Monday, 9 November 2009

Ghosts at Christmas

A huge gap since the last post. Sorry, but I've been busy on the day job: writing novels. But I have been impelled to return to blogging by the joyous news that Sarah Palin will have a new book out for Christmas. You remember Sarah? Aw come on, of course you do. She was the raunchy, moose-shooting Alaskan governor who ran as the Republican candidate for Vice President a year ago and was one of the main reasons why Obama walked into the White House so easily.

She resigned her governership and her book - "Going Rogue: an American Life," for which she trousered an advance of $1.25 million - will be published later this month. I read that it is already listed as No 1 on Amazon com. even before publication. Being a candidate for one of the most intellectually demanding jobs in America (and therefore the world), she wrote it herself, of course...? Hell no! It was ghosted. Presumably Sarah was too busy hunting moose.

All of this has drawn me into the great debate which is consuming the great and the good of the British publishing industry just now. Its subject can be summed up like this: why oh why is it that the best sellers lists at Christmas - and at other times in the year, for that matter - are topped by books carrying the names of celebrities who usually have not written them and even sometimes have not even read them?

I look forward with trepidation to Sarah being joined at the top of our best sellers this year by Jordan's new "novel," The Price of Silicone," and Wayne Rooney's "How to be a Father."
Like Palin's effort, of course, they will have been written by professional ghost writers, because the "authors" are not capable of telling their own story. As writers, they can't write.

Does it matter if this is what the public wants? That is the defence entered by the publishers who make money on these publications, of course. They have to give the reading public what it desires, they say, even if this involves a mild deception in that, despite the name of the "ghost" being carried on the cover, the readers may well believe that it is the celebrity herself who is putting the words and the opinions together.

But it does matter, particularly at this time of recession with publishers laying off writers in the middle and bottom of their earning lists. There is only so much money that can be given to authors in terms of advances, royalties and share of publishers' promotional budgets and with the celebrities demanding huge sums for books they don't write, it is the less well-known writers tenaciously building a following who will suffer.

The additional point being made by well established authors, good pro's at the top of their game who are not themselves in danger, is that publishers have a professional and sociological duty to maintain excellence in their lists and publishing these shallow reminiscences and even "novels" is certainly not doing that. It is going to be even more difficult for the next J.K. Rowlings to break through and tell their wonderful tales when publishers' already pressurised time and budgets are dominated by ghosted rubbish.

Sour grapes? You betchya! With seven novels and three books of non-fiction under my belt I reckon I have a right to be annoyed when amateurs jump the bread line queue. In fact, I am thinking of standing as a vice presidential candidate in the next US elections.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


To Cambridge last night to take part in a signingfest for some 6O authors at Heffers Bookshop. This event is organised annually by the dynamic Richard Reynolds, who runs the shop and who calls the evening "Bodies in the Bookshop."

This is obviously a play on words in that the joint is certainly heaving with people - from the trade (first edition dealers looking to buy) but also members of the public, happy to purchase and talk to their favourite authors. The title, however, also reflects the growing importance to the shop of crime fiction, where once academic works predominated on the shelves.

This year Cambridge is celebrating the 800 anniversary of the founding of the university. For much of that time (or so it seems) Heffers has been serving the dons and students of that venerable institution. Reynolds, however, has liberalised the buying policy of the shop and opened its shelves to contemporary, popular fiction. Why, the blessed man is even stocking a good selection of historical adventure novels, including the Simon Fonthill series!

More to the point, however, it was refreshing to talk to a retailer who did not bewail the effect on the traditional trade of Amazon and who is shrugging off the recession. "We are doing well," he says.

Last night saw the nineteenth "Bodies in the Bookshop" event and Reynolds now also stages a series of mini events during the year to stimulate business. The trade could do with more booksellers like him.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


Psychiatrists wallow in them, introverts analyse them endlessly and creative people are supposed sometimes to gain inspiration from them ("Last night I dreamed that I went again to Manderley"). Yet my dreams are useless. No help at all.

