Category Archives: Guest post

News and updates

This week’s blog is a collection of bits and pieces.

Half Sick of Shadows cover
Half Sick of Shadows cover

First, there’s a reminder that at the Before the Second Sleep blog alongside the review of Half Sick of Shadows there’s a giveaway copy to be won – just leave a comment to be in with a chance in the draw, which will take place sometime in November.

Secondly, for a bit of fun here is the link to the Desert Island Books chat which appeared on Prue Batten’s blog. What ten books would you take if you were going to be stranded on a desert island for a period of time. Well, you can find out my choices at that link – it’s a right mixture of fiction and non-fiction. And I got to pick my very own desert island, and with a minor stretch of credulity I selected Bryher, one of the Isles of Scilly. There are a lot worse places that you could get stranded…

The north end of Bryher
The north end of Bryher

What about space news?

Artist's impression, Dawn at Ceres (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, Dawn at Ceres (NASA/JPL)

Well, there have been recent updates to two of my favourite NASA missions. The future of Dawn, which has been orbiting the asteroid Ceres for some time, after originally studying Vesta, has been in question for some time. Basically there were two choices – leave the craft in orbit around Ceres until the onboard fuel supply runs out, or move on to a third destination and learn something there. Either way, the plan for the end of life has always been to avoid accidentally contaminating Ceres or anywhere else with debris. Well, the decision was finally made to stay at Ceres, carry out some manoeuvres to increase the scientific and visual return over the next few months, and then shift to a parking orbit late next year. The low point of the orbit should be only about 120 miles from the surface, half the height of the previous approach.

New Horizons badge (NASA)
New Horizons badge (NASA)

And finally, New Horizons, which provided great pictures of Pluto and Charon a couple of years ago, has been woken from its standby mode in order to carry out early preparations for a planned encounter in the Kuiper Belt. The target this time goes by the catchy name of 2014 MU69. Pluto is on the inside edge of the Kuiper Belt, whereas 2014 MU69 is in the middle. But although there are a fair n umber of bits of rock scattered in this disk-like region, it is still vastly empty, and the chances of New Horizons colliding with a previously unknown body are very slim. If all goes according to plan, the craft will navigate rather closer to 2014 MU69 than it did to Pluto – a necessary action, as the light levels are considerably lower. Since we know very little about the body, this does present a level of risk, but one which is considered worth taking. There are a few course corrections planned for late this year, then it’s back into sleep mode for a few months until the middle of next year. Flyby should happen on January 1st, 2019. And after that? More targets are being explored, and the power supply and onboard systems are reckoned to have another twenty years of life, so we could be in for more treats…

Where are they now… Margaret Cavendish

For today, a blog which I wrote for The Review and reposted here…

If I asked you to name some early science fiction writers, I’m guessing you’d think of Jules Verne or HG Wells, who established in the 19th and early 20th centuries so many of the conventions and themes of the genre.

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)
Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)

You probably wouldn’t think of going back to 1666, and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. But in fact, in the same year that the Plague was raging, and London experienced the Great Fire – only some 50 years after the King James Bible was translated, and Shakespeare was writing plays – Margaret Cavendish published her novel The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. It has been called “the only known work of utopian fiction by a woman in the 17th century, as well as one of the earliest examples of what we now call ‘science fiction’ — although it is also a romance, an adventure story, and even autobiography“.

Margaret Lucas was born in 1623, the youngest of eight children, and had a lively childhood, partly spent with Queen Henrietta Maria in exile in France. In 1645 she married William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who was a staunch royalist and reasonably successful military commander (so had had a difficult few years until the Restoration of Charles II). He was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and sciences, which is perhaps why he and Margaret formed a happy couple – her lively and wide-ranging intellect would undoubtedly have attracted his attention. He was devastated by her death in 1673, and died just three years later.

Cover - The Blazing World (Wiki)
Cover – The Blazing World (Wiki)

She was not only an author of fiction, but also wrote over a dozen original works in diverse fields – poetry and plays, as well as a number of early scientific and philosophical treatises. The Blazing World was routinely distributed with her non-fiction Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, thus combining imaginative and scientific discourse. She was the first woman to attend meetings of the Royal Society, and engaged in debate with leading figures of the time such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle. She was not shy about disagreeing with the thinking of the age when she felt it was in error, a habit which brought her criticism and conflict.

