Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Telegraphs and semaphores

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece about the news of Napoleon's escape from Elba reaching Paris. I quoted from the journal of one of the French king's bodyguards, Col Marie Antoine de Reiset:
An astounding piece of news arrived yesterday. We learnt, by Telegraph, that Bonaparte had landed at Cannes, near Frejus.
Somebody commented on the blog to say that this had to be a mistake, as the telegraph had not yet been invented. The first commercial electric telegraph was installed on the Great Western Railway in 1838 and it was used on many railways built in the UK in the second half of the 19th century. However, at the same time Samuel Morse was developing his own electronic telegraph. He patented his electric telegraph in 1837. His system used the dots and dashes of Morse Code, rather than moving needles to point to letters of the alphabet as the British system did, and the speed with which telegraphists could code messages meant that it came to dominate electric telegraphy.

I was concerned about the obvious error and went back to look at the quote again. I had not seen the original source (it came from the University of Warwick's excellent site on the Hundred Days) but Anthony Brett-James' book on the Hundred Days, which uses eye-witness accounts, also refers to the news coming by telegraph.

So what's going on?

The answer is in the word 'electric' slipped in before 'telegraph' when referring to Samuel Morse's invention. A check in the trusty Complete Oxford Dictionary (invaluable for historical novelists) gives the original meaning of the word 'telegraph' as: "An apparatus for transmitting messages to a distance, usually by signs of some kind. ... The name was first applied to that invented by Chappe in France in 1792, consisting of an upright post with movable arms, the signals being made by various positions of the arms according to a pre-arranged code."

In Britain, semaphore was used to communicate between London and the fleet. (Note that the English tend to prefer the word 'semaphore' to 'telegraph' but they are the same thing.) Lines of semaphore towers were constructed. The first ran from London to Deal, Chatham and Sheerness and they were completed by the end of January 1796. The system was judged a great success - signals were said to have travelled from Dover to London, via Deal, in less than seven minutes. A line to Portsmouth, the home of the Navy, was completed in August 1796.

Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower

Semaphore can actually prove a remarkably efficient means of communication. Because of the importance of accurate time-keeping in navigation, it was important that the fleet had access to a reliable time signal and semaphore was used to mark the time at which the Time Ball was dropped at the Greenwich Observatory (marking one o'clock). By 1806, the semaphore line had been extended to Plymouth and the one o'clock signal was sent to the port there and acknowledged back to London in three minutes, an impressive achievement for a round trip of four hundred miles.

The semaphore system was envisaged as a war-time measure, to be abandoned after the defeat of Napoleon and, indeed, it was run down as soon as he was sent to Elba. Napoleon's escape, though, led to the system being restored to full effectiveness and it was then kept running until it was superseded by the electric telegraph.

The history of the telegraph, then, plays an important role in the history underpinning two of my books. In 'Burke at Waterloo', the original telegraph brought the news of Napoleon's return to Paris, while the electric telegraph arrived in India just in time to allow the British to communicate across the sub-continent during the 1857 Mutiny. It was telegraph messages that warned the British as soon as the uprising started (the operator who sent the first message was killed for his pains) and without it, events may well have turned out differently and 'Cawnpore' might have had a very different ending.

Photo credit: "Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower - geograph.org.uk - 18673" by Nigel Richardson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chatley_Heath_Semaphore_Tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_18673.jpg#/media/File:Chatley_Heath_Semaphore_Tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_18673.jpg

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Sheep in the City

Every so often I blog here about something completely random. It usually ends up being tango. This time, though, it isn't.

I thought it would be fun to share something of the amazing day I had on Saturday.

London does keep generating strange but fun new stuff to do. For a few years now, there have been regular events where artists and celebrities design sculptures on a theme and these are dotted around London. Eventually the sculptures are auctioned off and money is generated for the charity. Meanwhile, Londoners enjoy some eccentric new street art.

