Jericho

JerichoBookFairCanalReaders of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will already be familiar with the alternative reality Jericho, the canal basin where the Gyptians live in Northern Lights. In real life Pullman has been an advocate in support of the residential boaters fight to save the Castlemill Boatyard in the actual Jericho from property developers. It’s that bohemian, formerly working class quarter of Oxford, bounded by the Oxford Canal, Worcester College, Walton Street and Walton Well Road. On Sunday it was host to the Jericho Book Fair, the very first post-lockdown book fair in the country, the organisers claimed. I went along.

Though raining on the way up and an absolute storm on the way back to London, JerichoJerichoBookFair itself was dry and plenty of people came out. There were lots of interesting stalls (I managed to buy as many books as I sold, including a 1956 Penguin Classics original edition of The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham and a more recent volume of Euripides). Oxford University Press were there, Blackwell’s Books and several other presses, as well as the Oxford Indie Book Fair.

I was on the Claret Press stand, which was also manned by fellow author Steve Sheppard, JerichoBookFairSteve(below) writer of one of my favourite comedy spy novels A Very Important Teapot. Steve lives in nearby Bampton and has just finished writing the sequel, Bored to Death in the Baltics, which involves herring, apparently and will be published in September. He had foregone the pleasure of umpiring for his local cricket team to come along and talk about books. Sylvia Vetta, another Claret author, was on the Oxford Indie Book Festival stand (she is one of its organisers) but we had time for a chat. Sylvia’s most recent novel Sculpting the Elephant is set, in part, in Jericho where one of the main characters has an antiques business.

The band started up which got the place buzzing, a regular ‘coffee run’ to a local hostelry was established and, as lunchtimeJerichoBookFairPloughSign approached, various purveyors of food arrived.  We, on the other hand, headed off along the canal towpath to walk to Wolvercote and The Plough Inn, a walk of about an hour. We had worked up quite an appetite before we came upon a sign to our destination thoughtfully provided for folk doing just as we were. The Plough is an unusual pub in that it has its own library, which seemed very appropriate, (as well as providing good pub grub at modest prices and real ale). We sat outside, eating, drinking and watching the muntjac playing before returning to the Fair, where things were in full swing.

JerichoBookFairMeCroppedKaren, the young lady from Ghana doing work experience with Claret Press, looked like she was enjoying herself and sales were being made as people were swaying along to a set by a quartet playing guitar, banjo, mouth organ and drums. There was much chat about books, what people liked to read, what they were reading at the moment and what could be found on the other book stalls at the Fair. I did a final swing around the other stalls (spending even more money. but buying only useful things, of course) before it was time to start packing everything away and heading off to the little village of Kennington for an early supper.

Well fortified with curry and wine (save for our driver) we eventually set off, leaving the cityJerichoBookFairstalls of dreaming spires behind, to return to the Great Wen. It was on the outskirts of north London that we encountered a torrential storm, with cars aquaplaning across the traffic lanes and drivers electing to drive in single file around roundabouts. Anyone familiar with London drivers will realise just how severe the weather conditions must have been to prompt such behaviour. Nonetheless, I arrived home, tired but happy, as they say, and only a little wet from my dash to the front door.  I look forward to repeating the experience next year, when I want to go inside St Barnabas Church and explore the area rather more.

You can find all the Claret Press books on their website where they are available for purchase here .

‘Opera’ London

BromptonCemeteryStatuaryI’ve recently been out and about looking at the places in London where the third book in the Cassandra Fortune series, entitled ‘Opera‘, is set.  The obvious one, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is not yet open to anyone but ticket holders to socially distanced performances ( though I have a contact there for when it opens more widely ), but there are others, less obvious and, to non-Londoners, perhaps something of a revelation. If ‘Plague‘ was set in places that we all know, even if it took you to parts of those places which are usually closed to view, or hidden, ‘Opera’ will introduce some settings which are less well-known, but, I hope, people may then visit.