The Blazing World is, by modern standards, a slightly odd book. The protagonist, a lady whose name we never learn, is abducted by an impatient suitor, but her virtue is preserved by divine intervention which diverts the ship towards the north pole where the wickedly motivated men all perish. The lady herself is rescued by creatures which are man-like but with animal qualities – once in the Blazing World proper, she will meet Bear-men, Fox-men, Fly-men, Bird-men, Fish-men and so on. Her rescuers take her through a narrow passageway which connects our world with The Blazing World. Since there is only one such passage, and the celestial view in her new home is entirely different, a modern author might well describe this as a wormhole connection rather like in Stargate.

The Emperor of this world is smitten with her, and after a very short interval the two marry. There is then a long passage in which the new Empress quizzes the various theoretical and experimental factions in her new home – clearly satirising the state of affairs in the Royal Society, though many of the barbs evade recognition by today’s reader. Part of this section describes the creation of a array of miniature universes, each intending to explore some particular theme, and most of which are unstable and collapse again because of their own inconsistencies. It sounds very like an early exploration of what we now call the Anthropic Principle – the laws of the universe are constrained by the fact that intelligent life has arisen in it.

Portrait -Margaret Cavendish - © National Portrait Gallery
Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, (by Pieter Louis van Schuppen,
after Abraham Diepenbeeck, line engraving, late 17th century, NPG D30185, © National Portrait Gallery, London

In a way that would now be considered rather shockingly indulgent, she then as author brings herself in as a character – a sort of muse and scribe to the Empress. The two become exceedingly close friends. We are assured that the relationship is entirely platonic, but the degree of closeness far exceeds anything else in the book except that of Margaret to her husband.

The second half of the book describes a kind of interplanetary war – the Empress learns that her original native country is under attack by a large alliance, and decides her duty is to help. So she devises a kind of blitzkrieg strategy including air power (the Bird-men) and submarine warfare (the Fish-men) to overwhelm the assembled enemies. The combination is unstoppable, and it is clear that if she wanted, she could assume control of our world as well. Being of a restrained disposition she does not do this, but withdraws again once victory is assured.

The book closes with William and Margaret gaining inspiration for certain changes to their own estates on the basis of what they have seen in the alternative world, and a commitment to ongoing friendship and communion between the two worlds.

Margaret Cavendish and her writing went off everybody’s radar for many years, with the rise of the true novel. However, after a considerable time of obscurity, she has started to resurface. In 1997 the Margaret Cavendish Society was formed to encourage academic study of her work. The blend of feminism, science, philosophy, fantasy and interpersonal relationships has found a resonance in our own age.

Margaret is quite open about her purpose in writing the book, and her pride in being its creator: “…you may perceive, that my ambition is not onely to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World… in the formation of those worlds, I take more delight and glory, than ever Alexander or Cesar did in conquering this terrestrial world… concerning the Philosophical-world, I am Empress of it my self; and as for the Blazing-World, it having an Empress already, who rules it with great Wisdom and Conduct, which Empress is my dear Platonick Friend; I shall never prove so unjust, treacherous, and unworthy to her, as to disturb her Government, much less to depose her from her Imperial Throne, for the sake of any other, but rather chuse to create another World for another Friend.”

Stirring words, indeed, and ones which many an author would identify with!


Guest blog at Dawlish Chronicles – South-West England’s Gigs

This is a guest blog I wrote for Antoine Vanner’s Dawlish Chronicles – follow the link for the original in context. The part at the end where I talk about Dawlish refers to Antoine’s protagonist, Nicholas Dawlish, who is a Royal Naval officer in the latter part of the 19th century. I have reviewed several of his books before, and am looking forward to reading the latest, Britannia’s Amazon, available now in paperback and shortly in Kindle.

Antoine has kindly given me space today to talk about gigs and their use in south-west England, specifically the Scilly Isles and Cornwall. So far as I am aware these have never been used in war, but their history is no less exciting or varied for that.

