Friday, 24 June 2016

The World of 'Back Home': the Pantheon

Next time you're going down Oxford Street, have a good look at the Marks & Spencer on the corner of Poland Street.

Look at the top of the building. What's that sign?

That's the only visible reminder of the Pantheon, which was built as Assembly Rooms in 1772. Like all Assembly Rooms, it was designed to look very grand. The main ballroom was, at the time, one of the largest in England and its central dome was modelled to resemble the Pantheon in Rome. It was initially very successful but fashions come and go and it was eventually converted into an opera house. Unfortunately, in 1792, after only one complete season of opera, it was burnt down. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1795, but it never regained its initial popularity and, after briefly being converted to a theatre, it was closed in 1814.

In 1834 it was rebuilt as a bazaar and it was still in use as, essentially, an early shopping mall in 1859 when Back Home is set. My 1862 Bradshaw says that the ground floor houses "a well-arranged bazaar, with a conservatory, laid out in exquisite taste, and abundant in birds and flowers". There were also fish swimming in a central fountain and, to add to the zoological theme, more animals in pet shops.

In 1859, the place was past its best, but Bradshaw features it in its list of 'Places worth seeing' noting that it has "a very agreeable lounge".

It was demolished in 1837 and replaced in 1838 by the branch of Marks & Spencer, which is still there.

In this excerpt from Back Home, William and Susan, who are in the West End to pass counterfeit coinage, go to the Pantheon for a break from their felonious activities.
We took our lunch at the Pantheon, walking through the imposing columns of the Oxford Street entrance like a couple of swells. We had yet to work our business in this place. It called itself a bazaar rather than a department store and, despite its elaborate architecture, I had not realised what a great variety of goods were sold there. Its appearance suggested that it had once been very grand, but it was clearly past its best. Many of the shops catered for children and Susan was captivated by the monkeys gambolling in a pet shop window. While she was thus occupied I looked about and noticed that the variety of businesses operating under this roof provided an ideal opportunity for us to pass off a considerable amount of coin in one afternoon.
Susan’s excitement as the monkeys bounded over to grimace at her through the glass drew me back to the present. I wished I could share her simple delight in small things. For myself, I was appalled at how quickly and completely I had taken to the criminal life, so that where others saw innocent amusement, I saw only the opportunity for deception.
At least I could pause from my felonious labour and enjoy our meal. We made our way to the tea rooms, where a light luncheon (cold ham and tongue with salad) was served while we watched the fish swimming around the fountain that decorated the centre of the place. Despite the background bustle of women – for they were mainly women – coming and going, it was peaceful and, for the first time in a while, I felt I could relax. The lettuce was wilting and the pieces of celery in the salad far from crisp, but my companion pronounced it excellent. She was, under it all, a nice girl, and I imagine that, if life had been kinder to her, she might have worked in a shop or, perhaps, even been a governess. As it was, her outings with me were a pleasant break from the usual way she earned her bread. I could see no obvious signs of pox, but if she were not infected now, I was sure she would be soon.
‘Let’s order arrowroot cake.’ She sounded like a little girl being treated for her birthday. ‘They say that’s special here.’
I had not the heart to deny her. We both ate the arrowroot cake. It was lighter than most cakes – an advantage of the arrowroot, I supposed – but there was a trace of bitterness to it that the sugar liberally sprinkled on top failed to disguise. I must admit that I was unimpressed, but Susan was thrilled. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’ve eaten at the Pantheon and had their famous cake. Won’t the other girls be jealous?’

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Back Home is available on Kindle for £2.82/$3.99 or in paperback for £9.99/$15.99. This link should take you straight to it:

Friday, 17 June 2016

Seven Dials

This is Short's Gardens in Seven Dials. In 1859 it was called Queen Street and it is the location of much of the action in Back Home.

Back then, the area was mainly residential, although there was a large brewery nearby.

Seven Dials was built in the early 1690s. It was intended as an affluent residential district, but the development of the new West End in the eighteenth century left it passed by. People wanted the fine squares and wider carriage roads of areas like Cavendish Square (which started development in 1717). Seven Dials, with its narrow streets and triangular road layout (designed to maximise the residential space while minimising taxes associated with frontage onto the road), was just not fashionable enough to attract the kind of tenants the developers had hoped for.

