Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Book review: The Custom of the Trade - Shaun Lewis

Shaun Lewis’s book takes us into the world of submarines in World War I. We are all familiar with stories of the horror of the infantry and artillery battles of that conflict and the world of battleships and destroyers is also something we are dimly aware of. People my age, brought up on Biggles, have some notion of what it must have been like to fly in those flimsy biplanes. But this is the first time I have read a book about submarine warfare back then. I didn’t even realise that there had been extensive use of submarines during World War I.

Lewis has served as a submariner and writes authoritatively about life below the sea. Much of the action of the book is based on real engagements and you get a definite sense of what it must have been like in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a submarine submerged on active service. A visit to the Submarine Museum at Portsmouth (I do recommend it) gives you the chance to see inside a late 20th century submarine. Life there must have been crowded and not particularly pleasant, but conditions were luxurious compared with those faced by the sailors at the beginning of the century. The story takes us through different classes of submarines, starting with those used for patrolling Britain’s home waters which, as they were at sea for only three days at a time, had no crew accommodation at all. The men slept on the floor and if, as often happened, the floor was covered in vomit, then they slept in that.
By the end of the story, our hero is commanding an E class submarine which offers more space, although the men often seem to sleep at their posts. This particular submarine is operating in support of the Gallipoli campaign and spends days submerged in the sea of Murmansk. Fortunately for the crew, it has to surface regularly to replenish its batteries by running its diesel motors and these breaks provide the men with their only opportunities to breathe fresh air and bathe. Conditions would seem grim even without the constant danger from enemy mines and naval artillery.

I mentioned “our hero”, and that is what he is. Richard Miller, despite his idiosyncrasies (his Christianity verges on the fanatical and he is a teetotaller, in a service where alcohol is almost a required social lubricant) is not a fully realised character. This doesn’t worry me as I am more interested in the detail of submarine warfare than the personality of the captain, but it may worry others. My feeling is that books like this, plot driven and quite concerned with historical detail, are not the best place to be overly concerned about character, but I have had many comments that my hero, James Burke, would benefit from more fleshing out and I suspect Lewis will face the same sort of criticism.
Miller’s romance with his “kissing cousin” is, similarly, not explored in any great depth. She is defined in terms of her support for the suffragist movement, which gives Lewis the opportunity to provide a fair amount of analysis of the political background to the fight for the vote. He approaches this rather as he approaches the details of the submarines, with a workmanlike methodical take which is much more interested in the politics than Elizabeth Miller’s personality. Again, I am sure that there are people who will criticise this, but I welcomed the chance to learn more about a movement which is more often praised in generalities than analysed in terms of the various factions and their interplay with the established political parties.
The sense of distance that I sometimes felt from the characters was reinforced by a slightly stilted dialogue. This may, though, reflect the way that people spoke during the First World War. Not being quite that old, I can’t say. At the beginning of the book I found it quite irritating, but by the end it seemed completely natural. I think it is a deliberate effect, if only because when Lewis is reporting the conversation of sailors rather than “officers and gentlemen” the language flows much more naturally. This does mean that Miller’s drunken, abusive commander, Thomas Mullan, comes over as one of the most believable characters in the book. He is also the most psychologically complex and I only wish we could have seen more of him.
The Custom of the Trade is an easy book to read. The prose is unpretentious and there is enough action to hold your attention through the technical detail. I enjoyed it, both as a novel and as a way to learn more about an area of conflict I was previously almost completely ignorant of. I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys stories of military history.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Older women and sport: yet another gender gap

If you follow me on Twitter, You will know that I am an enthusiastic skater: not ice skates, but rollerblades which let you skate on the street. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for it now, but I still loved skating round London Lumiere last week and I expect to carry on with the London group skates for a few years yet. But are older women able to enjoy skating too, or are there social pressures for them to stop? At a time when equality issues seem to be dominating the news, Tamara Goriely writes on risk sport from an older woman’s perspective.

Still skating at 60?

