Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Roamin' with the Romans

I took the chance during the countdown to Christmas to do something I'd always planned; walk at least part of Dere Street, the Roman road between the Scottish border and the fortress at Trimontium. My wife dropped me off at Jedfoot, close to where the road crosses the river Teviot and I set off up what looked like a muddy farm track that headed directly south towards the Cheviot Hills.

The legionary marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviots is where I made my first real connection with the Romans as a 16-year-old labourer on a Youth Opportunities Scheme. Every morning during the summer of 1972 I'd be packed off in a smelly old van driven by Taff, the Arnhem veteran, and put to work by Jock, the tall, wiry foreman of the labouring gang. The camp had been ploughed up by the Forestry Commission to plant trees and our job was to turn the peat back into its original position in the three foot furrows. The turf banks the Romans created at Pennymuir to protect their camp are still there and it's always struck me that using my mattock and shovel to cut the peat into manageable chunks, I was doing exactly what the legionaries would have done to create the place in 80AD or thereabouts.

Dere Street begins in York and continues as far north as Edinburgh, probably following the line of march of governor Julius Agricola's invading force. Most of it now lies under the A1 and A68 trunk roads, but there are sections between Pennymuir and Jedfoot which still exist more or less as they did when it was built, with the ditches and banks still visible and a carriageway as much as twelve paces wide. It's what we call 'clarty' underfoot, but wonderfully atmospheric and you can imagine yourself meeting a marching century round every corner. Look back north from any rise and the road heads arrow straight for the triple peak of the Eildon Hills which gave Trimontium its name. Agricola's cavalry would have scouted this route ahead of the main army and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to work out the reaction of the locals to the arrival of the armoured might of Rome.

I walked out about five miles to Cappuck, where there was a permanent Roman cavalry station as well as at least four marching camps. The signal station was built by the Twentieth, the legion which was home to my character Valerius, and we know at least two of the men who were stationed there. Aulus Julius Severus, a tribune of the Gaestetae auxiliary cavalry, and Gaius Quintius Severus, who commanded the First Cohort of the Faithful Vardulli, left altar stones which are now built into the fabric of Jedburgh Abbey, and have incredibly survived two thousand years and the ravages of half a dozen more invading armies.

Look carefully and you can just see the peaks of the Eildons

The Romans have still left their mark

You can just imagine the legions marching north 
Cappuck: these fields would once have thronged with infantry and cavalry
From Cappuck, I walked back over the hill to Jedburgh, for a pint at the Tavern with my mate Iain and brother in law Jimmy, and a perfect end to the day.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

These boots were made for walking

Today I took my old walking boots for a last wander through the Ochil Hills between Sheriffmuir and Dumyat before they're put out to grass. It was a poignant occasion, because I've had them for fifteen years and they've been to the top of Mont Blanc. Not I hasten to add with me in them, but with their original owner, my late and still sorely missed friend and colleague Tim Harper.

Tim sold me them for a tenner sometime around 1996. He was an incredible character who threw himself into everything he did with huge enthusiasm, whether it was his job as chief sub of the Daily Record, climbing an alp or casting a fly at a rising trout. The seven mile walk I did wouldn't even have counted as a stroll to a man who could do two Munros before breakfast and still be looking for more at the end of a ten hour day in the hills.

He died on the way down from an ice climb on Ben Nevis in early 2001. Totally professional in everything he did, the rescuers who recovered his body praised his equipment and preparation. It was just one of those things: an ice shelf that gave way beneath his feet.

I never put those boots on without thinking of him, but they've done their bit and into the cupboard they'll go. Next year I plan to get back into the hills properly, so Santa will be bringing a pair of cracking new boots and an all-weather jacket. It was a fantastic day for a walk, with frost on the ground, the air scalpel sharp and crystal clear and the Trossachs a glorious saw-toothed wall of white in the distance. I saw thrushes and redwings by the hundred in the woods, flocks of bullfinches, chaffinches, great tits and blue tits, and dozens of blackbirds in the hedgerows making the most of the last of the berries. When I reached the highest point on the moor I sat on what looked like an old burial mound and watched a falconer flying an eagle or a big hawk through my binoculars. It followed him around like a dog while he probed the ground with some kind of electronic gizmo that emitted high-pitched sounds, presumably to spook the rabbits below. Tim would have loved it.

Every foot of the ground I walked over has been touched by history. Great armies roamed these hills during the battle of Sheriffmuir. Dumyat was the fortress of the Maetae, the warlike tribe who had to be bought off  by the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, during his invasion of Scotland. Signs of habitation dot the bleak landscape, whether it's the ruins of old shepherd's cottages and field boundaries or the moss-covered stumps of standing stones above intriguing earth barrows. On the way back down I pondered over what came to be Bridge of Allan would have looked like two thousand years ago. I suspect that the focus of habitation would have been the shelf of land occupied by the rich folks of Upper Bridge of Allan these days. It would have looked out over an incredibly rich and diverse flood plain where the Forth, Teith and Allan rivers meet. The waters would have been filled with salmon and trout, and the marshes with waterfowl. Otter would have provided furs and there would have been deer and wild boar aplenty in the woods on the hills around. If ancient life was ever idyllic, then this was one of the best places in Scotland to be.

None of that would have interested Tim much. The past didn't draw him as it does me. He was that fascinating paradox: a man who lived for the future, but managed to treat every day as if it was his last. There's a message there somewhere that I'll carry into the New Year with me.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

As Private Fraser would say: We're all doomed!

