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The Book Walk continues….

Walking the locations of a book has some unique challenges, but with Plague (Claret Press, 2020) it was relatively easy, because the ‘lost’ River Tyburn provided a, somewhat sketchy, but traceable, route-map. As my previous post described, ( Walking a book, walking a river… ) Helen, my friend and photographer, and I walked from Bond Street tube station, the place where readers of the novel first meet Cassie, its heroine, to the outlets of the various arms of the Tyburn into the River Thames.  The earlier article took us as far as the memorial to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, engineer extraordinaire, on his Victoria Embankment.

We had taken a rest outside Buckingham Palace before crossing St James’ Park, always a haven of calm (now with pelicans). Thence to Queen Anne’s Gate and Old Queen Street and that warren of Georgian streets just south of the park. It is there that Plague locates the private club to which several of its characters belong. This is really medieval London, with its narrow alleyways and twisting streets. The course of the old Tyburn follows present day Tothill Street, now lined with government departments (an important factor in the book), until it reaches Parliament Square at Broad Sanctuary, so called because Sanctuary Tower used to stand there.

Now this space is occupied by the majestic Methodist Central Hall and the rather less impressive Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. Readers of the novel will know that it is there where Cassie first meets a number of interesting characters. Given that the temperature on Thursday was up in the thirties at this point we made a quick detour to buy water, before filming a brief piece to camera in Parliament Square.

We were now on old Thorney Island, that small hillock amidst the original Thames marshes which became the centre of power, first of a province, then of a nation, then, eventually, of an empire. Unfortunately ( or fortunately, given the theme of Plague ), the Palace of Westminster, a key location for the novel, is, for the present, a building site, shrouded in scaffolding. But before we ventured into the buildings around the Palace, we had to visit another key location not so far from Parliament Square.

Since 2016 New Scotland Yard has been housed in the Curtis Green building on the Victoria Embankment, the Metropolitan Police Service having moved from its previous home on Victoria Street.  This means it sits next to the Norman Shaw Buildings, an earlier home of Scotland Yard and very close to where Whitehall Steps would have been in Tudor times and earlier, near where the northern-most arm of the Tyburn ran into the Thames. The incident room in Plague is located on the fifth floor overlooking the Thames.

Time to capture the landmarks, including the chariot of Boudicca next to Westminster Bridge, within which, sewer records tell us, lies an entrance to the sewers below Westminster Palace itself.  Then a quick saunter up Whitehall, where some of the older government departments – the Treasury, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – are housed. Cassie’s boss, the Permanent Secretary, has rooms in Admiralty House, as does his boss, the Deputy Prime Minister.  This is not an ongoing position, the current government does not have it, though previous administrations have, when the post was occupied by Nick Clegg, MP and, earlier, John Prescott MP.

At the top of Whitehall is Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, where the Admiral stands, guarded by lions, in front of the National Gallery. We did not walk so far, but reversed our course and went to explore the medieval streets around Westminster Abbey. These will be the subject of my next post.

For more about Plague see     Plague – Stranger than Fiction      and     The Plague Story Continues….

FREE signed copies of Plague- Twitter Giveaway

FREE BOOKS! And signed too!

From today I have twenty, yes, twenty (thank you Claret Press)  signed copies of Plague, to give away! These are physical as opposed to digital copies, so you can hold them in your hand.

From 10th to the 14th August the giveaway will be open to anyone residing in the UK who wants to enter. It’s happening on Twitter at jjulieanderson  from 10th to the 14th August.  All would-be recipients of the book have to do is to re-tweet the FREE BOOK message which I’ve tweeted today and mark Plague as ‘To Read’ on Goodreads.   By midnight on Friday I will put all the names of these people into a hat and ask an independent someone to draw out the names of twenty winners. By this time next week copies of Plague will be winging their way to the lucky readers.

So don’t delay, find that tweet and re-tweet it and remember to mark Plague as ‘To read’ on Goodreads.  You won’t regret it!

Plague has been up on NetGalley since May and has been garnering excellent reviews from ordinary readers, librarians, educators and media professionals from around the world. I am constantly amazed by the enthusiasm which people show about something which I wrote! Here are just a few excerpts from some of the NetGalley reviews.

‘From beginning to end a fabulous read.’ – Maria Egan, writer, Florida, USA

‘Sometimes all you need is a good thriller, a story with engaging characters, a touch of romance and a plot that grips you right the way to the end.’ Tobias River, publishing, UK.

‘This political thriller is also a murder mystery and an examination of underground London, so it’s a great combination of factors that seem to come straight from the front pages of today’s newspapers.’ Alex Bottomley, UK.