Seven Dials fell into decay, abandoned to squatters. The once-fine houses were taken over by the lowest class of people who could find nowhere else to live. The area became a slum, known in those days as a "rookery".

The first time I ever saw a reference to Seven Dials was in Disraeli’s
Sybil, in which the heroine is rescued from a mob there. It is depicted as a place of utter lawlessness. Reading about it in other works of fiction and non-fiction, different people seem to describe it very differently. To some, it is just a noisome slum, to others an unspeakably vile place. Williamson’s version veers towards the negative, but his Seven Dials is by no means the worst you can find in literature. Dickens and Mayhew both wrote about the area. Neither, it is fair to say, were impressed.

Here's my take on what the place was probably like. Here, John Williamson, our narrator, is seeing it for the first time.

I suppose the first thing to remark was the stench. The density of humanity crammed together in London means that there is inevitably some olfactory evidence of the crowds of people inhabiting every street. Unfortunately, the development of a system for the removal of effluvia below ground has not kept pace with building work at street level and above. For anyone who has spent time in the East, the sanitary arrangements in London seem remarkably civilised, although the great men of the city are always demanding that ‘something should be done’ to improve things. At Seven Dials, however, matters had reached a completely different level. As the landlords had abandoned their properties, it seems likely that there were no arrangements for sewerage at all. Even where I stood, I could see, looking at the roads to my left, that the streets themselves were being used to carry human waste away from the buildings. I have remarked on it being an unusually warm summer. Presumably cold, wet weather brought its own problems, but it’s certain that dry, warm days accentuated the foul smell wafting from this slum. The broken windows and battered doors – some seemingly no longer attached to their frames – provided visual confirmation of what my nose had already told me. These were no longer houses or homes – they were mere hovels in which the dregs of society subsisted.
That people did subsist there was all too obvious. At the end of the road where I was standing, there was hardly anyone about, but looking down toward the centre of the rookery I saw, it seemed, hundreds of figures. Many were huddled on the pavement, apparently oblivious of the filth around them. Some were lying – whether sleeping or dead I had no idea – while children skipped over their bodies as they ran in and out of the doorways. I can not say what it was about those children that repelled me. It should have been a sight of happy innocence – I could even hear occasional laughter – but there was something about the way they moved that was utterly malevolent.
I do not know how long I stored looking down that street. I think that my sudden exposure to the reality of Seven Dials was so overwhelming that I could not think sensibly for a while. Certainly there was no question now of my visiting Queen Street that afternoon.
I was suddenly aware of somebody approaching me. I was by now so nervous that I turned on my heel ready to strike out to defend myself. Just in time, I recognised the reassuring uniform of a Metropolitan policeman.
‘You weren’t thinking of going down there, were you?’ He nodded his head in the direction I had been staring.
I assured him that I was not.
‘Best be off than,’ he said. His attitude did not seem unkindly. He nodded his head again, this time in the direction of George Street, which ran North. ‘I’d head up that way, sir, if I were you.’
I mumbled my thanks and set off back toward Oxford Street and civilisation.

Nowadays, it's a smart shopping and entertainment area. I'm a regular visitor to the Seven Dials Club, one of the few places in London where you can dance tango to live music every week. 

People there tell me about the warehouses that dominated the area in the 20th century. Apparently the club where I dance was once a paper warehouse and there was a printers nearby. The brewery has long gone, replaced in part with another dance studio. The musical, Matilda, plays in a theatre at the end of the road and the area is full of coffee houses and smart restaurants. John Williamson would not recognise it. But at night, when the rain glistens on the cobbles, you can still imagine what it must have been like 150 years ago:  a world of costermongers and crooks, beggars and whores, confidence men and forgers. That's the world that Back Home is set in.

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Back Home has had astonishingly good reviews (like THIS ONE and THIS ONE). It's available on Kindle for £2.82/$3.99 or in paperback for £9.99/$15.99. This link should take you straight to it:

Friday, 10 June 2016

Friday again, and time for another blog post.

I've been wondering what to write about this week. Not because I have no ideas, but rather because I'm a bit overwhelmed. I've been posting book reviews a bit lately and I do have a book to review – the definitely superior quality historical romance, The Masters Wife by Jane Jackson. That said, I been reviewing quite a few other authors’ works lately and I don't really want this to turn into a book blog, so I'm afraid Jane will have to wait for another week.

