Friday, 24 February 2017

Death of a book salesperson



This week's blog post is about the business of selling books. It's quite depressing. If you're not interested in why over 99% of authors make no money out of writing, enjoy this photo of a ferret and then come back next week when we’ll be looking at something more fun.


This last week I have had to pay rather more attention than usual to the sordid details of sales figures. They did not make me happy.

There's no doubt that e-book's have dramatically transformed the way that publishing works. The rules have definitely changed. The problem is that nobody knows what the new rules are.


E-publishing has changed the way that writers write, but it has had even more effect on the way that books are sold. There are so many e-books that it has become impossible to browse even a fraction of them. So how do you make your book stand out and be seen?

The books that are most easily picked up are those which Amazon recommends or which appear near the top of Amazon's charts. The easiest way to get recommended is to sell an awful lot of books. So books that are near the top of the chart tend to sell better than others – but, of course, that's why they were near the top of the chart in the first place. But how to get there?

The easiest way to get a book into the charts is for it to be very like a book that has done really well already. Hence the plethora of series novels that you see on Amazon. Mine are no exception. Burke in the Land of Silver was followed by Burke and the Bedouin, followed by Burke at Waterloo. If you haven't got your own book in the charts already, the next best thing is for your first novel to be very similar to somebody else's. Hence the massive number of ‘me-too’ books about. One year it's vampires, then it's were-wolves. This year it’s damaged girls, preferably on some form of public transport.

There are problems with series books. For me, it's simply that in order to build on the success of my first bestseller, I have to start with a bestseller. Burke in the Land of Silver did get sold, read and (according to its reviews) enjoyed, but it didn't sell in the numbers required to top the charts. Burke and the Bedouin sold OK, but it certainly wasn’t able to ride the coattails of the first book. For those authors trying to ride the charts on the back of somebody else's bestseller, the problem is that if a particular kind of book becomes fashionable, everybody writes it. If you sit down now to write a book about a girl who breaks away from an unhappy relationship and is then driven to drink/murder/faking her own death, by the time you've finished it it will be one of several hundred books with remarkably similar outlines. Why should anybody read yours?

Well, why should they? One answer would be because it's free. Giving books away free on Amazon used to be a very popular way of trying to get visibility. The problem is that people build up huge stocks of books that they haven't paid for and which they never get around to reading. If they do read them, because they're the kind of people who like to read books but don't like to buy books, the odds are that they won't buy your next book when there are so many alternative free ones. Free books used to be seen as a valuable promotional tool, but they have fallen out of favour. My publisher, Accent, no longer uses them, claiming that they just do not work. I'm inclined to believe them.

You can advertise, of course. The thing is that a proper advertising campaign – even quite a small one – is expensive. My books are not unusual in that the e-books sell for between £1.99 and £2.99. You'd have to sell an awful lot of books for the profit to pay for a small poster campaign or one advertisement in a popular magazine. One way round this is to design a nice ad (Accent are good at this) and then put it on Twitter and post about it on Facebook. Hence the banner that appears at the top of my pages on Facebook and Twitter. Some people will even insert your cover into photos of street scenes so that it looks as if you have a real poster campaign but without the costs of buying all those poster sites.



In order for it to be seen on Facebook you either have to pay for it (and we’ve already established there is no budget) or you just post it on your wall. So posting on your author page it is. Unfortunately, in order to see this, people have to have already "liked" your page, so they're probably aware of you and of your books. The advert might have some effect, but it is probably very marginal.

What about Twitter? Maybe the answer is to tweet it and to get as many people as possible to re-tweet it.

The easiest way to persuade people to re-tweet your advertisement is to reciprocate by re-tweeting one of theirs. The result is many authors whose Twitter stream consists almost entirely of re-tweets of other writers’ advertising. This is, of course, spectacularly boring and their streams are therefore often read, I suspect, almost entirely by other authors desperately reciprocating away with their own re-tweets. If an actual customer wanders into the stream by mistake, they still won't see your advertisement, as it is now submerged in a welter of ads from every other writer your writing friends know.