At the moment, London is playing host to various incarnations of Shaun the Sheep, a character from the popular Wallace and Grommit 'claymation' films. The people who make the films have set up their own charity for children in hospital and that's where the money's going. (You can make your own donation HERE.) The sculptures are scattered here and there but 48 of the 50 are in the centre of town, mainly clustered in some of the main tourist areas. So an afternoon walking round some of them is a nice way to visit some of the more attractive parts of the capital. Lots of people seem to be doing that and the people who put the whole thing together have produced four walks to encourage people to see some of them in an afternoon's stroll

Of course, if you were to do them on skates, you could see all 48 in a few hours.

Let's start in Trafalgar Square.

Yes, Shaun the sheep as Nelson with the column in the background.

And this one is practically next door.

Trafalgar Square is a nice central meeting point and from there we went to Leicester Square, where the sheep seem to come in pairs.


And on to Chinatown ...

... Covent Garden ...

... Tower Bridge ...

... and the Tower of London. There are two sheep at the Tower. One, quite properly, is a Beefeater, though you can hardly see him for skater fans.


St Paul's seems to have a whole flock of Shauns.

In Paternoster Square, next to the cathedral, Shaun has been joined by some other, rather posher, sheep. (The sheep that aren't Shaun are a sculpture by Dame Elizabeth Frink, which made for the original Paternoster Square in 1975 and mounted in this spot when the new square was developed.)
Not Shaun
Some of the sheep are sheltering from the English weather and hiding indoors. (Saturday was a beautiful day, but there has been some rotten weather lately.) At Hamleys an excitable greeter at the door was desperate for us all to pile inside, and we were happy to oblige.

Amazingly, the other places which sheltered the Shauns were all remarkably tolerant of a whole bunch of skaters invading their premises.

The British Film Institute

At Ripleys Believe it or Not (Piccadilly)
Barbican Centre

Several of the sheep that were not in especially iconic locations reflected famous aspects of London life. There was a guardsman (guards-sheep, I suppose, really)

... a Chelsea Pensioner ...

... and a Pearly King.


These were some of the highlights. Obviously there were more.

Many, many more ...

I had some notion of maybe putting up photographs of all the sheep we saw that afternoon, but I kept falling asleep. Looks like if you want to see them all, you'll have to take yourselves to town and visit them there.

Shaun in the City runs until 31 May.

(Thanks to Aymeric Figureau, Anna Himiona, Peter Carr, Geoff Yang, Jacek Kustyk, and Muhayman Jamil for the photographs.)

Monday, 18 May 2015

James Burke: the story so far

Last week saw the publication of 'Burke at Waterloo'. It's the third book in the 'His Majesty's Confidential Agent' series. (Hereabouts we refer to them as 'the Burke books' but that's not their official name, for fairly obvious reasons.) Our hero, James Burke, was a real person and his first adventure ('Burke in the Land of Silver') was based on a true story. The other two are written around actual events, but Burke's role in them is entirely fictional. It's given me more of a free hand in developing James Burke as a sort of cross between Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe and Ian Fleming's James Bond. The stories aren't really written in order (there's quite a long time gap in the middle of the first book and the adventures in the second one fill that gap) and you don't have to read them in order. But I did realise the other day that if you buy all three on Kindle, you can get them for a whisker under £5.($7.65 in the US.) That's a quarter of a million words of Napoleonic adventure for £4.97. You'd be mad not to, really.

Anyway, her's what you get for your £4.97.

Burke in the Land of Silver (originally published as 'His Majesty's Confidential Agent')

James Burke is sent to South America to prepare for a British invasion. (We're not that keen on the Spanish at the time.) All goes well until the British occupy Buenos Aires and, instead of allying with the locals, start treating them slightly worse than the Spaniards had. Burke's attempts to negotiate a British withdrawal end with him in front of a firing squad.

There's more double-dealing, wild women and political intrigue than you could ever make up. A thrilling tale from a time when the world was in turmoil and a few good men (or, I'm afraid, quite often bad men) could change the course of history.

Burke and the Bedouin 

In 1798, there were rumours that the French might be planning an expedition to Egypt. James Burke is despatched by the British Secret Service to see if there is any evidence of French activity in the country. Irritated by what he thinks will turn out a wild goose chase, Burke is far more interested in the fate of Bernadita, the Spanish girl he finds imprisoned as a slave in Cairo, than he is in improbable French agents. Then, fleeing with Bernadita, he stumbles across the French plot.