I visited one of these last week, just before the heatwave hit.  Cloudy weather notwithstanding, Brompton Cemetery was still a delight to visit. Designed as a ‘Garden Cemetery’ and meant, from its inception, to be a public space as well as a last resting place, the cemetery stretches over a long, rectangular-shaped forty acres on the Fulham Chelsea borders. It has a grand entrance lodge gate at its northern extremity which houses a café, an information centre and exhibition space ( and which will feature in the book ) and which looks down a grand main avenue towards the chapel and colonnade at the far end. BromptonCemeteryMainAvenue

The main avenue is flanked by the grander grave markers and mausolea, this was the most public and therefore the most expensive part of the cemetery to bury your loved ones. The side avenues and circles have their fair share of statuary and raised tombs too, though the still working part of the cemetery to the west is in a lower key. On Wednesday, when I visited, the cow parsley was rampant and allowed to be so, only the edges of the lawns next to the avenues were mown ( except for the railed section of the cemetery which belongs to the Brigade of Guards and which was fully mown with military precision ).  Butterflies and bees were plentiful, the latter possibly living in the cemetery bee hives still kept on the west side of the cemetery.

BromptonCemetery1Brompton is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Victorian cemeteries, which includes Highgate, with its graves of Karl Marx, George Eliot and other very famous people and Kelsall Green with its oft-filmed catacombs. While well known to locals – and a godsend during lockdowns – it is less widely known than these others. Both Kelsall Green and Tower Hamlets ( another Magnificent Seven cemetery ) featured in ‘Plague’. Brompton is owned by the Crown and run by The Royal Parks and includes many military graves, including of Commonwealth service personnel maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and many Czechoslovak, Polish and Russian military burials.  It is also evidence of the diversity of Victorian London, housing as it did and does, the remains of individuals ranging from Chief Long Wolf of the Ogulala Sioux nation to Johannes Zukertorte, Jewish-Polish chess grandmaster and the Keeley and Vokes families, music hall artistes and actors. Other individuals buried here include a Mr Nutkin, Mr Brock, Mr Tod, Jeremiah Fisher and Peter Rabbett – Beatrix Potter lived nearby and was known to walk in the cemetery often, did these names inspire her?

BromptonCemeteryCatacombEntranceThe Chapel at the cemetery’s southern end wasn’t open last week, but the grand colonnade is open all year round. Built in a style aping that of St Peter’s Square in Rome, the Colonnade runs above catacombs, which were fashionable for a brief time in Victorian London ( all too brief, additional catacombs built along the west side of the cemetery were never fully occupied ). The steps down to them are very wide and shallow, mainly because the lead-lined coffins deemed necessary for catacomb interment were extremely heavy and therefore difficult for pallbearers to carry and manoeuvre. The catacombs themselves are not open to the public except on special tours and open days and the locked metal doors, with their sculpted serpentine bas reliefs offer tantalising glimpses within.

If you happen to be in West London and have an hour or so to spare, you could do worse than spend it in this tranquil and interesting haven from the city which surrounds it. I will, most certainly, be back.

Politics in crime fiction

CapitolRiot3My contemporary crime fiction is set in the world of high politics ( and low sleaze ), of ministers, conferences, lobbyists and business interests. Activists of various kind also feature, particularly in Oracle. In that book a contemporary political issue also impacts upon the plot; the politicisation of the police. This is specifically regarding the Greek criminal organisation Golden Dawn, which formerly styled itself a political party and to which many police belonged in the real world. There are other examples of politics intruding on police work, most notably in the U.S., where former President Trump deployed ‘private’ police forces funded with federal money in cities where demonstrations were taking place ( see pic left ). A ‘defund the police’ movement began as a result of this and of the repeated deaths in custody of black people. So far, so scary.

I’ve been speculating on whether or not this is going to appear more widely in crime fiction. It would be material to any fictional investigation. Can the investigator, police or otherwise, trust the policemen and women with whom they work?  Could those individuals owe allegiance to a different, political, organisation altogether?

To an extent this brings to mind the conspiracy novels of the 1970s, published just as the gloss of 60s idealism wasSerpico tarnished. In the US the Vietnam War, in the UK the three-day week and ‘the sick man of Europe’ made for a more sceptical and hard boiled sensibility.  The Day of the Jackal, The Andromeda Strain, Six Days of the Condor are three crime/conspiracy novels, turned into major films, which spring to mind.  Then there was police corruption, found in crime fiction like Lawrence Block’s NYPD stories, Leonardo Sciascia in Sicily ( long before Montalbano ) or countless Hollywood films, the Dirty Harry movies, Serpico, The French Connection. Is the politicisation of the police going to be something similar?

Then it occurred to me that maybe there were books already out there, it was just that I hadn’t come across them. So I asked, on the Facebook page of one of the UK’s biggest Crime Fiction clubs, for suggestions of crime fiction which involved politics. Now this isn’t quite the same as ‘the politicisation of the police’ I grant you, but I was interested to see what suggestions arose.

