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. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

2016: a year in blog posts

My last post talked about the year I had in real life, but this week is the by now traditional summary of the year as seen through my blog. I am always interested (and usually surprised) by the posts that have caught people’s attention over the year. As ever, I have to point out that I use Blogger and Blogger’s analytics really aren’t very good, so I can only say which posts were the most widely read: I just don’t have reliable figures on how many people saw each one. I can say that the number of people reading my blog seems to rise every year, possibly in part because of people who have discovered it through Twitter. I also seem to have the odd surge of interest from Russia. Friends of mine who have experienced similar numbers of hits from the former USSR put it down to lots of Russians interested in their books, but I suspect it’s hackers. But then I’m a sad cynic.

Anyway, enough of the caveats. What was my most popular blog of 2016?

Drumroll.


This was, by a considerable margin, the most widely read post I have ever written.

Jane Jackson produced a lovely new book in 2016: The Master’s Wife. It’s a historical novel with much of the action in Egypt. It includes scenes where our heroine travels into the desert and lives for a while with the Bedouin. 




I loved the book. I was particularly interested in the way that Ms Jackson handled scenes and situations not a million miles from events in Burke and the Bedouin. Like a lot of male authors writing stories where heroic men (and they almost always are men) fight off hordes of evil villains without a petticoat in sight, I have always harboured a deep suspicion of that sub-genre capitalised as Historical Romance. It’s an area where Jackson has a fine reputation with several nominations for major awards from the Romantic Novelists Association.

It turns out, though, that Jackson is also a fine historical writer even if no bodices are being ripped and a heaving bosom is never pressed against a manly chest. But I do think women do history differently from men and I describe some of the differences here.


This was a straightforward review of a book by an author I admire. It’s a romance, though, and I’m not big on romance. I said so in the review and this seems to have excited more interest than I expected, making it one of my most-read posts ever.





Although this was only published in December, it was my third most widely read post of the year. Well, when I say “my” I mean it showed up on my web-site: it was actually written by Jenny Kane, guest-blogging here as she has decided to move into historical fiction and was writing about the Robin Hood legend and the real-life background to The Outlaw’s Ransom. She’s been on my blog before and she was very popular then too. Perhaps I should just give up writing myself and pass my blog over to her.





I really enjoy Nell Peters’ work, but it’s difficult to say why. I worry that it might be because we share a warped sense of humour. Anyway, I gave up on trying to review them and asked her onto my blog to speak for herself. The result was one of the weirdest posts I’ve ever seen here and (disturbingly) one of the most popular.


Terry Tyler has been amazingly supportive of my writing, so I was very nervous when I sat down to read hers. It’s always awkward if you read a book by someone you know and don’t like it. Fortunately I did like it.




Why so many readers for a straightforward review? Because Terry is a star at using social media, that’s why. If you have books to sell, it’s worth watching her to see how it’s done. Terry’s Twitter handle is @TerryTyler4 and she blogs at http://terrytyler59.blogspot.co.uk.



This summer I gave a talk on James Brooke at the Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival. Swords featured.

This was a short post suggesting that people might come to see it. Following Terry Tyler’s advice, I promoted this like mad, with the result that hundreds of people read the post. Sadly, not nearly as many made it to mid-Wales to see the talk, but you can’t have everything.

If you want to read about the talk itself, have a look at Presenting the Fact behind theFiction.




So that was my six top-rated posts. Looking back, it does seem that perhaps they are rather more about other people and their books than about me and mine, but I did appear on a lot of other writers’ blogs when Back Home came out, so I can’t really complain.

Just outside the top six was the compulsory post about social media – always a popular read. (Social media and other random thoughts). Further down, there were some serious posts about history and quite a lot about the metallurgy and art of non-European swords. (It’s a thing of mine.)


A very pretty knife


Unusually this year, there was only one post from me on tango and this barely made the top twenty. But if any of you want to know how to persuade someone to dance with you without saying a word, I wrote about this in August.




