Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A year in the life ...

It's time for the annual Jackson Enterprises end of term report. 2012 was a great year for me in a lot of ways. I published two novels and wrote two others. Avenger of Rome has probably had the best reviews of any of my books so far and I don't think there's any doubt that it's the best historical novel I've written. The Isis Covenant (James Douglas) also received a lot of praise and was undoubtedly a step on from The Doomsday Testament. If that wasn't enough I signed a contract to write another five books for Transworld, for which huge thanks to my former editor Simon Thorogood, whose faith in my ability changed my life.
On the events front, I was given a fantastic welcome at History in the Court and the Historical Novel Society conference in London and appeared on panels, with, among others, the wonderful Bernard Cornwell. I've done readings and panels all over Scotland and met some wonderful people.
The only downside was the cancellation of the Festival of History at Kelmarsh because of the flooding, but hopefully we can make up for that this year.
Going back twelve months, 2012 looked challenging, but I was confident things would work out. 2013 is going to be challenging for slightly different reasons. I have two books to edit - Sword of Rome and The Excalibur Codex, which will be out in the summer - two books to write from scratch, beginning in January, and I'm working on a rewrite of another at the moment which will hopefully be published next year. Oh, and I plan to put The Emperor's Elephant - the final part of the Rufus trilogy - out on e-book. It's also time to think about trying to get my characters on the big screen. I think Hero of Rome is probably the most filmable of my books. A story of doomed love, loyalty, courage, comradeship and sacrifice set against the background of a bloody insurrection. Great characters. Battles on an epic scale, but in a compact, almost claustrophobic setting, and the final heroic last stand. Rome's Alamo. If you have any contacts in Hollywood ...
A Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year to all my readers!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Foreign affairs are improving

One thing I suspect every writer enjoys is when the padded parcel drops through the letterbox with the latest foreign edition. It's always great to see the different designs the publishers come up with and you can't help laughing at being reincarnated as Daglas Dzekson.

Caligula has been published in twelve languages (I think) including Italian, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian,  Serbian, Romanian, Portuguese and Russian. For a while in 2008 I was getting a new foreign deal every couple of weeks. In monetary terms they weren't huge, but it was flattering and exciting to realise that so many people in different countries would be reading the book.

Naturally, when Claudius came out I expected the same, but the world had changed, publishers weren't taking any chances and the foreign deals more or less dried up for a year or two, though they seem to be reviving now.

The thing about them is you enjoy the moment and then forget them.

But this week I received a lovely e-mail from a Spanish gentleman saying how much he'd enjoyed Bestiarius - the Spanish edition of Caligula, published by Ediciones B of Barcelona - and by complete coincidence I discovered a fantastic Spanish review of the book. The reviewer was amazed to have stumbled on this great unknown author and exhorted the publisher to get out there and promote the book. Exactly what you want to hear!

A great Italian edition of Claudius
So when the latest royalty statement arrived I was very chuffed to see that Bestiarius is the first of my foreign publications to make a profit (albeit a modest one), and I'm hoping that the good senors and senoritas at Ediciones B realise that there's money to be made from the author's other four (and by common consent even better) historical novels. Onwards and upwards.

PS Some of you may have seen my message that I was abandoning the blog because Google had locked me out. Fortunately, my friend and webmeister Ewan has contacts in high places and the problem was resolved.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Son of a gun! Solving a 70 year old mystery

I know I'm always banging on about my home town of Jedburgh, or Jethart, as tis known by the locals, but I was down visiting on Tuesday and I have a slightly odd story that I think illustrates the true meaning of belonging.

The occasion was a meeting of the local Probus club, which is a monthly gathering of about thirty gentlemen of retiral age. They meet to discuss an eclectic range of subjects, but much of the material is about the history of the town, the Borders, and its environs. I met lots of people I knew and saw lots of faces I should have been able to put names to.

I was there to talk about books and Romans, but I strayed a bit - as you do - and was telling a few tales about growing up in the early sixties and the adventures we used to have. I suddenly remembered an occasion when I was about 10 and my friend, Brian Pringle, and I, were paddling in the Jed at the bottom of Canongate, not far from the Royal Hotel where the meeting took place.

We were probably guddling for trout, as you did, but when I was rooting around in the stones I found something much more interesting. The object in question was a rather rusty, but perfectly recognisable (I was interested in war stuff) Luger automatic pistol, with an Afrika Korps palm tree and swastika symbol on the chequered butt. For a ten-year-old whose idea of heaven was the Victor comic (surely you remember Matt Braddock VC?) dropping through the letter box, it was the find of a lifetime (I looked for a similar gun on the internet and it must have been awfully rare). To keep or not to keep? Oh, the temptation. Thankfully common sense prevailed and we took it to the police station, and it was never seen again.

Who knows, Rommel might have
carried one just like it
But the find aroused lots of questions. How had it got there? Who had it belonged to? How did they get it. The answers were: probably some Jethart lad who served in the Eighth Army and either took it off an officer prisoner or a body, brought it home, eventually realised it was a bit dangerous to have and chucked it where he thought it would never be found.

Anyway, I regaled them with the tale, and then went on to the other things I was there to talk about, had a great Q & A session and was just wrapping up when one of the gents at the far end, Alan 'Potty' Porterfield, piped up. 'This isn't a question', he says, 'but an answer to something you brought up earlier. Back in the day, I was the only laddie in Jethart who played British and Jerries with a genuine Luger. It belonged to my uncle Wattie Turnbull who brought it back from the war. When I was a bit older I asked him what he'd done with it. "I chucked it in the Jed" he says. So now I know what happened to the Luger and you know where it came from.'

And there you have it. A mystery that goes back to the battle of El Alamein - fought from the 23 October to 4 November, 1942 - and the Desert Rats, then links the fifties and the sixties, is finally solved seventy years later. Spooky, eh? 

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The lost palace

I've passed the field a few hundred times. It slopes down to the road, between the village of Ancrum and the River Ale, just a couple of hundred yards from a cliff with caves where the local residents once sought refuge during the troubled times of the Wars of Independence. There's nothing remarkable about it, but I'd seen people with metal detectors or field walking a couple of times, so I had an idea there'd been something there once, perhaps an Iron Age settlement or Neolithic Fort.