Gig Lyonnesse on St Agnes
Gig Lyonnesse on St Agnes

First, what is a gig in this context? Picture something that looks roughly like a clinker-built rowing eight. Keel to gunwale depth is around two feet, and once crewed, the waterline is almost exactly at the mid-point. At 32′ long, just under 5′ beam, but with elm planks only 1/4″ thick, the boat is light enough that the crew can pick her up and carry her into the water. Many years of experience mean that a gig has been built robustly enough to take on the Atlantic swell, despite the apparent flimsiness.

Like an eight, each oarsman has a single oar, and they sit to row alternately port and starboard facing the cox’n. But curiously, they have only six rowers, reflecting part of their history. A mast and lugsail could be fitted if desired, though in commercial practice this was rarely done. They are fast, tough little boats, and at one stage played a crucial role in the economic livelihood of the islands. Today they have retired from commercial use, but have found a new lease of life in competitive sport. The annual world gig racing championship is held on Scilly every April/May. In 2016 it attracted more than 150 boats from many different countries.

Some of the 3000+ rowers in the 2016 races (ITV West Country)
Some of the 3000+ rowers in the 2016 races (ITV West Country)

We can trace the history of the gig back to 1666 at least, when vessels from St Mary’s were involved in rescuing the crew of the Royal Oak, wrecked out at what is now the Bishop Rock lighthouse. We have no reason to suppose there were not earlier vessels of essentially the same pattern. All modern gigs are based on the lines of an early 19th century design by William Peters. They had two principal uses, the main one being to get local pilots out to incoming ships as quickly as possible. Whoever got there first got the contract, hence the need for speed. Scilly was one of the major landmarks for vessels inbound from the western trade routes, but the seas are treacherous here, with countless rocks and reefs. Even with modern navigation aids they are hazardous: how much more so in former days? So families or village groups would aim to spot new arrivals as early as possible, and get out to them as quickly as possible.

The St Agnes gig, Shah
The St Agnes gig, Shah

The other use, more humanitarian than commercial, was as a kind of early lifeboat system. Gig crews over the years have saved a great many lives by going out – frequently in horrendous weather – to rescue crews and passengers suffering shipwreck. Cargo could also be brought back, and an 1887 rescue of 450 cattle from the Castleford involved lashing the animals’ heads and horns to the sides of the gigs Gipsy and O&M, and towing them to a handy nearby island! Such rescues were fearfully dangerous acts, and the churches on Bryher, St Agnes and elsewhere remember many who never returned.

Now, gigs came to the attention of the revenue authorities, who suspected that they had a third use – for smuggling. Certainly they would have been capable of it, with their proven seagoing capability. Even the Cornish coast was within a day from the Scilly Isles for a good crew – the 40-odd mile trip to Penzance typically takes under 10 hours, and Newquay was within comfortable reach. Gigs could easily make the 250-mile round trip to France’s Breton coast by staying out at sea for a day or so, and were robust enough to cope. Bonnet (of which more later) rode out a thirty-hour storm on one such trip by keeping head to wind until conditions improved. A good crew can sustain speeds of around 7 knots, but speeds of nearly 10 knots have been recorded over a measured mile with racing crews rowing at 40 strokes per minute. But therein lay a problem – an eight-oared gig was faster than the customs cutters of the time. This was clearly unacceptable, so a law was passed in 1829 limiting the crew to no more than six oars per boat.

Time passed, and both piloting and rescue ceased to be the responsibility of the islanders. The last recorded pilotage was in December 1938, when the Bryher boat Gipsy went out from St Agnes. As for rescue, the last known one was of the Panamanian steamship Mando in 1955. For a time, it seemed possible that gigs in the traditional sense would die out. Some of the older craft were laid up in storage, others suffered the usual fate of wooden boats which are not constantly cared for.

Bonnet pulling ahead of Golden Eagle
Bonnet pulling ahead of Golden Eagle

Then competitive racing emerged, giving a new lease of life to the design. Informal races had been part of gig culture for a long time: now it has become organised. Inter-island men’s, women’s and mixed races take place weekly during the tourist season, quite apart from the challengers coming from further afield. And here, the robust nature of the vessels is once again proved. Bonnet still races today – she was built in 1830 and had a long and busy working life. She is heavier than her modern siblings, but if there’s a bit of a sea this might not be a disadvantage. Back in August, I saw her beat a dozen other boats to win her race. The Cornish gig Newquay was built back in 1812, and is claimed to be the oldest ship afloat which is still being used for broadly the same purpose as when she was made. Appropriately, she is owned by the Newquay Rowing Club, who also look after Dove (1820) and Treffry (1838) – all still racing.