So what to do? I write this blog. Besides posts like this, which I admit is likely to appeal to a rather specialist market, I write a lot about 19th-century history. I'm wondering whether to produce a short book based largely around posts that I have already written on Waterloo. I produce over 50,000 words a year, which is a good part of one of my novels and thousands of people read what I write. Presumably some of them find it enjoyable or useful but there is no evidence at all that my blogs sell any books.

I took myself to the middle of Wales, which is always a pleasure, and gave a talk about James Brooke, but there was no sign of any significant increase in sales of The White Rajah. I have been to a couple of book groups in the London area and this, I think, does improve sales, if only by selling copies to the people who are members of book group. I'm happy to do this again (you can contact me at jamesburke.confidentialagent@gmail.com). It does lack potential as a mass-market tool, though.

Books are, of course, competing with all the various forms of electronic entertainment that vie for our limited leisure time. I have piles of books, both real and virtual, by people whose work I would really like to read, but which I haven't got round to yet. I know many other people are in the same situation. I even know friends who have bought my books but who simply haven't had time to read them yet. “I'm saving them for my holiday," is a fairly common refrain but, thanks to Kindle, even on holiday you have a whole library of books to choose from.

What's the answer? I really don't know. Self-publishing, recommended by many friends, has the advantage that you keep a higher proportion of the money your book makes and have more control over its sales. Because you are focused on just your titles you will probably give them more attention than a publisher who has a range of books to look after. But, on the other hand, you won't have the publisher’s experience and you presumably started writing because you enjoy writing, rather than because you wanted to become a bookseller.

You can concentrate on becoming famous. It's a fair bet that if I were on Big Brother or assassinated the Prime Minister or walked naked down Whitehall, some people would pick up my books out of curiosity. Tempting as some of these options are (particularly the second, if I'm honest), I don't think I'm going to go for them. What I do instead is to reveal rather more of myself than I'm particularly happy with here and on Twitter in the hope that you'll decide that I'm a nice person and be interested enough in me to read my work. Hence my posts about my Christmas holidays and my tango adventures. Some people make this work for them. Zoella famously became a bestselling author without actually writing a word herself simply because she is so attractive in her videos. I don't think it really works for me: I’m not nearly as pretty as Zoella and considerably less bubbly.

Over the next few weeks I will be thinking quite hard about the direction to go. If you enjoy reading my blog, now might be a good time to buy some of the books and convince me that it's worthwhile. If you don't have £2.99, you could at least write a comment to persuade me to continue with this.

I'll keep writing because, like most authors, I have an almost obsessive need to do so. How my writing is going to reach my readers, though, remains an open question.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Tango Fire


Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I can get quite enthusiastic about Argentine tango. This week I went to see ‘Tango Fire’ at London’s Peacock Theatre and I thought I’d take the opportunity to chat about it, not least because if you live in London and dance tango the current conversational opener is “What did you think of ‘Tango Fire’?”

Quality tango shows (and this is definitely a quality tango show) cater for a very wide audience. There are those of us who know and love Argentine tango. There are Strictly fans, who want to see the same sort of showy tango (or, more often showy sort-of-vaguely-tangoish) dancing they see on Saturday night TV. There are people who might want to learn to dance themselves. And there are people who just want a good night out with beautiful women flashing their legs in spectacularly acrobatic poses.


The best tango shows have to cater for all of these audiences at once and ‘Tango Fire’ did about as good a job as you’re going to see. That hasn’t stopped friends of mine denouncing it as a Vegas style travesty of the dance and I'm sure that other people will have complained that it was not nearly flashy enough. The sets are simple, the lighting effects sophisticated rather than brash, and the concept almost minimalist. Five couples danced on a bare stage with a classic tango quartet playing behind them. It could so easily be a disaster, but the skill and commitment of the dancers and the range of the choreography (by German Cornejo) produced an evening that ended in a well-deserved standing ovation.

The performance starts with the sort of exhibition that you might see performed at tango clubs around the world, although you will be lucky if you see this standard of dance. Gradually, as the dancers work through a repertoire of traditional tango music, the kicks get higher, the speed gets faster and the moves get more and more outrageous, while still remaining true to the basics of traditional tango.