In the run up to Christmas I went on a “suicide skate”.  For readers who are not rollerbladers, a “suicide” is simply an unmarshalled street skate, skating around London’s roads with the traffic.  On this occasion I joined around a dozen like-minded people at South Ken tube; put on rollerblades, helmet and wrist guards; and skated over the smooth tarmac of Kensington. We got to enjoy the Tate, the Millennium Bridge (which sings when you skate over it) and the Christmas lights in Regents Street, before getting back to South Ken some 11 miles and 2 hours later.

Enjoying the Christmas lights on skates

I first started doing this in my late 40s – and at the time, I felt very old to be playing around on the road in this way. Now that I’m over 60, I started to reflect on the age and sex-related stereotypes we carry around in our heads.
So is there a feeling that old women shouldn’t skate? You bet. This is most obvious in the shouts from passers-by: “My God, she’s old,” “Didn’t you have a childhood?” and (my personal favourite) “They must be a teenage gang.”  Once, we went through a rather chi-chi Knightsbridge mews. A local resident came out to berate us: “I thought you were adolescents, but now I see you are old enough to know better”. “Madam”, my companion replied, “I’m 58 and having the time of my life”.  Stunned silence.
The shouts are easy enough to shrug off. The comments from my boss more intrusive, especially when she started tutting over each small patch of scrapped skin on my elbow. “You should look after yourself” she would say with false concern, before reminding me that I’d once torn a tendon (which had been done skiing).  This was particularly galling as a 30 year old male colleague with a very similar injury rate was widely praised for his athletic, mountaineering lifestyle.

Skater’s Elbow: hardly a big deal for a man
I became particularly aware of social expectations when I decided to enter the European Masters Marathon at the age of 51.  This was a 26 miles race, to find the fastest inline skater in Europe in each age group: 30, 40, 50 and 60. That year, I was the only British person over 50 to enter.  As I would therefore be “representing my country” the sporting body awarded me the honour of being allowed to wear a GB skin suit. When I told my friends about this, it was greeted with mix of blank looks and outright ribaldry. “A swim suit” my mother said, “why would you wear a swim suit?”.
I went to the web to find out if it was so unusual for older women to compete in masters’ events in minority sports – and was not altogether reassured. A long report from the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation told me that most women over 50 took no exercise at all – and those who did, mainly walked, swam or attended yoga, aerobics or fitness classes. Around 6% cycled, 4% ran and 1% rode horses. Otherwise, nothing. If I was looking for evidence that older women skateboarded, pole vaulted or ski jumped, I didn’t find it.
When I stood on the start line of the race, in Gera, I found only 9 other women in the 50+ group – (compared with 40 who had entered the men’s race).  Germany had entered a full team of 4 women, while the others were Danish and Austrian.  In German culture, it is normal for older women to do competitive sports – but where were the French, Italians, Spanish – or anyone from Eastern Europe? (And as you ask I came 7th, one of the hardest things I have done in my life).
So are things changing? Are the next generation beating down old stereotypes for expected behaviour for women over 50?  Yes, but slowly. In 2017, 12 women entered the 50+ masters marathon from a wider range of countries (including France, Switzerland and Slovakia). And they have an over 70 category now (with 2 entries) so there is hope.  The street skates in London remain popular, with a broad range of ages.

So am I going to end on a motivational slogan – age is just a number, it’s never too late, etc etc? Not really.  Things change as you get older.  I’m more cautious than I used to be. Partly, as time goes on I’ve accumulated more injuries – not just the tendon, but a dislocated shoulder and smashed front teeth (leading to expensive dental bills).  I don’t heal as quickly as I did, and it is normal for older people to take a little less risk. And I’m not as fast – probably because I no longer train for races.
On the other hand, now that I’m semi-retired, and no longer interested in promotion, I can afford to ignore bosses’ comments. I’m more aware of the stuff we carry around in our heads about age appropriate behaviour – and care less. I still remember the sense of joy in taking my roller skates out to play when I was 10. And I’m still not (quite) too old to stop playing yet.

