Friday, 16 December 2011

Bloody bronchitis

I have bronchitis. Now I know that this news is not up there on a par with the recent doings of the leaders of the European Union, nor even of the latest twist in Katie Price's love life. But, damnit, it has taken over my existence at the moment.

Any fool can have bronchitis, of course, but mine is PARTICULARLY INTERESTING and I feel I must share its fascinating details with you.

This is noisy bronchitis. Noisy, that is in two ways. There is the conventional rasping wheezing, coughing and expectoration (ordinary people spit; authors expectorate), which is so painful and debilitating. But my bronchitis has a very distinctive voice of its own, which emerges when I put my head on the pillow at night and desperately try to sleep.

You see, across my lungs and inside my chest there is coiled a serpent. It has two voices: an initial and constant bubbling kind of rasping murmur just to show you that it is there and and hates you. It is sufficient to keep you awake. Then, just when you think you might be drifting away, the second emerges.

This is when the serpent lifts its head from its coils and decides to strike. This is a manevolent hiss that precedes the slash upwards into the throat which brings on, suddenly and viciously, the bout of frenzied coughing.

Fanciful? Not at two a.m. it isn't, when you are all alone in the blackness
of the night and the terrors press in. Mind you, perhaps this is a form of bronchitis that only writers get. Creativity gone mad, do you think? Nah. Can't be. It's too real.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Swindon hears about Fonthill

Those of you out there who follow the doings of Simon Fonthill, Jenkins, Alice and Co and who live within a spit or so of Swindon in North Wiltshire might care to know that I will be talking about them all at Highworth Library on Monday evening (5th Dec) at 7.30.

The talk is entitled "The Pitfalls and Pleasures of Writing Historical Fiction" but I will dig a bit into how these characters were created and developed. Everyone is welcome (no charge)and the address is Highworth Library, Brewery Street, Highworth, Swindon (just off the A419).

Do come and shout "Rubbish" from the back of the hall.

Monday, 28 November 2011


I am feeling distinctly sad about the Thomas Cook saga. You will know that the famous old company - Britain's second biggest tour operator - is virtually broke. It has net debts of £1billion, is said to be spending £30million a month and its share price has collapsed. It has gained a day or two of breathing space by negotiating a £200 million loan from its banks, so the word is that it will get through the crucial January holiday booking period. But its mid and long term future looks shaky.

I am sorry not because I depend upon the company for getting me about the planet, but because it played a not insignificant part in Britain's imperial history about which, some of you may have noticed, I rather like to write.

When, in 1896 Kitchener was planning his invasion of the Sudan to attack the Dervishes in Khartoum, way up river in the south, it was to Thomas Cook that he turned to take his supplies down the Nile to feed his advancing army. Without Cook's famous river steamers he would not have been able to fight the Mahdi's army at Omdurman two years later.

Sad that such a once important company is struggling in these hard times. Lord Kitchener of Khartoum must be turning in his watery grave.

Friday, 18 November 2011


These are the keyprints of a happy chap. Happy because my old mate Simon Fonthill is riding again. I have just left him at the end of Chapter One of the ninth Fonthill adventure, he having escaped the clutches of the famous Boer commando leader Christian de Wet, with Alice, Jenkins and their black tracker, Mzingeli, and boarded a British armoured train in the Orange Free State in late September 1900.

Yes. It's the Boer war - the second, because loyal readers will remember that Fonthill & Co fought in the first Anglo-Boer War, then called the Transvaal War, which ended in 'Last Stand on Majuba Hill.'

In fact, it should be admitted that the trio have been back for some time, having gone through the perils of the Boxer Rebellion in China in the eight novel, 'The War of the Dragon Lady,' which will hit the bookstalls in hard back in January and then in paperback the following September.

But for me I only know that the intrepid army scout - poor horseman, indifferent shot but inventive opponent of all enemies of Queen Victoria in so many of her 'little wars' of the last quarter of the nineteenth century - is alive again when I write about him. And it is good to have his company once more.

This novel (working title, which won't survive, is 'Commando!') is due out early in 2013. I am already saddle sore.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


This blog doesn't usually wash its feet in the dirty water of politics - particularly those of another country. But it did recently bewail the rise of Rick Perry as favourite in the Republican race for nomination as US president, pointing out how unwise it was to tread in the footsteps of his Texam predecessor, the Great George W.

How satisfying, then, to read that Perry has now so quickly fallen away in the nomination stakes, following disclosures that as Texas Governor he lured subprime mortgage lenders to his state only to have to bail them out with $35 of taxpayers money.

Ah, the power of a blog! I really must see what I can do to bring down other despots: Mugabe, Putin, George Osborne, perhaps?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


Gloom and misery everywhere. The economies of Britain, the USA and the Eurozone are in deep trouble; the war in Afghanistan shows no sign of ending; Britain's MI5 is accused of complicity with America in the systematic torturing of terrorist suspects; thousands are awaiting sentencing following our recent riots; and President Obama's chances of re-election next year seem to be falling as fast as the stock markets.