So, there we are. Book reviews, guest blogs, history, swords and tango. Yes, that is pretty much the story of my life. Why not join the party? It’s nice if you subscribe to the blog, though I’ve finally fixed the ‘Comments’ section so you should be able to write about anything that interests you here without being subscribed. Or comment on my author page on Facebook. Or, if you prefer to make very pithy comments, there’s always Twitter: I’m @TomCW99.

I look forward to hearing much more from you in 2017.

Monday, 2 January 2017

A Fat Thrush. (Not a Round Robin)

I came back from our Christmas break this year to find a complaint from a friend that they had not received a Round Robin full of details of our exciting overseas adventures and all the books I have published. The reason, I fear, was very simple: we live an extremely dull life these days and there didn't seem to be a lot to say. Prior to our Christmas break in France, the only time we have been out of the UK was a short holiday in Istanbul back at beginning of the year. There has only been one book published, too: Back Home. I'm proud of that one and very happy with the reception it has received, but that was back in April, so long ago it seems I can barely remember it.

Yet, for all that everybody is, quite understandably, going on about what a terrible year 2016 has been, here on the domestic front it has seemed to slide by pleasantly if unexcitingly. That's left me wondering just exactly what we did do last year and, given that I am always being told that I should be more open on my blog posts, I thought that once I’d worked out what it was, I'd share it with you.

A surprising amount of our time was spent in mid-Wales. Regular readers of the blog will know that we like to get there quite often but every year we promised ourselves that we will have a proper Welsh holiday and every year we don't. Except 2016. After a particularly frantic couple of years, our son finally got to take a proper break from his work with the Army – if only because all the abuse he has put his body through landed him up in hospital. The result was that he took himself off for an extended rest in God’s Own Country and we spent a lot of our summer joining him there. It was glorious! I'm not going to preach about how we shouldn't boast about our holidays on Facebook because everybody does it and they won't stop just because I moan, but there's no doubt that we miss a lot of simple pleasures because time spent in mid-Wales doesn't produce the exciting status posts of  time spent in some exotic distant spot. It does, though, produce astonishingly high levels of relaxation and well-being, punctuated with long walks and, because every stereotype has a basis of truth, lots of sheep.


Another UK destination I had been meaning to visit the years but never got around to was Bletchley Park. We finally got there in the aftermath of my birthday/launch party celebrations for Back Home and I was blown away by the place. I did blog about it here and if you have any interest in the beginnings of the world of code breaking and computerised eavesdropping that ended with GCHQ, I do recommend a visit.

St George's Day produced one of those completely mad, random events that are pretty well impossible to plan, but unforgettable when they happen. Following a casting call on Twitter, I ended up performing in Henry V at the Wallace Collection. I haven't been on stage since I left school so my two minutes of fame was as unexpected as it was exciting. Self-help books are always telling us that we should do something new that scares us and sometimes they are right. It was a wonderful day and one of the highlights of the year.

Why do you stay so long, my lords of France? Waiting for someone who can act, probably. 


Something I have always wanted to do is to train my own hawk. I doubt it will ever happen – I simply don't have the patience – but I came surprisingly close when we found an injured kestrel in the street and took it in until it was better. It was only with us for around four days which saw it changed from a huddled, terrified creature hunched on the floor in the corner of our spare room into a confident, sassy flyer eating us out of house and home until we could open the window and watch it fly away. And, yes, it did perch, however briefly, on my hand and for a moment I was some medieval hawker with my own proud bird. Another unforgettable moment.



What else? We went to a polo match (as you do) and danced the night away at a ball in a 15th century castle. I spent two days of lectures being taught about the metallurgy and art of non-European swords and a morning clambering over tanks, so I now have a detailed theoretical knowledge of how to kill you in the century of your choice. I even gave my own lecture on South-East Asian weaponry to an audience largely dressed in Victorian costume. Don’t even ask.

2016: a miserable year for many people in many ways, but, here at home, perhaps not so bad after all.