Today my blog celebrates its fourth anniversary. When I started it on December 17, 2007, I had very little idea what a blog was and, cliched though it sounds, the world was a very different place.

My motivation was to give people, particularly unpublished writers, an insight into what it felt like during the countdown to my first book, in all its excitement, exhilaration and downright terror. It pledged to be a warts and all account, but, of course, it hasn't been entirely transparent; there are some inner fears and conflicts you have to keep to yourself for your own sanity. Yet looking back over 166 posts and four years, it pretty much sums up my life as it has been lived.

The highs have been the books and their launches, the support of my family, the reacquaintance with old friends and the making of new ones: finding a courage and confidence I didn't know I had to walk away from a perfectly good job into an uncertain, but always exciting future. There are more books on the way and the ideas keep coming. The lows? The usual mundane stuff about surviving until the next pay cheque comes through. An occasional feeling of aloneness that is more imagined than real.

They have been four momentous years, but the next four promise to be more momentous still, and for all the wrong reasons. When I look at the world today compared to that day in 2007, the future is filled with threats. Unemployment as I write is the highest for 17 years, particularly among the young, and it will continue to rise, possibly even to Great Depression levels. The lost generation will not just be a convenient political soundbite, but a reality. 

Polarisation between left and right, rich and poor, and north and south has never been greater in my lifetime. Take a look at political forums or the comments on national newspaper stories and the language is ever more extremist. If you listen carefully, even at the highest levels, you can hear the sound of sabres rattling. A week ago, a Conservative MP talked about France using EU laws as "an Exocet aimed at the heart of the City", a deliberate and inflammatory harking back to the Falklands War. Yesterday, I heard a steely-eyed government minister describe with relish how Typhoons and helicopter gunships will be deployed above London during the Olympic Games at the same time as thirteen and a half thousand British soldiers are helping 'secure' the event. Why not go the whole hog and put a Challenger tank on every street corner? It will certainly come in handy when the inevitable riots start as the dispossessed see the fruits of their sacrifice go up in smoke in a multi-million pound fireworks display.

On the one hand we have an immature, elitist cabal who think it's a good idea to target chemotherapy patients for benefit cuts, on the other a leaderless, demoralised sham of an Opposition whose toothlessness opens the way for the champagne socialists controlling the unions to start throwing their weight around. The only good thing about our political system is that one way or the other the Opposition has the ability to expose and occasionally curb the worst lunacies of the lot in power. If there is no opposition where does that leave us? In Scotland, Labour is about to elect a leader who will guarantee Alex Salmond's place as First Minister for as long as he chooses. At the same time, support for independence grows, not because there's a huge appetite to break up the UK, but because the alien, fundamentally selfish, political philosophy currently in vogue in the south is anathema to most Scots. The irony is that we've never needed unity and mutual economic support more.

Time to stop when a blog turns into a rant, but I, like, I suspect, most of the disempowered Centre, am angry and fearful. I make one last prediction. The thing that brings it to a head will be the lack of understanding or genuine care amongst the current incumbents of Downing Street. Understanding of the real terror when you don't know where the next mortgage payment is coming from and your home is drowning in negative equity. Understanding of what it's like to graduate with a good degree and a one in ten thousand chance of getting to use it. Understanding that, when the world is falling apart, people don't need lectures or more pain, they need hope.

Oh, yes, and a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The fork in the road

Authors spend a lot of time considering What if? or what I think of as the fork in the road. Take the left fork and you might buy the winning lottery ticket, take the right and your car might be squashed flat by a tank transporter. That kind of thing. It can be a matter of choice or chance, or maybe even someone else's arbitrary decision.

I found myself asking the What if? question the other night when I watched a TV programme called The Hudson's Bay Boys. In it, the BBC had brought together five Scots who had worked for the Hudson's Bay Company in the 60s,70s and 80s. The HBC actively sought out young Scots men to run their remote Arctic Circle stores from the 1800s to the 1980s, and thousands made their way across the Atlantic. It was a fascinating story of young men - teenagers - journeying from their homes in Selkirk, St Andrews, Dumfries and the Shetlands to seek out adventure and a new life in one of the harshest localities on earth. 

I think this is a remarkably tidy and well kept store at the
 height of summer. It would be very different in the winter
While their contemporaries worked 9-5 in mills and offices, they ran the isolated company stores, traded for furs with their Inuit customers and hunted seals and caribou in temperatures that sometimes fell to minus 50. Before they reached their twenties they had become key members of the almost completely isolated communities they served. In one clip, Jim, the Shetlander, told how he'd pulled teeth, delivered babies and wept as he remembered the only person he couldn't save using his self-taught medical skills. They integrated in a remarkable way with the Inuit people; four out of the five had married local girls and now had children and grandchildren. The biggest upheaval in all their lives had been the celebrity sponsored anti-fur protests of the 70s and 80s. When Brigitte Bardot posed with a doe-eyed, fluffy white seal pup nobody worried about the native Inuit as the trade price of a sealskin crashed from 34 dollars a pelt to eight dollars and their economy collapsed, threatening the whole Inuit way of life.