First Quinin Jardine’s Bob Skinner series, following Edinburgh’s fictional Chief Superintendent, was recommended as Crime & Punishmenthaving the politics of policing threaded though it (as it happens these also arose during a discussion I had on Sunday ).  Then a series I had never heard of but will definitely try – Ausma Zehanat Khan’s duo detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Khan is a British born Canadian and now lives in the U.S. and her pair are Community Police Officers in Toronto, but the books range across the world. One series I remembered as soon as it was suggested was the Law & Order TV series based on four plays by G F Newman, which were also published as books A Detective’s Tale, A Villain’s Tale and A Prisoner’s Tale. HarperCollins reprinted them in an omnibus edition in 1984. These were controversial at the time, as they depicted a corrupt UK policing and legal system and shouldn’t be confused with the US TV series of that name. The UK series was altogether harder and grittier and caused ructions. As did Newman’s later Crime and Punishment, which involved a criminal bankrolling the Conservative party ( where have I heard that before )?

This is as far as the discussions went – although there were suggestions for other TV series, like the current favourite Line of Duty.  If readers of this piece can think of more crime fiction in which politics features, please don’t hesitate to tell me.

‘Oracle’ Art

Given the antiquity of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the cultural influence it has had over the millennia it’s not surprising that large numbers of visual artists have been inspired by it.  Followers of my twitter feed will know I have been collecting and sharing images of Delphi, the Temple of Apollo and the various historical or mythical beings who came there, drawn or painted by famous artists.  So, we’ve had Gustave Dore’s Dante and Virgil encountering the Erinyes or Furies (left), Edward Lear’s water colour of the Phaedriades, the massive cliffs which loom over the Temple site and William Blake’s illustration for ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ showing ‘The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods’.

I’ve come across plenty of works, from ancient times onwards,  which portray events or characters from Greek drama set at Delphi. On Greek redware (right) for example, showing the sleeping Erinyes being roused from their Apollo-induced slumber by the vengeful spirit of Clytemnestra, urging them to hunt down her son, and murderer, Orestes ( from Eumenides by Aeschylus ). Later paintings include Orestes being pursued by the same furies by, among others, John Singer Sergeant, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, John Flaxman and Franz Stuck, until we’re up to date with John Wilson (after  Bouguereau).

So popular did the image of this pursuit become that cartoonists soon created their own versions, like that in Puck magazine (1877) or in Punch (left). In this instance it is the Rt. Hon. John Bright MP who is in the Orestes role, being pursued by the vested interests which he opposed through the Anti-Corn Law League. It was Bright, famous for his oratorical skills among other things, who coined the phrase ‘Mother of Parliaments’. He is also credited with first using the phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’ to illustrate the pointlessness of certain activities (in Bright’s case this meant getting the House of Commons to consider Parliamentary reform – ’twas ever thus).

As figures of terror and myth the Erinyes feature strongly across the ages. Wenceslas Holler etched them in the seventeenth century (right) and they have re-emerged in modern day gaming ( though with a rather different, sexy, look which speaks to who it is who plays those games rather than any mythological authenticity ). Naked the furies may have, traditionally, been, but not looking like a set of pouting, come-hither dominatrices.

The Pythia, or priestess of Apollo who spoke, as the Oracle, with Apollo’s voice is also a favourite subject in paint and in sculpture.  Eugene Delacroix showed Lycurgus consulting her, John Collier made her a hooded, pre-raphaelite religious perched high on her tripod or three-legged stool (left).  Note the gases swirling upwards from the crack in the floor of her underground room, the inhalation of which led to her madness and prophecies.  No such crevice has been found at the Temple site, but, as a character explains in the book “geologists have found that two geological fault lines cross beneath Delphi, with fissures under the Temple itself which allow small amounts of naturally occurring gas to rise to the surface. Rock testing showed ethane, methane and ethylene − formerly used as an anaesthetic − to be present. These would create a calm, trancelike state and, if a lot was consumed, a form of wild mania.”

I will be posting more of the images I have found – of the Erinyes, of characters from the Orestia and of Delphi and the Temple of Apollo in the coming weeks on my twitter feed and Facebook page.  Look out for some of those mentioned above, as well as works by Klimt, Claude Lorraine and others in the run up to the publication of ‘Oracle’ on 5th May.

A most intrepid civil servant

That’s my heroine, Cassandra Fortune, according to Claret Press, my publishers. They are referring to my her as ‘the world’s most intrepid civil servant’.