It helps that the company is made up of experienced tango dance couples. I have seen tango shows where the performers have come from other disciplines and learn the tango just for that show. However good they are as dancers, the lack of experience usually shows. (This is also part of the curse of Strictly.) Then, in some companies, dancers will move between partners during the evening, while here the fact that people were mainly dancing with their long-term partners meant that they danced with the intuitive understanding and connection that such relationships bring. That meant, too, that while the show was tightly choreographed, each couple was able to express their response to the music in their own styles. It went some way to dealing with the problem of stage tango, which is that the dance is essentially about improvisation and this is often difficult in the setting of a theatrical performance. Here I felt that I was watching couples expressing themselves in dance, rather than stepping mechanically through choreography that had been laid down for them, which can unfortunately sometimes be the case.

After the interval, the music changed to more modern tango with Piazzolla featuring prominently. For some reason Piazzolla seems to be out of fashion in London at the moment, so it was lovely to hear his music and see the dancers pushing the boundaries of tango. Sometimes the boundaries were less pushed than trampled over as numbers moved way beyond anything I have seen described as tango before. Still, you had to admire the astonishing athleticism shown as women were lifted above heads, thrown across shoulders and tossed down onto the ground in performances that were as much gymnastic display as dance. Yet the movements, however extravagant, were always smoothly executed and spot on the beat. Was it tango? Much of the time, it was not, and purists were duly horrified. But the first half clearly was tango and if we want to go a little wild (says the man who likes to dance his partner up and down any convenient staircase), why shouldn’t we? Not everyone in the audience accepts the authority of the Tango Police and Strictly fans paid for their tickets too.

There were legs, of course: lots and lots of unbelievably long legs, doing things that most people’s legs will never do. The women were shown off in a succession of stunning costumes. Yes, some of them probably crossed those boundaries again. A body stocking with a few tendrils of glittery green plant providing a minimal degree of modesty probably could have been rethought. And hot-pants raised a few eyebrows (though I’ve seen women dancing in very short shorts socially and the men they danced with never objected). We’re back to the fact that you have multiple audiences. There were (it seems a rule for tango shows) an astonishing number of costume changes catering for people who like yards of billowing fabric and for those who consider that the average erotic dancer is hideously over-dressed. Again, you must accept that the show has to appeal to everyone and that therefore not all of it will appeal to you. Let a thousand costume changes bloom, as Chairman Mao almost said.


The orchestra, in these things, can sometimes be a bit taken for granted. Here, though, they were astonishingly good and the audience loved the occasional breaks from the dancing when we just had the chance to listen to them. The musical arrangements allowed each performer the chance to shine, showing themselves as wonderful soloists as well as generous members of a quartet. The singer, though, did not appeal. Tango singers are not as other vocalists. The tradition of tango songs is built on loss: loss of place, loss of love or, as in the Piazzolla classic ‘Adios Nonino’, loss of a parent. The singer’s voice should convey experience and loss and, often, the influence of far too many cigarettes. In Argentina you may be told that to truly understand tango you must have suffered and Jesus Hidalgo has clearly not suffered enough. His boyish charm and beautifully modulated voice would have been great in another show but it was the most obvious weak point in this one.

Altogether, a brilliant evening, rounded off with the chance to dance in the bar. The lesson there may not have transformed respectable English couples into tangueros and tangueras in one evening, but I was impressed by the enthusiasm of both teachers and pupils and the progress made from a standing start. It’s a shame that there was no advice given on where people could go to learn more. Based on my own experience (other teachers – good, bad and indifferent – are also available) I recommend that people in London could try Bianca (https://www.rojoynegroclub.com/) who can be demanding but who will really improve your dance, or Alex (http://www.alexandrawoodtango.co.uk/) generally regarded as one of the nicest people on the London scene and a wonderful teacher.


Health warning: dancing tango can take over your entire life. You are at serious risk of having far too much fun, meeting lots of lovely people, learning Spanish and spending all your money on flights to Buenos Aires. Shows like ‘Tango Fire’ can be the first step on a pathway to addiction. Probably best to stay home with a nice cup of tea.

A word from our sponsor

Burke in the Land of Silver grew, in part, from my love of Buenos Aires, where most of the story takes place. But there is no tango in it at all, because in 1806, when the story is set, the tango had not yet been invented. It was an interesting time, though, with a British invasion in which a real-life James Burke played a significant role. If you're interested in the history of Argentina, or just want a good read with cunning spies, wanton women and a small war, give it a go.