The reason I asked myself What if? is that in 1972 I answered an advert in The Scotsman asking for young adventurous men to apply to join the Hudsons Bay Company, and, about the time I was turning turf in a Roman camp in the Cheviot Hills, went up to Edinburgh for an interview. I shudder to think what kind of weedy specimen I looked to the interviewers at 16 years old, but what if I'd got the job? My life would have turned out entirely differently and I'd be a different person now. Would I have written books? Maybe I would have written them a lot earlier, because there wasn't a lot to do during the eternal winter nights apart from read, write and listen to the radio. I like to think that I would have miraculously acquired the DIY skills that elude me today, not fainted during a difficult birth and yanked out a molar without a qualm. I suspect the reality would have been very different

I don't envy them, much, though four out of the five live remarkably fulfilled lives. The welcome they received from people they hadn't seen for twenty years was a testament to their achievements, but their youth was a desperately hard existence and for every success there would have been many failures. 

Still, you can't help thinking: What if?

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Take a walk on the wild side

A nice day for getting the wellies out and heading up to the woods behind the old hill fort where the king's grave is. Beautiful sunny afternoon with a touch of winter in the air, but the wellies were definitely a necessity thanks to the mountain bike vandals who've churned all the paths into a muddy swamp.

This is a great time of the year for seeing things that are a little different. A flock of bullfinches feasting on the seeds among the dead nettles; long-tailed tits hanging upside down from the branches of a silver birch; woodcock and snipe exploding out of the flattened bracken and whipping away low and fast like mini-Meschersmitts. And of course, there are the old favourites; the pheasants hiding away from the guns on the estate over the other side of the river; an enormous buzzard that flapped majestically away accompanied by an escort of shrieking crows; the big roe deer that I caught sight of bounding down the hill through the trees that naturally didn't linger long enough to get a decent picture of.

At least the fungus stayed still long enough for a picture

The Allan was in full spate, but no salmon to be seen

Dunblane Cathedral in the distance from the hilltop

Look close enough and you might see the roe deer
 The walk reminded me that I haven't been getting out enough lately. Hopefully that will change this week when I reach the end of the first draft of The Isis Covenant, but the editor's rewrite of Avenger of Rome is just around the corner, so we'll see.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Something's cooking

Take forty odd talented creative types, put them in a room for two days, add a soupcon of direction, a pinch of encouragement and stir occasionally and what do you get? Well, a lot of laughs and mad ideas for starters, but to really get the best out of this dish you have to allow it to simmer for another five or six months.

That, in a cooking pot, was 360 Narratives, the two day get together I attended at the Barcelo Hotel in Stirling, hosted by the super-efficient Claire and Fiona from Playwrights' Studio Scotland, with a little help from Creative Scotland, and brilliantly marshalled by film maker Grant Keir. The idea was to bring people together from across the arts spectrum and get them to think about working together to create new and innovative projects. This is just the first step, with a residency to follow next March when the writers, screenwriters, playwrights, graphic novel designers and games developers whose projects have the most potential will be given the time and support to work together to begin making them a reality. The brilliant Phil Parker got the ball rolling with a clarion call to find a place in the new creative universe that's opening up all around, and urging people to collaborate with whoever was needed to make it work. Short films that can make a fortune on the internet, simple games that hit the right spot, interactive e-books that cross the divide between film, game and novel, films that can be created using a mobile phone. There's a market for them all. I'd never thought of any of them, but when he told his audience 'Story is the heart of everything' I realised that new doors are opening for writers everywhere.

I met some wonderful people, had my mind opened up to other ways of looking at the writing world, and was enthused, invigorated and finally left completely exhausted after two days of brainstorming that left most of us looking like wet dishrags, but feeling as if we'd really achieved something. When I started, I had no idea I was going to end up standing in front of about fifty people singing a folk song about a mad-eyed Manga warrior dying in a hospital to the tune of Hotel California (I can still hear it, make it go away). The fact that it took the place by storm and won the Genre, Location, Platform pitching competition was all down to my talented scratch team of Tracey, Alton, Fiona and Jessie, who entered wholeheartedly into creating something from nothing in twenty minutes and then had what it took to make it work (Having just seen the video, please excuse the poetic licence). Every one a trooper!

My wife almost had a fit when she saw Speed Dating on the agenda, but by the time I'd spoken to forty people for two minutes at a time over an hour and a half, trust me I wasn't fit for anything.

I won't be one of the collaborators who get together next year, because I have other plans and Valerius is about to march into his most dangerous fight yet, with enemies on every side, but it opened my eyes to a whole new world, and showed that a writer with imagination, talent and commitment need never be idle.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Lest we forget

Remembrance Day fell on Sunday the 13th this year, which, by coincidence, is also the anniversary of the Battle of Sheriffmuir, one of the pivotal battles of the 1715 Jacobite Rising. Every year on November 13, members of the Clan MacRae gather to commemorate the occasion and remember the fifty clansmen who fell, holding the Jacobite left wing and dying to the last man.

Jimi the Piper

Sheriffmuir is on the hill behind Bridge of Allan and Dunblane and it's become something of an annual event for me, a chance to catch up with my friend Jimi the Piper, a proud MacRae who provides the music at the event every year and former colleague from my weekly newspaper days.