‘I absolutely LOVED THIS BOOK’ – Poppy Cousineau, Librarian, Canada

‘A great, page turning read filled with intrigue and mystery. I was hooked from the start.’ Charley Bennett, UK

‘Fabulous book. The characters came alive in my head and I just couldn’t put it down.’ Rachelle Leaver, Australia.

‘Anderson’s mystery invites you behind the closed doors of Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster, chasing the threads of power in an ever-tightening web.’ Madi Simcox-Brown, UK

‘A gripping story, brilliantly told.’ Georgina Halligan, Goodreads, UK.

‘A page-turning murder mystery with the added interest of an insight into the inner workings of Westminster and the corridors of power.’  Deborah Powell, Spain.

Sign up for the giveaway and let everyone else know what’s on offer!  It only runs for FIVE DAYS!! There’s a lot going on between now and publication date and even more afterwards, COVID-19 or not! Just because I’m not there in person to sign books, doesn’t mean that signed copies aren’t available.

To read more about Plague why not take a look at the following posts      Walking a book, walking a river…       Plague, Stranger than fiction     The Plague Story Continues  

Or check out  Julie Anderson on Facebook, on Instagram, on Pinterest and   jjulieanderson on Twitter. 

 

Walking a book, walking a river…..

Plague_Cover_Hi_ResRevisedPlague (Claret Press, 2020) will be published on 15th September, in thirty eight days time. In the absence of much of the usual publicity and activity which attends such things because of COVID-19, the virtual campaign is assuming much greater significance. In preparation for various elements of this I was out and about in central London on Thursday with my friend and trusty photographer, Helen Hughes, making a visual record of some of the locations which feature in the novel. We were also tracing, in so far as we were able, the course of the ‘lost’ river Tyburn.

We began, rather appropriately, given the book’s title, with a bite of lunch in the RoyalJUlieinRSoM3 Society of Medicine on Wimpole Street, under the watchful eye of Edward Jenner, discoverer of the vaccine against smallpox. Here’s hoping that today’s scientists are equally as successful in developing a modern vaccine against COVID. Fortified with food, a glass of something chilled and good wishes from @RoySocMed we set out on our book walk.

First stop was St Peter’s Church on Vere St. also sometimes known as Marylebone Chapel (1722). This Georgian church, which featured in Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness series,  is mentioned in the novel as a possible location for the next crime, mainly because it is in the right place. It lies close to Marylebone Lane, a twisting, turning thoroughfare amidst a grid pattern of other streets. Its path is tortuous because it follows the course of the old River Tyburn.

BondStStationMarylebone Lane runs to Oxford Street, meeting it at Bond Street Underground station and it is there where Plague opens (Prologue aside). Cassandra, our heroine, arrives there to take part in an assessment of a large infrastructure project – the creation of the extension to Bond Street Station to allow for the building of the Elizabeth Line (also known as Crossrail). We found the building site, south of Oxford Street, just along Davies Street, as the works are still ongoing, though are now well advanced.  We walked along Davies Street, with only a brief digression into a nearby antique market, into Davies Mews and South Molton Lane tracing the river’s course as much as we could.

LanewithgradientFollowing a hidden river on foot makes one reconsider the topography of the land. I had always thought of central London as flat, but I began to see the small undulations and gradients beneath the buildings and the streets. A river will always run downhill and follow the easiest, and lowest, course, so we found ourselves noticing the slightest of gradients – something, I’d guess, cyclists notice all the time.  This lead us to explore all sorts of hidden byways and discover all sorts of interesting oddities – Sotheby’s storage warehouse, for example, or charming little quiet back streets and mews.

There were more famous places too and, whilst there were BerkeleySqGardensbuildingsno nightingales in Berkeley Square, there were plenty of folk enjoying sitting in the sunshine. Like St Peters, the Georgian buildings around this Square are identified as potential crime scenes in Plague. We resisted the call of the garden benches and pressed on into Curzon Street and the Third Church of Christ Scientist. This is the scene of a murder in the novel and Cassie is summoned there on a Saturday night.

JuliereadingatBuckHouse1It’s also where Spikey Fullman, gentleman of the road, comes to the police’s aid as their first potential witness, having had his sleeping place down a set of side stairs to the side of the church disturbed. We followed the river’s course, running beneath Half Moon Street into Green Park, where Cassie and Andrew, her police colleague, meet with sewer-man extraordinaire, George Bindel, to begin their underground journey. Across the green space to Buckingham Palace and into St James’ Park, we took a short break, with ice cream, outside Buckingham Palace, which was also an opportunity for me to check in with the novel.