But when we were visiting on Saturday I noticed the unmistakeable signs of an archeological dig, so I put on my wellies and took a walk over to discover that the diggers had just uncovered one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Medieval Scotland, a long lost Bishop's Palace. Dr Chris Bowles, who led the investigation, told me that the Palace had been built in the 12th Century, and was in use for most of the 13th. It had been built by a Bishop of Glasgow, and one Bishop de Bondington, responsible for founding Glasgow Cathedral, had actually died there after dictating his last writ to the Pope.

The dig at Ancrum has fascinated local people
To put the importance of the site in perspective, you have to be aware that the palace was built at a time of enormous significance in Scotland's history. King David I, a pious and devout ruler, endowed the four great Border Abbeys around that time, handing over vast swathes of land. Jedburgh Abbey just four miles away was founded in 1138 by the king and Bishop John of Glasgow, so there is likely to be a direct correlation between the two. Perhaps it was where the Bishop's representatives lived while they oversaw the building work of the magnificent Augustinian church, which took over a hundred years to construct.

It was unfortunate to be completed at a time when relations between England and Scotland began to deteriorate, and when the Abbey suffered from the various incursions - it was burned five times - the Bishop's Palace would have suffered with it. The end probably came in the mid 16th century with Henry VIII's Rough Wooing of Scotland when Sir Ralph Evers triumphantly wrote to his king that he had burned 'seven monasteries, sixteen castles, five market towns, two hundred and forty villages and three hospitals', and  had followed Henry's instructions to put man woman and child to the sword to the letter. Jedburgh Abbey never recovered and the power of the Bishops was ended.

Part of a Medieval window with beading and slots for bars

You can see the foundations of a massive wall
The limited archeological dig has uncovered portions of wall that give some hint of the massive scale of the structure and it sent a shiver down my spine to be able to look on tangible evidence of its existence and significance nine hundred years after it was built. They've also come across various finds associated with the period. The one that fascinated me most was a lead musket ball, one of a number found in this field. By the time it was fired, the Bishops of Glasgow were long gone, but it points to another time of turbulence, probably in the 18th century, perhaps a long forgotten skirmish in the '45, when Bonnie Prince Charlie's army passed this way. Who knows what other stories it has to tell ...

Monday, 1 October 2012

A celebration of writers and writing

Two images stick in my mind as the Saturday night banquet at the Historical Novel Society came to a climax (I use the word advisedly). The first was Bernard Cornwell's Flashman-like leer as he read the male part of a steamy sex scene written by Gillian Bagwell and narrated by Diana Gabaldon. The second was the look of pure joy on HNS founder Richard Lee's face when he realised the gift handed over by peerless conference organiser Jenny Barden was a beautiful sword made of Toledo steel.

Those two moments summed up the whole weekend for me. Wholehearted commitment from everyone from the biggest names to the complete unknown, and the pleasure of being part of a gathering of hundreds of people with the same interests, passions and inspiration. From the opening speech by best-selling novelist Philipa Gregory, an absolute tour de force on the art of historical fiction, to the fascinating peroration on the roots of the genre by Margaret George that kept everyone spellbound for close to an hour, the conference was a celebration of all that's good about writers and writing.

The two events I spoke at were characterised by the eloquence and passion of my fellow panelists and the enthusiasm of the audiences, whether it was the thirty who attended a workshop on making fight scenes authentic, with the aforementioned Mr C, Angus Donald and Russ Whitfield, or the three hundred who watched us tiptoe our way in tackety boots through the minefield of Brawn versus Heart, a debate on the alternative merits of romantic as opposed to adventure fiction (with special thanks to Chris CW Gortner for his handling of a tough panel). I was able to attend another three or four events and every one was unique.

I met lots of old friends, and many new ones, chatting about books, book people, and giving advice to fellow writers about getting published. I'm only sorry I didn't have time to attend the Sunday sessions, and my only regret was that I didn't get the chance to answer the question about why, as writers, we concentrate on extraordinary people rather than ordinary ones. Put simply, ordinary people aren't as interesting. If an ordinary person strays into one of my books I send in a troop of cavalry to burn down their village.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

On the march again

I've just this very minute sent the first draft of Sword of Rome, the fourth Gaius Valerius Verrens adventure, to my new editor Simon. It takes Valerius into the opening phase of The Year of the Four Emperors, a fascinating period of Roman history when the Empire is devastated by civil war and neutrality is not an option.
Aulus Vitellius would surprise everybody
When it opens, Nero is still on the throne, but every hand is raised again him. In the wings waits Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, a man with the bloodlines and ambition to be Emperor, but none of qualities that would make him a good one. At Galba's side rides the equally ambitious Marcus Salvius Otho. Formerly Nero's favourite and a man who traded his wife for advancement, Otho is certain he'll be appointed the elderly Galba's heir, thus opening the path to the throne in a few years' time.
But the fat man who will surprise them all is also waiting for the call from Galba. When Aulus Vitellius reaches his province of Germania Inferior it will set off a chain reaction that threatens to consume a hundred thousand lives.
The characters are in place, the scene is set for a tragedy of epic proportions, and only one man can stop it happening.
Valerius conspires in the death of one Emperor, survives the fall of another, only to be sent on a virtual suicide mission by a third. On the way he'll be stalked by an implacable enemy, faces an impossible dilemma, and is forced to choose between love, honour and duty.

Now, I have an event with the master himself, Mr Bernard Cornwell, to prepare for in London at the weekend. After that it's back to The Excalibur Codex and Nazis, Islamic terrorists, rogue spies and a deranged US politician with a guilty secret.

Life's never dull!

Saturday, 25 August 2012

In search of Rome's greatest general

When I began thinking about the subject of the third novel in the Gaius Valerius Verrens series, my first object was to get Valerius back into uniform. In Hero of Rome he had been the rather immature young Roman officer of a type that was certainly common throughout the Empire’s armies, but a man forced to grow up quickly in the balefire of Boudicca’s rebellion. It turned out that he excelled at warfare, and I knew I’d taken a risk in making Defender of Rome a much more nuanced, political novel of betrayal and intrigue.

