Adventures in Bookland: Confessions of a Ghostwriter by Andrew Crofts

May 21st, 2017

There are times when you just want something light and fluffy and gossipy to read and what could be better, I thought, than the confessions of a ghostwriter. Surely we’d get to hear the dirt dished on people who hide behind someone else’s words and some insight into the world of high-money vanity publishing? Well, we get a bit of the latter but unfortunately Andrew Crofts is far too discrete to name any of the names you actually want named. When he does drop a name, it’s only to tell us about a time when he nearly got to write somebody’s memoir. So, it fails on the gossip front. But it also, and most surprisingly, fails on exactly the front that Crofts warns against with respect to people wanting their stories told. As he says (on page 94) ‘anecdotes alone will not hold a reader’s attention for 200 or more pages’. Turns out, he’s quite right. I gave up at page 158.


Adventures in Bookland: Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck

May 15th, 2017

Back when I was at school, I had a John Steinbeck phase, courtesy of an unusually well-stocked school library and a school where anyone wanting to escape the feral chaos of breaktimes had one of two choices: retreat to the library or joining the cadets. Naturally, I chose the former option, and there encountered for the first time John Steinbeck and W Somerset Maugham, two authors who are forever associated with St Aloysius’ College in my memory. As far as Steinbeck was concerned, I remember reading East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row (although pretty well nothing remains in memory of the last of these). But well-stocked though our school library was (a relic of the time when the school had been a grammar, before it went comprehensive and comprehensively lost its way), it didn’t have Cup of Gold. A pity, because a book subtitled A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History would likely have appealed to a fourteen-year-old boy looking for some escape from the school’s thoroughgoing violence (think Tom Brown’s Schooldays but without the Dr Arnold and rather less of the classical education, although the school did still run to Latin classes).

So having missed out on Cup of Gold at school, I came across it recently at the library – just as it was about to be thrown out. With the running down of public libraries, my old school library was much better stocked that even large libraries are today. One reason for that is the way books are removed – even classic books – if they are not taken out often enough according to some arbitrary algorithm sitting on a computer system. By that algorithm, Cup of Gold was to be deleted – I arrived just in time to give it a new home.

Having saved the book, I finally got round to reading it, my interest piqued by learning in the introduction that this was Steinbeck’s first novel. And, yes, it has all the hallmarks of a young man vigorously exploring just what he can do with this marvellous, overflowing cup of words that he has set in front of him. In Steinbeck’s case, the answer is a lot (although in later books he would choose, rightly, not to do some of the things he does in this one). Things such as spending the first half of the book in a cod mystical Wales (did Steinbeck ever visit Wales? My suspicion, from reading this and visiting Wales, is no), then rushing through the major part of the hero’s life in the second half, with the ending rather tacked on. So, yes, structurally it’s a bit of a miss, but one that carries the reader along with its sheer exuberance. Luckily, Steinbeck learned other skills to marry to the exuberance, and wrote better novels, but read this for an insight into a young writer flexing his artistic muscles for the first time.

Adventures in Bookland: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

May 12th, 2017

Son number 1 is doing his GCSEs and, for their set text, they are reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Lucky boy – it could have been Bleak House! Much though I love Bleak House, trying to plough through 800 pages of Dickens, searching for ten or fifteen suitable quotes, is really not something you want to be doing in the midst of revising for ten other exams. Instead, they’ve got 65 pages of Stevenson and, to help him, I reread the book myself. It’s been years since I read it and the first thing that surprised me is just how short the story is. It looms much larger in memory than its 65 pages warrant. In part, that is probably because of the place the story has taken in our culture, with the title becoming an adjective for a double-sided individual (so long as one of those sides is dark). But it’s also because the story is so good. On a purely technical level, the way Stevenson switches viewpoints and voices to pull the reader into the story is extraordinary.

Reading the story, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to read it before Jekyll and Hyde had entered everyday vocabularly. In this imagined ignorance, the story’s impact is quite overwhelming – particularly since Stevenson sows the story with so many hints that Hyde is the product not of scientific experiments gone wrong but sexual escapades gone even wronger. For the Victorian, until the final denouement, the story must have seemed to be driving towards Hyde’s unveiling as Jekyll’s illegitimate son, blackmailing his father into accepting him as his heir. Only at the end is all made clear, and the full extent of the darkness in Hyde’s soul made clear.

