Monday, 27 October 2014

I can see clearly now ...

With a new book to plug (Burke and the Bedouin is now out on Kindle), now might seem an odd time to be writing a post that has nothing to do with my books at all, but please bear with me.

Both my mother and my sister suffered from glaucoma, so I'm probably more careful about getting my eyes checked than most. Because of the family history, I don’t pay anything for a thorough examination every year.

Something over a year ago, I was told that I had the beginnings of a cataract in my right eye. Both the optician and I were surprised: I'm not that old. But it was, she assured me, just the beginning. It might not cause a problem for years.

A year, later, though, it was getting worse. I could still see well enough for daily life. (Unusually, the other eye was fine.) But the sight in my right eye was deteriorating quite fast. The optician suggested I consider surgery.

There was a hiccup at this stage, because the National Health Service isn’t set up for younger people with a problem in one eye. I didn't actually need surgery. Having just one eye (and that one short-sighted) wasn't crippling, just inconvenient. But I went to my doctor and pointed out that I have an active lifestyle and two eyes are useful. Because I was younger and the eye was deteriorating, it would need surgery eventually. Surely it was better to have it done now.

Luckily, my doctor agreed and referred me to an eye clinic. Again, I was lucky in living close to a specialist eye hospital. A few weeks after I had seen my doctor, I visited a consultant at the hospital who agreed that surgery was appropriate.

Last week, I attended the hospital and, a couple of quite scary, but painless, hours later, I walked out, cataract free.

As I write this, there’s a certain amount of discomfort, which is already diminishing. More to the point, the screen is back to being a convenient distance away and I am writing without spectacles.

It’s true what they say: sight deteriorates slowly, and you only realise how much once you get it back.

I know I have a lot of American readers on this blog, so I need to point out that this entire process has, literally, not cost me a penny. I had a cataract, which can happen to anyone. The NHS fixed it, as it would do for anybody in the country. That is one of the things I have paid taxes for all my life.

Surgery – even minor surgery like this – is always a concern. There are lots of things that you worry about. Whether or not you can afford it shouldn't be one of them.

There is a lot wrong with the NHS. There is room for improvement. But the basic idea of a system that heals the sick, which we all pay for through our taxes, is really important. There have been lots of attacks on the NHS lately, and many of us wonder if some of this is motivated by a political desire to change the basic model of UK health care: universal medical treatment, free at the point of delivery. It’s easy to forget, as we go about our daily lives, just how important this is. It’s amazing how quickly the need for medical care can change your perspective.

So, I’d like to finish by saying three things.

Firstly (though I doubt they’ll see this): a big thank you to my optician, my GP, my surgeon, the nurses, and everybody else who made this as easy as possible, and thanks to whom I now have two good eyes.

Secondly, to readers in the UK: however fit you are, however young you feel, one day you, or someone you love, will need medical care. When this happens, you don’t want to be worrying about whether or not medical insurance will cover it. (I doubt it would have covered me, as my problems didn't even meet written criteria for the NHS – hence my pleading to my GP.) The NHS is a wonderful British institution. Be prepared to fight for it when politicians threaten it.

Finally, to my US friends: free medical care does not make this a communist country. Yes, it puts up taxes – but it costs much less per patient treated than most other health care systems (and much, much less than the US system). Looking after sick people is something that a civilised society just does. I think that those who see it as a threat just can’t imagine how much better life would be if you had it. Like my newly restored vision, it’s a shock how much difference it makes once it’s there. Don’t be afraid of socialised health care.

Next week I’ll be back to writing about 19th century history. Until then, take care and (if you have been) thanks for listening.

Monday, 20 October 2014

One Lovely Blog Award

Fellow writer J.E.Wyatt has tagged me for the One Lovely Blog Award (to participate in a blog tour where we share 7 curious facts about our life). Be sure to check out her lovely answers!
Here are the rules.
1.       Share 7 Lovely Facts about myself
2.      Link to 15 blogs (or as many as possible) that I enjoy reading….I don’t read that many blogs regularly, so I’ve just added the ones I do.
3.      Nominate the authors of those blogs to participate and do the same, linking back to the original Lovely blog. (That would be this page)
Without further ado, here are some curious facts about me!