So, this brings us to Antoine’s own protagonist, the naval officer Nicholas Dawlish, and the timeline set out for his life. Bonnet had been working for 15 years when Dawlish was born in December 1845, and for over fifty years at the time of Britannia’s Spartan. There’s a fair chance that Newquay was built before Dawlish’s father was born. On the assumption that Dawlish passed the Scillies at some stage during early career – and it would be wildly improbable if he had not had cause to see them at close quarters – he would have seen gigs in active commercial use. I wonder, with his eye for design, if he took the time to appreciate their blend of speed, strength and elegance?

Finally, for those who want to look at videos, this video has the 2016 men’s final and lots of links to other clips:


When the earth moves under your feet

Today’s blog was written as a guest post at The Review.

In Britain, we’re used to history – and historical fiction books – where the terrain is basically the same as today. The human presence on the surface might well change, so that towns and cities grow, old buildings turn to ruins, rough tracks turn into railway lines, and so on. Or we might alter the clothing of vegetation – marshes are drained, forests felled, or fertile land turns to peaty bog. But we generally feel here in England that the bones of the landscape itself remain the same on a human timescale. We expect the land to change form only over geological timescales.

Mt St Helens before and after (USGS images)
Mt St Helens before and after (USGS images)

Other people though, in other parts of the world, have a different expectation. Earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis can not only cause loss of life or damage to property, but can reshape the terrain. Mount St Helens was reckoned to be one of the most attractive of the Pacific Rim volcanic cones until May 18th 1980, when the eruption removed over 1/8 of the volume of the former cone. Iceland gained a new island in November 1963, when Surtsey emerged from the waves as a result of subterranean action.

But often we Brits think of that as something which happens in other lands. But actually there are signs of change in counties like Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Near to Cromer, several villages named in the Domesday Book or other more recent records are now up to half a kilometre out to sea. There is evidence that the Lincolnshire coast was, until the 13th century, protected by a chain of offshore barrier islands. The demise of these in a series of storm surges drastically altered the coastline and its vulnerability to the sea. But despite these signs here in our own land that our not-so-distant ancestors walked across a different landscape, it takes a bit of adjustment.

The geology is quite straightforward. During the last ice age, a little over 10,000 years ago, a hugely heavy layer of ice pressed the land downwards, to a greater degree in the colder north than the warmer south. When the ice melted, two things happened. The sea level rose because of extra water. But also the land shifted. The land in places where the ice had been heaviest started to lift up. Outside that, further south, it started to sink down. Try placing a heavy book on a soft cushion and you’ll see the effect in action.

Now, 8000 BC is not all that long ago, really – the Neolithic Age, and so the beginnings of recognisably complex society started not all that much later, around 5000 BC. And although the vertical movement of land in any one year is tiny – perhaps a few millimetres – over the course of a century it adds up. Our Neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors in some parts of the country experienced quite different terrain.

Aerial view of the Scilly Isles (Wiki)
Aerial view of the Scilly Isles (Wiki)

In the north, where the land has lifted, we find settlements which used to be on the coast now stranded well above the waterline. Stone circles at the southern end of Coniston Water, in Cumbria, used to be close to an arm of the sea reaching in from Morecambe Bay, but are now over five miles from the coast.

But in the far south, in the Scilly Isles, we see an even more dramatic change as the land sinks down. During the Bronze Age, when many of the prehistoric monuments were being built, there was basically a single large island. Around that, especially to the west, there were a few scattered outposts including what we now call St Agnes, Annet, and the Western Isles. The whole central area, now a submerged area in which quite large vessels can anchor if they find the deep patches, was then a fertile plain supporting crops and animals.