Then there was the idea of writing about the places that feature in Back Home. I have photographs of many locations as they are today and I had intended to write about them here. I got as far as writing the first one (The Crown ) but then I got distracted. (I'm easily distracted.)

A couple of days ago, I read an article explaining that you should take blogging seriously as a way to sell your books. Perhaps, I thought, I could write about why I write this blog, what I'm trying to do, and how nice it would be if you wrote back to me in the 'Comments' at the bottom of the page (please do). Then, yesterday, I saw a publisher promoting books for Fathers Day and it occurred to me that rather than write about how you can use a blog to sell books, I could try actually using my blog to sell books.

I've written three books are now about the Napoleonic spy, James Burke. James Burke really existed and the first of his adventures, Burke in the Land of Silver, is quite closely based on real life. James Burke, when not romantically involved with queens, princesses, or dangerous ladies, was a very successful agent for the British. It was probably due to his intelligence that the British army was able to seize Buenos Aires, although political incompetence meant they were unable to hold the city for long. Burke in the Land of Silver is a tale of derring-do with the action moving between Europe and the Americas as Burke plots both with and against the Spanish to serve the political interests of his country. There's more than a touch of James Bond to James Burke, but his adventures are firmly rooted in historical fact. There are battles and secret messages and beautiful women and daring escapes. There may even be a touch of the supernatural – or is there? All in all, it's a rollicking good read and history has never been so painless.

The second book about James Burke, Burke and the Bedouin, is set in 1798. Napoleon has taken the British by surprise and invaded Egypt. It's part of the Napoleonic wars that people nowadays tend to have forgotten, though the Battle of the Pyramids and Nelson's great victory at the Battle of the Nile were the sort of stuff that, once upon a time, every schoolboy was supposed to know. I say "boy" advisedly, because I suspect that this style of teaching left many schoolgirls cold. Moving away from that approach is hardly the end of ‘proper history teaching’, 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. If you give this one to your dad, he'll enjoy the story and possibly not even notice that he knows a lot more about Napoleon's early campaigns when he finishes than he did when he started.

From the beginning of Napoleon's rise to domination over Europe to the end: Burke at Waterloo starts with Napoleon exiled in Elba and ends with his defeat at the eponymous battle. Burke's adventures start in Paris, foiling a plot to assassinate Wellington. (The plot really existed.) He pursues one of Napoleon's agents to Brussels with the chase coming to a deadly climax on the field of Waterloo itself.

So there you are: three books that make ideal Father's Day gifts. Each one, obviously, is a stand-alone story, though all three together will take you on a thrilling ride through the history of the wars with France. A quarter of a million words, eight countries, one of Britain’s greatest sea victories and the Battle of Waterloo seen up close and personal, all for less than £8 on Kindle. (Burke and the Bedouin and Burke at Waterloo are also both available in paperback at £9.99.) Fathers Day sorted and I’ve paid attention to the idea that I should try to sell my books on my blog.

Have a good week.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Another book I didn't write

There's been a lot about me and my books on the blog lately. It's fair enough, I think: after all, I write it. This week, though, I thought I'd like to switch the attention to another Accent author, Nell Peters.

Nell's books are often quite strange, but in a good way. This is a review of 'Double You', the first of a detective series featuring DI Rose Huntingford.

Double You: Nell Peters

Buckle in and prepare for a very strange ride, featuring homicidal clowns, mysterious cults and psychopathic twins.

Disturbing as the plot often is, as gruesome murder succeeds gruesome murder, it's an effortless read. Nell Peters writes in an easy style that pulls you into her stories. It kept me up past my bed-time, which is praise indeed.

Nell has a taste for the grotesque and a tendency to Grand Guignol that can be disturbing. The plot moves swiftly from the mundane to the weird to the borderline insane, but it does carry you along with it. Apart from the team of detectives (nicely drawn and engaging) the vast cast of suspects, victims, suspects who become victims, victims who may still be suspects, secret agents and casual lovers can be hard to keep track of, especially as so many of them turnout to have double (or triple?) lives. In the end, though, it all washed over me like a pleasantly confusing fog. Think of TV detective Lewis but with less Oxford architecture and more gritty urban life.

I like 'Lewis', as do millions of others. I liked this. You may well like it too.