You might expect that, when body and brain are at rest but that the old grey matter, at least, is receptive, then something, some little scrap, might be salvaged from the polycromatic adventures that it gets up to when on nocturnal walkabout that would help to free the writer's block. Some little touch that might suggest a plot twist.

Yet what am I to make of me being at the bottom of a deep canyon with, in the far distance, a speck-like aeroplane approaching and me being able to hear the conversation between pilot and co-pilot quite clearly, but unable to understand a word because it is conducted in gobbledegook? See what I mean? My dreams are no help at all. Never have been.

Perhaps a late night, large brandy. What do you think?

Monday, 22 June 2009


The trouble with blogging, of course, is that you have to keep at it. And I am very much aware that the it to which I have not kept has been absent for some two and a half months now. The reason is that I have finished, polished and delivered the manuscripts of two books in that period: the latest Fonthill novel, THE SHANGANI PATROL, sent off as usual to Hodder Headline for publication (hardback) in January 2010 and then paperback the following September; and an autobiography, which under the title of BOMBS AND BETTY GRABLE winged its way to a different publisher, Brewin Books, and is destined to leap onto bookshelves next September.

So, with some 210,000 words knocking about my desk in that crowded two and a half months, there wasn't much time nor energy left for blogging. Yes, I know. It's a pathetic excuse and I just don't know how determined bloggers knock off their postings - and probably these days their twitterings, too - with their left hand while finishing novels with the other.
I need a bit of time to lie with my eyes closed and worry about the nation's debts.

The other problem is that the two genres demand different techniques in composing and styles in writing. Pace is important in writing historical adventure but far less so in recording the story of one's life. One of the glories of writing fiction is that the author plays God - he creates his own characters and has them act just as he wants them (although, if one is lucky, the protagonists in the story begin to develop a will of their own and to behave as their on-page personalities dictate, despite the wishes of the author). In a biography, of course, the facts are there and must be related more-or-less as they happened, so imposing constrictions on the story-teller and rachetting up the need to make the words dance a little as the tale unfolds.

I guess I should add that BOMBS AND BETTY GRABLE is not a conventional autobiography. I am no television personality with large breasts (though I do insist that my pectorals are as good, if not better than the next man's), nor have I the urgent need to share the agony of missing a goal in a penalty shoot out while playing for England. My story mainly falls into two sections: that of a small boy growing up in war-time in a large industrial city; and a tragedy that occurred much later in life that was not only the most devastating event of my years but also the most interesting. Linking the two was not easy.

So two very different books, demanding different approaches. SHANGANI takes Simon Fonthill, 352 Jenkins and Alice Griffith into King Lobengula's Matabeleland and Mashonaland with Cecil Rhodes's invading forces in the early 1890's, while BOMBS presents a series of personal reflections and reminiscences from the World War II and the late 1970's. As always, I shall be fascinated to hear what readers think of them, when they come onto bookshelves in a few months' time.

Sunday, 29 March 2009


For an author, one of the good things about book sales on Amazon is the opportunity to read what some readers think about your work. (One of the bad things is that one gets about a penny farthing for every book sold, but that is another story - and perhaps another blog.)

These reviews, of course, are from consumers who have actually bought the book and read it, rather than professional reviewers. Your real punters, in fact. Inevitably, then, the standard of criticism varies but, as with all these things, one takes the rough with the smooth.

There are some regulars who write about every new book and, in an amusing inversion, I now wait to see what they post with an eagerness that some of them, at least, seem to display in waiting to read the latest adventures of Simon Fonthill. The net is spread surprisingly wide: Arizona, Barcelona, Houston, Oxfordshire (from whence came a particularly thoughtful, if a touch ascerbic, review of "Last Stand at Majuba Hill" from C. Green), and even Andora, where I am regularly grateful for the idiosyncratic welcome given to each book by "A.D.B."