Having reread the story, I came to the conclusion that it more than deserves its place in the dark places of our dreams and imaginings.


Adventures in Bookland: The Teardrop Island by Cherry Briggs

May 5th, 2017

The great task for a travel writer is to transcend the what-I-did-on-my-holidays subtext of the genre. The Teardrop Island escapes this, somewhat, by being more accurately subtitled ‘What I did on the Weekends During My Work Placement’. Having taken a post teaching English in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, Briggs, to her credit, wanted to find something to keep her from the ex-pat round of escaping the city to the beaches or hills, there to moan about the country that had given them home. She found it in the writing of James Emerson Tennent, one of those extraordinarily industrious Victorians who combined a public life – in Tennent’s case he was colonial secretary of Ceylon from 1845 to 1850 – with artistic and literary endeavour. Tennent combined both in his two-volume Ceylon. An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical, Topographical with Notices of its Natural History, Antiquities and Production and Briggs, having been given the books, decided to follow in his footsteps around modern-day Sri Lanka.

Although The Teardrop Island is entertaining enough, it does not really escape the usual tropes of light travel writing: long accounts of uncomfortable bus journeys, meetings with eccentric locals, a little light history. In comparison, the extracts from Tennent that Briggs rather unwisely includes are enough to suggest that the Victorian was a better writer, a more perceptive traveller and, most surprisingly of all, less patronising about the natives than a modern-day, painfully right-on Western traveller.

Right, I might be being oversensitive here, but let’s lay the cards out straight. My father is Sri Lankan (half Sinhala and half Tamil to be precise). So the country and the people are in my blood. And, frankly, I found this book deeply patronising to the people and the cultures of Sri Lanka.  Of course, I’m sure Briggs had no intention of being patronising, and she is clearly completely unaware of doing this, but the deep-rooted condescension becomes clear whenever she attempts to deal with any aspect of religious belief, and shades over into her frankly inadequate attempts to give the history of the long civil conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Briggs had the advantage of travelling the island not long after the final defeat of the Tigers, gaining access to many places that few westerners, apart from agents of NGOs, had seen for a decade or more. Without, apparently, realising it, she also shows quite clearly the cafeteria compassion and cultural imperialism of modern NGO workers – from talking with my Sri Lankan relatives, it’s clear that the big international aid organisations are seen there as being mainly in the business of providing a comfortable, conscience-satisfying living to people who like to justify a tax-free salary (UN and WHO employees pay no tax) and jet-setting lifestyle on the backs of people’s poverty and misfortune. (Apparently, in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lankans took to calling the Toyota Landcruisers that were the preferred mode of transport of NGO workers, vulture wagons.)

There is, though, some entertaining writing to be found here, and it’s a light, quickly read introduction to Sri Lanka, in a field with few other competitors bar the usual travel guides. If you’re not actually deeply rooted in the culture and people of the place, you’ll almost certainly find the book completely fine. For myself, I’m grateful to have been introduced to James Tennent’s writing and it has whetted our anticipation for our trip to Sri Lanka in the summer, so it was a worthwhile read.



Photos from Prinknash Abbey

April 26th, 2017

I had a wonderful stay at Prinknash Abbey with the Benedictine monks there before giving a talk on the Northumbrian kings on Tuesday 25 April at the abbey shop. The community made me most welcome, but I must give particular thanks to Fr Mark and Fr Martin, and Brother Chris for their warmth (and for coming to my talk!). This short experience of the monastic life was enough to tell me that only the most extraordinary of people have the discipline and dedication to lead such a life. At the shop, Caroline Turley made sure everything ran as smoothly as the coffee they serve in the shop (and it turns out she has three sons too). And the people who came to the talk made for the most wonderfully attentive and inquisitive audience – thank you all.

Here are some selected photos from my stay (there’s many more – ask if you want the rest).

My room in the guest wing (no radio, no TV, no WiFi – just silence and the view).

And this was the view from my window.

Looking over the Vale of Gloucester

While this is what the abbey looks like.

Prinknash Abbey from the front

And this view is from the monastic enclosure which is not open to the public.