I like to rollerblade on London's streets. A bit like this:

My first book, The White Rajah features head-hunters in Borneo. I have a Borneo head-hunter’s sword on the wall. I bought it while I was visiting a longhouse in Sarawak.

In Burke in the Land of Silver my hero travels across the Andes on horseback while the mountains are still covered in snow, which is considered a dangerous time of year to make the trip. I wanted to know what it would be like, so I decided to try it myself:

I love dancing tango and have danced in London, Paris, Buenos Aires and in Reykjavik in Iceland.

I used to keep a ferret, who loved to go out for walks on a lead.

They once changed the direction of the skating on the big ice rink in Central Park so that my partner and I could dance anti-clockwise patterns on it. It was amazing and I still can’t believe they did it for us. (Thank you, lovely people in Central Park.)

In one of the chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem there’s a mosaic that was made in the 1970s. I put in one of the stones. (I knew the mosaicist.) The church might still be there in a thousand years and, I hope, there’ll be one stone in one mosaic in one chapel that was done by me. I feel quite good about that.
Photo by Jorge Lascar. Creative Commons licence 

Now, who's up next? Here are some writers (and stellar bloggers) it would be nice to know more about. (If you’ve already done this blog hop or don’t have the time, please feel free to decline.)

Congratulations to:

Diane L Major – prolific blogger, as-yet-unpublished author, scarily erudite amateur historian and generally interesting person

Amy Saia – writer, musician and artist who somehow gets to bring up her children and write her blog. Not only talented but beautiful.

Sharon Robards – author of (among other things) Unforgivable, which is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Tracy R Franklin – a talented poet who has had more experiences in her first few decades than most of us manage in a lifetime. It will be interesting to see how she limits herself to seven things.

Marie Antoinette's Diamonds That’s the name of the blog, not the blogger, obviously. She’s anonymous and has been working on a novel about Queen Antoinette’s diamonds more or less forever. She has researched this (and everything related to it) in massive details. Anyone interested in late 18th century France (Oh, go on! You must be!) should read this blog

Kit Moss is particularly interested in the way that history treats gay, lesbian and transsexual characters. Interesting subject, interesting person.

S. A. Meade Another author who likes to write about gay people, often in historical settings. She loves to cook and that means she blogs some rather nice recipes as well. (Not that I’m ever going to cook them because they involve actually working in the kitchen, but I can dream.)

Jenny Kane. Some writers reach out and support others for no particular reason at all. Jenny is one of those lovely people. I’m happy to plug her and her blog because, heaven knows, she’s plugged me often enough.

Friday, 17 October 2014


See the changes on the right of the page? Yes, the second book about James Burke is out!

That sort of crept up on me. It was something off in the distant future and suddenly it's out. I'm up to my ears writing the next one and I've let this go without ceremony or fanfare. Whoops!

Now that the second book is published, Accent have taken the chance to relaunch the first. I really like what they've done with the new covers. This is clearly a series about BURKE and the sepia images more closely represent his undercover work than the original picture of a soldier, however accurate his uniform. The title of the first one has been changed too. I liked His Majesty's Confidential Agent but even I found it a mouthful and I wrote it. Burke in the Land of Silver is simple and clear and puts the centre of the book unambiguously in Argentina.

Burke and the Bedouin is pretty straightforward too. There's even a convenient map on the cover to remind us that we are in Egypt. It's 1798 and Napoleon is invading the Middle East. It's another part of our history that we are forgetting about. The Battle of the Pyramids and the Battle of the Nile were the sort of thing that every school child was supposed to have studied once, but no more. It's not the end of education as we know it (though it did leave me in Acre, on the coast of Israel, wondering how Napoleon had ever got there), but it has deprived us of some good stories.