Viewed from this side of the pond, the Republican party in the States seems to be in the ascendant. Desite the fact that no clear leader has emerged to take on the President next year, the right wing is chortling at the way it humbled Obama over the threat of a default on the nation's debts. Each of the putative Republican candidates seem to be jostling to appear more xenophobic than the rest. Tea cups are rattling all over the mid-West.

Now, would you believe it, the latest front-runner, Rick Perry, is Governor of Texas, he looks and sounds like his great forebear in the job, George W. Bush and he even wears cowboy boots!! To this lover of the USA, it seems as if the world has gone mad. May I, then, in the spirit of comradeship, beg the voters of the great US to consider recent history.

When George W. moved into the White House in 2001, the USA had a two trillion dollar budget surplus. It even looked as if the national debt of 5.7 trillion dollars could be eliminated by the end of the decade. It's worth reflecting what this other, older, cowboy-booted Texan then did.

He cut taxes, reducing annual revenues by 1.8 trillion dollars. He declared a war on terror and set up two military invasions far from American shores, financing them entirely by borrowing. The wars and consequent increases in defence spending added 1.5 trillion dollars to the national debt. At the same time, he looked on serenely as Wall Street and the American Banks over-lent, so precipitating the Western financial crisis.

By the time he left office, Bush had squandered Clinton's surplus and nearly doubled the size of the debt, adding more to it than any president in American history.

It would surely be an exaggeration to blame the man for all of the ills listed in my first paragraph. One person can't be responsible for all that, can he? Or can he? I acquit George W of causing the onset of winter and the arthritis in my right knee. But for most of the rest, there's a smell of Texan denim clinging to it all.

The American electorate should think on it.

Monday, 18 July 2011


I never thought I would write these words, but here goes: I don't think that Rupert Murdoch should have closed down "The News of the World."

As an ex broadsheet journalist, I disliked the paper intensely and the recent revalations about telephone hacking and payments to the police merely confirmed my view that its news gathering was often unprincipled and its content usually cheap and poor journalistically. Shutting it down, however, seems to me to be a cynical attempt to divert attention from the projected BSkyB bid; throwing the paper to the pursuing wolves to save the occupants of the sledge.

As I understand it, the present staff of the newspaper are not accused of any wrongdoing. To throw them out of work, then, seems grossly unfair, even though Murdoch has stated that "most" of them are to be offered jobs elsewhere in his empire. And, crude and superficial as the NOTW's content always appeared to me, it was welcomed as an old friend into more homes in Britain than any other paper.

So I would have cleared out the stable but kept the horse alive - hunted down the original wrongdoers and those few who still existed in the newsroom and management corridors and passed them over to the investigating police. This old-established newspaper could have been scrubbed down and re-launched, keeping its title and most of its present staff and returning to honest news gathering, presented in vigorous tabloid style, and yes, studded with celebrity names for those who like that sort of tack.

The irony, of course, is that the sacrifice of the paper seems, on present evidence, to have been in vain. Murdoch has had to withdraw his bid for BSkyB in the face of public opposition, anyway.

His strategy now seems to be to lie low and hope that the fuss will die down so that he can make a renewed bid for control of the television channel later. Will it? Well, the old Aussie (though he gave up his nationality and became an American citizen just so that he could buy into American TV) remains a real live newsman with a flair for popular taste and opinion. He might just get away with it.

But he will have had the fright of his life. And a much loved piece of Sunday rubbish journalism will have disappeared from our week-end breakfast tables.

Thursday, 30 June 2011


A breif confirmation to all fans of Simon Fonthill, 352 Jenkins and the feisty Alice, that the next and eighth Fonthill adventure featuring the three will be published next January 2012 (in hardback, then in paperback the following September) by new publishers Allison and Busby. It's titled THE WAR OF THE DRAGON LADY and is set in the year 1900 against the background of the Boxer Febellion in China.

Why "The Dragon Lady"? Well, Tzui Hsi, the Empress Dowager of China, was sitting on the Manchu Throne in Peking at the turn of the century, having deposed her nephew, the Emperor, when the Rebellion broke out. The Boxers were a cult of young, uneducated peasants who blamed the foreigners living in their country for most of its ills at this time - including the drought in North China which had dried up the wells, irrigation channels and rivers and blighted the rice drop. They took their revenge particularly on the Christian missionaries who populated the villages, brutally murdering men, women and children.

The threat from the Boxers - so called because of their love of martial arts, which paradoxically did not include boxing - would probably have petered out had not the Empress seen in their uprising an excuse to wipe out the influential foreign barbarians encamped in her Empire. So she surreptitiously encouraged the rebels and then aided them with her army.

A once beautiful, third grade concubine, she was a formidable woman in her mid sixties with a porcelain complexion and long, curved fingernails. She had survived years of scheming in the tortuous world of Manchu politics and now possessed total power. Her frequent use of the death penalty earned her the subriquet "Dragon Lady" and she sat back and watched with equanimity in 1900 as the Boxers and her own soldiers laid siege to the Ministers of the foreign powers and their families trapped in the Legation Quarter in the heart of Peking.