Looking up to the abbey from the monastic enclosure

The abbey in bright morning sun.

The morning sun casts the shadow of the bell tower on the wall behind

Some views of the monastery garden which is being renovated.

The wonderful display of my books that Caroline had created in the monastery shop.

And this is me with Caroline Turley, the woman who organised everything so well.

Some of the lovely people who came to hear me speak about the Northumbrian kings.

And me thanking Fr Mark Hargreaves for asking me along in the first place.

Acceptance notes – no.16 in a series

April 26th, 2017

Yay! An acceptance.

Now this is nice: one of my favourite short stories, The Wall at the End of the World, has been accepted for publication by New Myths magazine. Here’s the acceptance note:

Hi Edoardo,

I really enjoyed reading “The Wall at the End of the World,” — and I hope our readers will too!  We’d like to publish it in our June issue.
Pasted below is our contract and a short questionaire.  Please check over and fill both out and return them to us as soon as possible.
Within the next week or so, I’ll be getting back in touch with you regarding any editing suggestions I might ask you to consider.  I look forward to working with you on it.

Adventures in Bookland: Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

April 17th, 2017

Among writers of historical fiction, Eagle in the Snow has achieved semi-legendary status. It was first published in 1970 and, largely through recommendation, has remained in print ever since (no small feat in itself when the author, Wallace Breem, died in 1990).

It’s the subtlety and mood of the book that gives it its power and creates its status. It’s the story of the dying of things: empires, men, armies, a civilisation. It’s the story of a man born out of time, fighting against the dying of the light. It’s a story of the end of Rome suffused with the nostalgia for fallen things that is a legacy of the northern tribes that defeated the Empire and replaced it on this island. That’s the unspoken, because never acknowledged, paradox at the heart of this book. While there were elements of nostalgia for a lost golden age in Roman civilisation, the twilight mood of Eagle in the Snow is a product of a people and a writer whose civilisation rests upon three supports: the Classical tradition of Rome and Greece, the Judeo-Christian and the foreshadowing of ultimate loss that results from the Ragnarok of the Anglo-Saxons. So this is a book of the defeat of a civilisation that is made into the work of art that it is by the worldview of the civilisations that defeated and supplanted it.

Adventures in Bookland: Fire In Babylon by Simon Lister

April 17th, 2017

It was the August of 1976. The sun burned down from a sky that had turned bronze in the heat. Grass, everywhere, was brown and parched. There had been no rain for two months, and for the last six weeks the temperature had barely dropped below 90F. It was the most memorable summer of my young life and, 13, I was going with my father to see the cricket.

But not just any cricket. Although my father is Sri Lankan, we were not going to see Sri Lanka play England (for the very good reason that Sri Lanka was not yet a Test-rated country). We were going to see England play the West Indies – and we were going to see them at the Oval, for the final Test match of the summer. England were already 2-0 down, and playing for pride and self-preservation. And when I say self-preservation, it really was. The West Indies deployed a truly fearsome array of fast bowlers in that match: Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel; and this was in the days before batsmen wore helmets, or indeed much in the way of protection beyond pads, gloves and box. It really was a matter of self-preservation. The pitch was a dustbowl, burned the colour of African mud.

We arrived at the Oval to find it ringing, vibrant with West Indian fans playing instruments, singing and dancing. But I was a serious, studious boy – something of the archetype of the Asian school swot. We settled down at mid-wicket, with our drinks and our sandwiches, and waited for the day to begin.

And what I remember even today, 41 years later, is watching Michael Holding gliding over the ground as he ran in to bowl, moving as smoothly as liquid mercury, and then the leap into the bowling stride, a single puff of dust as the bowl struck the pitch, and an image of the batsman, contorted into some position of avoidance or defence. Even with my young, sharp eyes, I never once saw the ball moving through the air, but only the effects it had on wicket and man.