The race is on to stop Napoleon and Burke sets in motion a train of events that ends in one of the great naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars.

The Review described 'Burke and the Bedouin' as "an entertaining light read", which is good, because that's what I set out to write. The history is solid, though, (and the Historical Novel Society likes the battle scenes).

Burke at Waterloo

If you write stories set in the Napoleonic Wars, it's the law that you have to do Waterloo. 18 June is the 200th anniversary of the battle, so now seemed a good time to have Burke there at Napoleon's downfall.

Burke is sent to Paris where Bonapartists are plotting the assassination of the Duke of Wellington. (For some reason, the history books tend to neglect this, but they really were.) Having foiled their dastardly plans (spoiler: the Duke of Wellington survives), Burke pursues their leader to Brussels where people are far too busy celebrating the peace to think that Napoleon is still a threat to Europe.

Then the Corsican Tyrant flees Elba and everything changes.

As Wellington arrives in Brussels and Europe prepares once again for war, Burke is at the centre of affairs. And his own mission and the fight against Napoleon both come to a bloody climax on the field of Waterloo.

Paul Collard (author of the Jack Lark series) said of this book,"This really is historical fiction as it should be written."

What reviewers have said about James Burke

"James Bond in breeches, this novel (and others in the series) should satisfy fans of the era and the Sharpe novels." Laura Wilkinson on Amazon

"... exciting, clear, fast moving and so interesting about the history and geography of the time" on Amazon

"Tom Williams brings Burke and his adventures in South America to vivid life through telling but never intrusive detail" on Amazon

"Great swashbuckling fun!" on Amazon

Monday, 11 May 2015

Buy my book. With money.

The harsh realities of publishing economics have led to a lot of angst and breast-beating amongst writers lately. Last month, the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society claimed that the median income of professional writers was £11,000. Cue howls of anguish from would-be novelists complaining that the world was unfair to their creative genius.

I think I might be forgiven for joining in. Burke at Waterloo will be available on Amazon from Thursday. I started writing it just over a year ago and, during that year, I’ve read a lot of modern and 19th century accounts of the battle and books and papers about the background to it. I’ve visited military museums in Winchester and Paris and been to a two-day conference on Waterloo at Sandhurst. I’ve corresponded with an expert on 19th-century firearms and had long discussions about the speed of travel by horse in this period. I've worked with two editors and a proofer. A cover designer has put on a beautiful cover and the whole thing has been set so that it can be enjoyed electronically or as a paperback book. I don't know exactly how much the book will be selling for, but the two previous Burke books cost less than £2 each on Kindle. I’ll leave it to you to work out how much of that comes to me and what that equates to per hour of work.

So, yes, I agree that the world is unfair. On the other hand, it's probably rather more unfair to a lot of other people than to the essentially comfortably middle-class educated types who are ever going to see their words in print. And nobody, after all, was ever chained to a word processor and told that they couldn't work in a hospital or factory but they must, instead, suffer the indignity of writing for a living. It's a sobering thought, nonetheless, that you can go online and buy the result of a year’s worth of my effort for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Of course, even a small payment per book sold will give me a decent income (though probably not £11,000) if I sell quite a lot of them. But in this incredibly crowded marketplace, how do I do that? One option that many writers take is to promote their books by giving them away either free or at artificially low prices (yes, apparently, £1.99 isn't artificially low). This has led to further cries of pain, partly because you don't make any money out of a book that is given away for nothing, but also because many writers feel that this devalues the worth of their novels and hence, by extension, their writing and themselves.

I think the first thing to do is to separate out two different aspects of the question. The first is: does it make economic sense to give books away? The answer here is that it’s a commercial decision. I am published by one of the UK’s larger independent publishers (Accent Press) and they decide on how to price and promote my books. One reason I don’t self-publish is that I suspect that they know more about the commercial realities of publishing than I do, so I leave it to them. I don’t like seeing my hard work given away for nothing, but if they think that they’re setting a sprat to catch a mackerel (gosh, I haven’t heard anyone say that in a while) then I’m happy to sacrifice the odd sprat.