Sheriffmuir can be a bleak, forbidding place, all heather and peat bog, and dark evergreens, but as a piece of land where men fought and died for their principles, a perfect spot to remember the dead of conflicts before and since. The MacRae historian gave an overview of the battle. How the Jacobites, led by the Earl of Mar, a man who would have been out of his depth commanding a Sunday school picnic, were on their way south to link up with a second Jacobite force, but had been met by Hanoverian troops commanded by the experienced and battle-hardened Duke of Argyle. The Hanoverians were outnumbered, but were a cohesive fighting force, those fighting for the Stuart cause were clansmen; warriors who knew how to fight, but next to nothing about the art of war. When they met, it was a tale of two flanks. The Hanoverian right overlapped the Jacobite left and the MacRaes died where they stood. On the Hanoverian left, the exact opposite happened and the Government troops were forced back towards Dunblane. The next day, Argyle, thinking he was beaten, but determined to fight again, took the field only to find that Mar, with victory his for the taking, had withdrawn back towards Perth.

Two hundred men, Hanoverians and Jacobites, still hold the ground at Sheriffmuir, beneath three great mounds of peat.

Pupils from St Ninian's Primary, Stirling, laid the wreath
During the two minutes silence, I thought about those men lying forever on this windswept hill, and my grandfather, Johnny Gordon, who left part of his nose and most of his friends on another bleak hillside, on 12 July 1915, when three hundred men of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers from Hawick, Jedburgh, Kelso, Galashiels, Selkirk and Melrose were killed on a single day at Achi Baba in Gallipoli. And I thought of the young men, courageous and professional, now fighting and dying among the poppy fields of Afghanistan, for, it seems to me, even less purpose.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A bird in the hand

Just a short post today with lots of pictures. My daughter Kara and I had a fantastic morning out at the Phoenix Falconry centre near Gleneagles, a birthday gift from my kids. Falconers Adrian and Steph gave us a wonderful insight into the world of raptors as we flew, among others an African Eagle Owl, a rare Caracara from the Falklands, a north American Buzzard that was actually an eagle, and an enormous Bald Eagle called Pilgrim. Passionate, professional and packed with interest, they ensured a memorable day in a wonderful location.

We were hugely impressed with the whole set up. I'd recommend it to anyone and definitely go back, maybe next time to go for the Walk on the Wild Side, when you fly the birds to catch their own dinner!

Kara with Measles the eagle owl

One man and his owl

Edith the Caracara (that's the one with wings) and Steph

She was noisy and fearsomely intelligent (the one with wings)

Kara and the gloriously marked buzzard

It was incredibly elegant in flight
They hit it off really well

The snake-eating eagle packed a punch

But the bald eagle was the pick of the bunch


Happy landings

How could you not love it?

Adrian was a font of knowledge with a host of wonderful tales

Monday, 31 October 2011

Serves me right

Update on previous post.

Call it hubris. Call it comeuppance. Call it the little man on the back of the Emperor's chariot saying 'You are only human'. Whatever you call it, it happened.

After crowing about last week's word output, I'd been working for about three hours today when my Mac ate my entire 51,000 word book. Hit save, it hangs up, then it crashes. Pages has had a failure and been forced to close. Mostly, you lose a couple of pars. This time Pfffft and the file disappears from the desktop. Search all you like, but it is no more. This is the second time, but I'd learned my lesson and I'd backed up my backups and most of my work was saved.

Suffice to say, I didn't do quite as much today as I expected.

We have a saying in the Borders: What's for ee, u'll no miss ee. Next time I'll keep quiet!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Climbing the mountain

It can be a slog, but the view from the top makes it worthwhile
When Caligula was first published, I did an interview with David Robinson from The Scotsman and he teased a lot of very good information out of me, some of which didn't get into the newspaper. It came back to me this week when I noticed a phenomenon that's happened at some point in all my books. It's something that might be interesting to other writers, especially those on their first novel

I'm now on my ninth: five published, one on the way to production, one being written and two crime novels currently looking for a good home. The one I'm working on is The Isis Covenant, a follow up to The Doomsday Testament. A couple of weeks ago I was struggling with it, not certain whether I was in the right place or going in the right direction. The advice I always give other writers is that if you have a problem, just keep writing and you'll eventually write your way through it. So that's what I did, but I had a difficult couple of weeks.

The way I explained it to David was that writing a book is like going on one of those long distance walks in the hills where you plan to tackle two or three Munros. You make a start and you're full of beans, then you come to the long climb to the first summit and all you can see is what's directly in front of you. You're groping your way forward one step at at time and progress is slow. Eventually, though, you reach the top and the view ahead is clear, a glorious panorama that stretches for miles ahead. Suddenly everything is worthwhile and you're racing, you know exactly where you're going and how you're going to get there.

I realise now that all I was doing two weeks ago was learning exactly what the book is about, working out the strengths and the weaknesses. Two weeks ago I was probably averaging two thousand words a day - way short of my usual daily target of three thousand - and struggling to do that. This week I wrote an entirely new opening chapter so the book now starts with a bang that increases the pace of the whole first quarter. In five days I wrote twenty thousand words, which is probably my best weekly output ever. No doubt there'll be another Munro to climb before I'm done, but the view from the top makes it all worthwhile.

*The paperback of Hero of Rome came out two weeks ago after quite a big gap, but it looks as if the wait was worthwhile. It sold 1300 copies in the first week in Asda alone and this week it popped up in the Top 10 historical novels at Waterstones. Transworld have ordered the first reprint. A great start and thanks to everyone who went out and bought it!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Dare to be different

As writers we're always looking for the next big thing. The next Harry Potter. The next Da Vinci Code. The next Sharpe. That mega-bucks super-seller that will catapult its author to literary stardom and have Steven Spielberg knocking at the door waving his chequebook.