Burke and the Bedouin is an old-fashioned adventure yarn. There is an evil villain, a beautiful damsel in distress, midnight rides across the desert, and desperate fights with kidnappers and assorted evil-doers. And while Burke is doing all this, there's the little matter of trying to stop Napoleon from leading an army across the desert to India. It's yet another of those amazing military adventures you've probably never heard of.

I'll be writing more about it next week, but feel free to buy a copy right away!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Historical fact and historical fiction

So how much does historical accuracy matter?

I’m not talking about the big stuff. James Burke really was a spy; he really was in Argentina ahead of the invasion, which really did happen pretty much exactly as described in my book. James Brooke did become ruler of Sarawak; there really was a Chinese rebellion; the pirates really were massacred. I’m worrying about the little details.

Some authors (and my suspicion is that it is authors rather than readers) revel in the tiny details. If you take the trouble, you can establish what the weather was in London on a given day in (say) 1850. So if you write It was a dark and stormy night you can check to see that it was. And I know published authors who will change the line if it wasn’t.

There is no way I would ever do that. If I want the face of my villain illuminated by a flash of lightning, I’ll put it in. In the first chapter of The White Rajah there’s a storm at sea. I put it in to help establish the characters (and to get a bit of excitement into what might otherwise have been a dull part of the narrative). Was there such a storm? I don’t know and I don’t care. Storms were common and led to situations like the one I described. If someone told me I had the details of the rigging wrong, I’d change them (and many a happy day has been spent in the National Maritime Museum trying to get them right). But a particular storm on a particular day? I really don’t care.

So why did I spend a couple of hours last week trying to establish where the Duke of Wellington lived in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo? And then went on to Google Earth to have a look at the street now? I’m really not sure. It only features in passing in the story, but I wanted to be able to imagine taking a carriage to a party there and, to do that, I needed to know where I was going.

As I lose myself in peculiar little bits of research, I often wonder what difference they make to the finished article. In The White Rajah some of the dialogue includes actual words written by the characters themselves. I haven’t credited each use of letters or diaries and I struggle now to pick them out, but I felt they helped me to keep my own dialogue more in period. Do readers notice? Do they care? Does it matter?

It can be that historical accuracy gets in the way of good story-telling. One Amazon critic considers that details of colonial administration in Sarawak make the book a big yawn. (I think that was his phrase: I can be pardoned for not going back and checking.) But, for me, the details of how Brooke attempted to establish a postal service (all true) were one of the parts I particularly enjoyed. This isn’t a Boy’s Own Paper adventure: it really happened and in between fighting pirates (true) and putting down rebellion (true), they really did try to set up a post office. Details such as the flowers available for the garden and the armaments on the boat are true too – and a lot of time was spent scouring picture books and the internet to get things right. But then there’s the pet orang-utan, which is a complete fiction. It’s a story, after all.

Part of the value of getting details right is that it helps get the made-up bits right too. So I was trying to make the negotiations that led to Brooke becoming ruler a bit less dull than they really were and I decided that someone might try to murder Brooke by poisoning him. Only after the book was published did someone in Kuching write to me to say that just such a plot actually happened. I don’t think this was just a lucky guess. Getting into the heads of the real characters meant that sometimes I could act like them, even when there were no published facts to guide me.

I’m writing this in an attempt to put off writing a scene set in the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball on the eve of Waterloo. It’s one of the most famous balls in history and I know I’m going to get it wrong and it worries me. It probably shouldn’t: I’ve just been watching a scene from a film of the battle which features the ball and it’s just about as wrong as it could be and, as far as I know, no one cares. But I’ve already read a lot about it and I’ll read more and I’m wondering about having a go at reading Vanity Fair, which features it. And then it will be a few paragraphs and it will probably still have a mistake in it.

But in the first edition of The White Rajah I wrote ‘hansom cab’ when I meant ‘hackney cab’ and a well-regarded critic took me to task for putting the cab on the street a few years before it could have been there. So somebody cares, if only to maintain their illusion of superiority. I can’t say I was grateful to that critic, but we need her and people like her, because it’s easy to slip from historical fiction to fantasy. But in the end, I still can’t give a precise answer to my opening question: how much does historical accuracy matter?