Saturday, 13 November 2010


I see that good old George W has published his memoirs. Did he, I wonder, write them himself? Or did he, like the Teapot Queen, get some minion to put his thoughts down on paper? We shall probably never know, but this question, burning as it is, is not what has driven me to create a rare blog. No, it is the ever present worry for an author that, somehow, in writing his story, he has committed plagiarism.

The question is prompted by the fact that the creators of Fela, the musical which has been wowing 'em on Broadway and which is shortly to open at London's National Theatre, are being sued by writer Carlos Moore for three million pounds. He claims that large chunks of his biography of the Nigerian muscician Fela Kuti were nicked in conceiving the musical.

The courts will have to decide whether the claim is true - ah yes, more money for the lawyers! - and the accusation of lifting "entire portions" of the book would, one would think, take the case out of the realms of accidential plagiarism. It is this area, however, which poses problems for the honest author, particularly the writer of historical fiction.

In thinking about the Fella case, my thoughts went back to my recent re-reading of the Kipling classic story Kim. It is, without a doubt, the best novel that the old Indian Hand ever wrote and, apart from its intrinsic value as a rattling good story, it paints a wonderfully vivid picture of the North West Frontier in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. As a result, I read it, along with many other books, when I was researching the period and the territory for my Fonthill novel, The Road to Kandahar.

Dipping into the old classic the other day my eye was caught by a simple but evocative Kipling phrase, "they rode above the bold birches that signalled, as though with a ruler, the end of the flora and fauna...." It sounded familiar. In fact, it sounded dreadfully familiar. Turning to the hard back version of Road, I found it reproduced on page 250, almost word for word.

Had I deliberately copied it from Kim? Surely not - even if the great novel was out of copyright and the Kipling Estate would have been rather unlikely to have sued. No. Somehow the phrase, exactly right for what Kipling was describing, had lodged in my mind and I had trotted it out, as, I thought, freshly burnished from my own imagination.

Perhaps we all do it subconsciously. I only hope that the creators of Fella have as innocent a defence...

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


I have just got rid of that monkey that has sat on my back for...ooh, decades, I guess. The little devil sat heavily there, for that long, whispering into my ear: "Write about the first world war, you wanker. You talk about it often enough. Write a bloody novel..."

So I have.

It's called STARSHINE and it's weighed in at just over 112,000 words. Not, of course, a novel in the Fonthill series - there are at least another two of these, set firstly in the Boxer Rebellion of China and, secondly, in the second Boer War, waiting to be written. No, this one is different and set firmly in what we used to call the Great War.

As I have described in earlier blogs, the experience in those muddy, bloody trenches of my father and his six brothers has haunted me for so long. But my thoughts stayed with Simon Fonthill in those "little wars" of Queen Victoria in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and I had to put those into words first. But now STARSHINE is born.

The title (it may be changed, of course) refers to the starshells that climbed into the skies at night above No Man's Land. For those soldiers who patrolled nocturnally in that dangerous ground between the trenches, the shells were a signal to freeze in case their light revealed them to the enemy machine gunners. For a time, then, those seconds when the lightshells broke and illuminated the battlefield brought the war to a halt. No one moved. For one of my two heroes, the highly sensitive Bertie Murphy, it was God intervening to stop the killing for just a few seconds.

The story switches between the back streets of Aston, Birmingham, where Polly waits for her two lovers to return, to the mud of the Somme and the dreaded Ypres Salient.

It now lies throbbing on the desk of my editor at Hodder Headline. It may die there - times are bad in the publishing industry. We shall see. But the monkey is off my back at last!

Monday, 17 May 2010

An autobiography yet....!

Alas, I am a very infrequent blogger. My latest excuse is that I have been very heavy with child. My latest offspring has now been produced: a bouncing, bonny autobiography called 'BOMBS AND BETTY GRABLE.' It is produced by the small but beautifully rounded publishers in the Midlands of the UK called Brewin Books Ltd; it is a largish paperback and being given away at the ridiculous retail price of £12.95.

Why the hell should anyone want to read the story of my life? Good question and I'm glad I thought of it. Ah yes - the answer.

Well. it tells the story of a lad growing up in the back streets of Birmingham during the last war, dodging the German bombs but pledging his undying love for an iconic Betty Grable, and then succeeding as a journalist and businessman, before surviving the greatest tragedy of his life and then becoming a novelist.

I'd like to feel that it gives an insight to the war years and to the growth, earlier, of a great industrial city, but I am hopeful also that it's a tale of love, humour and personal struggle, with one or two fascinating characters emerging to make it not at all a 'me, me' book.

How on earth can you resist it? And it does give a damned good excuse for not having written a blog for two months or more!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Too Much Blood and Guts?

Readers of this alas too infrequent blog will know that I have decided to make a temporary departure from the adventures of Simon Fonthill & Co in the Victorian wars of the late nineteenth century to write a different novel, set against the background of the first world war.

Much of the action will take place in the killing field that lay to the east of the little Belgian town of Ypres. For four years it was known simply as The Salient as the Allies (mainly British) faced - uphill - superior German forces. In an area of probably no more than six square miles, the shells rained down as first one side, then the other, gained territorial supremacy.

