Writing Portfolio

27.9.16

Library books

Whenever I go to the library – usually to get something printed out, what with not having a printer at home – I invariably feel obliged to take out a book or two, if only to do my (small) bit to bump the lending numbers up in a library that seems to be constantly threatened with cutbacks or, worse still, closure. The good thing here is that there’s always a good selection, especially among the crime novels and the thrillers, and it saves me from buying books and then wondering which books on my crowded shelves I should get rid of to make way for the new arrivals. Here are some books I’ve taken out recently and enjoyed:

Dictator by Robert Harris
This one was in the library less than a month after it came out in the paperback edition. Robert Harris has always had a knack for bringing the past to life in his novels, which have touched on the code-breakers of Bletchley Park (Enigma), a Stalinist revival in modern Russia (Archangel) and the Dreyfus affair (An Officer and a Spy). He’s also written an excellent political trilogy set in ancient Rome around the life of the statesman Cicero, of which Dictator is the final instalment.
Harris’s inspiration for this is an apparently long-lost biography of Cicero by his slave and secretary, Tiro, a real person who published many of his master’s works after the latter’s death and appears to have invented an early form of shorthand. He’s the narrator in Harris’s Cicero trilogy of Roman-era political thrillers; the first two were Imperium, which dealt with his rise to power, and Lustrum, which covered his consulship and the foiling of a conspiracy against the Roman Republic. This is very much a warts-and-all portrayal of the political intrigues surrounding the decline of the Republic – insert your own parallels with the present here – and no-one, not even Cicero himself, emerges entirely unblemished (in his case, he is over-confident and his oratory extends a few too many times to witty remarks at other peoples’ expense; thus does he accumulate deadly enemies). The detail Harris gives is superb – there is evidence of some detailed historical research going on here.
Dictator begins where Lustrum left off, with Cicero as a broken and exiled man and the Republic in decline; the backdrop to this third part of the story is that of the power-struggle between Pompey and Julius Caesar, followed by the latter’s dictatorship and the events surrounding the aftermath of his murder (which is, of course, described) and the rise of Octavian, a young man who everyone (even Cicero) underestimates.
Even people who have some awareness of what the final outcome is going to be – which I would guess to be most people, as we’re dealing with historical figures taking part in one of the great stories of Western history – will find this captivating, for Harris is a really good author who can do the historical very well, whatever the time period he chooses to write about.

The Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler
I must admit that I’ve become a bit of a fan of Christopher Fowler’s quirky series of novels about Arthur Bryant and John May, a pair of elderly detectives – hangovers from the ‘Golden Age’ of crime fiction operating in the modern day – who form the backbone of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a small and decidedly eccentric London-based police team dedicated to solving crimes of an odd nature that may impact public safety (although fictional, it is apparently based on a real-life police unit that existed during the Second World War). Locked-room murders, disappearing pubs and all sorts of London lore and locations (some well-known, others less so) all feature, along with heavy doses of urban myth, psychogeography and dark humour.
The Bleeding Heart, the eleventh book in the series, begins with an apparently re-animated corpse rising from its grave in St George’s Gardens, a little-known (but nevertheless real) former cemetery that’s now a park in Bloomsbury; the only witness to this dies in a hit-and-run the following evening, but in the minutes between when he’s last seen alive and when his body is discovered, someone has changed his t-shirt. As modern-day body-snatchers and the fear of being buried alive loom large in the investigation, there’s a sub-plot involving the disappearance of the ravens at the Tower of London.
Crimes of such as these need an eccentric detective, and the scruffy, ever-curious Arthur Bryant (with his poor personal hygiene, disregard for modern police procedure, collection of mouldy and weirdly-titled books and a contact-list that includes white witches, necromancers, ex-Bletchley Park codebreakers and retired magicians) is truly a great literary creation. Trying to keep him in line is John May, the tidy and sensible one of this crime-fighting odd (and old) couple. Naturally, they’ve got a seemingly nominal boss who tries and fails to keep them in line (many cop duos have these, although none are quite as hilariously hapless as Raymond Land), and various branches of the civil service and the Met (or, in this case, the City of London Police) threatening them with closure on a regular basis.
This is a well-written mystery that will keep the reader guessing until the last few pages, by which time several new things about London may well have been learned.

Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay
A former Toronto Star columnist, Linwood Barclay has made his name as a writer of contemporary thrillers set in the seemingly ordinary, suburban world of upstate New York where an everyman-type figure – the narrator, more often than not – gets caught up in a chain of events which usually involves him becoming a person of interest to the local constabulary and which eventually leads to the uncovering of something sinister that lurks under the surface of the small town he inhabits. It’s very Hitchcockian, in a way – the plot device of an innocent man falling under suspicion for a crime was one that the famous director would return to again and again, from The 39 Steps (itself based on the John Buchan novel) to North by Northwest and, towards the end of his career, Frenzy. Likewise, Barclay’s novel Never Look Away was about a man who was suspected of murdering his wife after she disappeared; it turned out there was a lot more to her than he’d ever known. Recently, Barclay has started revisiting some of the characters who featured in his earlier works; thus, the people who managed to survive No Time for Goodbye (not his first thriller, but definitely his breakthrough work) returned, slightly older but in some ways none the wiser, in No Safe House.
He’s doing the same with Broken Promise, a follow-up in some ways to Never Look Away (although there are also supporting characters drawn from, by my reckoning, at least two of Mr Barclay’s other novels) but one which is being trumpted as the first of a trilogy of its own set around the apparently ordinary, albeit economically declining, town of Promise Falls. Here, David Harwood is a widowed single parent who has lost his job and had to move back into his parents’ house. He drops in on his cousin, who’s fallen to pieces after losing her baby – only to find her with a baby which she claims was given to her by ‘an angel’; he sets off to find the baby’s parents, and in so doing he stumbles onto a murder scene. The narrative bounces, via a series of coincidental comings-and-goings and telephone conversations, between Harwood as he tries to figure out what on Earth is going on, a local doughnut-dodging cop who’s investigating the murder as well as some strange goings-on at the local college, and a few rather dubious individuals with their own agendas who are finding that the unfolding situation is not as easy to manage as they thought it would be.
To be honest, there are enough clues to lead the reader to guess the big plot twist before the reveal is reached, but – this being a trilogy – not everything is wrapped up at the end. The story of Promise Falls is one that is to be continued; to judge by the teaser from the next instalment at the end, Barclay is only just getting started here.

23.9.16

The Capital Ring: Wimbledon to Richmond

To Wimbledon on a very warm September day, from whence I hoped to complete another stage of the Capital Ring. Expectations were high, for this part of the Capital Ring – according to my copy of London: The Definitive Walking Guide – is “possibly one of the finest walks in the whole book, with glorious scenery wall to wall”. Here was a walk with the promise of not one, but three open spaces – Wimbledon Park, Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park.

I am, it seems, not alone in my love of walking. In fact, it’s practically a national trait for us English! I am currently reading a really good book called How England Made the English by Harry Mount (the son of Ferdinand Mount, as it happens). When talking of the weather, he observes that: “Our temperate climate … makes the English obsessive walkers.” Later, he continues: “Because the English weather is so temperate, and the landscape so accommodating, there’s no need for walking clothes, luminous body socks or special shoes … The English walk long distances because nowhere really seems very far from anywhere else, and you’ll never get fatally caught out by the weather or the terrain … Walking has always been our thing – from the Canterbury Tales, through to the Jarrow March and the charity walks of recent years; and walking in all weathers too, because we know the weather’s not going to be that bad.”

For me, though, this was a walk that I approached with some apprehension, for last month I had managed to do myself an injury by going for a quick single during a cricket match; in so doing, I badly pulled my calf which had a knock-on effect on my Achilles tendon and resulted in ‘retired hurt’ going against my name for the first time. After several weeks of icing it and various stretching exercises, I hadn’t done much by way of walking and, although the limp had worn off, this would be my first post-injury big walk.

Having got the Tube down to Wimbledon Park, I set off into the park of that name; a pretty-looking waterfall garden led up to the lake, on which were three types of geese (Canadian, Egyptian, Greylag) and across which could be seen the tennis courts of the All-England Club, then diverting around a watersports centre and then across the grass to come out of the park on the other side. Six-and-a-half miles to Richmond Bridge, my target for the day.