Tidally submerged field wall, Samson, Scilly Isles
Tidally submerged field wall, Samson, Scilly Isles

All that has gone – perhaps spawning tales of Lyonesse or Atlantis – but its passing has been recorded in history. Even now, low tide allows careful explorers to go well beyond the shoreline, disturbing herons and other wading birds browsing what has been left in the seaweed and rock pools. You pass by the remains of stone walls which presumably served as boundary markers, but are now submerged much of the time. At especially low spring and autumn tides, tall people can still cross between most of the islands without swimming – so long as you know where the sand bars and shallow patches are.

As well as simply projecting backwards the change in sea level, at a rate of 30 centimetres per century, we can look back at history. We know that in 1127, Tresco and Bryher were still a single island, with the two names referring simply to internal parish divisions. By 1600 they were separate, and the Grimsby Sound between them had become a sheltered haven for ships. The transition did not take many generations, and you have to wonder what the occupants made of the stories of their ancestors.The central area between St Mary’s and the northern cluster of islands probably flooded around 6-700AD. On the other side of the country, ship burials were happening at Sutton Hoo.

But a change of 30 centimetres per century disguises the more dramatic way in which these events unfolded. This figure comes into perspective when you remember that the tidal range in a big spring tide on Scilly is around six metres. During a winter storm, waves coming across the Atlantic sometimes break over the top of the Bishop Rock lighthouse, some fifty metres high. The changes to separate island from island have not always been the result of a steady trickle of rising water; some will have been dramatic, cataclysmic events.

Samson, Scilly Isles - still one island at present...
Samson, Scilly Isles – still one island at present…

This continues to happen today. It used to be reckoned that there were 146 islands in the archipelago, where an island is defined as a body of land separated at high tide and able to support vegetation of some kind. A few winters ago, this became 147, when a severe storm broke through a thin land bridge at Rushy Bay, Bryher, and converted a peninsula into an island. You look at some places as you walk around, and wonder how long they will remain attached.

From a fictional point of view, these kinds of gradual changes to the land itself offer a new storytelling dimension. Authors have explored – and I hope will continue to explore – sudden changes like the eruption of Vesuvius, or various earthquakes. Gradual change has not, I think, been used nearly so often. It could perhaps make for an interesting historical plot based on prehistoric Doggerland, in today’s North Sea. Or a speculative fiction story where diminishing land serves as a variation on resource failure. It’s worth remembering that the terrain we see today is not eternally fixed – even in this green and pleasant land – and has its own changing history.

Reviews and a guest blog

Replica of Ferriby boat being sailed (
Replica of Ferriby boat being sailed (

Not much new here this week, since my blogging effort has mainly gone into a guest blog at Antoine Vanner’s Dawlish Chronicles, on the subject Prehistoric Seafaring along the Atlantic Coasts. Normally Antoine’s blog deals with 19th century naval issues, but on this occasion he was kind enough to let me take his readers back into the Bronze and Neolithic ages.

On to reviews. The Flame Before Us has just had a very pleasant 5* review on Hoover Book Reviews. “From the noble, nose in the air, Egyptians to the settlements of peasants to the nomadic clans, we have a tale of loss, hardship, and hope as cultures collide and times change.  Kudos to the author for a most enjoyable series.  I look forward to more.” And in time, hopefully there will be more.

And finally, for those who haven’t yet seen it, here is a review of Far from the Spaceports. This review is by Ian Grainger, who regularly produces my covers. Science fiction is much more his cup of tea than historicals…

Recent activities on other sites

As readers will know, much of my time recently has been put into getting The Flame Before Us ready for publication. It is now available for Kindle pre order at, Amazon UK, Amazon India, and elsewhere. The softcover version is going through the last stages of production and will be available at round about the same time.

But outside that I have been involved with a range of other things. One that I was particularly pleased to take part in was a contribution to Suzanne Adair’s “Relevant History” blog. Entitled Stamped on these Lifeless Things, it was an exploration of early writing. A lot of fun to write, and judging from the comments, readers enjoyed it too. One lucky reader got a free copy of In a Milk and Honeyed Land which at the time of writing has just successfully made its way across the Atlantic.