Julie&SirJBazalgette1St James Park was a delight and as peaceful as Cassie finds it in Plague, before she runs into the demonstration spilling over from Whitehall as she crosses Horseguards Parade. We walked through the Horseguards arch, across Whitehall to the Thames, so that we could visit the memorial to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, that remarkable Victorian engineer and hero of George Bindel, who built most of London’s sewers. It is there, on Bazalgette’s Victoria Embankment that this piece will end, though I’ll be posting on the remainder of our walk soon.

For more about Plague and the writing of it read The Plague story continues  and Stranger than fiction.  Plague is published on 15th September by Claret Press, cost £9.99.

 

 

Six Clapham Books to Read

Clapham Common

 If you’re indoors in Clapham during lockdown or out in the sunshine, there are good, locally set books to lose yourself in. Clapham and Clapham Common in particular seems to attract writers. Here are half a dozen books to be getting your teeth into.

1  THE END OF THE AFFAIR

Most famously, Clapham Common is the setting for Graham Greene’s WWII novel The End of the Affair (1951), a story of love, friendship and betrayal. Greene lived at 14, Clapham Common Northside which is still there today. It was bombed during Blitz and he included that experience in another war-time novel The Ministry of Fear (1943). Both books were made into films, the former on two occasions and gained Oscar nominations.

2  ATONEMENT

But Greene isn’t the only modern author to conjure up the open spaces of the Common. In his Booker Prize short-listed Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan had his heroine Cecilia and her nemesis Briony both live in or around Clapham during WWII, particularly around Clapham South, where both characters train to be nurses.

books clapham reads

3  THE NEW MRS CLIFTON

Elizabeth Buchan’s The New Mrs Clifton (2017) is a more recent take on Clapham in the years immediately after the end of WWII, the aftermath of continued rationing and shortages, the blighted lives and petty revenges all wrapped up in an intriguing mystery and romance. Elizabeth is a co-founder of the Clapham Book Festival.

4  CAPITAL

John Lanchester’s Capital (2012) is set almost wholly in Clapham just before the financial crisis of 2008, on the fictional Pepys Road, so named because during the later years of his life Samuel Pepys lived and died in Clapham. Characters regularly run, walk, sit and meet on the Common and it’s so acutely observed readers may think they recognise pretty much everywhere in it. Pepys Road could be so many of the roads around the Common, even down to the corner shop and the ever patrolling traffic wardens. Unsurprisingly, Lanchester and his wife, M.J.Carter, are residents of Clapham. Miranda, the author of the Blake and Avery novels, took part in the 2016 Clapham Book Festival.

5 THE ORPHANS

More recently Anne-Marie Neary set The Orphans (2017) in part on Clapham Common. The novel follows the fortunes of two, very different, siblings as they run from or face the trauma of their childhood abandonment. Anne-Marie, who appeared at the 2017 Book Festival, is a Clapham resident and her heroine lives in one of the roads on the Common. It is in the wide open spaces, the cafe and the copses that the exciting denouement of the novel takes place.

6 PLAGUE

If it’s excitement and mystery there’s the bang up to date and very topical Plague by Julie Anderson (Claret Press, 2020). The central character lives in Clapham, near the Common, but the events of the novel happen across contemporary London, from Mayfair to Elephant & Castle. The second victim is found at an old tube depot in Lambeth, but has links to Westminster and Parliament.  Begun in 2018, the writer found elements of the plot playing out in real life and featuring in the news in 2020. A preview of Plague can be found in Art of Lockdown round-up. Julie is a co-founder of Clapham Book Festival.

This article was commissioned by Time and Leisure magazine and first appeared in the June edition. Thanks to Andrew Wilson for the wonderful photograph of the Clapham Common Bandstand.

A Conversation with Rosanna Amaka

London is celebrated as one of the most diverse cities in the world and south London, and Clapham and Brixton, in particular, has an important place in the history of that diversity.  The desire to understand the impact of this history, and what went before it, on present day lives, was motivation for Rosanna Amaka to write The Book of Echoes (Doubleday, 2020). Growing up in Brixton in the late twentieth century she saw her community fast disappearing and set out to give it a voice. Her debut novel, twenty years in the writing, has already garnered high praise from many sources.

Julie Anderson (JA): Memory, including individual memories of childhood and of healing of various kinds, plays an enormously important role in your book, giving elasticity to its chronology and, sometimes, an elegiac tone. Were you conscious of this when writing it?

Rosanna Amaka (RA): Yes. The Book of Echoes examines the effect of subconscious memory, not only those of our own childhood, which we pack away in order to survive, but also the impact of the memory of others, those we love, who have the greatest impact on us, and those of society, and therefore the impact on the next generation, and next generation, echoing down the line.