There are plenty of real life intrepid civil i.e. non-military, servants of the Crown. The employees of the security services, for example, or holders of high profile positions like the Director of Europol. Policemen and women serve society in a civil capacity and there are lots of real as well as fictional police heroes and heroines, though, technically, they aren’t civil servants. The publishers are playing on the popular and entirely erroneous assumption that ‘civil servants’  are faceless ‘pen pushers’. I can personally attest to the fact that that stereotype is very far from reality.

There are plenty of civil servants in literature – see, for example, the entire oeuvre of C. P. Snow, various characters in the novels of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and A.S.Byatt, to name a few. But fictional civil servant detectives? Well, Cassie wouldn’t be the first.  They are more rare, though they do exist.

Natasha Cooper, former Chair of the Crime Writers Association had Willow King, at the Department for Old Age Pensions, who first appeared in Festering Lilies in the 1990s. Agatha Christie, no less, wrote a series of short stories featuring a retired civil servant named Parker Pyne in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934). I’m sure there must be others and there are probably real civil servants who are more intrepid, though they may not meet with murders and villains with such regularity as Cassandra does.

This started me thinking about the professions and jobs of fictional detectives. Aside from police and associated professions, including Private Investigators, what do fictional detectives do for a living?  Amateurs, by definition, many belong to the ‘gentleman’ or ‘lady’ detective category, individuals of independent means who are intrigued by mysteries and/or spurred on by a love of justice.  This covers many ‘early’ detectives, like Poe’s  Auguste Dupin or  Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey. From a quick hunt around my memory, there are plenty of writer or journalist detectives, whose job requires them to find things out, I suppose, but also former forces people, like Dr Watson or Sax Rohmer’s Nayland Smith the sleuth in his Fu Manchu novels. Academics feature but also psychologists and psychiatrists.  Lawyers too, in part I suppose because of their association with crime and the law, e.g. like Kate, in Sarah Vaughn’s best-selling Anatomy of a Scandal (2018)

There is a modern trend to go for something different. So we have Jimmy, homeless veteran and PTSD sufferer who is the hero of Trevor Woods’ Debut Dagger winning The Man on the Street (2020). Hetty Wainthropp, the working class retiree from Darwen in Lancashire, who first appeared in David Cook’s Missing Persons (1986) is another such unusual character.  Personally, I would like to see a Tesco’s check-out female investigator, who teams up with the assistant from the local chemist to solve crimes.  Or maybe a teacher, or a local authority drainage engineer? Ordinary people.

My heroine, Cassandra, is ordinary, though she’s intelligent, quick-thinking and brave, all attributes which don’t require a private income, a silver spoon or a university degree (though she has one of those).  And yes, she is intrepid and a civil servant, though not the first.

Second Time Around

…and things are more familiar. The activity which accompanies publishing a crime fiction book was new to me with Plague, but this time, with Oracle, it’s less so. There are fewer decisions than last time because much has already been determined, Oracle will be consistent with Plague, in size, in print, in design.  It even has approximately the same number of pages.

I’m having fun choosing, and helping create, some of the promotional images and these days such images come in various forms – Facebook banners, Instagram posts and Twitter headers – and some come with animation.  The one on the right is an Instagram post, which uses a photograph of the Treasury of the Athenians at the Temple of Apollo, Delphi, as well as a copy of the cover and its tagline – ‘Blood calls for blood’ on a background of a full moon rising above a hillside. There is an animated version of this too.

As I did for the launch of Plague, I’ve uploaded a new Facebook and a new Twitter Header, using the new banner shown below, which also now lies beneath my email signature.  This includes the same images as the Instagram post, with the addition of a rather wonderful artwork by Gustave Dore. The engraving is one of the French master illustrator’s pieces for The Divine Comedy, Canto IX ( 1867) and it shows Dante and Virgil encountering the Erinyes, or Furies. It is entitled ‘Megaera, Tisipone  and Alecto’, so I would imagine this might get used quite a lot ( it’s also out of copyright ). I’ve always been a Dore admirer and I’m not alone. As the Tate’s exhibition on Van Gogh showed, the Dutch painter loved Dore’s work and collected it, basing some of his own compositions on Dore engravings. This image appears in the banner, with the others, set against a background of black, with a wisp of blue/grey smoke curling across it and the tagline, which is in red this time. Very dramatic. I think it’s eye-catching. I just hope that the book isn’t mIstaken for a vampire novel (because of that tag-line). A number of early readers of Plague thought, from the blurb, that it was about a pandemic.  No fear of misunderstanding the title this time, the blurb makes reference to the ancient oracle, but who knows what else people with think of.