After a couple of suburban back-roads, it was onto Wimbledon Common – through the woods to the windmill. Bird-life abounded, with Robins, Great Tits and Chaffinches spotted in addition to the much more ubiquitous Jackdaws and Magpies; a Green Woodpecker was heard – that distinctive laughing ‘yaffle’ call – but not seen. I’d been told to watch out for wombles, although in the event I did manage to spot a fox. (As well as those creatures who used to collect and recycle rubbish, by the way, my TV-memory of this large piece of open space also includes that episode of Bottom where Adrian Edmondson and the late, lamented Rik Mayall attempted to go camping – the one which wasn’t broadcast for two-and-a-half years due to a particularly brutal murder having been committed on the Common not long before it was originally due to be shown.)




The windmill, as it happens, was covered in scaffolding. It is, apparently, the last hollow post flour mill (whatever that means) in the country; Robert Baden-Powell wrote part of Scouting for Boys there, and it’s now a museum. I passed on by, also passing the club-house of the London Scottish Golf Club before heading downhill to a small lake called Queensmere (also spelled as Queen’s Mere on some maps); there, I saw a Grey Heron. I then continued, across the golf course – spotting a male Kestrel flying overhead and crossing Beverley Brook (which has its own accompanying walk, from New Malden station to the point where said brook enters the Thames near Putney) before crossing the A3 at the Robin Hood Roundabout.



And so to Richmond Park – London’s largest Royal Park, a designated Site of Specific Scientific Interest and, at around 2,500 acres, the largest urban park in Europe. Within minutes of entering, I spotted a red deer – the largest mammal native to Britain; this one was a stag, sitting under the trees. Deer played a major role in the park’s establishment, for in the 1620s Charles I took his court to Richmond Palace in order to escape from an outbreak of the plague in London, and turned the area into a deer park so he could go hunting; just over a century later, the White Lodge in the middle of the park was built as a hunting-lodge for George II.


I followed the path up the hill to the oddly-named Spankers Hill Wood, having lunch on a bench at the top of the hill with a glorious view laid out before me. What a great day for a walk through this place!


After lunch, I had an ice cream at a nearby cafĂ© before walking between the Pen Ponds, spotting more deer (fallow deer, this time) under some trees. There were plenty of ducks on the ponds – all Mallards, from what I could tell – and Ring-necked Parakeets could be heard and seen overhead.




The signs took me across the Queen’s Road to the top of a slope with a good view to the west – although the view is better from the nearby King Henry’s Mound, a brief diversion from the Capital Ring path itself. This high point – a Neolithic burial barrow, it turns out – is named for Henry VIII and is said to be the spot from which he waited for a signal to tell him that Anne Boleyn had been executed at the Tower; there is, though, no actual evidence for this. What is true about King Henry’s Mound is that it has a protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral, 12 miles away, which can be seen through a deliberate gap in the hedge (called ‘The Way’) and a specially-maintained avenue through Sidmouth Wood. To the west was a wonderful panoramic view – on a clear day, you can see Windsor Castle on the horizon (it was a sunny day for me, but the horizon was hazy; I could only just make the castle out with my binoculars).



Then it was downhill to the gate, and past Petersham Meadow to the path along the Thames. A very nice day for it, with some people hiring out the rowing-boats (users are advised to take the tide times into account). I continued past the elegant Richmond Bridge before making my way into town, with a view to getting the train back into Central London. I hadn’t had any trouble from the Achilles tendon, thankfully.



2.9.16

Fire!

350 years ago today, the Great Fire of London began. It started in a baker’s on Pudding Lane, and over the next four days it engulfed some four-fifths of the City of London. Some 13,200 homes, 89 churches and old St Paul’s Cathedral were destroyed.

To get an idea of what it must have been like, there can be no better eyewitness than Samuel Pepys. He wrote at length on this in his diary, describing – as he watched the blaze from “a little alehouse on the Bankside” – “a most horrid and malicious bloody flame, not like the flame of an ordinary fire … we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire … an arch of above a mile long” (eyewitnesses of the Blitz have described that blaze in a similar way). Interestingly, he also described how it was he who convinced the King (Charles II) of the seriousness of the blaze, and he who conveyed the King’s orders to the Lord Mayor (who, to be frank, wasn’t really up to the job).