Of course, these things are entirely arbitrary. Even if you write a brilliant book or create a brilliant character, there's no guarantee that it'll be an instant success. There's also the undeniable fact that if you create something different, unique and innovative, you'll have a harder job selling it to a publisher than a more commercial, mainstream book with a guaranteed audience. Publishers are much more risk averse than in the past, and with good reason.

Cast your eye across genre fiction lists and you'll find that it's actually very difficult to come up with something that's unique. When I started writing Caligula sometime around 2004 (it was a project then, I didn't dare call it a book) I had no idea how crowded the historical fiction market was. Deep down I wanted to be the next Bernard Cornwell and I knew the name Conn Iggulden. I'd never heard of a guy called Simon Scarrow or read any CJ Sansom. I had no idea that at about the time I sat down and wrote the first sentence another half dozen excellent writers were doing the same with books that would become The Forgotten Legion, Warrior of Rome, Ship of Rome, Gladiatrix and the Empire series. Or that my old mate Bob Low, from Daily Record days, had already had his first Viking novels published and that Giles Kristian was about to follow in his wake. Caligula in its original form actually covers the same timescale as the early Macro and Cato books and Manda Scott's Boudicca series. If I'd known that at the time I probably wouldn't have dared write it.

At the beginning of 2010 I decided I could write two books a year and I put together some ideas for the next big historical thing. One of them was a five or six book series on the English Civil War with a character I thought could well be the new Sharpe and with each culminating in one of the major battles. It really was a great idea, and unique, or so I thought. My editor loved it, but about two weeks earlier the publishers had been presented with an idea for a civil war series with a character who could well be the new Sharpe, etc. etc. So in 2012, it'll be Giles Kristian who begins the journey to Marston Moor and Naseby, not me, and he'll make a brilliant job of it.

Anyway, I have strayed from  the point, which was to celebrate a US publishing deal for a great writer who truly dared to be different. Guy Saville created an entire alternative Africa ruled by the victorious Nazis for his book The Afrika Reich, based on plans that were actually formulated under Hitler. It was an idea so innovative that at first he struggled to find a publisher, but once it was in print his perseverance paid off and it's been a huge success. Now major American publishers have thrown their considerable weight behind it, and that success is about to be deservedly replicated on the other side of the Atlantic.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

That's what chums are for

I tend to steer clear of politics in the blog, although I'm as exercised as anyone by the continuing idiocies of our political masters across the whole spectrum. My excuse is that this isn't about politics, it's about standards and even use of language.

And so to Liam Fox. The interesting thing for me in the last few days is the number of Tory backbench MPs - and there'll be those in the other parties - who appear to genuinely believe he's done nothing wrong. Yes, his chum who at one point lived rent free at the state's expense in the flat they shared, set up a health consultancy at the same time he was Health Secretary. Yes, the same chum miraculously changed his area of expertise to defence at the very moment that Dr Fox became Defence Secretary, but that's what chums do. Chums jet all over the world and sit in on sensitive business meetings with heads of state and high-ranking military officials (it's not yet clear who paid for the jets, but it'll all come out in the wash). Who hasn't got a chum who'd accompany him on 18 trips abroad, to Dubai, and Washington, and New Zealand and Sri Lanka? After all a chap needs someone interesting to talk to when he's stuck on a plane with all those boring civil servants and defence contractors.

Who cares that everyone outside the tranquil and economically independent village of Westminster thinks that, at best, Liam's chum Adam has been living off his back like an ever-expanding leech? And that Dr Fox has been a willing host to his blood-sucking best-man? All that matters is that Liam is one of us and has done a fine job making the armed forces more efficient, on the Greek model. Why, he even set up his own charity ( 'to establish, and develop ... a network of like-minded conservatives in politics, business, journalism and academe on both sides of the Atlantic' - Who knew the definition of charity was so broad?) with his chum, Adam in charge.

And of course, Adam didn't benefit directly from all this networking.

Liam:  I am absolutely confident that he was not dependent on any transactional behaviour to maintain his income.

Interviewer: You what?

Liam: He's got his own money.

Interviewer: How do you know?

Liam: Because he told me.

Interviewer: That's all right then.

Who wouldn't be proud to have a chum like that?

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

History in the making

Just getting organised for tomorrow night's History in the Court event in London. Down on the train from Stirling at 10 in the morning, then back the following day after a breakfast meeting - at Fortnum and Masons no less - with Simon, my editor. Tickets: check. Toothbrush: check. Change of wotsits. What more do you need?

I'll probably try to work on the way up and down: a nostalgic return to the days when I wrote The Emperor's Elephant on the train back and forward between Bridge of Allan and Edinburgh. I didn't find it quite so easy the last time I tried it, but six hours in front of the computer with no internet access is just what I need at the moment. If I get fed up, I'll read one of the dozens of books in my ever-growing TBR pile.

Truth be told, I've always found London a bit intimidating. Too big. Too impersonal. Too many people. Too many bricks and not enough grass and trees. As the song says: I'm just a small town boy ... I can't breathe properly unless I'm within walking distance of the countryside. Last time I was down, I got  bit lost and had to ask directions. Three people ignored me, two just said 'Sorry mite' and walked past and the guy who eventually set me straight had a Scottish accent. What do you expect, I hear you ask? Well it wouldn't happen in Bridge of Allan or Jedburgh, or Edinburgh or Glasgow for that matter. It makes me uncomfortable to see so many people living their lives in self-imposed, self-satisfied blinkered isolation. Something quite 1984ish about it. If you dropped down with a heart attack would they help you, or just step over you?