Friday, 10 February 2017

A writer's life

It's been a busy time on the blog lately. The Christmas/New Year period always generates a lot of posts about books for Christmas presents, and reviews of the year past and thoughts of the year to come. Then there have been several overdue book reviews that I had promised to write and finally got around to.  One way and another, this is the first Friday morning for a long time when I have sat down with no idea at all what I'm going to write about.

I thought I would ramble on a bit about the realities of this writing business. Not that it's really a business. I used to be in business and, although there are other things that matter, in business the bottom line is quite important. In writing, not so much. It's brilliant that people can now get e-book's so cheaply, but it has produced a situation where there is much less value put on the written word and it is very rare indeed for anybody to make any money out of writing. I'm not complaining about this – nobody made me take up writing – but it is worth remembering  the economic realities when you think about how writers spend their time nowadays.

The sheer number of books means that it is very difficult for anybody's work to get noticed. The best advertisement for a book is another book by the same author. Every time I produce a new book about James Burke, for example, sales of other James Burke books lift. There is therefore pressure on all writers to produce more books as quickly as possible. This leads to the situation where it is easy to find yourself writing two books at the same time.

That's where I am now. I recently finished a new book about James Burke fighting in the Peninsular War. This was sent off to a couple of trusted people for comment. Meanwhile  I started to read up the background to the next James Burke book which is going to be set in Ireland. (Fortunately  many authors write Napoleonic War stories out of sequence. Otherwise it would be difficult to  imagine another Burke book  after  Burke at Waterloo.) Researching the English in Ireland has been  quite fascinating and rather depressing. It does not show them at their best. Still, after reading some 18th-century pamphlets and a couple of frankly rather dull biographies, I began to sketch out a plot and started writing to see if it was going to work. Ten thousand words in, I think  it may well make an interesting addition to the Burke canon, but at this point I got the Peninsular War story back from one of my readers. He'd been a while, but he had been very thorough indeed. He knows a lot about the Peninsular War: rather more than me. The upshot was that, though he was very positive about the book and said he liked it, he has pointed out some errors that will mean a significant bit of rewriting.

I'm therefore in the situation of simultaneously writing a book set in Ireland at the very beginning of Burke's career as a spy and another one featuring a much more worldly-wise and cynical Burke in Spain some years later. Keeping these two periods, places and plot-lines in my head at the same time is rather disconcerting,  but not at all unusual at this stage of the game. At least it's not as bad as when I was writing a book about John Williamson, set in the mid-19th century, at the same time as I was revising a book about Burke set in 1815. Just remembering the language they would be using, the clothes they would be wearing, and the social attitudes of the time and not muddling the two did create problems.

English torture in 18th century Ireland: pitchcapping

Besides trying to write two books the same time, I spend a while on Twitter. Whatever your views about Twitter (and I must admit to having doubts myself) it is very effective. I know that many people reading this blog will be here simply because they have followed a link from Twitter and I really like people reading this, so Twitter is a necessary evil.  Not always an evil either: last week, for the first time, I tried asking for help with a historical question on Twitter and, rather to my surprise, got some very useful answers. So there is more to Twitter than ranting about Donald Trump (or even ranting from Donald Trump).

I'm on Facebook too, although Facebook doesn't  demand constant updating in the way that Twitter does. Or at least, it doesn't the way that I use it. Some people suggest that you should be posting  to Facebook once or twice a day, but if you do follow my page you'll see that once or twice a week would be more accurate.

Then, of course, there's writing this blog. Some weeks are shorter and easier to write than others, but I generally produce around a thousand words and some of these words are even (I hope) intelligent and considered. It's fun, but it takes time (and –  that point about business again –  contributes  not at all to my diminishing bank account).

This week I've also been talking to the organisers of a historical festival about maybe being one of their speakers. I've done this before and it's huge fun, as well as being  quite gratifying to the ego. You can be sure that I will be blogging a lot about it if and when it's confirmed.