Judaea which was just coming to boiling point in the mid to late 60s AD seemed to be the natural environment for the new novel, but during my researches for the earlier books I’d come across an intriguing figure, General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. At the time, Corbulo was Rome’s most successful general; better known than Suetonius Paulinus, conqueror of Boudicca, and even the future Emperor Vespasian. He was also hailed for his loyalty to his Emperor; even Tiridates, King of Armenia, whom Corbulo had twice defeated, told Nero that he had no more loyal commander.

So why did Nero order his most successful and loyal soldier to commit suicide, an order Corbulo complied with because the alternative was the disgrace and impoverishment of his family? That, I thought, was a question worth trying to answer. So in Avenger of Rome Valerius takes ship for the east, and Antioch, where Corbulo rules almost as an Emperor in his own right. Yet I very quickly discovered I had a problem. By the time Valerius reaches Antioch, Corbulo’s campaigns in Armenia and Parthia had been fought and won. Where was the great battle I knew had to be at the heart of this book?

After debating long and hard over the ethics of rewriting history, I decided the answer was to take the political situation in Rome and the east and create a crisis; a plausible crisis that the events of the time could very easily have created. This in turn would lead to a battle that I would have to create from scratch in my imagination. The first question was: where would it be fought? It could have been a huge dilemma, yet my first check of Google earth in the utterly remote region where the armies would meet presented it to me on a plate. The perfect place to fight a defensive battle against huge odds. A place I call the Cepha gap. It seemed impossible, but there it was, this narrow valley running through the mountains, the perfect highway for an invader and a dagger into the heart of Armenia. Valerius had his battle, and I had my book.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Lift off for Avenger of Rome

To Blackwells bookshop in  South Bridge, Edinburgh, for the launch party for my latest Gaius Valerius novel, Avenger of Rome.
After I'd thanked everyone who's supported me in true Oscar fashion, I gave a short talk about how and why I write, introduced the novel and gave a reading. Afterwards I took about three times as many questions as I was expecting, which is always a good sign, and then spent half an hour signing Avenger of Rome hardbacks and copies of The Isis Covenant, the new thriller by my alter ego Mr James Douglas.
Many thanks to Blackwells for organising another great event.

Friday, 3 August 2012

I do love a good book launch

Had a fantastic time last night at the launch of The Isis Covenant when about fifty people turned up at Waterstones in Stirling to help me celebrate the birth of my latest James Douglas book.

Lots of old friends turned up who'd been at all my launches and several new ones who were there for the first time.

We had a few drinks, I gave a short speech - with a special thanks to my wonderful editor Simon Thorogood who's moving on to greater things - and did a reading, signed until my wrist hurt and then it was back to Chez Jackson for a few hours of drinks, nibbles and good conversation. I say nibbles, but my good friend Mr D. Fisher took over the kitchen and produced an array of cordon bleu canapes that would have graced any table at Gleneagles or the Ritz.

Yet another book launched on a wave of goodwill that will hopefully send it into the stratosphere.

The author at rest

None of it would be possible without the support of the lovely Mrs J

My son Gregor and girlfriend Siobhan

The speech

I signed around 50 books

Another satisfied customer, my friend Allison

My daughter Nikki does love a good book launch
Fingers crossed!

Saturday, 28 July 2012

The little acorns from which novels grow

Apologies yet again for my prolonged absence from the blog, but the reason will become clear. I've been working on the final chapters of Sword of Rome, proofreading Avenger of Rome and The Isis Covenant, and preparing for their launches on August 14th in Edinburgh and August 2nd in Stirling respectively.

I was keen to complete SoR before taking my summer break, but the epic battle turned out to be even more epic than I realised and I still have a couple of key scenes to write before I can lay it down for a while and let it percolate. Not that I'll be resting. With the tight deadlines I set myself it's important that I get the ball rolling pretty soon on The Excalibur Codex, which is the next Jamie Saintclair novel. At the moment I have a wham-bam start and a satisfying ending, but a relatively vague idea of what happens in between.

One of the questions a writer is most frequently asked is: Where do you get your inspiration?

With some people it takes hours and maybe weeks of deep thought to come up with an idea, but mine tend to appear in lightning flashes set off by fairly insignificant sparks.

Caligula and Claudius were spawned by a single line read by Timothy West on a CD of Simon Schama's History of Britain that went 'And the Emperor Claudius rode in triumph on an elephant and took the surrender of Britain'.

The six books that will eventually make up the Valerius series have their roots in one sentence from the Roman historian Tacitus that I read while I was researching Claudius.

The Doomsday Testament came to me as I read a journal my dad had written about his early life.

I'd planned at least four Jamie Saintclair books, but the other day I stumbled on what will be a fifth: The Ionian Odyssey. I was in the area looking for a way into a new Roman novel, but stumbled on something completely different. Walking up a rocky path on a tiny Greek island we'd only found by mistake, with cicadas rattling off my hat, tiny lizards scuttling underfoot and thorns ripping my legs, I breasted a rise to be confronted by row after row of marbles crosses. The island was a lazaretto and was once populated by lepers, so of course people died there, but this was different. There were no lepers in 1948 and 1949 when these people - almost all young men in their twenties - died, often on the same day. Gradually it dawned that something even more terrible had happened on this scrubby, sun-scorched knoll. And round another corner was the incontrovertible evidence. A stretch of crumbling wall with dozens of holes punched deep into the stone and mortar: an execution site. That's when it came to me. A country torn by civil war. A man awaits his fate and vows to take his secret to the grave. A treasure hidden through an earlier conflict that contains the roots of a new one ... 

A chilling sight and the germ of a new novel

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Finding a state of grace

One of my all too infrequent blogs on the craft of writing. I don't really feel it's my place to lecture other writers on what's right and wrong about crafting a novel. If someone wants to write a book it's a given that they have a reasonable grasp of English and an imagination, and that's really all you need, apart from stamina. Still, this came to mind through the week and I thought it was worth sharing.

Many years ago a lovely little sprite of a man called Jock Hume tried to teach me the rudiments of the bagpipes. I'd go up to the wee room he used at the top of his tenement townhouse opposite the grammar school and spend fruitless hours working on the scales on the chanter (the bit of the pipes that has the holes in it). It wasn't long before we both knew that he was working with someone who had not the slightest semblance of musical ear, but Jock was a trier, so we persevered.