The second question is: are writers undervaluing themselves by pricing their books cheaply? This isn’t just a problem for writers. Musician friends are always posting on Facebook to complain that they are asked to play gigs for ludicrously low fees or even for no money at all. Unfortunately, in a capitalist free market things are worth what people are prepared to pay for them and, alas, people are not prepared to pay sensible amounts of money for books. I have a friend who has said that she is happy to read my books and happy to buy me a drink when she sees me, but she's not prepared to pay the price of a drink to buy her own copy of the book. Electronic publishing and piracy have made books into something that many people simply think should come without a price tag. Paying for books (like paying for music) has become something that a lot of people nowadays just don't do.

It seems that if writers want to feel valued, they are going to have to measure their worth in terms other than cold hard cash. Which, in many ways, is fair enough. Writers get fan letters (yes, even me). They get to read reviews where people publicly praise their work to the world at large and how many other jobs is that true of? They do something that they chose to do, which is personally fulfilling and which still commands a degree of respect from people at parties. Do they really need money too?

Well, for many people, the answer is clearly, ‘Yes.’ As Shakespeare asked, in another context: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? … If you poison us, do we not die?’ And, more to the point, if you neglect to feed us, do we not starve to death? For most people, earning a living is something they just have to do. This means that writing is increasingly the preserve of the old (living off their life savings) and the privileged (living off the backs of the poor – or a loving spouse). There are, of course, dedicated souls who do all their writing after an honest day’s work, but they don’t tend to have fulfilling full-time jobs, or families, or, indeed, lives.

Does it matter if writers are drawn from a small section of society? Does it matter if the young and the poor don’t get to write? Given that writers are all slightly mad anyway, is it a concern that most people with a family and a full-time job wouldn’t be able to write, even if they wanted to?

Perhaps it should. Perhaps a vibrant culture should represent everyone, not just those privileged to be in a position to put in the hours it takes to produce a decent book.

So what should we do? We could give state subsidies to writers, but in countries where this happens, the State almost inevitably ends up telling writers what they should write.

One approach used in the UK in the past was the Net Book Agreement. This was essentially a price-fixing agreement so that you just weren’t able to buy cheap books. If you wanted a book, you had to pay what the publishers had agreed was a reasonable price – an amount that authors could live on.

I think life has moved on since those days. Such an assault on the values of the free market would not be tolerated in 2015. Nor was it without its problems in the days when it operated. The abolition of the Net Book Agreement led to a collapse in book prices which has meant far more reading. More people buying more books is surely a good thing and I think it's sad when authors, desperate for some way to keep a reasonable income stream, espouse a cause which will reduce the amount of reading happening in the country.

I’m assuming that if you’ve got this far you think that reading is a good thing. You probably think that the government should support the arts more. You like public libraries. You agree that something should be done! But what?

Here’s an idea. Remember way back at the beginning of this post, when I said that if I sold a lot of books, even at a low cover price, I’d make enough money to make it worthwhile? That goes for other writers too. So if you care about the future of writing in the UK, next week (and every week thereafter) just forgo one cup of coffee (or one pint of beer, or one jumbo chocolate bar) and spend the money on a book. Think of it as your contribution to culture.

It doesn’t have to be my book – but make it something that isn’t a best seller (that charmed circle are the only authors who don’t need the money). You don’t even have to read it, though you may be pleasantly surprised if you do.

Burke at Waterloo will be published on Thursday.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Pawing and scraping: a taster from 'Burke at Waterloo'

'Burke at Waterloo' climaxes, unsurprisingly, at the eponymous battle. Burke is fighting with a Belgian cavalry regiment and I was describing conditions as they settled down for the night before the fight. The horses were, as horses do when they are fretful, scratching at the ground with their hoofs. When other animals do that, it is described as 'pawing' and the word can be used of horses, but it seems wrong because they don't have paws. I asked for help from horsey people on Facebook and, within minutes, I had 'scraping' as an alternative word and that's what I went with.