There are some differences too, in part because I’ve learned from experience. So, for example, there’s an Oracle postcard to send out with review copies (last time I exhausted my personal stock of notelets). Claret is having the ARCs printed at the moment and I’ll be looking to take receipt of boxes of books in the next week or so.  The other, more exciting thing is that readers are telling me that they’re waiting for the book to come out ( the virtue of having a series ). Also, it seems, there are a lot more media events – interviews, talks, blogs, podcasts – than last time.  In part, I suspect because I have more media contacts now (and I’m good value i.e. or the most part, free), but also because I’m no longer an unknown.  That Oracle is ‘the further adventures of…’ helps.

If any of the readers of this post has a book group which enjoys crime/mystery books and wants an author to come along and chat, let me know, I’m already doing some of these around the country (via the magic of the internet).  You can find out about them on the Events page of this web-site.

For more on Oracle                            Adieu to Delphi                   Crime Scene                Myths & Legends                     Zemiology                    Art and life – again!

 

Adieu to Delphi

Sad as I am to leave beautiful Delphi (though it’s under deep snow at the moment I am told) I have, at least temporarily, waved goodbye to Oracle, which is now in the hands of the publishers and their book and cover designers. The manuscript has been proofed, the front cover tag-line and back cover blurb have been agreed and the internal design created, again by Petya Tsankova, so it’s consistent with that of Plague, which Petya also designed.

Like the earlier book, Oracle takes place over a few days, so that is how the book is divided up. My sketch of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi ( see below ) is featured on the named ‘day’ pages as the sketch of the Palace of Westminster was in Plague.  It looks good.  This time, however, the book has a ‘Praise for’ section at the front, ( squirm – it’s what is done ). At the moment this contains endorsements and complimentary review remarks about Plague.  As we approach publication day these will be augmented by what I hope will be complimentary reviews and endorsements of Oracle.  I also get an ‘About the Author’ at the back, so Claret Press must be pleased with me.

Already the promotional schedule of events is being formulated ( there are two events in place already, with the UK Crime Book Club and Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries, see the Events page ).  The manuscript will go up on NetGalley during March, for a limited period only, to attract reviews and test reader reaction.  Any revisions will follow and Advanced Review Copies will be produced and despatched to various ‘experts’ and to reviewers for newspapers, magazines and blogs. Quite a lot of the publications which reviewed Plague are anxious to follow up with a review of Oracle and, I’m pleased to say, there are plenty of readers out there who tell me that they re anxious to read it too. Publication day will be 5th May.

I’m very pleased to have the help of a number of ‘experts’ with Oracle, as I had on Plague.  These include Maro Nicolopolou, Head of Conferences and Artistic Programmes at the European Cultural Centre at Delphi, below (and a lover of detective fiction) and Sharon Hartles, zemiologist, of Strathclyde University and the Open University.  Maro has already been of inestimable help in directing me to all the changes at the Centre since I visited it back at the turn of the millenium and to the changes in the town.  This is so important given that the trip to Delphi I had planned for last year had to be abandoned because of COVID.  I’ll be writing about the amazing Centre and its conferences and performances later. Sharon has introduced me to the new discipline of zemiology and Oracle is probably the first time it has featured in a novel (see earlier post here).  She’ll be sure to put me right if I have erred.

So, a break from the actual writing then, until I begin on Opera, but not a break from work, with lots of activity around getting Oracle absolutely ready for publication and for its promotion and still doing lots of events for Plague.  I’ll be writing more about Oracle in the coming weeks, but here’s a photo of what Athens looked like earlier this week.

For articles on Oracle so far          Art and life – again!                Myths and Legends

COVID, Corruption & Crony Capitalism

Last Monday evening listeners to my talk ‘Politics & Prose’, for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries, seemed to enjoy it, especially the Q & A afterwards. There were some excellent questions.  But barely have my feet touched the ground and I’m involved in another event.

Next Thursday ‘COVID, Corruption & Crony Capitalism’ is a discussion organised by publishers Claret Press which promises to be equally interesting, if rather different.

The panellists will be Vicky Pryce, noted economist and current member of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills Panel which monitors the economy, Dr Emily Barritt, Co-Director of the Transnational Law Institute at King’s College London and me – I get billing as either an ex-high ranking Civil Servant or as author of Plague. The session will be chaired by Dr Katie Isbester, Editor-in-Chief of Claret Press and supported by Ko-fi as part of the ‘Claret and Conversation’ series of online discussions.