Sometimes he would try to enthuse me by talking about the great pipers who turned what is a relatively simple musical instrument into a thing of mystical power. One of the ways they did it was with grace notes.

A grace note (and my mate Jimi the Piper will wreak terrible vengeance on me if I've got this wrong) is the musical embellishment, the twirl or the skirl, that an experienced piper uses to enhance a tune. A great piper can transform a reel or a jig to something wonderful that is only vaguely recognisable as the original, with the help of self-made notes he's slipped into the music.

It was when I was writing the other day that I realised that grace notes are just as important to an author.

For a writer, a grace note is the little piece of poetry at the end of a chapter that draws you in to the next one; it is the beautiful sentence that makes the author proud and the reader gasp; the wonderful piece of description that makes a character become a real, living breathing human being.

The grace notes can be the difference between an ordinary book and a great book.

But the important thing about grace notes is that they are embellishments. A lot of wonderful books probably don't get written because the writers agonise over every word, every sentence and every paragraph in the search for perfection, and never finish the first draft. But for me the first draft is purely and simply the foundation of the book, and as long as the building blocks of plot, narrative and character are in there, all that matters is to push on so that the story becomes a book. The important thing is that those foundations are solid and complete.

A first draft can only be improved and it's how often you're prepared to improve it that makes the difference between the book it is and the book it has the potential to be. Every time I read a manuscript I see little gaps where a tiny grace note can make a huge difference. When the gaps are filled - and that can be after the sixth or seventh rewrite - it's time to move on.

So the message is get that book written. The genius can come later.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Making history

So it's off to the Borders Book Festival at the weekend and rubbing shoulders with the shortlisted authors for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. Who says you need good weather to have good fun at an outdoor festival? It was chucking it down on Saturday, rattling the roof of the Festival Marquee like bursts of machine gun fire, but all it did was imbue the sell-out crowd with a hearty dose of Blitz mentality. Rain? It's the Scottish summer, what do you expect?

I love the Borders Book Festival with a passion, and not just because it's in Melrose, the region's historical heart and a place where I spent four idyllic years living on the shoulder of the Eildon Hills, which the Romans called Trimontium. I was a performer three years ago, just before I took up writing full time, and I've never felt so welcomed, and at the end of festival party on the Sunday night the spirit of optimism, togetherness and joy of books and writing lasted until dawn. The organisers have made it one of the must-visit events on the Scottish cultural calendar. It's smaller and more compact and user-friendly than the megalithic Edinburgh Book extravaganza and all the better for it.

The Walter Scott prize is now the fourth biggest book award in the UK, with £25,000 for the lucky winner and it's the brainchild of the Duke of Buccleuch, who has a plainly heartfelt affection for his famous ancestor. On Saturday, the shortlisted books were introduced by Festival director Alistair Moffat and the brilliant John Sessions read an extract, somehow managing to give each of them the unique voice its author intended. In the readings, the quality of the writing shone out, reaching into the hearts of the packed audience who listened in reverent silence. It was a fantastic performance by a wonderful actor. When the applause died down, Jim Naughtie, a book festival regular, announced the winner - Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side - and the prize was presented by the Duke.

Later, Barry and his fellow shortlisters Andrew Miller (Pure) and Allan Hollinghurst (The Strangers Child) - the others were The Sister Brothers, by Patrick De Witt, The Quality of Mercy by the late Barry Unsworth, and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan - took the stage to talk about the craft of historical writing with Jonathan Tweedie, of Festival sponsors Brewin Dolphin. It was entertaining as well as fascinating, especially when the lugubrious Dubliner read from his prizewinning novel - 'I'm only going to give you one sentence. Unfortunately it's a sentence that runs for a page and a half' - a rumbustuous, rollicking monologue that alternately tugged the heartstrings and had the audience chortling with laughter. Fascinating, because no-one on stage seemed to have a concrete idea what actually constituted a historical novel and one of them seemed genuinely surprised that anybody thought he'd written one. And that's the only problem I have with the Walter Scott prize: the fact that the definition of historical fiction is so enormously broad. The single hard and fast rule is that the book must be set more than sixty years ago (the sub-title for Scott's Waverley is 'Tis sixty years hence'). It's meant that the majority of the books shortlisted so far have been works of literary fiction set just far enough in the past to meet the criteria. They've all been wonderful books, but I doubt if most of their authors would have described them as historical fiction before they made the shortlist. True, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall bridged the gap, but the only genuine cheerleader for what I'd call commercial historical fiction has been CJ Sansom's Heartstone and for me there might have been an element of tokenism in that, because I don't think it's his best work.

So lets see a Bernard Cornwell, a Con Iggulden, a Robyn Young or a Robert Low making the list - or even, dare I say, a Jackson. Of course, you could argue that the quality of writing in the shortlisted books is exceptional: this is a prize that celebrates literary excellence and the reason mainstream historical fiction doesn't make the list is that it's not well enough written. Come to think of it that's why I go along to the award in the first place. I defy any writer of historical fiction to sit in the audience and not wish he was up there on the stage, and I come away every year vowing that my next book will be better, and one day it'll be me.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Memories are made of this

Some things are too good not to share, so I thought I'd do a picture blog after a sunny visit to the Borders at the weekend. You may have seen a few of these on my Facebook page, but no matter, follow me on a wee wander that brought joy to my heart.
The Cross Keys pub at Ancrum
I've always loved Ancrum, the small village just north of where I lived in Jedburgh. When I was at school I used to think nothing of walking the four miles to visit my mate Iain to go fishing on the river Ale or the Teviot, or if the weather was as seasonable as it was on this day, maybe even a 'dook' at the Quarry Hole. Later, I'd take the bus then walk another mile or so to Hopton, the farm where my lovely wife Alison lived with her parents. We'd visit friends, go to dances and drink in the village pub. Her mum and dad now have a house next to the bowling green and on Saturday, while we were visiting, I decided to take a walk down the river.