Several people have replied to this, some favouring scrape, others sticking with paw, with the odd mention of scuff or hoof. Many thanks to all who replied. I thought I'd better show you the context of the question.

The night before the Battle of Waterloo was very wet - something that decisively influenced the outcome the next day. Most of the troops had to rest the night in the open. It was a horrible way to spend what would be, for many, their last night on earth. This description of the experience of one cavalry regiment is a fair representation of what was happening all along the Allied line.

The problem with being a Staff officer was that you were denied the right to moan about conditions. All around, he knew, captains and lieutenants were muttering to each other about the imbecility of their commanders. As a member of the Staff, Burke was, in the view of the lesser beings who did not share his privilege, a representative of the very commanders being complained about. He must conduct himself so as to convince the 8th Hussars that any hardships that they might have to endure were completely justified by the military necessities of the situation.
Duvivier beckoned him over. ‘In weather like this, the French cavalry often sleep in the saddle. It spares the riders a night on wet ground, but it tires the horses. I won’t have it in my regiment. Spread the word.’
Burke moved through the column. Most of the men had served under the French and, as Duvivier had anticipated, many of them had no intention of dismounting. Burke could understand their feelings. The bad temper of the men was picked up by their horses: they fidgeted and scraped at the sodden ground, turning the area around them into a quagmire.
‘Captain! Colonel Duvivier requests that you order your men to dismount to rest the horses.’
A dozen times he gave this order to a dozen young officers, who responded with varying degrees of ill humour as their troops cursed Napoleon, the weather, and their colonel but, Burke noticed, not in that order.
The horses were under no orders to rest on the ground and, being intelligent creatures, did not do so. Instead they stood morosely in the rain, tethered to pegs hammered into the mud. The mud, of course, did not provide any real grip on the pegs, so the horses often pulled them clear from the ground and wandered off in search of fodder. Burke decided to take advantage of the liberties that came with his Staff rank and wandered off himself to see if he could find anything for his horse to eat. Once fed, it might not pull out its tether and, if it stayed still, Burke would try the cavalry trick he had seen of sleeping in the shelter of his horse. He had been assured that a well-trained horse never trampled a man lying beneath it and he was desperate enough to get out of the rain to believe the tales of men with more experience of war horses than him. In the event, though, there was no fodder to be found. While the withdrawal had been orderly, it was too much to hope that the provisions would have arrived at the same time as the troops.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Dancing in the Asylum

It's been a long time since one of my occasional random blogs about tango. Some of the reviews I wrote of tango venues in Buenos Aires remain amongst my most popular posts, so I thought I might risk something similar today.

Some people think that tango aficionados treat their dance like a religion. A famous venue in Buenos Aires is called La Catedral, but it is not, in fact, a cathedral. (Actually, it's an old power station.) Only in London, as far as I know, can you dance tango in an abandoned church.

The Asylum Milonga is held in the chapel of an alms house complex in Peckham. The Licensed Victuallers Benevolent Institution built the almshouses around 1830 for the benefit of  poor and aged members of the licensed victualling trade and their wives or widows. The chapel was burned out by an incendiary bomb in the Second World War and remains semi-derelict, but it has been made safe as a place for parties and performances. And there, on a Sunday afternoon, we gathered with other dancers to listen to music and dance.

I only had my camera phone with me, but the place is so amazing that I wanted to share the photographs. Somehow, the stained glass windows survived the fire.

TheAsylum Milonga (The photo was taken very early on, before most people had arrived. It gets quite busy.)

There was something surreal about spending Sunday afternoon dancing in church, a band where the altar used to be. And something poignant about the boards listing the Ten Commandments, still scorched from the blaze of over half a century ago.

It is good to live in London, where the 19th century that I write about constantly impinges on my world today. And good, too, to live in a city that brings together so many different people. It was through tango that I first made Argentinian friends in London and that led to me visiting Buenos Aires and eventually writing Burke in the Land of Silver.

If you're ever in Peckham, have a look at the almshouses: they're worth a visit. And if it's a Sunday and you hear music coming from the chapel, take a peek. It really is rather special.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Why the fuss about Waterloo?