There are a few reviews which have appeared on other sites recently –

Historical Novel Society

  • The Queen of Washington (Francis Hamit) – spies and intrigue during the American Civil War.
  • Will Poole’s Island (Tim Weed) – again in America, but this time in the early colonial days, exploring different interactions between the settlers and original inhabitants.
  • Turwan (Richard J Carroll) – over to Australia and a fact-based account of one man’s relationship with aboriginal groups.

The last two had a lot of points of similarity, setting personal cross-cultural friendship in contrast to a background of social prejudice.

The Review Group

  • Splintered Energy (Arlene Webb) – a near-future first contact science fiction book taking a different approach to the subject. This book is only the first in a series of four, so is far from complete at the end – plenty of material for enthusiasts to get their teeth into.

All of the above reviews are live at the sites indicated, and will be making their way onto Amazon and elsewhere shortly.

Other books – reviews planned but not yet written –

  • Camp Follower (Suzanne Adair) – again in the US, exploring military actions and intrigue in North and South Carolina in the War of Independence. I am slowly getting my head around the twists and turns of American history. I am part-way through Suzanne’s Hostage to Heritage at the moment, also exploring the same context from a different perspective.
  • Lincoln at Gettysburg (Garry Willis) – not a work of fiction, but rather an analysis of the rhetorical and social background to Lincoln’s speech. As a non-American I found this fascinating, particularly the place in American thought of this and other early documents, in contrast to our own British attitude to things like Magna Carta.
  • The Oblate’s Confession – monastic life in Northumbria after the synod of Whitby, tackling both personal and religious life.

Plenty of excitement there…

Author interview – Antoine Vanner

Today I am delighted to welcome Antoine Vanner to the blog, who has kindly answered a number of interview questions. This is a follow-on to my review of Britannia’s Shark a few days ago.

Antoine is the author of (to date) three novels on the life and exploits of a Royal Navy captain of the late 19th century, Nicholas Dawlish.

Cover image - Britannia's Wolf Cover image - Britannia's Reach Cover image - Britannia's Shark

I have reviewed each of these at
Britannia’s Wolf
Britannia’s Reach
Britannia’s Shark

Q. You write about an unusual period in naval fiction – the late 19th century. What first sparked your interest in this era?

A. There are two parts to the answer, the first related to the period and the second to the naval aspects.

Antoine Vanner picture 1I’m fascinated by the political, social and economic progress made by the Western World in the second half of the 19th century and I’m equally intrigued by the gigantic steps taken by science and technology at the same time. Like most Baby Boomers I had grandparents who had been born and had come to maturity in the last decades of that century and from them I learned enough to regard it as “history you can touch”. The scientific progress – achieved by titanic figures like James Clerk Maxwell, Pasteur, Mendeleev, Darwin, Röntgen, Koch, Ronald Ross, Lord Kelvin and a myriad others – transformed understanding of the world and heroic engineers – such as Edison, Tesla, Marconi, Parsons, Bell, Bessemer, Roebling, Greathead, Bazalgette and many more – established technologies that have flourished and spun off further developments ever since.

A parallel revolution occurred in naval technology and it was to have profound political and historic implications not fully recognised at the time. In the 1850s, for example, senior commanders had served in sailing warships in the Napoleonic Wars. Yet officers who entered the service in that decade – such as the later Admiral Lord Fisher – were to create the navy that fought World War 1. They had the vision during their careers to harness developments in metallurgy, hydrodynamics, propulsion, breech-loading artillery, radio, torpedoes and even aircraft. New navies were to arise to challenge British supremacy – those of Germany, Japan and the United States – and in the process contribute to a slide towards the two World Wars in the 20th Century.

Q. The first Dawlish book, Britannia’s Wolf, was set mainly in and around the Black Sea. Britannia’s Reach was largely in South America. The latest, Britannia’s Shark, spans from the Adriatic to the Americas. Is his globe-trotting career typical of officers of his time? How did their experience of other lands and other cultures feed back into English society?