JA: The book shows how damage is perpetuated and renewed down the ages and yet redemption is still possible and achievable. How does this chime with your own early experiences and observations of the world you grew up in?

RA: It was important for me to tell this story, first, as a way of recording the presence of the older generation within my community that where disappearing due to gentrification, or simply due to the passing of time, but also to tell of the love, support and hope that that they instilled and passed on.

JA: But the novel doesn’t avoid hard issues, like slavery and death in custody, particularly relevant today.

RA: Despite knowing this happens, I still feel traumatised by accidentally witnessing the death of a man on video and the subsequent attempt, yet again, by the authorities to cover this up. The death of George Floyd has been a catalyst for change so I hope that it will not have been in vain, that we can all play our part in creating a better world. May he rest in peace.

JA: In The Book of Echoes you have written a series of love stories. It is romantic lovers who frame the story, but you include other types of love as well. Is this important to you? 

RA: Yes. Love is always important, whether it be between parents and their children, between siblings, friends, or neighbours. I calibrate it by trying to do what is the most loving thing to do  in the long run, whether it be by telling the truth in the most loving way I can, or doing the best in the various challenges I face day to day. I often fall short by sundown, but each morning I rise hoping I might make it that day. That’s why I love writing it gives space for me to try to forgive and correct myself.

JA: The story includes a myriad of different voices. One way in which you represent their difference is through the language they use, the varieties of English as spoken in Nigeria, in the Caribbean and, by several generations, of different cultural heritage, in London. How difficult was it to ensure that you caught these accurately?

RA:    This was particularly challenging for me because I don’t speak in most of those voices/ accents, although I had a good base to work from as I grew up hearing those different voices all around me. I worked very hard at listening to the way people around me spoke, and tried to capture a sense of this on the page. I kept working on it because this is the story I felt was important to tell, these were the voices I heard the characters speak in when writing the story, and I thought it was important to capture a sense of who they were through their voice on the page.

JA: Although The Book of Echoes ranges across continents and oceans it is very firmly anchored in specific places, most obviously, Brixton. The important of place, of ‘home’ and displacement echoes through the book. Is it important to you as a writer?

RA: Home is extremely important, because usually it is where you find warmth, protection and shelter, not always for some but fortunately the latter was the case for me, supported by my community in Brixton and Clapham.

The Book of Echoes is available online and at bookshops on request at £12.99.

This conversation was commissioned by the Clapham Society Newsletter. It can be found on the Society web-site and a shortened version of it is in its July edition.

A Conversation with Andrew Hillier

Only connect… famous words by E.M.Forster, who was baptised at Holy Trinity, Clapham and who explored, in fiction, the relationship between British imperialism and India. Clapham has its share of real imperial connections, some reaching further eastwards, to south-east Asia and China in particular. Andrew Hillier’s Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817 – 1927 (Renaissance Books, 2020) examines Britain’s presence in China through the lens of one family, his own.

Julie Anderson (JA) ; Mediating Empire uses papers and photographs from your own family archive, going back to the early nineteenth century. What prompted you to write about your own family and its history?

Andrew Hillier (AH); My grandfather, Harold Hillier, was a keen genealogist and put together the outlines of the family story but, apart from summarising their careers and a few obituaries, it did little to explain what we were doing in ‘the Far East’ during that time. I knew, for example, that his father, Harry, had been ‘in the Customs’ but this meant nothing to me, nor to other members of the family, who, perhaps, conjured up an image of someone sitting in a kiosk waving cars onto a ferry. In fact, China’s Imperial Customs Service, in which Harry served for forty years, latterly as a Commissioner, formed the backbone of the country’s economy for over sixty years and a key, if controversial, element of Britain’s informal empire.

In the back of my mind, I thought that I should try to find out more about our past, but it wasn’t high on the agenda, at a time when I was struggling to get going as a barrister and my wife, Geraldine,  & I were living with a couple of small children in a flat in Abbeville Road. What really sparked my interest was when, in 1976, Jim Hoare & Susan Pares moved into the flat below us and soon became close friends. They both worked in the Far East section of the research department of the Foreign Office, and Jim began telling me how valuable this family archive was and that I should do something with it. A few years later, they were posted to the embassy in South Korea and, one day, Jim phoned me to say he was standing in front of the foundation stone of the embassy, laid by the wife of the British Consul, ‘Mrs Walter C. Hillier, on  19 July 1890’. He went on to use some of our photographs in his book, Embassies in The East (Curzon, 1999).