Friday, 19 January 2018

2017: a year in blog posts

At the beginning of every year I like to take a look back over the past 12 months of blog posts to see which ones have been most popular. I’ve blogged slightly more often than usual this year, so there were a total of 61 posts.
I’ve been blogging for years with Blogger, but the statistics on that site are, to put it mildly, suspect and I’ve just changed to WordPress.  (If you’re not already reading this on the new site, do have a look at tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk.) With any lucks,I’ll have a better idea of what’s going on in future, but, for now, I don’t quote the actual number of page views that I get. I think the ranking  gives a good feel for what people are and aren’t interested in, though. It also gives you a chance to see if there were any particularly popular blog posts that you have missed out on. All of the links lead back to the original posts, so they are easy to find.
The Top Twenty blog posts are dominated by Napoleon, Wellington (sadly, definitely in that order) and the Waterloo campaign. These posts take the firstsixtheighththirteenthfourteenth and seventeenth slots. I can take a hint. There will be more about Napoleon soon.
Napoleon crossing the Alps – Jacques-Louis David
The second most widely read post of the year was about Fort Belan. I think it caught the attention of people who were as intrigued as me as to why there should be a miniature fort dating from the 18th century apparently guarding the north coast of Wales. It’s a fascinating place and I was pleased to be able to draw it to more people’s attention.
One of the joys of having your own blog is the opportunity to sound off about aspects of this whole writing business which are exercising your imagination or indignation at the time. I often feel guilty about publishing these because they seem so self-indulgent, but they are also particularly popular – if only with other writers. My grumpy old complaints about trends in modern publishing was worthy of the great Ed Reardon, but it was also the third most read post of the year.
I think this is the first year that my blog has ever got caught up in a political controversy, albeit a very small one and with a significant historical element. There are plans afoot to restore a local park to reflect the original 18th-century plantings there. It is upset a lot of my neighbours and raises interesting questions about what history is exactly, and how historical sites fit into the community of which they are a part. My contribution to the debate was the fourth most read post of the year.
National heritage or local amenity?
Book reviews always attract interest. I’m not a book blogger, but I did carry rather more reviews than usual this year – one of the reasons why there was an unusually high number of posts – and these did get a lot of readers, particularly my review of the excellent Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath and Bernard Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals.
Posts on tango and life in Argentina are not, perhaps, as popular as they once were, but they tend to keep getting read by people over months and years, so you can expect them to continue to pop up occasionally.
Because I was away earlier in the year and to idle to write on some other weeks, I have featured a few more guest bloggers than usual, and some of their blogs have been very popular. Thanks particularly to Marie Evelyn, for her fascinating post on the connection between revolt in the West Country in 1685 and the Barbados today; Marsali Taylor for the remarkable story of a woman nurse in World War I and Jan Ruth for her piece on the Carneddau ponies of Snowdonia.
Jan Ruth takes lovely photos
For much of the year there were very few posts directly promoting my own books, mainly because they were not available outside of North America from summer onwards while I changed publishers. Now that they are all being republished (by Endeavour Press) I have been writing rather more about my work and encouraging people to buy them. Sadly, none of these posts make it into the Top Twenty. Fortunately, I enjoy writing a weekly blog, but, if you enjoy reading it, it would be much appreciated if you would buy one or two of the books. Few British authors actually starve in garrets these days, but many of them work quite hard for ridiculously small financial rewards. If you like a blog (not just mine) please show your appreciation by buying some of the author’s work. Thank you.

Friday, 12 January 2018

New blog posts, new books, new website - so much to enjoy!

It's a Friday and I generally post on my blog on a Friday, but Christmas has disrupted the normal flow of things and I posted on Tuesday. Go and have a look at that. It’s got photos of fireworks and pretty pictures of snow.

I have also blogged as a guest on three other blogs this week. I do recommend them. I'm on Sandra W's blog outlining my plans for 2018 and then I pop up with Jennifer Macaire to talk about researching Burke in the Land of Silver. Finally (for now) Jenny Kane had me over to her place to talk a little about the real James Burke. That surely excuses me from writing much here today, doesn't it?