A. It’s remarkable just how much Victorians got about, and not just explorers like Burton, Livingstone, Kingsley and Stanley, but even people we think of as somewhat staid figures. One of my favourite authors, Anthony Trollope, who is always associated with stories of contemporary British society, travelled to Australia, to United States (in wartime and later, crossing the Rockies) the Middle East and South Africa (in Natal just before the Zulu War). Britons and American who could afford it spent holidays in Egypt, and the Holy Land seems to have been thronged with tourists. Some of the most amazing travellers were women – my favourite is Isabella Bird. She was undaunted by rough travel in America, India, Kurdistan, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and China – the list is endless. Her books are massively entertaining and her photographs are superb. And of course military and naval officers got to just about everywhere, either in the line of duty or on private expeditions during leaves of absence.

The result of much of the travel was creation of academic and other institutions in Britain dedicated to the study of foreign culture and languages, and to medical, zoological, botanical and geological research based on insights gained. Those institutions are with us today and in many cases established entire new disciplines.

Q. So, Dawlish is very well travelled, and I know that you are as well. Do you try to personally visit the sites of the stories or rely on more general research? Are the stories sparked by your own travels?

A. The novels published so far, and those in the pipeline, are all based on a combination of a greater or lesser knowledge of the locales and on interest in the historic events in those places in that period. Some of this reflects broad experience of my work and residence, but on occasion it’s necessary to go for much targeted research, either at specific locations, to get the geography right, or to visit museums to see various artefacts. I’ve been to over 50 countries, for residence, work or personal travel, and in every case I’ve made myself familiar with the broad – and sometimes detailed – history. And history spins off stories!

Q. You have often mentioned how the Royal Navy of Dawlish’s era was, of necessity, skilled at working on land as well. Do you see this as a common theme of navies in history? Is there something about a life at sea which promotes a flexible and creative approach to problems?

A. The ad-hoc “naval brigades” who the Royal Navy landed so often, and which ranged in size from a few dozen to several hundred men, were the Rapid Response units of their time. Since radio had not arrived, commanders in remote locations had to be ready to take quick decisions without more senior approval and this bred very self-reliant characters. I suspect that the phenomenon was common in most large navies prior to the invention of wireless. And as regards life at sea then yes, self-reliance is almost a sine qua non. Even today a ship is an isolated, self-sustaining island once it has left port and such self-reliance is needed not only in personal terms, but as regards structure, organisation and discipline. Whether on a Greek trireme or a modern ballistic submarine, each crew member needs to know his or her job perfectly. The price of anything less can be disaster.

Q. Continuing this theme, I have a sense from your writing that you see great continuity between seamen of Dawlish’s age and our own. Looking the other way, do you think this is true of older generations? Would, say, a Napoleonic captain identify with Dawlish? A Viking? A Roman or Phoenician?

A. Externalities – especially technologies – change but human capacities do such much more slowly, if at all. When one reads of the past one is struck by just how professional naval personnel were at all times in the past, seen by the standards of their own time. When one visits a sailing warship like HMS Victory or USS Constitution one is struck by the labyrinthine complexity of their standing and running rigging, by the skill needed to manoeuvre in adverse winds, waves and currents, by the organisation needed to bring the guns into action, sometimes for hours on end. By the standards of the time officers of such vessels needed to be as competent as those on an aircraft carrier today. The same applies to seamen of earlier ages. Given a time machine, and appropriate training opportunities, I suspect that many from the past would come very quickly up to speed on modern warships.

Q. I know that military servicemen have found your writing about war very faithful to their own experience. Have you been caught up in conflict yourself?

Antoine Vanner picture 3A. There is significant military experience in the family, both direct and via in-laws, and some of this very obviously rubs off. I myself have worked in a number of trouble spots and indeed once managed a company in an area torn by a vicious terrorist campaign, in which our operations, and I myself, were targets. One gets used to living with, and planning for, some very nasty risks. And just when I thought it was safe, when I retired about ten years ago, I found myself caught on a personal basis in a murderous attack in Africa in which eight were killed. A 200 yard sprint under AK-47 fire proved Churchill’s alleged statement that “There’s nothing as exhilarating as being shot at – and missed!

Q. I find your blog a fascinating compendium of naval history. Could you tell us a little about your research for this and the sources behind it?