Into this cauldron rides Simon Fonthill, his wife Alice and their servant "352" Jenkins, on a visit to Alice's uncle, a British missionary. I reckon their adventures during the rebellion provides one of the best yet Fontill stories.

But then I would, wouldn't I?

Sunday, 22 May 2011


A word or two to welcome the best bit of news that has come my way for years from the embattled British bookselling scene: Waterstone's is going to be run by a bloke who says that each shop in the chain will from now on "feel like your local bookstore, not part of a chain."

The new Managing Director of the 296-branch company is James Daunt, a former investment banker (shucks, we can forgive him that now) who created the highly successful London mini-chain, Daunt Books, 21 years ago. These six shops bucked the misery trend for High Street bookselling, with their cosy interiors, well informed staff and a policy of not heavily discounting to combat the internet.

The Russian mogul, Alexander Mamut, who has bought Waterstone's from HMV, used to pop into Daunt's Holland Park bookshop. He liked what he saw and immediately installed the individualist to run Britain's largest bookselling chain. Now Daunt says that his policy in running the company will be to turn each outlet into "high quality local bookstores."

With E-books still only representing five per cent of the market, he says: "My belief is that physical bookshops within the community have a real future if they're good enough; they are a very important part of the intellectual fabric of our lives, just as libraries are. I would be extremely disappointed if we were to close any."

Daunt adds that Waterstone's will now have more books to sell, following the stock starvation caused in recent years by HMV's financial difficulties.

So a warm wet kiss of welcome and a firm handshake to this feller from this particular hardworkin' novelist, who is tired of hearing gloomy news from the bookselling business. Don't be daunted, Mr Daunt. Go for it, lad!

Sunday, 20 March 2011


I have long known that there is a market out there for signed (but not dedicated!) first editions of my novels. Indeed, there are dealers who rush to buy the hardbacks as they come out and for whom I am more than happy to sign and write onto each title page a unique to them special line, such as "Meet Simon Fonthill," or "Charge the Guns."

On those rare occasions when I am suffering from Writer's Block (I am lucky that these really are rare moments - more than compensated, however, by my ever-present bad back and creaky knees), I go on-line and browse through Abebooks, the second hand book site, to see what my first editions are fetching on the market on that day.

At the moment, for instance, I see that PM Books, of St Clair Shores, MI, USA, is offering a signed first edition of my first novel "The Horns of the Buffalo" for £856.87. For an incomplete collection of my works, James N.Beal, of Toronto, Canada, is asking £951.87. This is all as thrilling, of course, as vicarious sex, in that I don't get a penny from these sales.

I am not, however, complaining about the existence of this strange and rather parasitic under-market. It is, after all, grist to the mill and hopefully does extend one's readership. But it has set me thinking about the new wave of electronic books and the lively debate about whether the Kindles will eventually lead to the demise of books as we know them.

I am left with one conclusion. These handy little readers must surely bring about the end of the signed, first edition trade. How can you sign a Kindle?

Tuesday, 8 March 2011


Just back from a brief holiday in the USA - it's most southern bit, Key West, which sticks out into the Carribean, or Gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic Ocean, depending on which way you face. I've returned with a jumble of impressions, as I always do when I come home across the Atlantic: the high standard of living (well, I was on holiday....), the warmth and friendliness of most Americans, the banality of the television programmes, the fact that their cars are now just the same size as ours, and so on.

This time, however, the most abiding impression was of size. Everyone seemed so fat! Bottoms overhung bar stools like bags of wheat, middle age paunches seemed to start with college school kids and seven out of ten women seemed to have legs of mutton for upper arms. Hotel beds only came in two sizes: king and queen. It seems you were expected to be fat.

The reason was easy to find. Food served in restaurants comes in gigantic proportions, or so it seemed to these two pick-at-it--and-move-it-around-the-plate Limeys. And, of course, convenience food was the easy option everywhere. Just like...well, just like Britain, really.

Indulgence, however, is a well-engrained American habit. This was brought home to me in the pretentious over-priced hotel we stayed in on Miami Beach (designed by a Brit, I'm afraid). What do you think of this for a room service dish: "Beef with sweet potatoes and cranberries; or wild caught salmon with sweet potatoes and blueberries; or chicken with carrots, peas and apples; to go with beefy brown ale or Green Planet bottled water?"

Unexceptional I hear you cry. But for dogs.....?

Ah well. I guess we should bite our lips and remember The Marshall Plan.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


Allow me to use this (very) intermittent blog to announce that my long standing hero, Simon Fonthill, together with his feisty wife, Alice, and old comrade "352" Jenkins, have found new foster parents.

After seven novels published by Hodder Headline - and a brief interregnum while I wrote other things - the trio will reappear in 2012 under the banner of Allison & Busby, equally well established London publishers.

Two novels in the series have been commissioned. The first, with the working title of THE WAR OF THE DRAGON LADY, will be set against the Boxer uprising and seige of Peking in the China of 1900 and will be published in hardback in January of 2012, followed by the paperback (and audio and large print) versions some six months later. The second, tentatively titled COMMANDO, will follow with a similar timetable in 2013.

How on earth can the world wait....?!