With his encouragement and the insistence of my wife, who didn’t want me hanging around doing nothing when I retired, I started a Ph.D. at Bristol University, studying under Robert Bickers, the doyen in this field, and completed my dissertation in 2016. I have now developed this into what I hope is an engaging account of how this family both shaped and was shaped by empire.

JA; There is increasing scholastic interest in the politics and influence of domestic life, with the advent of inter-disciplinary academic fields like women’s studies, which consider how society and power impact upon women. Your book examines how one family, including its women, acts as an outward-facing cultural and social mechanism in support of British imperial power. How important are women in Mediating Empire?

AH; Very important. I have been able to bring their lives out of the shadows, by using four generations’ worth of family papers, including some sixty letters from my great, great grand-mother, Eliza Hillier. These describe her life in Hong Kong, with her husband, who was the colony’s Chief Magistrate from 1846 to 1856, and who died when she was twenty-eight, leaving her with four children under the age of eight and one more on the way – an extraordinary life, but one which typifies what so many women in empire had to go through and the important but unsung contribution they made in normalising Britain’s overseas presence.

JA; One of your current projects is to portray the day-to day life of the military in China, how officers and other ranks interacted with their surroundings and local Chinese people, using regimental photographs, letters and journals. Will this form the basis of another book?

AH; No. Britain had an almost continuous military presence in China from the start of the Second Opium War (1856) until the late 1930s and Historical Photographs of China, is the ideal format for displaying and discussing these regimental photographs – see http://visualisingchina.net/blog/2017/03/20/andrew-hillier-on-images-of-war-and-regimental-memory/ . The collections provide a fascinating insight into daily life outside the combat zone and into how these experiences helped shape Sino- British cultural relations. Many of them are little-known and are in danger of disappearing for lack of funds and one purpose of the project is to demonstrate their importance as a source for both British and Chinese historians.

JA; Given Forster’s exhortation, will you be making yet more connections, bringing together more historical sources to inform your next book?

I hope so. What fascinates me is exploring the lives of ‘ordinary’ westerners in the Far East through diaries, letters and photographs. Having completed editing Eliza’s letters, I am now researching the wives of China consuls amongst others. There must be plenty of readers whose forbears were in China and who still have their own mementos of that time and I would love to hear from them and try to piece together their stories.

Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817 – 1927 is available on-line, in local bookshops and at Orca Book Services ( direct.orders@marston.co.uk ). RRP £75, currently on offer at £45. More information can be found on Andrew’s web-site at  https://www.andrewhillier.org/

This interview was commissioned by the Clapham Society, for the June ‘Literary’ edition of its Newsletter.

Talking about books… with Andrew Duncan

In mid-March, when lockdown started, I was approached by the Editor of the Clapham Society Newsletter and commissioned to carry out a series of virtual interviews with local, debutante authors. The Newsletter, which goes out to people in south London, is usually inundated with requests for publicity for any local events, but, thanks to COVID-19, most of these events ( including the Clapham Book Festival, unfortunately ) were being cancelled. So copy was needed and this seemed a good way to support local authors – whose books might otherwise sink without trace without the oxygen of publicity – as well as to entertain and inform the readers and fill the Newsletter.

Consequently readers of my blog page will see a number of articles over the coming weeks, entitled ‘A Conversation with……’. The first of these is a conversation with Andrew Duncan.

As the seventy fifth anniversary of VE Day, on 8th May 2020, passes during CORVID19 lockdown, now might be the time to read about WWII. If fiction is your preference, try ‘Somerville’s War’ by Clapham author Andrew A Duncan (Vineyard Books, 2020). This novel evokes the tranquil, timeless and sometimes petty-seeming world of rural southern England and its response to war; from the pilots of the RAF and ATA, the Special Operations Executive agents and the spy masters at the famous ‘finishing school for spies’ at SOE Beaulieu, renamed SOE Somerville in the novel. Beginning at a sailing club on the Somer (Beaulieu) River in the Hampshire countryside, the novel takes the reader to war-time London and thence to occupied France, as a large and varied cast of characters, crossing generational, class and national divides, contribute to the war, often for very different reasons.

Julie Anderson (JA): Why, as a long-time Clapham resident, have you chosen to write, so evocatively, about rural Hampshire.

Andrew Duncan (AD):  I grew up at Beaulieu, Hampshire, where my grandparents went to live in the 1930s.  I inherited a house there and now divide my time equally between Clapham (my London based publishing business) and Beaulieu.  As a writer you will know what a head start that gives you in writing a novel, especially a first novel, if the geography is at your fingertips.  Then there is the fact that Beaulieu/Somer is and was a unique place – and that I love the variety of the scenery and the closeness of the sea – you can never get bored with this extra dimension.  It really got under my skin aged around sixteen – just like the Henry character in the book – though I’m not the basis for his character.