A. I thought initially as the blog being somewhere where I could post the odd article, based either on personal experience, or on some aspect of my general historical knowledge, or on information arising from my book-focussed research which I might not use directly in the actual writing. I found it a pity to let the latter go to waste. The response to the blog turned out to be amazing – people really like it and the readership numbers continue to grow. My articles aren’t detailed academic ones, but rather more like the sort of informal story-telling one might indulge in when relaxing with friends. I don’t think I’ve blogged about anything I didn’t know something about before – though sometimes very superficially. Remember that in over 60 years of reading, and with a reasonable memory, one accumulates a lot of information – but the items still often need a fair amount of library and internet research. The occasional very personal pieces – like those I wrote about having toured Syria just before the war there, or visiting the Alzhir Women’s Gulag in Kazakhstan – can be quite emotionally draining to write.

Q. Tell us a little about your writing process – research, drafting, polishing etc.

A. I’m now writing my seventh novel, though only three have been published so far. One of them is a non-Dawlish novel dealing with contemporary African issues. It’s quite a sombre book and reflects personal experience. I’m uncertain as to when and how to publish it. As regards the Dawlish Chronicles I like to have one book at least, and indeed two at present, “on the back burner”. By this I mean that I finish a first draft, correct and rewrite as necessary, then lay it aside while I’m writing the next one. I find that though I don’t read the back-burner novel for the nine months or so that it takes me to write the next one, my subconscious keeps challenging it as regards plot, action and sequence. I jot down any conscious insights also. When I come back to do my next revision after some nine or ten months I find myself reading very critically to start and Imay make very significant changes indeed. The dictum that “writing is rewriting” is always valid and in extreme cases one must be prepared to delete even entire chapters, write new ones, and restructure. The fourth Dawlish Chronicles novel will be getting the full revision treatment in mid-2015, aimed at publication in the fourth quarter.

Q. I suspect that you are well on with the next Dawlish novel, but can’t imagine you want to tell us too much about it yet! Can you whet our appetite by outlining some of the wider political scene that faced the Royal Navy at this time?

A. Given the ramparts of confidentiality that the shadowy Admiral Topcliffe erected around the events in questiob, and despite the cooperation of official archivists and the benefits of the Freedom of Information Act, I would hesitate to answer that one just yet! Some embarrassing incidents are involved for which a once-hostile, now-friendly nation was responsible and I’ll have to tread very carefully. But with luck, I hope all difficulties can be overcome and the full story can finally be told in about ten months’ time!

Antoine Vanner in libraryAnd finally – Thanks Richard for taking the time to interview me! It’s been as much a pleasure to answer your questions as it is to know you and your work!

The pleasure is mine, Antoine! Check out online information about Antoine by following the links below:

Another stop on the blog tour

Just a quick post tonight, with more to come later in the week hopefully.

The latest blog tour stopover is a guest post at The topic is “Writing about the past” and is a brief foray (via Star Trek) into the delights of writing creatively within a set of boundary conditions. In the case of Star Trek, the boundaries are set by the franchise holder. For those of us who write historical fiction, the boundaries are the things that are known about the past!

I have also been working on a cover for Scenes from a Life and am so-so happy just now. Needs more work…

Coachman, the ongoing book tour and other news

Well, several things to talk about today. First and foremost, Erin over at Bookworm’s Fancy has kindly taken another guest post of mine, this time a review of Coachman by Sue Millard (see I really enjoyed both reading the book and writing the (5*) review – and also having the opportunity to wander a few minutes down the road from work and seeing what some of the locations look like today. For fun, I have included another photo here, this time of the current building on the site of the coaching inn that features in the book (The Swan with Two Necks). For more about what I thought, and more pictures, check out the Bookworm!
The former Swan location

Now, as well as that there have been another few stages in the Orangeberry blog tour:

Finally I have found time for some book reviews! Here are the links on Goodreads…

That’s all for now, some more updates about Scenes from a Life will follow shortly…

Orangeberry blog tour progress

Well, the Orangeberry tour is a few days in and so far there has been a variety of posts and the like. Before listing those, here’s a quick snap from the British Museum today (apologies for the slight glass reflection to be seen). This rather charming scene is of Nebamun’s anticipated garden in the afterlife, and as well as trees, fruit, birds etc features a goddess figure leaning out of one of the trees (top right) offering food and drink to Nebamun.

Nebamun garden scene

Anyway, the list of blog tour activities so far is as follows:

Full details of future items may be found at