Anyway I'll let you know how I get on in the next blog. With fifty-odd of Britain's best historical writers in one place at the same time there has to be something worth talking about.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Godfather of Historical Fiction

Thirty years ago I picked up a book in the local library that opened the door to decades of reading pleasure and a contract with excellence that has more or less been annually renewed ever since. That book was Sharpe's Eagle.

Sharpe opened my eyes to Wellington's Peninsular campaign in a way no teacher ever could. Here was the blood and guts of Talavera laid out before me through the eyes of a man destined to become an epic hero of literature. I loved, and still do, the meticulously researched history of the Sharpe books, but it is so much more than that. There are the wonderful, carefully woven fictional stories of love and death and betrayal, the heroines, heroes and especially the villains; who will ever forget the despicable Sergeant Hakeswill, the duplicitous Ducos or the odious Simmerson?

Yet Bernard Cornwell, surely the Godfather of historical fiction, is more than Sharpe. Take your pick from the Grail Quest, Redcoat, Starbuck or Uhtred, but for me the best of them all is the Arthur trilogy, an epic achievement by a remarkable writer.

And he's still going strong! On Monday Mr Cornwell begins a book tour to celebrate the publication of what is, by my count, his 49th solo novel, The Death of Kings. If you get the chance go along and say hello to a true legend.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Onwards and upwards

Had a chat with Stan, the agent, about future projects yesterday and came up with a lot of interesting possibilities. In true morale boosting fashion, he brought along a copy of last week's Bookseller which has The Doomsday Testament featuring at No. 5 in the Movers and Shakers chart, and, would you believe, down from No.1 the previous week.

It can't be bad when you're rubbing
 shoulders with Le CarrĂ©
Great to see James Douglas up there with some of the biggest names in fiction. I knew it had been doing well because it was pretty high up in the Waterstone's thriller chart, rubbing shoulders with Lee Child, James Patterson and John Le Carre, which is fantastic. It gave me a real thrill to be in the same league as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, because Mr Le Carre (aka David Cornwell and dad of my friend Tim) wrote me a letter full of encouragement when I sent him a proof copy of Caligula.

Stan loved my idea for a third Jamie Saintclair book, and I'm now putting together some thoughts for a fourth.

I've already put together a detailed plan for a further three Valerius novels. Avenger of Rome leaves him perfectly placed for The Year of the Four Emperors, in AD 69, when the Empire was torn apart by civil war and which provides the plots for two of the books. There are three possibilities for the third of the trilogy, but I especially like the one that allows me to finally reveal what happened to Rufus and Bersheba at the end of The Emperor's Elephant. Of course, it all depends on my publishers and how well they think Hero of Rome and Defender of Rome have done, but Valerius is growing in character with every book and I'd like to take him as far as I can.

We also talked about how e-books will develop and Stan has some great ideas in that line, and we mulled over the possibility of branching out into non-fiction at some point, although finding the time would obviously be the biggest problem.

AND finally, I took part in a wonderful Write to be Published event at Stirling's Tollbooth on Sunday, when Bob McDevitt of Hachette and I talked about our experiences to an audience of writers, before Nicola Morgan gave a workshop. Nicola very kindly said I was a great example for any writer. I must bear that in mind when I get stuck into The Isis Covenant next week!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Invisible Man

Something occurred to me about The Doomsday Testament recently that gives me a lot of satisfaction as a writer, but that I hadn't realised when I was writing it. There's not a single line of physical description for one of the main characters.

He's not tall or short, fat or thin. His nose isn't blunt or long or sharp. His eyes never twinkle and they have no colour. He exists, but only in the reader's imagination.

It wasn't a conscious decision on my part, but it wasn't a mistake either. It's just that I was so comfortable in the character himself that I never needed to flesh him out. What he is, he is through his thoughts and his feelings, and what other people think, say about or see in him. We believe we know him, because when we first meet him he's part of a certain type of group, but singled out from it because he doesn't quite belong. I'd always wanted him to be an enigma, but I didn't realise just how successful I'd been.

Doomsday and Defender of Rome are off to a great start. They've both had very good early reviews. The hardback of Defender is doing well on Amazon and Doomsday sold around 2,700 copies in the first week, which is impressive for a debut novel by an unknown writer, as James Douglas is. To give it some perspective, if they'd been hardback sales the novel would be sitting at about No. 5 in the UK sales charts. How much of that is down to the tremendous marketing effort by Transworld and how much to my Heath Robinson  campaign on Facebook and Twitter, I don't know, but a huge thanks to everyone for their support.

This week I'll be giving the first draft of Avenger of Rome a polish before it goes off to my publisher, then it's on to The Isis Covenant and another hair-raising adventure for Jamie Saintclair.

Monday, 22 August 2011


URGENT: This is for anyone who received the hacker begging e-mail saying that I was in Madrid and needed money. I scanned my Mac using security software today and it found two Zbots which are a very nasty kind of spyware aimed at getting your bank details. If you received the message and opened it, please do a security scan

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Hacked off

It feels like being burgled. Some time on Thursday night someone hacked into my internet account and sent a message to all of my contacts, saying that I was stranded in Madrid and that I need 1500 euros to get home. Although it wasn’t well written, it sounded plausible because I’ve been in Madrid twice recently, visiting my daughter, and it was signed Doug, rather than Douglas.