So that's how I've been spending my time. I keep being told that people want to hear about authors' writing lives, so now you know the sad truth. All right: I'm not dwelling on the Spider Solitaire or the time spent looking out of the window or the hours that vanished down Internet wormholes when I just wanted to check how people ate oysters in 1794. Still, this does give you a taste, however expurgated, of the writer's life. If it hasn't put you off writing, it probably should have.

Have a lovely weekend.

The inevitable plug


Another thing about being a writer is that you are increasingly expected to sell your own books. Yes, I know you thought that's what publishers were for, but life has changed. Everybody tells me that I should make sure to urge you to buy a book every time you visit this blog. This week's recommendation, given that I mentioned it in the post, is Burke at Waterloo.

In 1814, the war with France seemed to be over. Paris was an occupied city. Bonapartist loyalists, though, were planning the assassination of Wellington. Burke was sent to thwart them. He hunts the assassin from Paris to Brussels but then Napoleon escapes from Elba and everything changes.

Caught up in the preparations for a new war, Burke's hunt seems suddenly unimportant but then the assassin  strikes again. Burke's mission and the war against Napoleon come together in a dramatic climax at the battle of Waterloo.


Burke at Waterloo is available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback. Click on the cover to be taken to the Amazon site for your country.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Libraries

I've just had notification of my payment for Public Lending Right (PLR). For American readers (and UK readers that are not that interested in this sort of thing), PLR is a payment that is made every time one of your books is borrowed from a public library. It's a very small sum per loan but most of my books are sold on Kindle and, after Amazon and my publisher have taken their share, I get only a very small sum per copy sold. (What do you expect when you can buy them for £2.99 or less?) So it turns out that my PLR payment is worth having. It represents about 0.01% of the minimum wage for the time spent writing, but it is an acknowledgement that people have been reading my books and, hopefully, enjoying them. It means a lot to me. So, if you are one of those people who have borrowed any of my books from a UK public library, thank you.

Many libraries now lend e-books. If you live in London you should be able to get The White Rajah free online. You'll need to join your local library, if you aren't already a member, but that will be free and does bring other benefits, like being able to borrow all the rest of the books. The London Libraries Consortium may be lending out other books of mine – have a look and see. (Some boroughs – including mine – are on different systems.)

Of course, people can only borrow my books if they are available in their libraries. Most libraries have a simple system for requesting new purchases. How it works will vary from library to library, but it doesn't usually take long. Why not ask them to buy one of my books? If you are asked for details, like the ISBN number, the quickest way to find these is to look for the details on Amazon. If you click any of the book covers on the right of this page, it will take you to the Amazon page for that book.

Getting my books – or any books from less well-known authors – into public libraries is a very good way of getting them seen by far more people. And, it turns out, it's a good way of enabling a starving author to buy a crust of bread (or, in a good month, a whole loaf). On the whole it's a good thing that costs you nothing and takes remarkably little effort. Could you do this for me and, perhaps, for one other lesser-known writer you've enjoyed lately?


The unashamed sales pitch


I post on this blog about once a week. Occasionally, as today, I write something that might directly get people to buy (or, in this case, borrow) my books. More often I am writing stuff about history or reviewing other historical novels. Lots of people read the blog every week, but rather fewer buy the books. As I've just mentioned, all of my books are available on Kindle for £2.99 or less. If you enjoy the blog, you might even enjoy the books. I would be very grateful if you would click on the links and buy one.

Thank you.

Friday, 27 January 2017

What Plato had to say about the rise of Trump.

A lot of people say that they really aren't interested in history because it has nothing to tell us about the state of the world today. Obviously I disagree. One of the many things that it does tell us is that not a lot has changed over the centuries. Here, for example, is Wellington's view on party politics:
"... the feeling I have for a decided party politician is rather that of contempt than any other. I am very certain that his wishes & efforts for his party very frequently prevent him from doing that which is best for the Country; & induce him to take up the cause of foreign powers against Britain, because the cause of Britain is managed by his party opponents."
Familiar?

Anyway, since I wrote my last post the latest president of the USA has been inaugurated  and social media have been full of references to Plato. It's very easy to take quotes from ancient philosophers out of context, so I went away and read the relevant parts of The Republic, so you don't have to. (No, I didn't read it in Greek: I used Benjamin Jowett's translation, available free from Amazon.)