In Plague the villain co-ordinates a complex strategy to emasculate or destroy the institutions of democracy including Parliament.  He says ‘Democracy is so easy to pervert, why replace it? Money can buy anything. If a government gets difficult another can be sponsored. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes it’s easier, but there are always people willing to take over. When national or global institutions fail to serve the purpose they are destroyed, distorted or hollowed out from the inside.‘ (P236). Money, the media, the connivance of powerful individuals, inside and out of those institutions, enable him to do this, together with leverage over others who are hungry for power.

This includes illegally determining the award of lucrative public contracts so they go to friends and allies. On page 246 the heroine says to him ‘You’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies while you make money on the markets.’

In real life, the Good Law Project, the Runnymede Trust and a non-partisan collection of MPs from various parties have sought judicial review of the Department of Health and Social Care’s awarding of billions of pounds worth of contracts since April 2020 to private companies e.g. for Personal Protective Equipment. That is, they’ve asked the judiciary to adjudicate on the legality of the contract awarding process. Of these contracts, many millions remain unstated and have not been made public as regulations require.  The Labour Party has raised this issue in Parliament and via the media ( see HERE ).

In correspondence with the GLP the government has recently stated its intent to spend £1 million in defending the case, stating that finding out whether they acted lawfully in channelling hundreds of millions or billions to their VIP associates, is not in the public interest. The money is, apparently, to fund a vast exercise in disclosure, not required by the courts. The GLP, funded by small donations, will be unable to accept such a financial risk and has sought a cap on costs from the court. If this isn’t granted the litigation will have to be abandoned.  Perhaps the villain was right and ‘Money can buy anything.’ even the law. I hope not.

COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism looks at the situation and the impacts of corruption and ‘crony capitalism’ on a country’s economy, on its system of law and on how such a country is governed and administered.  Join us on Thursday 4th February. It’s a FREE event, but you need to register on Eventbrite.

If you missed the broadcast you can watch the recording HERE.

Politics & Prose

Question – which of the following is true?

  • Stories which deal with political ideas need not be stories about politics.
  • Stories which show the struggles, jealousies and rivalries, or alliances and betrayals of politicians, may not be about political ideas.
  • Most fiction is about power and its balance, so all fiction is about the political.

All three, as far as I’m concerned. It depends, of course, on how you define politics and the political. The dictionary definition is ‘the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation; and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs. ‘

While that encompasses an awful lot, it is actually quite a narrow definition.

Yet, as Orwell said in Politics and the English Language his essay of 1946, ‘There is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.’ Since 2019 the UK has had a prize, the Orwell Prize for political fiction.

I will be addressing these questions and lots of similar, related ones in Politics & Prose, a talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Libraries on Monday 25th January at 18.30 GMT. It’s a FREE event, but you have to register with Eventbrite if you want to attend ( you can do so HERE ).

My novel Plague (Claret Press, 2020) has been described as a ‘Westminster novel’, and, I am proud to say, a page-turning read, but is it political fiction?  It’s commercial, not literary fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent it dealing with ideas. It  deals with crime, with torture and murder, but also, something of very topical moment,  crony capitalism. As my hero says to the villain, ‘you’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies.’ (P246) There are real legal cases underway claiming that the current government is using the COVID emergency to indulge in exactly that.

As the pandemic began early last year I believed that Plague had lots of resonance with reality and, of course, its title attracted attention. Yet, as time has gone on, it has been the politics, not the pandemic, which resonates more. The crony capitalism, the link between political policy and making money on the financial markets and manipulating the media to influence the public that seems more apposite. Plague‘s successor, Oracle, is much more of a ‘classic murder mystery’, though I hope it has the same page-turning quality. Yet it too has the political at its heart and, already, some of its themes are hitting the real-life headlines, like questions about the politicisation  of the police, something which surfaced again after the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  I suspect that this issue is something crime writers will be incorporating in their stories for the next few years.

I’d also like to answer the following question;  in an age in which the novel is arguably no longer the dominant force in story telling and when social media allows us all to be citizen journalists and political commentators, what place does political fiction have? An important and relevant one, in my view. And I’m not alone – see this piece of graffiti, found in London, NW7 earlier this week ( thank you John Johnston for the photo ).  Is the political image of our age the age of the boot on the face, or the pill and the palliative? Orwell or Huxley?

I hope some readers of this piece might come along and contribute on Monday.  Here’s a book list of books which will be mentioned.

Politics & Prose Book List

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.