Looking east to Minto Crags and Fatlips Castle

Sandmartin's nests by the dozen above the river
From Ancrum, the Ale winds its way through fields and trees and I'd forgotten how beautiful it all was and what fantastic vistas you get of bonny Teviotdale. The first thing you notice is Rubers Law, the conical mountain that dominates the southwest skyline, birdsong fills the air, goldfinches, chaffinches, swallows and blackbirds, and hundreds of swooping sandmartins that nest in the sandy scaurs above the river.
The village green and the war memorial
As you make your way through the fields and over meadows filled with wild flowers the river straightens for the final length of its journey to merge with the more powerful Teviot. A few moments reflection and you realise you are surrounded by history. On a slope overlooking the far bank of the larger stream, you can understand how Timpendean Tower which I visited in a previous blog, must have dominated this key river route. In the far distance another tower looms down from Minto Crags a few miles west; quaintly named Fatlips castle is a sixteenth century peel tower built by the Turnbull clan, and which is now being restored to its former glory.
I once caught a salmon here, but probably shouldn't

And on a hill to the east, yet another monument, the most spectacular of them all. 
At first glance you could mistake what the locals call Penielheugh (pronounced py-nel-hyu) for a NASA rocket. It stands 150 feet tall and dominates the landscape for miles around. It is actually the Waterloo Monument, built for the Marquess of Lothian between 1817 and 1824 to commemorate the great victory over Napoleon. It stands on the site of an Iron Age fort and when I was young you used to be able to climb to the top, but elfn'safety has put a stop to that nonsense.

Looking east towards the Waterloo Monument
 From the top of the tower you could see across the Teviot Valley to Bonjedward and Monklaw, and it's said that the then Marquess (who may have been a bit mad, unlike the present charming incumbent) planted groups of trees to represent the relative positions of the allied and French troops, and that Penielheugh is where the Iron Duke would have conducted his battle from.
The picture of Penielheugh with wild flowers in the foreground is my favourite photo of the day. It reminds me that there's only one place you ever really call home.

For reasons that are beyond my technical know-how the typesetting on this blog is not what it should be, but I hope the spirit remains true.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Isis Covenant unveiled

I just thought I'd give you a flavour of my new book The Isis Covenant (published as James Douglas) which is out In August.

'The Crown of Isis, once part of the treasure of Queen Dido of Carthage, was reputed to grant its wearer immortality. In AD64 it was stolen from the Temple of Isis. It was believed lost forever. Until now. Art recovery expert Jamie Saintclair receives an unexpected phone call from Brooklyn detective Danny Fisher. Two families have been brutally murdered, one in New York, the other in London. The only link is a shared name, that of a German art thief who disappeared at the end of the war. Jamie’s investigation will take them into the dark past of Nazi Germany, to a hidden world of the occult – where a carefully guarded secret reveals a legacy of bloodshed. As Jamie and Danny will discover, for the promise of eternal life there are those who would kill, and kill again.'

The book cuts between a ruthless expedition in Roman Africa, the last hours around Hitler's bunker during the fall of Berlin in 1945, and a desperate contemporary life or death race against time to discover the truth behind a terrible secret.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Thought for the day

Apologies for the short absence. Normal service will be resumed once I've got my character up this mountain and made up my mind what happens when he gets to the top. Doug

Monday, 30 April 2012

A taste for blood

A couple of weeks ago I uploaded a few hundred words from one of the crime books I have on the stocks waiting to be published. It got a lot of good reaction and more page views than any other blog I've written.

So it seemed a good idea to give the world a taste of book two.

This is the prologue of War Games, but the main action takes place in and around my old stamping ground in the Borders and features my hero, a Falklands War veteran with a guilty secret and an unlikely talent. A girl has gone missing, but has she been kidnapped, as her industrialist father claims, or has she run away from an arranged marriage as her friends believe? When the police give up the hunt Assad Ali calls in the last resort after all the other last resorts have run out: a psychic investigator. But as the investigation develops Gurya Ali isn't the only teenager who's vanished. And when they start turning up dead it becomes clear he's in a race against time with a serial killer - a serial killer with a liking for gruesome trophies and an obsession with a Medieval hero.

Let me know what you think

War Games

Jose Caracol was the first, but I wouldn’t find that out until much later. Jose was a street-savvy, sixteen-year-old Spaniard, but he was part-Tunisian, part-Gitano, which made him a one hundred per cent outsider. In the summer, he scraped a living fleecing the tourists who throng the concrete-canyoned resorts around Malaga, but in season he walked the dusty roads along the Guadalteba River looking for work as an olive picker to raise money for his much-extended and entirely undeserving gypsy family. No-one was able to figure out why he should be in the heat-scorched Andalucian hill village of Teba that Friday, August 25, when thousands of red-nosed guiris were asking to be shorn of their euros forty miles away down on the coast.
Not many guiris make it as far as Teba, because it’s a long and dusty drive on bad roads, through alternating rocky outcrops where only the buzzards and the vultures soar, and dull, characterless hillsides lined with regimented ranks of olive trees. The main reason tourists make the effort is to visit the Castillo de la Estrella - the Castle of the Stars – the ruin which has dominated Teba and its people since the Romans came to Spain more than two thousand years ago.
Local legend says that from the castle tower you could reach up and touch the heavens, but now you make the climb to look down on the village, which shines like a silver jewel on a plain of sun-baked red earth that stretches away towards the distant hills of the Sierra Ronda. Teba is pretty enough, in the white-walled, red-tiled Andalucian fashion. Its narrow streets will lead you to a couple of fine churches and a quiet village square. A mile to the south is the garganta – a precipitous gorge which attracts butterfly collectors and bird-spotters. And that’s about it. It’s not really a very interesting place to die in. Or to die for.  
 But looks can be deceptive. Seven hundred years ago that innocent plain below the castle echoed to the thunder of a thousand charging war horses. Men fought and cursed and died, and their blood stained the red earth of the plain redder still. The battle they fought has never really ended. Jose Caracol was one of its casualties. But, of course, he never knew that.
A farmer discovered the body close by a dirt roadway, in one of the narrow, rush-filled ditches that split the plain. Prudently, he decided to leave Jose just where he was. By the time the local police summoned their national counterparts up from Malaga the August sun had turned the corpse almost black. Still, it wasn’t difficult to work out how he’d died. Lieutenant Alvares, in charge of the investigation, studied the intensive pattern of knife wounds concentrated around the victim’s face, neck and chest, and wrote the word ‘frenzied’ in his black notebook. His interest was drawn to a particularly large gash in the left breast and his moustache twitched with distaste as he recognised the reason for it. ‘Cabrons,’ he muttered.
 A search of the dead boy’s clothing had already placed Jose’s identity card in his hand. When he studied the bony, dark-skinned face with its barely concealed sneer it was difficult to keep his interest from waning. He knew what he would find when he typed the name into the Malaga police computer system. A dozen – maybe many dozens – of arrests for theft and other petty crimes, a few short stays in youth prison. His view was confirmed when he questioned the shopkeepers and the villagers of Teba. Sure, we get gypsies around here. They’re pests – no-one actually used the word vermin, but it was there just the same - to be watched like the stray dogs that wait to steal from your kitchen. No, nobody remembered this particular gypsy.   
Lieutenant Alvares decided to stay overnight in Teba, for form’s sake. He – politely – asked his counterpart in the local police to identify any groups of gitanos in the surrounding area. Relationships between the two forces had to be conducted like the first tentative steps of the flamenco dancer; one at a time, and always with delicacy. He would question the gypsies the next morning, with the local officer at his side. The thought of the blank, uncooperative faces gave him a slight feeling of indigestion. He tried very hard to fight it, but in his mind he had already filed Jose Caracol as the victim of a turf war between two rival gitano clans. The only thing that disturbed this certainty was the mutilation done to the body. It seemed very – deliberate, yes that was the word – deliberate, compared to the savage nature of rest of the attack. It raised certain doubts that would stay with him for many weeks. But, no, these people, they were without morals, without conscience. He studied the thing the dead boy had clutched in his hand. Who was to know what messages they sent to each other in their crude un-Spanish way? Still, he would do his best to discover the killers. The location and the date didn’t strike him as significant, unless that it was, for Jose Caracol, the wrong place at the wrong time. He was right, but not in the way he thought. But he wouldn’t find that out until much later.