Nicholas Page, of Flintshire, U.K., however, has flicked a raw nerve in his review of the latest, "The Siege of Khartoum." It's a favourable notice, so I shouldn't complain. And I don't really. It's just that Nicholas - who has an M.A., by the way, and should know his stuff - picks up the old "Boys Own Paper" jibe, which always makes me wince. In fact, his review begins in a pastiche style that brings a smile, if a slightly forced one: " I say, chaps, bally well get down to your book shop and buy..." All was forgiven, however, when he ended, " of the best books in the series - and I have read them all." Thanks Nicholas. I think.

A review on the books pages of the U.K.'s Sunday Express for 'The Guns of El Kebir" was the first professional reference to this boys magazine, which was published, by the way, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This, too, was meant favourably but it raised with me the exact meaning of the reference. Does it mean, good, juvenile stuff for kids? (I write for adults). Is it merely alluding to the time about which I write, the last quarter of the of the eighteen hundreds, when the magazine was in its prime? Or is it a veiled criticism of the plots, which has the hero engaged in a series of Queen Victoria's "little wars?"

It would help if I could recall something about the magazine. I dimly remember finding one copy in a cupboard in my grandmother's house when I was about seven years old. The only thing I retain is the title of one of the stories: "From the Gutter to the Quarter Deck - The Story of a Lad of Grit." I am fairly sure I didn't read it, for I do recall wondering if Grit was a place in Yorkshire or Lancashire or was the tale about a statue that came to life...?

You will take the inference. I am uneasy about being linked to this kind of stuff - however kindly the reference is meant. Say that I have been influenced by Kipling, Rider Haggard or even G.H.Henty and I will blushingly acquiesce. But bloody old Boys Own Paper....! Is there anyone out there who has actually read a copy?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Getting Into It

So, you are in a book shop, you are browsing along the shelves and you've found a book that interests you. The cover has attracted you and the title intrigued. The price is within budget and the author is already liked by you or, at least, is someone whom you've always felt you should read.

What makes you buy it or stick it back onto the shelf?

For me, it's the intro. No, not the blurb on the fly leaf, the quotes from reviews of previous books by the same author, or the "let me be your father/mother" picture of the poor mutt who has written the thing, but rather his/her first few words of the story. From that introduction (or intro, as we old newspaper hacks used to call the first sentence or paragraph), I feel I can usually judge whether I want to invest in the book.

As a result, I usually deploy a quite disproportionate time and effort in constructing the first paragraph of my novels. I suspect that that is quite true of most other authors too and I feel that I can usually tell those who don't. Certainly, some great intro's have become classical cliches, viz:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"... A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)

"Last night I dreamed I went again to Manderlay"... Rebecca (du Maurier)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single
man in possession of a good fortune must be in want
of a wife"... Pride and Prejudice (Austen)

Of course I don't aspire to that greatness (and I think that the immortal Jane wouldn't get away with that sort of intro in these chick-lit days) but I try to discipline myself to begin each Fonthill story by putting the reader directly into the action. It doesn't always work. I couldn't really make it click in the opening to The Guns of El Kebir - you can't exactly slip in a bit of mouthwatering action at a breakfast table in Brecon - but I particularly liked the scene setting at the beginning of The Diamond Frontier and also for The Siege of Khartoum. But I may well be wrong.

Let me know what you think.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Turning the Pages...

My apologies for the interruption in blog service. I decided to go to South Africa after all to research "Matabele," my next Simon Fonthill novel (still working title only - other options: "Black Blades," "Black Spears," "Matabele Rising," Matabele Crossing," and, in desperation, "Fred" or even "Thelma"). Funcked going into Zimbabwe, the old Matabeleland, because of the cholera threat so we sniffed around the borders of that country with Mpumalanga (Transvaal in old money) to get a feel for flora and fauna and then dug out further facts about Cecil John Rhodes in Cape Town. It turned out to be worth the trip after all, even if one of the ladies in the special books section of the National Library of South Africa had never heard of the great C.J !

So I guess here I am, back in the UK, still droning on about the value of research for a writer of historical fiction. In this context, I have to confess that the couple of days I spent in the basement of London Library before flying out were just as valuable - and a touch less expensive! - than the trip to the bottom of Africa. In every novel I had written, I have thanked the staff of this splendid institution but I cannot resist singing its praises again here.

Founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, it remains a private library mainly, I guess, for scholars and writers although, given a low waiting list, anyone can join if he/she can afford it. It is now, in fact, not inexpensive at just under £400 per annum, having just hoiked its membership fee to pay for a much needed extension to its present premises. But it remains worth every penny to me for two reasons.

Firstly, one can take out as many books as one likes and keep them for as long as one likes, subject to them not being required by other members. This is important in terms, not only of being able to have reference books at one's elbow during the writing, but also for the convenience of having them handy for help in answering editor's questions after the MS has been submitted. Secondly, unlike many conventional libraries, the L.L. has a precious collection of old books, many of them written in "my" period, the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This means that one can assimilate opinions and received wisdom of the time, but also receive an osmotical feel for the language of 1880's England, or wherever, even if only in literary form.

There is another, more abstract and personal pleasure, however, to be experienced by visiting this tall, thin building in St James's Square. For an ex-hack like myself, it is a thrill to be allowed to enter the basement and turn the pages of "The Times" of the day; not, mind you, a micro-fische copy but the actual pages, the news sheets of 1888, or whatever.

I write "news sheets" but the dear old Times presumably didn't want to shock its readers by using such a tabloid term. So the news pages were referred to as "Intelligence." Of course, it is hard work at first in wading through the slabs of copy: narrow columns, few cross headings and, certainly, no pictures or engravings. But one soon gets used to that. The problem for me in trying to find a reference to the invasion of Matabeleland by Rhodes's column of "pioneers," lay in the distraction provided by a series of fascinating little news (sorry, "Intelligence") snippets. For instance, under the heading "Singing On the March," a Mr Dallas asked the Secretary of State for Ireland in the House whether he was aware that the police engaged upon eviction duty on the Oliphant Estate, Donegal, on the 19th and 20th of June in 1890 sang "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" on their march back to their barracks every evening . The Minister replied that he found the practice to be perfectly respectable and saw no reason to change it.

Yes, I know. Small things for small minds, but they amused me. I must own that it became a pleasure for me merely to turn the pages of this solemn newspaper of long ago: heavy newsprint, creamy in colour and slightly pink for some reason at the edges. They slumped over and landed with a satisfying clunk on the page before. Ah, the simple pleasure of the researcher...!

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Take cover!

When I first began writing, I thought that content was by far the most important component of a book. The story, the words, were the thing, weren’t they? I took what I hope was an enlightened interest in the jackets of my books but did not worry too much if I felt that, perhaps, they fell a bit short of the mark. They were the responsibility of my publishers. They must know what they are doing.

And, of course, they did. The cover of “The Horns of the Buffalo,” my first novel, was produced with original art work, showing the young Fonthill thrusting his bayonet on the end of his accurately drawn Martini-Henry rifle at a Zulu over the mealie bags at Rorke’s Drift. The covers of the next three books in the series, however, reproduced paintings of the famous actions depicted in the story. They were good, strong reproductions, recording fragments of the battles…but reproductions for all that and, somehow, pictorial clich├ęs. But I didn’t make a fuss. I was a writer, not a designer.

Then, blessedly, Headline decided that we needed a change. For the paperback edition of “The Guns of El Kebir,” the hardback cover of a Victorian painting was dropped and replaced by a stark symbol of a khaki coloured, cloth covered pith helmet, with a bullet tear in its front, against the background of a British trooper on a camel in the far distance, atop a sand dune. You could smell dust and the heat of the desert. The cover of “The Siege of Khartoum” is equally iconic: the face of a Mahdi Dervish – or is it Fonthill in disguise? – swathed in his headdress, with only the cruel eyes showing, while in the background a British redcoat kneels, his rifle at the ready. Too early to say what effect this cover has had, of course, but sales of the paperback “Guns” have undoubtedly leaped. Who said you can’t tell a book by its cover?