The result was that the battleground became a quagmire, with, often, the British front line consisting only of a series of water-filled craters linked only by a few yards of deep mud. The misery of fighting in these conditions was compounded by constant rifle and machine gun fire, of course, but the main horror was caused by the constant shell fire that fell from the heights held by the Germans.

My reading of eye witness accounts of these events has produced some terrifying anecdotes that seem to be almost beyond belief. An advancing Tommy, for instance, saw his comrade sliced horizontally in half by a razor sharp shell fragment and watched in terror as the disembodied legs of his pal continued to march on for at least five paces before folding and falling to the ground. Even more disturbing was the experience of a section, also advancing across No Man's Land, who skirted a shell-hole at the bottom of which was a British infantryman caught up to his waist in mud. As they watched, he struggled to free himself only to sink further into the slime. The tried and failed to rescue him and, as the mud advanced up his body, he pleaded with them to shoot him. But no-one could bring himself to do so and eventually, heads down, they were forced to leave him, his screams sounding even above the gun fire as they trudged away.

To include or reject these horror stories? I have always believed in basing stories of combat on fact, but this sort of fact does seem beyond belief and one doesn't want to be accused of over-writing - of pouring on the agony - something of which even that splendid writer Bernard Cornwell can be accused (his Agincourt made me wince).

Yet war has to be portrayed in all its inglory if a writer is true to himself and the period about which he writes. So these and other, similar incidents, are going in. What do you think?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010


Can I (mis)use my blog to thank those blog followers who have sent in messages of support, not only for these ramblings but also for the novels and who have not attached their e-mail addresses, thus preventing me from replying directly. So: cheers to Thomas Baxter, John Lister, Allan and Bruce Bisbery.

Saturday, 23 January 2010


'A book signed is a book sold,' my publishers told me in the early days. Probably not true, just a bit of bull**** that was given out to new authors to get 'em to get out there and help sell their books. Anyway, I believed them and have always dutifully trotted along whenever asked to bookshops to sign my latest.

At first I dreaded it. What if nobody turned up? How would it be to sit there like a lemon under a large poster alongside a pile of hardbacks, only to be ignored (and probably pitied) by shoppers who hurried by on their way to purchase the latest Robert Harris?

Well, it did feel embarrassing, I must confess. But let me also confess - now I don't mind a bit.

The reasons are two fold. Firstly, now that I have become more established, there actually are dear, sweet readers who make a special journey just to buy the latest Fonthill and have me give a dedication under the title. So, usually, I no longer sit there on my own like some indoor version of those strange folk who paint themselves gold and stand all day stock still on street corners. I have company.

But even if I fail to move many books, I find myself enjoying the experience. And that's because people are SO friendly. Perhaps the British are losing some of their reserve, but I do find now that folk like to come and chat about books, even if they don't buy. As a result, I am able to bridge to some extent that awful gap that exists between the lonely author, bashing away at the computer on his own, and the punters out there who love books.

I have learned some, at least, of the likes, dislikes, prejudices and loyalties of readers and, while it might be going too far to say that this has influenced my work, I do feel that my outlook on writing has been informed.

So, if you do see me in Waterstones one day, sitting at the door like the proverbial lemon, do come and pass the time of day, even if you call me Mr Harris.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Mud and Bravery

My novels in the Simon Fonthill series have all been set in the last quarter of the nineteenth century but I must confess that it is the first world war that has always haunted me. It was, perhaps, too vast a setting and also too well tramelled by other writers for me to venture into it. Yet that bloody conflict has hung over me and my family for as long as I can remember and left too many ghosts, all of them inviting me to step onto the capes that they trail in the mud.

Ghosts like my Uncle Alfred, who won the Victoria Cross near Armentieres; Uncle Ernest, an acting Regimental Sergeant Major at nineteen "because there was nobody else left," who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal; and Uncle Bernard, who lost an eye and gained the Military Medal. My own father, Leonard Wilcox, went over the top as an infantry sergeant on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme and eventually died in 1945 of the wounds sustained that day. (Vanity always compels me to explain that although I am old I an not that ancient in that my father fought as a very young man but was comparatively old when I was born.)

So the time has come, I feel, to leave the red coats and pith helmets of "Queen Victoria's Little Wars" and accept the challenge of World War I. As a result, I leave at the end of the month for Belgium to tread the soil of what was, with Verdun, probably the most fought-over killing field in the whole of the war.

Of the million men killed in the Western Front in the Great War, a quarter of a million perished in the few square miles just to the east of the charming little textile town of Ypres, just across the border from France. The front line there bulged out and deflated regularly as counter attack followed attack for nearly four years. That bulge was commanded by the German guns on the ridges to the east of the town and there was no shelter nor escape from their shells. "The Salient," as it became known, became a graveyard and under its present day farms and woods lie the undiscovered bodies of some 40,000 men who fell and who died - many of them by drowning - in the mud.

The conflict seemed unending and included three major battles. The third of them, in 1917. was called Passchendaele. It was fought in rain that turned the trenches, shell holes and no-man's-land into a quagmire that sucked to their deaths men, mules and horses.

So it against this remarkable background that I intend to set my next novel - perhaps to lay
those family ghosts and, if I'm good enough, to pay them proper tribute. Fonthill and Co I must leave for a while as they cross the Zambesi into Matabeleland. I hope they will be back (the Boxer Rebellion maybe and then the second and best remembered Boer War?), but for the present it's a long long way to Passchendaele.