There has never been a team like that West Indies team, that came into itself on that tour of England in 1976 and then proceeded to dominate international cricket for nearly the next 20 years. This marvellous book tells the story of how they reached that position of dominance and, much more difficult, how they kept it for so long. It’s a tale of resistance, revolt, and hours and hours and hours of sheer bloody hard work made to seem completely effortless in the smoothness of Michael Holding’s run up or Viv Richard’s lifting the ball to the boundary for 6. It’s a tale of all the once-colonial peoples, such as my father’s Sri Lankans, realising that they really could match and beat the English who had given them these games. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come from the everyday racism of the 1970s. And it manages to do all this through the medium of grown men throwing and hitting a ball around for interminable periods of time. Cricket is one-on-one combat in a team context; it’s gladiatorial and, despite all the talk of the spirit of cricket, inherently confrontational, veiling its violence behind its pristine whites. It’s the most perfect game and also the most ridiculous. And this is one of the best books I’ve read about it.


Adventures in Bookland: The Road from Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva

April 16th, 2017

This is a book about civil war and reaching across the bloodlines of that war; it’s a book about making a desperate journey through jungle; it’s a book about birds and animals and plants; it’s a book about Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, the teardrop shed by the Indian subcontinent, is a land that was drenched in tears for the 25 years of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Estimates suggest that over 150,000 people, military and civilian, were killed during the war. The war was essentially fought over the Tigers’ demand for a separate Tamil state – Eelam – within Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lanka government’s refusal to countenance such an idea.

My father is Sri Lankan. Unusually, his mother was Sinhala (the majority and predominantly Buddhist part of the population) and his father was Tamil (the minority Hindu section of the country, who mainly live in the north and east of the country). Even back when my grandparents were married (and this was a long time ago, around 1916), such marriages were rare and faced much hostility. My grandmother’s parents, who were high-caste Sinhala, largely cut-off contact with their daughter after her marriage: my father only met his grandparents once.

Under British colonial rule, these tensions were subsumed but when Ceylon gained independence on 4 February 1948, the Sinhala majority moved towards asserting their political control of the country, most notably by making Sinhala the state language. Since Tamil is not just a different language but uses a different script, this effectively threw many Tamils out of work.

Tamil separatist organisations began to spring up, of which the most important was the one organized by Velupillai Prabhakaran that became the LTTE. As attacks mounted, from both sides, the political tension worsened until full-scale civil war broke out in 1983. The war continued for 25 years, with the Tigers for much of that time controlling huge tracts of Sri Lanka in a parallel administration. A ruthlessly efficient organisation, the Tigers were the first group to develop the use of suicide bombers, and using them assassinated two heads of state: Rajiv Gandhi of India and Ranasinghe Premadasa, president of Sri Lanka.

This book was written in 2000, when it seemed the war would never end. The author, Nihal de Silva, examines the justifications and reasons for the war through his two main characters: a captain in the Sri Lankan army and a female cadre of the Tigers. The captain, Wasantha, is detailed with the job of conveying Kamala, a Tiger cadre turned informer, to Colombo so she can pass on vital information. But when the Tigers attack, the mis-matched pair are forced to go to ground, and then attempt to make their way south on foot, marching through the no-man’s land of Wilpattu National Park.

The depiction of the arid scrub of the north, a land pockmarked by the reservoirs dug by the ancient kings of Sri Lanka to irrigate the land, is excellent and the author’s knowledge of the flora and fauna shines through. The description of rural Sri Lanka, as the couple make their way through dirt-poor villages and abandoned tracks, is among the best I’ve read. And while Wasantha and Kamala head south, hunted by predators both human and animal, the author skillfully presents both sides of the conflict through their interaction.

The ending, when it comes, is tense, and shocking. It’s the ending appropriate to a land still at war without apparent end. But, in the end, there was an end. The Sri Lankan army, reorganised and rejuvenated, drove the Tigers into smaller and smaller pockets of territory and eventually destroyed the leadership, but at the price of many civilian lives.

Nihal de Silva did not live to see the war’s ending. He was killed by a landmine while visiting his beloved Wilpattu National Park, the scene of so much of this work. The Road From Elephant Pass is his memorial, and it’s an eloquent one.


Me, Speaking

April 13th, 2017

Yes, it’s me, speaking at Prinknash Abbey on Tuesday 25 April at 10.30am. I’m really looking forward to this as I’ll get to spend the previous day and night with the monks of the abbey before giving my talk on the Tuesday. If you’re anywhere nearby, do come along (and I’ll sign as many books as you want!).