Monday, 16 April 2012

A Grand day out

Well, I survived the stag weekend more or less unscathed, though I can cheerfully say that the experience of a Saturday night out in Liverpool city centre will stand me in good stead the next time I write about Roman depravity and debauchery.

We started the day with an interesting trip from our waterfront hotel to the Grand National meeting at Aintree, courtesy of a Scouse taxi driver who had clearly decided that red lights and speed limits only applied to other people. Gambling and I tend to be mutually exclusive thanks to a salutary lesson during my misspent youth, and half a dozen losers only served to reinforce that. The fact that three of them were second by less than a head, and the one in the National by a literal whisker, made it all the more masochistic. But the pain of losing didn't detract from what was a fantastic experience. The Grand National is an epic event, and, the tragic equine losses notwithstanding, a truly magnificent sporting occasion, with genuine superstars in the saddle and under it.

Seventy thousand people packed the Aintree stands and bars and if there's a recession I can assure you it hasn't reached Merseyside. I've never been anywhere like it for conspicuous consumption by loud young men in never-before-worn suits, and girls in skirts so short they didn't actually qualify, wearing skyscraper heels and trying valiantly to negotiate four flights of stairs. The ladies of Liverpool certainly know how to glam up for the big day. Elegant ball gowns were all the rage, with upper works (as George McDonald Fraser's Flashman would say) proudly on show. I surveyed all this young fashion with a fatherly affection, thinking 'You may one day regret having your young man's name tatooed on your neck in letters an inch high, my dear' and that the man who persuaded women that spraying themselves with mottled orange paint and calling it a tan was a good idea is one of the business geniuses of our age.

The least said about the evening the better. Suffice to say that being bought a double is only a good thing if you're not drinking large glasses of red wine and that the aforesaid red wine and something called a Jaegerbomb don't mix all that well. Being of more mature years I didn't even bother trying to persuade the groom to dress in anything stupid, but much respect to the chap in the banana suit and the bearded young man disguised as Snow White, leading his reinforced squad of dwarves on the road to ruin.

Roll on the wedding!

Monday, 2 April 2012

Wha's like us!

We live, as they say, in interesting times. As we enter the two and a half year marathon debate on whether or not Scotland should be independent again, my thoughts turned to the good old days when Scotland was run by Scots - albeit French-speaking Scots whose relatives robbed and murdered their way to power

To put it bluntly, many of Scotland's rulers have been a dead loss, with the emphasis on dead.

Take the Stewarts.

James I - came to the throne after 18 years in English captivity. Murdered by rivals, including members of his own family. Didn't do his memory any favours by hiding in a sewer.

James the Second was blown up by his cannon
James II - crowned at the age of seven, spent most of his rule obsessed by destroying the rival Douglases. Blown up by his own cannon trying to get Roxburgh Castle back from the English.

James III - aged eight when he was crowned at Kelso Abbey. Annoyed just about everybody. Killed in a battle against his own son.

James IV - tried not to rile the English and ruled with a steady hand until he fell out with Henry VIII and nipped over the Tweed to Flodden to show him two fingers. Hacked to death with billhooks along with one bishop, two abbots, nine earls, fourteen lords and several thousand other people who didn't really matter much except to their relatives.

James V - seventeen months old when crowned. Kept himself busy fleecing the nation to build palaces and fathering nine illegitimate children. Died of fever after taking a bath in the Solway while his army was losing (there's a theme here) to the English.

Mary, Queen of Scots - dad passed away when she was six days old, husbands had a habit of dying on her. Bit of a schemer. Lost her head after annoying her rich English cousin, Liz.

So when people talk about the good old days, we shouldn't forget that in the couple of hundred years before the Union of the Crowns, everything in the garden was far from rosy. Scotland was riven by internal rivalries and run by vested interests who were happy to sell out to their bigger neighbours whenever it suited them. There's a lesson there somewhere, I'm just not sure what it is.

Monday, 12 March 2012

A walk near Bridge of Allan

It was a beautiful day in Bridge of Allan, the sun was shining and for once it was also warm. This, I reminded myself, is why you gave up being a wage slave. So I took a couple of hours off and headed for the hills.