The full passage is very long. Originally I meant to put the extract in pretty well unedited, but rereading it I can't help notice that Plato does like  to talk on – even more than me – and I've had to cut it down a bit or nobody at all would ever get to the end. It was written as Socratic dialogue, which here means that a straight man  keeps on saying things like, "That's an incredibly wise remark. But what other fantastically sensible things follow on from it?" I've edited these out to make it  a piece of continuous prose. I have tried hard to keep the original argument intact.

You don't have to read it all, although I found it fascinating. What is interesting to me is that the quotes that appear relevant to President Trump's rise, and probable future course, are not taken out of context. On the other hand, we should perhaps be careful of basing our ideas about modern politics on the views of a man who considers that women's rights are a symptom of moral degeneracy. I think it is best taken as  a fascinating demonstration that life has changed a lot less since 380 BC than you might expect and a jumping off point for future discussion, rather than a finished template  for the organisation of society. Of course, if you are in the happy position of owning a lot of slaves, you might feel the Plato's views on the proper ordering of society should be accepted wholesale.

Enjoy. Or be scared. Probably best be scared.


When a democracy has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them. Loyal citizens are insultingly termed slaves who hug their chains; [democracy] would have subjects who are like rulers, and rulers who are like subjects. By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses. The father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom, and the metic [like an immigrant with residency rights] is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either.

In such a state of society the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young. Nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other. As the result of all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority, and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.

Such is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny — the truth being that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction. The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery. And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty. 

[There's a long bit here about the types of people involved in Athenian politics, which rather over-extends a metaphor with beekeeping. I've cut it.]

The people are a third class, consisting of those who work with their own hands; they are not politicians, and have not much to live upon. This, when assembled, is the largest and most powerful class in a democracy. Their leaders deprive the rich of their estates and distribute them among the people; at the same time taking care to reserve the larger part for themselves.

[Plato argues that, in these circumstances the rich will try to defend themselves by oppressing the people. It's an argument that you still see from some Marxist groups. Once the rich suppress the people enough, the people will revolt.]

The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness.

This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. 

[Eventually, Plato argues, the untrammelled power the tyrant has will lead to him behaving so badly that people will try to assassinate him.] Then comes the famous request for a body-guard, which is the device of all those who have got thus far in their tyrannical career— 'Let not the people's friend,' they say, 'be lost to them.' The people readily assent; all their fears are for him—they have none for themselves. And he, the protector of whom we spoke, is himself the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute. 

At first, in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets;—he to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private! liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one! But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader. Has he not also another object, which is that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him?

History has nothing to teach us? Perhaps we should have paid more attention to Plato.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Experts and why I'm not one

Every so often somebody suggests that I should give a talk or write a book about the history behind some of my novels. "You're an expert!" They gush. "You know so much about it!"

It's flattering but it isn't true. Experts are the people that people like me go to when they want to get the facts right for their books. When I was writing about Waterloo I went to a two-day conference at Sandhurst. One of the speakers was an academic who had spent three years studying the fighting in and around a farm in the centre of the battlefield. It's an important part of the battle, but still one tiny part. He didn't talk about Wellington's use of the reverse slope; he didn't talk about the fight for the Château d'Hougoumont; he didn't discuss the importance of the Prussians or the way in which the British shamefully understated their contribution. He didn't even talk about my favourite element of the battle – the role of the Dutch and Belgian troops. He talked about one farmhouse and its farmyard and the defence put up by the vastly outnumbered troops of the King’s German Legion. And if you want an expert on Waterloo, you want someone like him. (He really was very good.) I’m happy to talk to your history group about the battle. (Really: you can email me at jamesburke.confidentialagent@gmail.com). I can give you an overview (Napoleon lost, but it's not nearly as obvious that Wellington won) and tell you why its importance is overrated (especially given that everyone ignores Quatre Bras two days earlier). But there's an awful lot I can't tell you. If you ask me about the number of dead, I'd have to look it up. Like Winnie the Pooh's Wol, I did know but I've forgotten. I don't want to end up like the man who was asked at the conference how fast the horses would have moved in a cavalry charge and guessed the answer. Not a good move when your guess is spectacularly wrong and you are facing a room full of people who know a lot about Waterloo and, in this context, probably as significantly, many of whom rode. (The answer, if you were wondering, is a lot slower than you’d think, it being a very muddy field.)