This flurry of activity is all because Endeavour Press are now republishing all of the Burke books, starting with Burke in the Land of Silver. Hopefully, some of the thousands of people who read this blog will shell out the fairly insubstantial £2.99 that is all that is being asked for the Kindle edition, now available on Amazon. (North American readers will continue to be able to buy their copies through Simon & Schuster.) If £2.99 seems more than you are happy to spend (really?), then the second book in the series is currently available to pre-order at a ludicrously cheap 99p.

I haven't just been writing blogs. Today's authors have to be multi-talented creatures, and I have been turning my mind to designing a website. It's not totally finished yet, but I suspect it never will be, so I am turning it loose on the public. Please go and visit it at http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/ and let me know what you think. You can even contact me directly through the site or by e-mail at Tom@tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk. 

For now, this blog will appear both here and on the new website (at http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/blog/). Eventually I'm hoping you will all move to reading it on the website and new posts will no longer appear here, but old posts will be here as a sort of archived resource for anybody who is interested in reading what I've written about the Indian Mutiny or the Battle of Waterloo or, indeed, making new friends in a dance hall

So, even without my usual Friday blog post here, there is plenty for you to read and enjoy.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

New Year, New Books

A belated happy New Year to everybody.

New Year fireworks at Tignes

I've had a few weeks away from my blog because I've been on holiday for Christmas and the New Year. We spent Christmas in Wales, arriving after the snow that would have cut us off had vanished, leaving us with grey misty days that could have been dull but, where we were, were strangely beautiful. 

The snow returned just as we were leaving.

There wasn't enough to stop us coming back to London where we were able to enjoy an afternoon of dancing tango at the Royal Festival Hall before we were off again to see the New Year in in the French Alps. There the snow fell rather extravagantly, but when the resort wasn't closed down because of the avalanche danger, we had some lovely skiing.

I wouldn't normally apologise for taking a holiday during what so many people (admittedly mainly Americans) now call “the Holidays”, but it was an unfortunate time to be away as it meant that we were still in France when Endeavour press published Burke in the Land of Silver.

When Burke in the Land of Silver was first published, I didn't really understand how vital it is for writers to promote their books. I thought this was something I could leave to my publisher. I was wrong. Nowadays a good part of an author's life – any author, from bestsellers like JK Rowling to less well-known writers like me – is spent promoting their work. With their publication of Burke in the Land of Silver, Endeavour have given me a second chance to make a first impression. Perhaps being out on the ski slopes when that chance came along wasn't a great idea, but sometimes family commitments and the difficulty of organising everybody's diary so we can holiday together is arguably more important than getting my blog out on time.

Still, even if I haven’t been busy on my own blog, you will have had the chance to read things I have written elsewhere. Sandra W has kindly offered me the chance to share my hopes and plans for 2018 on her bookloverwormblog while Jennifer Macaire has allowed me space to talk about the research that goes into a book like Burke in the Land of Silver. On Thursday there will be a piece about the real James Burke on Jenny Kane’s blog (http://jennykane.co.uk) and there will be other stuff coming soon – watch out for details on my Facebook page and Twitter. And if you have a blog and would like to write something (or would like me to write something for you), that would be just amazing.

Anyway, just in case you haven't worked it out, Burke in the Land of Silver is now available on Kindle on Amazon. It's a thrilling story based on the real-life adventures of James Burke who was spying for Britain in Argentina at the beginning of the 19th century. It's just £2.99 on Kindle. A paperback edition should be along soon.

The second book in the James Burke series, Burke and the Bedouin, will be published on 19 January. It is available to pre-order at the ludicrously cheap price of 99p. Get your pre-order in soon!

If you live in North America the books continue to be available from Simon & Schuster.

Anyway, that's all from me for now. Do look out for the posts that will be appearing on blogs all over the place and for news about my much promised new website, which really should be up and running very soon. Most importantly, do all have a very happy (if belated) New Year.