I'm just back from a two day conference on Waterloo. It was held at the Royal Miltary Academy Sandhurst, home of the British Army officer corps, and itself a product of the Napoleonic Wars. This was not officially a military conference (although most of those attending were retired Army officers), but the final presentation was by a serving Major-General, who was looking at the lessons of Waterloo for the Army of today. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Waterloo still looms large in the minds of the British military.

Old College, Sandhurst. A nice place for a conference.
There were civilian speakers at the conference too: men (they were all men) who had devoted years to the academic study of the defence of La Haye Sainte or the role of the Prussians at the climax of the battle.

What is it about Waterloo that resonates so strongly with the British? (It is just the British. At the weekend I spoke to a French officer who said that the French army prefers to concentrate on Austerlitz.)

Of course Waterloo was a huge battle and a significant victory. But there have been other victories, before and since, that have been more significant. Stamford Bridge, Agincourt, D-Day, Goose Green - all of these battles decided campaigns and shaped the history of the UK. (You can mock at the inclusion of Goose Green but, for better or worse, do you think that there would have been Thatcherism without it?) Even within the Napoleonic Wars, it is almost certain that Wellington's Peninsular War victories were more significant to European history than the sad coda to more than two decades of Total War when a dilapidated army finally forced a once-great man to face the reality of his defeat the previous year.

Conference participants take coffee beneath a painting of the Battle of Waterloo
Waterloo, though, has a special significance both to Britain as a nation, and the Army as an institution.
Although Britain in the 18th century was clearly one of the Great Powers, the idea (common amongst Empire enthusiasts) that the British Empire was pre-eminent in an era of colonial expansion is by no means clear. The Napoleonic Wars saw Britain emerge as a leading (in British eyes the leading) European power. Britain was the only country to resist Napoleon throughout the period of conflict. British diplomacy was central to the formation of the many coalitions against France and British money had financed the wars. Yet direct British military involvement had been mainly limited to the Peninsular campaign. While this had been of crucial strategic importance, it was never the primary focus of the war and Britain was not among the Powers that fought their way into Paris in 1814. Napoleon's escape from Elba enabled Britain to take centre stage with the final defeat of Napoleon at a cataclysmic battle fought under Wellington as the Allied Commander-in-Chief. Waterloo left the British convinced of their pre-eminence in Europe, a conviction so strong that it generated its own reality.

Britain never looked at itself in quite the same way again. Waterloo was a powerful symbol of national unity at a time of Corn Law riots and political unrest. The sight of Scots troops fighting so decisively alongside the English led to a new view of Scotland. The Scots had so recently been considered a threat to the Union that the Scots Greys were officially the North British, lest they get ideas about nationhood. Suddenly it was acceptable, even fashionable, to be a Scot. Wellington, now the greatest of British military men, went on to become Prime Minister. There were to be ups and downs in the decades ahead, but Waterloo had both strengthened the unity of the nation and allowed it to accept some of the differences within it.

Waterloo also changed the image of the Army. During most of the Napoleonic Wars, and the wars that preceded them, it was the Navy that was, in every sense, the Senior Service. It was the wooden walls that had defended England and saved us from French tyranny. Now, suddenly, the Army took centre stage. The British had long distrusted the standing army, but after Waterloo every soldier was a hero. (It was the first conflict to be commemorated with a medal awarded to all the British participants.) The modern Army has been built on the heritage of Waterloo.

Twentieth century notions of the quintessence of Britishness - coolness under fire, holding firm in the face of overwhelming opposition, even, dare it be said, making a virtue of cobbling together a solution from the limited resources available instead of properly planning ahead - all these things started with images of the Iron Duke and his men at Waterloo and in the days preceding the battle.

Waterloo was - despite its strategic inconsequence - the decisive battle of its age. It defined Britain, it enabled the development of the modern Army and it marked the start of the British Empire. It is doubtful that, as many people claim, it had a significant impact on the future of Europe. However those seven hours in June two hundred years ago had an enormous effect on the future of Britain.