Last summer I did give a talk on James Brooke, which went down quite well and suggested that there is a place for talks by well-informed non-experts like me. But you have to be so careful, especially when battles are concerned.

Me, talking about James Brooke. It's funny how people pay attention when you wave a sword at them.


What’s brought on this chain of thought? Well, I’ve just been reading an excellent story set in the Indian Mutiny. One episode deals with the defence of the Delhi Magazine, a little-known incident early in the conflict when a handful of British soldiers held off thousands of rebels for several hours. Once it became obvious that the Magazine, with its huge store of ammunition and powder, was about to fall into enemy hands, the defenders blew it up in an act of suicidal heroism.

The author has based his account on the published story of one of the people who was there. It’s a brilliant re-telling of something that has been largely forgotten and I was really pleased to see it highlighted in the novel. There is even a historical note (and I do appreciate notes at the end of historical novels) that rightly gives credit for the courage shown by Conductor Scully, who lit the fuse to blow the Magazine. What it doesn’t mention is the role of Conductor Buckley, a 43 year old Assistant Commissary of Ordnance who, injured in the battle, nonetheless gave the final order to light the fuse once he was told by the defenders that they could hold out no longer. His heroism at the Magazine was recognised by the award of the Victoria Cross.

Centuries passed and the Ordnance Department was swallowed into other corps until it became part of today’s Royal Logistic Corps, the largest corps in the British Army. The RLC is not famed for its military prowess, though it took a lot of casualties in Afghanistan both because of its role in resupplying Forward Operating Bases and because RLC personnel had a lead role in disarming IEDs. For most RLC officers and men, though, the jibe that they spend wartime “in the rear with the gear” hurts. The RLC is therefore particularly proud of any VCs associated with the Corps. 9 Regiment RLC is a theatre logistic regiment within 101 Logistic Brigade and it is based in the UK at Buckley Barracks. A dinner night is generally held once a year to commemorate Conductor Buckley’s heroism.

RLC flag

I have to admit, at this point, that my son is in the RLC and has served with 9 Regiment in both England and Afghanistan.
The fact that a well-researched novel misses out one tiny (and, to a writer, not particularly important) detail of a fight that hardly anyone has heard of is, in the scheme of things, utterly insignificant. But the writer shouldn’t expect to be invited to dine at 9 Regiment any time soon.

THE PLUG

I write these blogs every week and lots of people seem to enjoy reading them. Unfortunately, they don't all go on to buy my books. So (when I remember) I am trying to highlight things you might want to read if you were interested in this post. This week obviously ties in with my novel of Waterloo, somewhat unimaginatively titled Burke at Waterloo, and my Indian Mutiny book, Cawnpore. I'm particularly proud of Cawnpore and I'd love it if you all went out and bought a copy. (And, yes, both books come with historical notes at the end.)



Friday, 13 January 2017

Book Review: The Last Days of Leda Grey

I seem to be posting an increasing number of book reviews. I'm not sure this is really in my best interests, as I only review books I've enjoyed and I concentrate on historical novels, so basically I'm encouraging you all to read the books that directly compete with mine. 😕 Perhaps that's not an ideal marketing strategy. Anyway, people seem to enjoy the reviews and I do try to write the blogs you want to read, so here is another one.

It's difficult to review a book when you've been to the launch party and met the author and enjoyed the delicious nibbles and the cake. It's not so much that you're biased, but that you come to it with expectations. You read it differently, possibly wearing a "Literary Critic" hat rather than just enjoying it for what it is. Still, I can honestly say that I did enjoy The Last Days of Leda Grey, which is probably much more of a relief to me than to the author, Essie Fox.



Ms Fox has established a reputation as a writer of 19th century fiction. I have to confess that I've never read it, although I enjoy her excellent blog on all things Victorian, the Virtual Victorian. This book, though, breaks away to the Edwardian era. The story is framed by the account of a young journalist in 1976, with most of the action being set against a background of the early cinema. I had no idea that the south coast of England was one of the places where film-making started on a commercial scale, but I found the story entirely credible. I know other people have googled and confirm that the factual background is correct, but I have simply taken Ms Fox's word for it. There is quite an extensive bibliography for those who want to check up on the history, but time is short and I'm lazy and read an awful lot of history already. The book would definitely have benefited from a historical note.