As an historian, I’ve long been intrigued by a few snippets of information about the Great Fire. One such is the role played by the King’s brother, the Duke of York (the future James II) – his role has, I feel, been downplayed in favour of his (much more popular) brother, but his leadership during the Great Fire was exemplary. It was he who was in charge of pulling down houses to create firebreaks and thus prevent the fire from spreading, and it was also he who ensured the rescue of those who, by virtue of their being foreign, Catholic or both, were threatened by the angry lynch-mobs that were after convenient scapegoats (James himself did not convert to his mother’s religion until 1668 or 1669, although he kept it a secret until the 1670s).

One surprising aspect of both of the things the Duke did during the Great Fire has always been a little surprising; no-one appears to have been killed in the (frankly dangerous) job of demolishing the houses – this would have involved using ‘fire-hooks’ to quite literally pull buildings down, as well as controlled demolitions using gunpowder – and very few died at the hands of the mobs.

In fact, according to the records few people appear to have died in the Great Fire, long seen as a destroyer of property rather than people (in contrast to the Great Plague which preceded it). The official records say that just six people died. Can this really be true? I wanted to look into this further, and my findings have been published on Londonist:


During my research, I managed to find a few more interesting pieces on information about this most momentous of events:
  
1)      The fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane – famously, the site is as far from the Monument as the Monument is tall (202 feet). Everyone – and this includes the Worshipful Company of Bakers, who put a plaque on the building that stands on the site of the bakery – seems to think that the baker, Thomas Farriner (or Farynor, Faryner, etc) was the King’s baker which leads one to think he was baking bread for Charles II. Not so – he actually had a contract to supply hardtack (ship’s biscuit) for the Navy.

2)      It didn’t bring about an end to the Great Plague; this had largely subsided by the time the fire broke out (it had been at its height during the previous year) and there were a few (but not many) instances of plague-related deaths after the Great Fire.

3)      Old St Pauls – that Medieval Gothic structure that was destroyed in the Great Fire – may well have been threatened with demolition in any case. It had been in decline for years – the spire had been destroyed after being struck by lightning in 1561 and there had been some restoration work done by Inigo Jones before the Civil War. After the Restoration, Christopher Wren was put in charge of restoring the cathedral and advised that it should be demolished – advice that was opposed by both the clergy and the people of London. At the time when the Great Fire broke out, the old cathedral was surrounded by wooden scaffolding – which, along with all of the books and pamplets that were stored in the crypt, greatly assisted the blaze. I can think of two models of the old cathedral that exist for those who want an idea of what it looked like – one is in St Paul’s (appropriately enough) while the other is in the Museum of London.

4)      Charles II was particularly concerned about the actions of the mobs that went on the rampage looking for scapegoats afterwards; remembering that London had backed Parliament during the Civil War, he was afraid that this would lead to a popular uprising against him. The need for a scapegoat would lead to one execution at Tyburn (that of a French watchmaker whose confession was dubious to say the least) and a plaque on the Monument that blamed the Great Fire on “the Popish faction” (ie. Catholics). This was removed during the reign of James II, put back after the Glorious Revolution and later removed for good when Catholics were given the vote in 1830.

5)      Some of the plans for rebuilding London were truly radical and would have resulted in a City of piazzas and wide avenues; in the event, much of the old street plan was retained – albeit with wider streets, better access to the River and a rule stating that new buildings had to be made from brick and stone (not wood).

6)      And finally, something about cheese. Pepys famously recorded burying “my parmazan cheese as well as my wine and other things” in a pit in his garden so that he wouldn’t lose them in the flames – not as crazy as it seemed, for Parmigiano-Reggiano was a highly valuable commodity in the seventeenth century, especially given the cost that would have been involved in transporting it from Italy. In the event, Pepys’s house – he lived on Seething Lane, not far from the Tower, at the time – wasn’t burned down, but he never did record in his diary whether he was able to recover his cheese and wine.


There are numerous ways in which the Great Fire is being commemorated (lots of London’s museums have special exhibitions going on), of which my favourite is the  large wooden sculpture of the City on the Thames which is to be set alight on Sunday afternoon. 

31.8.16

The model bridge

To the City, specifically to the Church of St Magnus-the-Martyr on Lower Thames Street (not far from the Monument). Reckoned to be one of the finest of London’s Wren churches, it has appeared in a few literary works – Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – and was so close to London Bridge – the old, Medieval one – that the churchyard formed part of the approach road.