I'd been walking for half an hour and seen a couple of buzzards and a veritable blizzard of Great Tits, but I was just thinking it was odd I hadn't seen a roe deer. Turned the next corner and there were six of them standing in the shadow of the old hill fort. Later I came across the skull of one that hadn't made it through the winter.

It also brought home the astonishing amount of damage last year's storms had done to the woods. Some parts looked like a World War One battlefield with trees down everywhere and the shattered splinters of some still upright.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Signed, sealed, but still to be delivered: my new book deal

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the joys of working in local newspapers that was based on a photograph I knew I had, but couldn't find. Well, I found it. As you can see I did not lie. We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun. The gent at the back is my friend Benjie, who went on to a career in the City. The guy at the front is me.

Of course, I needed an excuse to link it to this blog. Well, last week I finally signed a contract to write another five books for Transworld. Signing a books contract is always a great occasion. Not only does it vindicate what you've achieved in the past, it puts money in the bank. It doesn't make me a millionaire, far from it, but it does give me at least a couple of years of security to do what I enjoy doing most: writing books. This contract is to write another three historical novels featuring my hero, Valerius, which is a huge shot in the arm, because not only do I know him like a brother, the world he inhabits is fully formed in my head. There'll also be another two Jamie Saintclair thrillers, which is genuinely exciting and gets me out of sandals for a while.

I can remember every contract signing I've done. The first was in the summer of 2007 in a coffee shop near the Jenny Brown Associates office, which was then in Newington, just off the Meadows in Edinburgh. I sat with Stan in a coffee shop full of interesting people, and it was only when I put pen to paper that I realised I was probably the most interesting person there. The second time, we were in the Tun, a pub across the road from The Scotsman, and the contract changed my life, because the day I signed it sealed my decision to give up journalism and become a full time writer. The third was for my first two thrillers, and Stan produced it at the agency's summer party in a tent at the Edinburgh Book Festival. The latest, I signed at my dining room table. Not the most romantic of locations, but hugely significant, because it will take me up to my twelfth novel and by then royalties might not be something that only happen to other people.

It's odd that when I look at this picture now, I see a cheery chap on the cusp of a long and successful career in newspapers, on the brink of creating a happy family. Yet at the time I know he was angst-ridden and confused and feared he'd be trapped in his present job forever. He also worried he was fat. The one thing I guarantee, though, is that if you'd told him that in thirty years time he'd be where I am now, he'd have been a very happy young man.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Parallel lines

I think I've said before that I learned more history from historical novels than I ever did at school. One of the things I do remember is the history teacher telling us about the Black Hole of Calcutta, when over a hundred prisoners were locked away in an Indian prison cell four metres square and only twenty-odd of them survived the night. The only problem is that I always linked it to the wrong war. It happened in 1756, just before the Battle of Plassey, but for years I thought it was part of the Indian Mutiny.

In a way that's understandable, because the Mutiny is one of those conflicts that gives war a bad name, stuffed full of wanton savagery, military incompetence, corruption and double-dealing. It also, of course, spawned heroism, stoicism and sacrifice from civilian and soldier alike, and on both sides.

Two of the best novels on the Mutiny are JG Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman in the Great Game. Farrell's is a tightly corralled tale homing in on a single fictional event, while Fraser somehow manages to get his anti-hero to most of the major battles of that sprawling conflict that enveloped the cities of the north central plain. This week I finally got round to reading a third novel of the period.

I've always been a big fan of Julian Rathbone. He writes superbly crafted, often very funny books normally with a single main character involved in one of the world's great events. His hero is unscrupulous, and never dull, and the stories are prone to eccentric changes of direction that keep the reader guessing. What struck me about The Mutiny were the parallels with the Flashman book, in fact, the devious, philandering villain of Tom Brown's Schooldays even gets a mention. Rathbone skilfully pulls together the roots of the conflict, showing how religion, corruption and exploitation combined in an explosive mix whose potential for damage eluded the complacent rulers of the Raj. He solves the problem of the Mutiny's scale by telling the story from multiple points of view. Expectant mothers Sophie Hardcastle and Catherine Dixon show us Meerut, where the violence began, their children vanish, rescued from certain death by Lavanyah, Stephen Hardcastle's wetnurse. The children somehow reach Cawnpore, where the Indian girl is immediately ostracised, and endure the terrible siege and betrayal. For most of the book, Rathbone deliberately underplays the horrors inflicted on white and Asian alike, but in the massacre that follows Cawnpore the bloodshed is graphic and minutely described, an odd contrast to an event that Fraser conveyed in a single line. There are echoes of Flashman in Lieutenant Farquhar, the shadowy figure who slips with ease between enemy lines, and who along with William Raikes Hodson - assumed by some to be the original inspiration for Thomas Hughes's bullying schoolboy - takes the story to the sieges of Lucknow, Delhi and Jhansi. Like Fraser, Rathbone is probably kinder than she deserves to Lakshmi-bai, the Rani of Jhansi, one of the exotic female leaders of the revolt, but he perfectly captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the British in India, imprisoned by a caste system almost as rigorous as those of the natives they despised, and the oddly muddled descent into horror of the Indian princes.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

A walk on the wild side

Codeine, the Harris hawk: a born hunter
One of the things I enjoy about being a writer is getting the chance to research the odd things that your character might have to master. I have a plan for a series set in Medieval Scotland and one of the things my knightly hero will almost certainly be involved in is a hunt.

Falconry was hugely popular throughout the period, so I arranged to have a day out with Phoenix Falconry near Gleneagles. This was to be a proper hunt and I joined a party of five with four Harris Hawks on a chill Perthshire afternoon, and we headed out into the rough country behind the Orchil Lodge Fishery just down the road. The woods were full of pheasants, partridge and woodcock that were soon flushed out by the resident livewire black pointer. Just to be close to these birds is an absolute joy, but to see them in their natural element hunting in combinations of two three and four, sweeping through the trees at high speed after a swift and agile pheasant was truly exhilarating. The one thing which quickly became clear and which pleased me was that this was a genuine competition, and one in which the pheasants held all the aces. Time and again a bird would be flushed, the hawks would react, but the pheasant would be too quick for them. By the time we reached the open fields it was Prey 20, Hunters 0.