Also, I felt that there was a vacant slot for a ‘Beaulieu’ novel; not just that, but that the place itself could be a character in the novel in its own right – as London is in Dickens – but, heaven forbid, I am not comparing myself with him. 

JA: It has been said that England and the English never quite recovered from WWII, so deeply is it embedded in the national psyche. What is it that drew you into writing about this period?

AD: Partly just that: WW2 stories can be good sellers as a genre, maybe third in popularity after the chick lit-female interest-romance and crime genres.  Also because I had some more or less original material – SOE Beaulieu and the ATA women pilots – which had not yet been realized in fiction – anyway not properly. It’s also a bonus that Kim Philby taught at SOE Beaulieu.  I felt this last could give not only reviewers, but readers, something fresh to latch on to. 

Like many another of my generation WW2 had an indirect impact on my life, but this story also struck me as a handy vehicle for a psychological subtext. All four main characters start with obsessions.  By the end they are either destroyed by them or come to terms with them. I hope some readers will enjoy thinking about why and how this happens. There are clues all through the text that they are dealing with obsessions, and on page 332 there is a fuller explanation.

Also partly because I wanted to explore writing a story that exists in the twilight zone between fiction and non fiction – history is not half handy for that.

JA: One central strand of Somerville’s War is a love story, told from the point of view of a young woman ATA pilot.  Why did you make Leonora such a central character and have her feature so strongly in the tale?

AD: In part because realizing one of those women doing men’s work long before it became commonplace seemed to me of special interest to modern women – and men. It puts feminism in perspective.  Partly because I know the territory:  my mother was one of those ATA women and, although it was very hard to get her to talk, I did come to understand what the experience was like for her and consequently I felt I had the insight to write about it.  Leo is partly based on my Mum but only the foundations.  What you see of Leo when she’s in the air is different to my mother, more like other females I have known.

In Leo I wanted to create a real heroine – a human with quality but some serious flaws.  She is truly courageous, not because she feels less fear, like some people, she feels plenty: her nervous system gets slammed by the dog fight and by the storm. Yet she finds her way out of it through moral fibre.  I wanted to show the moral dimension of courage in women operating in the same way as it does in men. I also wanted to explore female aggression, a considerable thing…   I am hoping that in Leo’s dogfight I get near the heart of that, especially when she presses the trigger.   

So Leo was a vessel for these themes and that is why I have her near the heart of the story.

JA: Events in Somerville’s War take place in 1940 and the book captures the attitudes, prejudices and morés of the time using the language then widely used. To this reader, at least, the style and pacing of the book also reflects the literature of that period or earlier. How did you set out to write, in 2020, in this style?

AD: This question got me wondering.  Indeed the story telling is generally straight and traditional, but I hope not anachronistic.  But a major feature of the style – frequent short scenes, much hopping from place to place – is influenced by contemporary cinema.

For that authentic feel, yes I tried to recreate the attitudes, morés and speech of the 1940s. But as you suggest it goes a bit further than that.  At the heart of the story is the Brigadier or ‘Brig’, a man who is really a Victorian.  The whole story is in the Brig’s mind, though told by others.  So it seemed right to have a traditional story structure – patrician story telling as the Brig might have done it had he actually written the story.  This is partly why the sex and action climaxes are underplayed:  for Maxwell and his contemporaries, saying less was their way of saying more.

This straight style does also overlay a subtext, a story of psychological development, but reinterpreted in the light of up to the moment understanding of neuroscience. By the way, I’m hoping the story will make readers think again about the Brig and his like: I hope he represents the best of his kind.  That generation and that type are often ridiculed these days, sometimes unfairly.

Lastly, I must admit I wanted to stick up two fingers to much contemporary story telling style which seems to me to be all form and no content. Form should work hand in hand with content – as I hope I have achieved in Somerville’s War.  I deliberately took no notice of trendy story telling devices hoping that clear structure where characters are allowed to develop in a measured pace in the first half would enable a faster paced, action oriented second half.  I was aiming for a natural, easy read and for readers to know the characters before the action gets going – this means the tension is heightened because you care about them even if you aren’t hugely attracted to them.

You haven’t asked about character and hope you won’t mind my adding my thoughts.  In quality commercial fiction Robert Harris and his like are very dominant – superb plotting and story telling but often at the expense of ‘rounded’ characters.   I wanted to have a go at good story telling but also with three dimensional characters, not cardboard cut-outs.   Others must judge if it worked…

Somerville’s War is available online and at bookshops on request at £10.99.