The first I knew of it was on Friday morning when I looked on Facebook and one of my contacts had sent me a message warning I’d been hacked. I didn’t think it was a big problem until I checked my e-mails. I had about four hundred saved for various reasons and they were all gone. The hackers had also stolen my entire contacts list.

My daughter Nikki showed me the e-mail she’d got and I felt sick to think that everyone I’d ever had contact with on the internet had been sent something like that. The frightening thing was that they seemed to know that I’d spent time in Spain recently because Nikki had been working there. God only knows what they’ll do with all the information from the e-mails I’ve sent and received.

If I’d had my contacts list I could have sent out a warning, but I wasn’t able to even do that. I immediately went on Facebook where I have about six hundred friends on my personal and author pages and warned everybody, then did the same on Twitter.

It was only this morning (Saturday) that I discovered that a friend of my mum’s had been taken in by the e-mail. Worse, the hackers had come back to her and asked for more money to help pay a hotel bill. It just makes you incredibly sick to think that these cyber vultures are able to prey on someone’s basic instinct to help a friend in need. I only hope that she’s the only one.

My account is with BT, but to be honest they didn’t seem interested in the fact that I’d been hacked, which is pretty outrageous. I spent about three hours on the phone to a young Indian guy trying to get the account working again and he was very good. But you’d think that if phone hacking is so prolific they’d have some sort of provision made to protect their customers. Surely they should have some kind of emergency hotline where you can report it and get an instant response.

Friday, 19 August 2011

But who was the bloke in the beard?

Brilliant! That's all that needs to be said about Wednesday night's launch of Defender of Rome and The Doomsday Testament.

They were sent out into the world on a tidal wave of good will thanks to the seventy plus friends and family who turned out at Blackwell's bookshop in Edinburgh. They came from a' the airts, as we say in Scotland: Jedburgh, Edinburgh, Glasgow and my neighbours from Bridge of Allan. But the prize for furthest flung has to go to my friend Derek who flew in from Delhi.

My speech was a mix of triumph and disaster. My jokes were actually quite funny, but I somehow managed to mislay page five and after a stuttering halt had to wing the rest. Funnily enough that got the second biggest laugh of the night. The biggest was for the mysterious bloke with a beard you could hide a badger in who appeared halfway through. Maybe it was Bob Low's younger, much more handsome brother.

I signed so many books that my wrist ached and I was still doing it when they started putting the lights out.

Bevvy of beauties: My mum, daughter Kara, Siobhan, Lorraine, Sandra and my sister Carol

Our friends Pete and Maureen

And Allison and Alan

Lorna and Ross, my earthquake advisers

Mum and my lovely wife Alison

Siobhan and Carol, from Canada

Standing room only

In retrospect, the tie was probably a mistake

James Douglas makes a late appearance

I don't know about you, but he scares me

The Gees and the Rintouls

Lynne Hawley, Christine and Billy Piper and David Caperauld
So thanks to everyone who came along and to those who couldn't make it, you missed a great night. Roll on next year!

Monday, 15 August 2011

Prepare for launch

I can still remember the heady mixture of exhilaration, excitement, anticipation and, let's face it, pure terror, in the days leading up to my book launch for Caligula in 2008. It was a venture into the complete unknown, like walking blindfold down a busy street filled with pitfalls and possibilities. On the one hand, there were no worries about success or failure, because having a book published was success enough. On the other, it's the nearest thing to putting your newborn up in a fairground coconut shy.

Imagine what it's like doing it with twins.

Defender of Rome, the second in my Valerius Verrens series, and The Doomsday Testament, my first venture into thriller writing as James Douglas, will be launched on Wednesday at a party in Edinburgh (6.30pm at Blackwell's, 53 South Bridge if you can make it). To be honest, I've been so busy finishing the first draught of my next book and shamelessly plugging these ones that I haven't had time to think about it. But with three days to go the adrenalin is kicking in. The terror has been replaced by a mild case of nerves. Apart from that it's much the same.

Experience has taught me to keep my expectations low and my hopes high. With Caligula anything seemed possible. I know now that being an author is about patience: about building an audience and always striving to make the next book better than the ones that went before. And yet ...

For a debut book Doomsday has created quite a stir. It's already into its third printing and it'll be on sale in all the big supermarkets - a first for me and one which opens up a lot of interesting possibilities. Ask me what I'd hope for Defender and I'd say enough advance sales (it takes about two thousand) to get into the hardback Top Ten for the first time.

It doesn't matter how much you try to keep your feet on the ground, a writer always has his head in the clouds.

Monday, 8 August 2011

What is The Doomsday Testament?

What is The Doomsday Testament?
A SECRET that could save the world or destroy it.
A SECRET that governments and corporations are prepared to kill for.
A SECRET that hundreds of men and women have already paid for with their lives.
And the only clues lie in the diary of Captain Matthew Sinclair's final reluctant mission of World War Two.

'I should tell him I am the wrong man for this operation. That I am burned out and numb, and that I welcome the numbness because it protects me from the man I have become. The war has drained me of all humanity. I feel like a boxer at the end of a fifteen round contest. I have nothing more to give.'