On we went to a rabbit warren in a nearby wood, and with the help of a ferret to get the rabbits out into the open, the hunt was on again. The rationale is that the animals the birds catch are the old, the slow and the injured; a kind of natural selection. A flurry of wings and three birds converged on the same rabbit in an incredible display of flying and teamwork. The handlers ensured the unfortunate rabbit was dispatched swiftly and the youngest of the hawks was allowed to eat his fill as a reward for his efforts and to strengthen the link between the hunt and the final reward.
Patience was essential - for everybody
Up close and personal with a true predator
Returning for her reward
Ready to hunt again
It was a fascinating day and a proper education. I felt no joy at the kill, but the hawks had done their job and there would at least be something for the castle pot, though I doubt my lord would have been pleased with a single coney! 

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Time up?

I've been watching Time Team since the first episode in January 1994 when they went in search of  what might have been King Alfred's base in what would then have been the Somerset marshes around Athelney. Physically, I'm not sure what they found, probably not very much, but that didn't matter because the producers had stumbled on TV gold dust. That came in the format '... and we have just three days to find out' and the chemistry between the team, which took a little longer  to gel.

Tony Robinson, who had made an indelible name for himself as Baldrick in Blackadder, was the front man. His enthusiasm for history oozed from the screen (the first time I'd seen him on TV was reciting a monologue for children, Odysseus, the Greatest Hero of Them All). He cheerfully admitted he didn't know a thing about archaeology ... but he knew a couple of people who did. They came in the form of the wild-haired, rainbow-jumpered Professor Mick Aston, and granite-jawed, beer-swilling digging machine Phil Harding. If I remember rightly, relations between them at the start were a bit stiff, but over the years Time Team turned into a sort of cheery archaeology-loving family who visited your living room on a Sunday night.

In those early years, the search for archaeological evidence and historical truth was the be all and end all of Time Team. It was a niche programme for history lovers who salivated over the churned up remains of Roman mosaics and the slightly darker stain in the earth that might be a Saxon post hole. Nobody was all that bothered about building a big viewing audience.

But that audience came, and with it came changes. Time Team turned a bit tabloid. The three day format remained, Phil got a bit more to say, the geo-phys team got better equipment, Stewart got to go up in a helicopter, but now they were expected to have revelations and come to conclusions. I began to get a bit annoyed when Guy de-la-very-posh-Roman-expert would look at a bit of pottery and tell the world that it changed our whole outlook on Roman history, when it patently didn't, or Francis Pryor studied a hole in the ground and turned it into a neolithic temple, despite there being no real evidence for the claim.

You could tell things were getting strained when Mick would tetchily turn to Robinson and say 'no, it doesn't mean that at all. It might mean it, but it might not'. And in the latest season, the straw that broke the Samian ware dish: Mary-Anne Ochota, a very scenic archaeologist and former model, with a nice smile, brought in to co-present with Tony and bring a bit of glamour, as the producers, in Aston's words as he announced his decision to quit the show, decided to 'cut down the informative stuff about archaeology'.

I don't like the new format as much. I know TV shows have to move on and do things differently, but it's all a bit too forced and there's a desperation to find things that aren't there. Earnest and often po-faced, Mick Aston brought the gravitas and genuine learning to the show that kept me and history lovers like me watching for almost twenty series. There have been other changes over the years, but without him I'm not sure Time Team will be Time Team. I met Tony Robinson once, when he opened a dinosaur exhibition, (don't ask!) and he seemed a very likeable, easy going chap. I have a feeling he might be thinking the same.

Monday, 30 January 2012

The days of sunshine and hunting big cats

There's a black and white picture I meant to upload for this blog, but it seems to have vanished somewhere so I'll try to describe it. At the top, on a high stone plinth, stands a tall, shirt-sleeved young man with a vaguely aristocratic air and floppy fair hair that hangs over his eyes. He's holding what looks like a lead, which in turn is attached to a truly enormous lion who lies sleeping with his great maned head pillowed by paws the size of beach balls. In front of the plinth is a slightly rougher character also in shirt sleeves, but with dark hair, a dodgy moustache and an air of mischief in his eyes.

The one with the dodgy moustache is me, aged about 27, and the chap at the back is my friend and then journalistic jedi apprentice, Benjie. The picture was taken in the 80s, when we still had proper summers, and reminds me of the carefree days of local newspapers. Benjie was fascinated by the recurring sightings of 'big cats' and I'd promised that I'd find him one, so one day off we went into the blue, safe in the knowledge that nobody would mind as long as we came back with a story. Then, as now, I put such sightings on a par with alien kidnappings and Scotland World Cup qualification, events so unlikely as to be preposterous, but I knew I'd find a big cat at fascinating Monteith's Aisle, otherwise known as the Douglas Mausoleum (you can see some excellent pictures here), which stands on Lilliardsedge, north of Jedburgh. The Aisle houses the tomb of General Sir Thomas Monteath Douglas, 1787-1868, who now lies forever beneath a domed roof pierced with stars, with a tall angel at his head and feet. Sandstone lions, one asleep and the other awake, guard the entrance.

Benjie very sensibly left journalism to become a merchant banker in London, where he now doubles as the Makar or poet in residence to the City. I loved working for the local papers in Jedburgh, Kelso, Melrose and Gala, because you were in a unique position at the very heart of the community and if you knew what you were doing you could get a story out of just about anything. You never worked nine to five, you spent most Saturdays on a muddy touchline, and you never knew what you were doing from one day to the next.

Occasionally reporters from 'the nationals', hoary, grizzled creatures who smoked too much and spent most of their time in the pub working out how to maximise their expenses, would descend on your patch. They'd pick your brains, file their stories and if you were lucky buy you a pint. Their one universal piece of advice was 'stay where you are, son. Better off in the locals'. Of course, they were right, national papers are just one long grind of constant pressure, tight deadlines and demands for more and better stories, punctuated by the occasional bollocking when you get something wrong. But there's also a magic to them, an illusory glory that meant the advice just had to be ignored. I spent longer in nationals (Scottish variety) than in local papers, but my fondest memories are not of great scoops, or incredible news days like 9/11 or Dunblane, but of days like the one with Benjie, covering the unchanging rituals of the Jethart festival, or delivering competition prizes up in the Cheviots on a rutted one-way track that started in Scotland and ended somewhere in England.