, not to say iconic, feature film. To find out what this homage is, or make your guess at it, come along and join us on 11th December.

Tickets are, astonishingly, FREE on Eventbrite HERE. It’s already proving very popular. See you there.

For more on Plague and the River Tyburn try        Walking a Book, Walking a River      or   The Book Walk Continues

Crime Fiction

Since Plague was published in September I have been working hard to promote it and it is only now, two months later, that I think I begin to realise that I am actually now considered to be a ‘crime writer’. Although I knew that crime was the most popular genre in the UK ( in the States it’s romance, apparently ) I was unprepared for the number of websites, festivals, clubs, societies and sub-sets of same devoted to crime fiction. I am just beginning to appreciate how many fans of crime writing there are ( for whom I am most grateful ) and just how knowledgeable and how much fun they are.

There are any number of crime fiction book clubs and I’ve joined several. I regularly engage with and post items on the Facebook page of one of the largest, the UK Crime Book Club, which has fourteen thousand members!

Next week I will be running a giveaway of a dozen signed, pre-publication copies of Plague exclusively for UKCFBC members in  conjunction with an Author Chat, one of the regular features on that Facebook page in which crime fiction authors are interviewed and take live questions from members. ( You can find a link on the Events page of this website. )

Last Tuesday I was intrigued by the technology ( something called Be.Live ) when I recorded a short promo for that event and got familiar with how everything worked in preparation for my Chat. Past UKCFBC events include interviews with Ian Rankin, William Shaw and Elly Griffiths, so I’m in elevated company. I’m also looking forward to participating in the UKCFBC Pub Quiz ( Just Not In A Pub ).

UKCBC has also furnished me with a number of volunteers to test out the leaflet of the Book Walk for Plague, starting at Bond Street Tube Station and ending at the River Thames. Once its been tested I will make it available on this website for anyone who wants it. Unfortunately because of COVID any book walking is delayed.

I’ve also learned all sorts of interesting things. There is a current debate about the length of crime books, or example, many UKCBC members saying that they wouldn’t consider buying a book of less than 300 pages, which was a bit of a surprise, especially as Plague is only 288 pages! The good news, however, is that crime fiction lovers adore a series and Cassandra is scheduled to appear in at least two more books ( and possibly more ). I am pleased to say that readers are already asking me when the second is due out ( which keeps my publisher happy ).

I was also very surprised and extremely pleased to find Plague featured in this month’s edition of the Literary Review Crime Round-Up, even the literary establishment has to recognise the popularity of the genre. It has also been reviewed in The Yorkshire Times, Time & Leisure magazine and a number of other regional newspapers and regional radio stations ( you can find links to interviews and reviews on the Events page of this web-site ). No nationals so far, but I’m not complaining.

For more on Plague take a look at my earlier blogs, or follow the events coming up, which you can find on the Events page.