It was the Old London Bridge that drew me to St Magnus-the-Martyr, which is Church of England even though the interior looks decidedly Catholic (which is in a sense appropriate, as it is the only C of E church where the vicar goes by the title of Cardinal Rector). Inside the church is a scale model of said bridge as it would have looked circa. 1400, complete with shops, houses and even a church along its length.






Located a few yards downstream from its modern version, Old London Bridge (not to be confused with its nineteenth-century replacement which was sold to an American entrepreneur in the late Sixties and rebuilt in Arizona) tends to linger in London’s folk-memory. For centuries it was the only bridge across the Thames. People actually lived on it (I can repeat that all I want, but I still can’t get my head around the idea of living in a house on a bridge). It was from there that pilgrims began their journeys to Canterbury (the church – actually a chapel – was dedicated to Thomas Becket). And, of course, it was on the bridge’s southern gatehouse that the severed heads of traitors were impaled on pikes.


The detail on the model is superb, with the tiny figures giving the viewer a good idea of how congested the bridge was. The street itself, crammed in between those houses, was just 12 feet wide and it was said that during busy times, crossing it took an hour. There was an alternative, but anyone tempted to use a waterman to cross the river in the vicinity of the bridge had to bear in mind that this was fraught with danger as the bridge’s narrow arches and wide pier bases – faithfully represented on the model – could produce fearsome rapids depending on the state of the tide, and it was said that only fools would try to pass under it.




This is well worth a visit – a chance to get a glimpse, however fleeting, at what one of London’s most famous landmarks would have looked like in its heyday. There’s even a deliberate anachronism, for the man who made the bridge back in 1987 (a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers) used to be a copper and so couldn’t resist adding the figure of a modern policeman to his Medieval model. I say ‘apparently’ because, alas, I couldn’t spot it.

23.8.16

The London Stone

Opposite the entrance to Cannon Street Station in the City – itself built on the site of a medieval church that was destroyed in the Great Fire – there stood until earlier this year one of London’s oldest landmarks, a largely forgotten chunk of masonry (limestone, to be exact) that is said to be of great significance although its surroundings were somewhat modest. Set into the wall behind an iron grille in front of a branch of W.H. Smith’s on busy Cannon Street was the London Stone.

Some say that it is of Roman origin, and that it may have been an object of religious veneration in pre-Christian times. Could it have something to do King Arthur? Or was it a milestone? There’s even a legend in a similar vein to that concerning the ravens at the Tower, although this one ties in with either of the City’s mythical founders (take your pick between Brutus of Troy and King Lud) to the effect that London will fall if it (the stone) is destroyed. The fifteenth-century rebel leader Jack Cade is said to have struck it with his sword, an apparently ancient way of declaring himself to be in charge, although there’s not much evidence for this other than the relevant scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2.

All we know for sure is that there are references to the London Stone dating back to the late eleventh century, and it was sufficiently well-known in medieval times for its name to have been given to the surrounding area (the first Lord Mayor was called Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone). After the Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren (who reckoned that it was of Roman origin) built it into the south wall of one of his churches, St Swithin London Stone. This was badly damaged in the Blitz and the remains were demolished in 1962, following which the London Stone was put into its current setting in front of a shop which was built on the site of the church. Occasional development of this site resulted in rumours that the Stone would be removed; perhaps wary of the old legend, the developers left it in its place.

Last year, I went to have a look while going for a stroll in the City, and was assured to note that I wasn’t the only one who was taking a close look as a couple of tourists were interested too; conversely, people from all over the world have come to see it (and have been invariably taken aback by its less-than-auspicious setting), while others just walked past it every day without giving it a glance (for them, it was probably just something on the way to work; historically significant things in London can be like that for Londoners, sometimes). Sadly there was a fair amount of rubbish in the grille but at least the Stone was visible, and the back of it could be seen from the inside of the newsagent’s. A very modest setting for an ancient monument that had survived plagues, rebellions, fires, bombing raids and even the attentions of post-war property developers and (according to a BBC report from 2006) twenty-first century cowboy builders.

That changed earlier this year, when the prospect of  yet further development led to the London Stone's removal from its site. It can now be seen in the Museum of London, presumably getting more attention in a glass case rather than behind a litter-strewn grille, although when the building work is complete on Cannon Street it will return there, to be displayed on a plinth; once again, no doubt, it will attract the attention of some while being ignored by others.