Perhaps the absence of a historical note reflects the fact that this is not a conventional historical novel. The characters behave in ways which, whilst believable in the context of the story, are distinctly modern. They are all actors, actresses and other bohemian types and their louche behaviour does not necessarily reflect societal norms at the time. In fact the story relies on the emotional sympathy between the jaded, quite possibly drug addled, music journalist who frames the narrative and Leda Grey, the one-time star of the silent screen who is, we discover, no stranger to chemical stimulation herself.

I remember the summer of 1976. The heat was so intense that at the end of the working day I would go swimming in a local river. It seemed all that kept me sane. The narrator here is suffering from that long hot summer and the almost hallucinatory impact that it seemed to have on all of us. What with that and the drugs and, possibly, some illness, he's not a very reliable narrator. He finds Leda Grey in the ruin of the house where she lived at the height of her beauty, a bona fide screen siren. Now she is old and faded, yet the beauty still shines through, sometimes with an almost supernatural intensity. Is this the fevered imagination of a young man becoming infatuated with a woman literally old enough to be his grandmother? Or is it that Leda’s bone structure and tricks of the light really mean that she can shimmer with vital beauty? Or is there something darker and more mysterious going on?

The reader naturally leans to the idea of dark and mysterious forces at work. We are repeatedly reminded that many people believe that a photograph can capture your soul. Is Leda’s soul held within those tins of film littering the old house? And does it escape back, infusing her body with diabolical beauty? There are continual mysterious sounds that might indeed be an old-style projector or the cars and motorbikes of a bygone era. There are unexplained reflections in the mirrors. Things arrive and vanish unaccountably. The spirit world may well be at work.

Essie Fox has written on Twitter about her admiration for Bram Stoker and, even if I had not seen that, I think I would recognise the influences of that master of macabre horror. For all that the setting is Edwardian/modern the style of the story is firmly based in the Victorian age. The prose has something of the feel of the 19th century too. I found it effective and easy to read, but it can seem affected. My wife struggled with the opening pages and has yet to return. She may well not be alone, which is a pity because once you get into the atmosphere of the book the language works very well.

Now the light that trickled in was a great deal fainter than before. But enough to see when Leda Grey motioned to the mantelpiece where, beside the silent static clock, I saw the tall brass candlestick she must have been alluding to when she asked, "Could you light that candle, please? I'm afraid that here in White Cliff House we have no electricity… And no more oil for any lamps.”


Stoker was obsessed with death and sex (possibly because he was dying of syphilis) and this book is dominated by the same issues (though, presumably, not for the same reason). Leda Grey, once young and beautiful, inhabits the ruin of a body in the ruin of the house where she had achieved her greatest triumphs. The young girl is trapped in the old body just as her image is trapped in the films that share the house with her. And then there is the narrator – still young, but tired and cynical; debauched like Wilde’s Dorian Gray. (And, I wonder, is the coincidence of surname here really a coincidence? If Stoker is a driving force behind this book, Oscar Wilde has certainly helped with some of the details.) The young old woman and the old young man end up in a strange relationship with definite sexual undertones. Sexuality is introduced, too, with a modern young woman whose grandparents had bit-parts in Leda Grey’s story. She arrives like some sort of sprite, living in a railway carriage, constantly travelling, but going nowhere. I found her, I admit, the least satisfactory element of the story, arriving only to vanish away until the very end when …

But no, you’ll have to read it yourself. When all is said and done, for all its asides on mortality and for all the research that has gone into the detail of early cinematography, this is at heart a ghost story. And like all the best ghost stories, the best is kept to last. And it’s too good for me to spoil.

I don’t do star ratings, but this comes with a definite ‘Recommended’ from me.


A WORD FROM OUR SPONSORS

Excellent as Essie Fox's book is, other historical novels are also available. Clicking on any of the book covers to the right of the screen should take you to the Amazon Kindle page. All are also available in paperback.