Retweet on Twitter or share on Facebook for a chance to win one of five copies of The Doomsday Testament.

Thanks to everyone who already has. All the names will go into a hat and I'll announce the winners at the end of the week.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

What is the Doomsday Testament?

In 1937, Heinrich Himmler sent a team of SS explorers into Tibet on the pretext of carrying out a scientific study into the flora and fauna of the Himalayan mountains. The true purpose of the expedition had a much more sinister purpose: to discover the entrance to the secret underground city of the Vril, the forerunners of the Aryan race, and unlock the powers that would allow the Nazis to dominate the world.
In 2008, art recovery expert Jamie Saintclair is clearing out his late grandfather's house when he finds a scarred box of military mementoes which paint the old man's life in a whole new light. Even more astonishing is the journal Matthew kept detailing his experiences during the war and maintained right up until his last mysterious mission.
Three thousand miles away terrorists launch a daring raid on the Menshikov Palace in St Petersburg and are only thwarted from blowing up the entire collection by the bravery of a Russian security guard. But why would they only remove a single exhibit which is almost worthless in comparison to the Old Masters and priceless statues they could have stolen? What makes an ancient Tibetan casket looted from a Berlin museum in the dying days of World War Two so important?
The Doomsday Testament hold the key. 

Retweet or share on Facebook for a chance to win one of five copies of

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Make it happen - and win The Doomsday Testament

How would you like to win a free copy of The Doomsday Testament? My publishers are giving away five copies to celebrate the publication of the debut thriller by James Douglas. All you need to do to be in with a chance of winning is use Facebook and Twitter to tell your friends and encourage them to tell their friends. If you haven't signed up already you can follow me on Twitter @Dougwriter and on Facebook at Doug Jackson, author.

Over the next three weeks I'll be putting out enigmatic, intriguing hints about the book and in the week before The Doomsday Testament is published I'll distribute links which will allow you to read the first two chapters for free. I need everybody who follows me or is my friend on the internet to share or retweet the posts and ask their friends to do the same. Before publication day on 18 August we'll randomly select five names from the people who've reposted the links and the winners will receive advance copies of the book.

So what is The Doomsday Testament?

The Doomsday Testament is a desperate race against time to find the deadliest lost secret of the Second World War. Art recovery expert Jamie Saintclair didn't know his grandfather was a war hero until he discovered his medals after he died. Alongside the decorations is a journal detailing the old man's war years - and his last, most dangerous mission. The problem is that the final twenty pages are missing and the only way Jamie will find out how Operation Doomsday ended is by unravelling the clues in the journal and the significance of the strange symbol his grandfather has kept hidden for sixty years. The hunt takes him to Germany where memories of the war won't go away and where he must stay one step ahead of the men who would kill to discover the journal's contents.

I think it's a great book, full of drama, conspiracy and cliffhanger action, but I need your help to make it the success it deserves to be. So get the ball rolling by sharing and retweeting this blog to your friends and your friends friends and help make The Doomsday Testament the next big thing.

The Doomsday Testament 'Imagine The Odessa File meets The Da Vinci Code and you won't be far away'  Douglas Jackson, author of Caligula, Claudius, Hero of Rome and Defender of Rome (well he would say that wouldn't he)

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A little piece of history

Think of yourself on the film set of an updated version of Time Bandits. Roman legionaries march by led by a centurion and eagle bearer; knights in full armour launch their horses at each other in the lists; the English Civil war rages on one side, while in a nearby field a group of riflemen gets ready to take on Napoleon. Desert Rats, the Forgotten Army, the Red Berets, Nazi Stormtroopers, Yank GIs with jeeps and half tracks and the Red Army, all living cheek by jowl. Throw in twenty thousand spectators and mix for a kind of T in the Park for people who like armour, guns and swords and you have the Festival of History at Kelmarsh.
Re-enactors of every kind were living the dream

Oh, and then there was the Historical Writers' Association. Thirty two of Britain's best writers of historical fiction and non-fiction holding forth in twelve events over two days, magnificently organised by chair Manda Scott and her merry band of helpers, and every event attended by two hundred people or more. It was fantastic to be there and even better to be part of it. It also proved once again that, as a breed, writers are nice people who'll generally do anything for anybody. I hope it's the start of something big that will get even bigger.

A Spitfire and Messerschmitt duel 
Apart from being on stage with my brilliant panel of Harry Sidebottom (Warrior of Rome), Ruth Downie (the Ruso series) and John Stack (Masters of the Seas), my favourite memory is of smooth Simon Scarrow and the rather more rustic approach of Robert Low as they battled it out verbally to decide who would have won between the Romans and the Vikings. While they debated what an annoying bed-farting, bottom-scratching partner would have been called before the Vikings came up with the word husband it sounded as if World War Three had broken out a hundred yards away and they didn't turn a hair.

Bob Low signs one of many books

I met dozens of people who are fascinated by historical fiction, including two (Jim and Kate) who've become friends through the internet. It was wonderful to see you all. By some miracle Bantam Press had managed to get copies of Defender of Rome to Kelmarsh, even though the ink was barely dry. And I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when out of the blue a Spitfire and Messerschmitt staged a mock dogfight overhead.

The Red Army
Defender of Rome makes it to the shelves
Everybody joined in
Yanks with their tanks
It was a fantastic event for any history lover and if you ever get the chance to go, you really should!