The Plague story continues…

Since my last post Stranger than Fiction on 16th March, there have been even more examples of how elements of the plot of Plague are featuring in real life news.  Two weeks ago we had pharmacies hiring body guards because of attacks from members of the public attempting to access medicines or other items which were out of stock.  This happens on Page 106 of the novel! And there’s a real life procurement scandal, as reported in The Guardian, on 1st May, with an NHS manager allegedly selling PPE using his NHS contacts.  And what about those non-tendered contracts being given to companies owned by Conservative party donors, while companies expert in their field and offering their services are ignored? Not quite the level of corruption which features in the novel, but getting there.

The book is scheduled for publication on 15th September (Claret Press, £9.99) and I hope potential readers are not deterred from reading (and buying) it.  When I expressed my concerns about this on twitter recently a fellow crime/mystery writer pointed out to me that ‘Contagion’ the 2011 film about a killer pandemic is currently the most viewed film on Netflix.  So, you never know.

The novel is already available to NetGalley members at the moment, at no cost (other than the time it takes to write a review ).  If you are interested in reading it you can sign up with NetGalley, using the widget in the sidebar on this web-site. The site is digital only, but it provides versions for most of the main reading devices. If you like reading on a Kindle, Nook or ipad, why not sign up and give Plague a go?

It’s a murder mystery, with some serious points to make about power and democracy, and a lot of edge-of-the-seat thrills along the way. There is romance too and one or two plot twists which, I am told, one can’t see coming! I hope readers find its insights into the functioning of Parliament  interesting and there is also quite a foray into the little known history of a particular part of London. I won’t say which. Here is the blurb –

‘Work on a London tube line is halted by the discovery of an ancient plague pit and in it, a very recent corpse. A day later another body is found, also in a plague pit. This victim is linked to the Palace of Westminster, where rumours swirl around the Prime Minister and his rivals.
As the number of deaths climbs, the media stokes fear. Government assurances are disbelieved. Everyone feels threatened. This has to be resolved and fast.
A disgraced civil servant and a policeman must find the answer before Westminster closes for recess. Power, money and love curdle into a deadly brew that could bring down the Mother of all Parliaments.
Time is running out. And it’s not clear what – or who – will survive.’

Plague is available to read and review now on NetGalley. Log on, sign up and signal your wish to get the book. I’ll respond within twenty four hours. If you’re a media professional contact me at this site, or via twitter, for interviews, podcast and other information. If you  run a book club try using the items in the Press Kit, Author Q & A, book club discussion questions and links.

Plague – Stranger than Fiction

As COVID-19 dominates all news and social media resounds with Italians singing on balconies, people applauding the NHS and other support workers and lots of speculation ( and condemnation ) and ranting of so-called commentators, I find myself in an unusual situation – and it isn’t self-isolation. Or no more than is usual for a writer, anyway.

Back in 2018 I began writing a novel, a Westminster murder mystery/thriller entitled ‘Plague‘. Without giving away too much of the plot (for which my publishers would not thank me) the story is about a potential outbreak of a strain of plague in London in 2020. The atmosphere is tense and fearful and there is a general reluctance to accept what the authorities are saying, including medical experts and the police. People believe the real facts are being withheld. Entrenched and aggressive positions on left and right don’t help and a predilection for opinions, what ever their source, which reinforce existing prejudices, heightens anxiety. Sound familiar?

None of this was new when I began writing it.

Populist politicians choosing to deny facts have given new life to the counter-enlightenment. The current President of the United States springs to mind, but there are European heads of state who do the same. This is amplified in the echo chamber of social media. We were told in the UK, by those now in government, that the British people had ‘had enough of experts’. Not such a good message now.

In medicine, Anti-Vaxxer groups illustrate how people make potentially life-changing decisions based on belief rather than on fact. It has also shown how individuals can exploit this for their own benefit. Former doctor Andrew Wakefield, barred from practising in the UK and described as fraudulent by the BMJ, made the spurious link between the MMR vaccine and child autism. This resulted in a reduction in vaccination rates and subsequent suffering and death. My villain in the novel chooses to exploit circumstances to increase his own fortune and power, despite knowing the views he encourages are false. He uses social media to help do this.

Given this anti-enlightenment push-back I wanted my book to highlight, in so far as I could within the confines of a commercial thriller, how dangerous disregarding fact and science is and how easily it can be exploited by people for their own ends. And it is, of course, a Westminster based thriller, so politics and democracy are involved. As are the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor, who regularly give press conferences. Just like now.

It’s genuinely unsettling to find events, so similar to those in my tale, unfolding in real life and seeing the reactions of media, institutions and individuals to the COVID-19 virus.  Some I didn’t anticipate, being too bizarre, like the video of monkey gangs in Thailand fighting over food in the absence of food supplying tourists. Some are just too vicious, like ‘hoax’ COVID19 tweets. (Lizzie Dearden, correspondent at The Independent, received tweets from someone claiming to be infected and to have met her. Dearden knew it was a hoax because she was out of the country when the meeting supposedly took place.)

Some is horribly familiar – and irresponsible. Celebrities asked for views on something they are not qualified to comment upon or TV ‘personalities’ and the media rabble-rowsing.  As a character in my novel says ‘It’s dishonest and dangerous!’. Even as I wrote this piece the first set of demonstrators arrived outside Downing Street, to protest the ‘lack of action’ by government, something which occurs in ‘Plague’.

The number of usually well informed folk who simply don’t believe that government plans are based on science and the over-riding priority to save lives alarms me. Are they right? I don’t know.  Government communication strategy, press conferences aside, seems to be shambolic, with unattributed briefings and Ministers making statements which are obviously wrong.

It’s a new disease strain.  There is much we don’t know.  Like in the book, it’s frightening. I spent eighteen months writing a novel but in life I can’t write the ending. That’s what’s scary.

Plague‘ will be published by Claret Press in September 2020.  It will be available for review on NetGalley in April.

Troy: myth and reality

Terrific exhibition at the British Museum, which, among other things, tells the stories of the Iliad, the Odyssey and, to an extent, the Aeniad, through the artefacts of the ancient world, I recommend it very highly. Beginning with the marriage of King Peleus and sea-nymph Thetis, to which the goddess Discord was not invited, through to depictions of the characters in the Trojan epics in more recent art, this exhibition immerses the visitor in the world of Troy, the imagined as well as the archaeological city.  I spent several happy hours in it yesterday (and will be returning next week).

The words of Homer’s epic poems feature through-out, as you would expect, though Virgil gets a look-in too. The exhibition begins appropriately, with the opening lines of the Iliad ‘Rage – Goddess sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles‘.  Quotations sprinkle the show and there are recorded readings, in Greek and English.  The Roman bust (left) of Homer as blind poet can be found at the start, it is a copy of an older Greek original.  Statuary, in marble and, on a smaller scale, in metal and on stone sarcophagi features.  So do ceramics.

I had forgotten just how exquisite the painted decoration of Greek ‘red ware’ and ‘black ware’ was, from the coloured figures, like those on the large two handled pot depicting Achilles killing Amazon Queen Penthisiliea (right) or the Judgement of Paris on a wine krater, to the delicate line drawings showing Briseis being led away from Achilles’ tent.  I will also remember the stone bas relief showing this scene, with Achilles looking away in anger, but Patroclus placing a consolatory hand on Briseis’ shoulder as she is collected by Agamemnon’s soldier. A tender gesture.

It is testament to the power of the ancient story that the characters live so vividly again. But then, the story has been told and retold, as evidenced by the lines from the epics scribbled by ancient Roman children on the papyri copy books displayed. Its retelling is brought bang up to date with the poster from the, much derided, 21st century Hollywood film Troy and modern versions of The Judgement of Paris – photographic – and The Siren’s Song ( see left for the ancient depiction, below for the modern collage by Romare Bearden ).  Aficionados of the male body please note, Brad Pitt has quite a lot of competition in the buffed masculinity stakes, though it’s interesting that, even where a ‘hero’ such as Odysseus is obviously beyond youth and is depicted on artefacts with an older face, his body is still drawn as youthfully ideal. Hollywood’s fixation with perfect bodies is nothing new.

There is a very interesting section on the real city of Troy, or what we now believe is the real city. Not Schliemann’s much too early, if appropriately burnt, discovery but a later version. I didn’t realise just how many Troys there were, built on top of one another, but there are informative graphics showing just how these cities developed and when.  Indeed the whole exhibition is  well organised, with clearly written and illuminating captions. Technology, from the annotated drawings in light of various pieces of complex decoration to help the viewer unscramble some of the detail, to the videos showing the massing levels of the different Troys is used cleverly and well.

Personal favourites – the bas relief in which Paris looks thoroughly bored as Helen is loaded, along with the other treasures, on to his ship and the wonderfully evocative Fuseli drawing of the grief of Achilles as he kneels over Patrolus’ body.

The exhibition runs until 8th March and costs £20 to enter ( concessions £17 ). It is popular, so don’t leave it until the last minute, it will be very crowded. It took us two and a half hours to go round, taking a look at just about everything, ( though there were at least two school parties to deal with ).  It may take longer if it is even more full.