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Sunday 17 April 2016

In Good Company ....

Last week, I left my desk and went to London to be interviewed for a documentary for BBC ARTS about the rules and conventions of the spy novel. The filming took place in the famous Craxton Studios in a lovely house in Hampstead, and I was very well looked after by producer Matt and cameraman Adam. Among the writers who will be contributing are Frederick Forsyth, Stella Rimington, William Boyd, Charles Cumming – and (somewhat to my surprise ........) myself. The programme will be presented by Andrew Marr. Above are just some of the writers who you will be able to hear us talking about, namely John Buchan, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. We don't know the date when it will be broadcast yet - but watch this space ...

Thursday 17 December 2015

Merry Ashenden!

When in the process of writing a book , like a lot of other authors, I don’t normally read very much. But when I’ve sent one off to my agent, as I have just done, I do read. I have a pile of books I’m looking forward to over the Christmas holidays.

The book I’ve read so far is an extraordinarily long-delayed catch up. The book itself dates back to 1928. It’s Ashenden by W Somerset Maugham, sometimes considered as the first modern spy story by, amongst others, Eric Ambler.

It isn’t a novel, more a series of vignettes and character studies of what I tend to think of as the cigar and brandy school, I suppose. Ashenden himself is not a spy but a writer pressed into service during WW1, much as Maugham himself was, an agent, report writer and opinion giver, who deals with spies. The characters are people Ashenden meets, deals with, bears with, entertains – and sometimes betrays.

Last Christmas I read Chasing Lost Time, Jean Findlay’s revealing biography of her great-great-Uncle C K Scott Moncrieff. As well as serving gallantly as a soldier in WW1, he went on to translate Proust (and Pirandello) while also acting as a spy in Italy.

In the fiction there is something of the same – hotel life, large sums of money for bribes, and a curious mix of tedium and pervasive threat.

Maugham had been a spy in WW1 – he used some of the experience in Ashenden,  though, as he is careful to point out, there is a considerable difference between the reality  of intelligence– often boring and always incomplete – and fiction.

By today’s standards, Maugham’s Ashenden would be regarded as judgemental and snobbish. There are women called ‘coarse and vulgar’. There are elements of Joseph Conrad’s narrator Marlow and of Guy de Maupassant stories, a possibly cynical, sometimes ridiculous, account of people’s motives: a woman wants to recover an expensive (for her) watch she gave to her dead lover; an American makes a principle out of his laundry and ends up dead in the Bolshevik revolution in Petrograd; Ashenden himself, in rather Byronic mode, finds the love of his life’s insistence on scrambled eggs in the morning too much to bear; a womaniser called the Hairless Mexican kills the wrong Greek; and Ashenden himself delivers a British man to a firing squad and watches the German wife of the executed man flounder in not knowing what has happened.

My impression? The difference between life and fiction is that in the latter the Indian dies.  In WW1, the Germans were keen to encourage unrest in India (then a British dominion) so as to keep more British troops there. Maugham himself was involved with tracking an Indian nationalist collaborating with Berlin. In real life he survived. His fictional counterpart is, for love, enticed across the boarder.

Fiction is love?  I don’t know.

But Happy Christmas and Happy Reading, everybody!

Sunday 18 October 2015

Post Bouchercon - Raleigh 2015

Back home after my trip to Bouchercon in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The journey there was something of an odyssey for reasons too lengthy to report here, but which involved, among other things, having my case removed from the plane before take-off and – wait for it – the confiscation of my pedometer. Didn’t realise that it was a potential lethal weapon. But twenty three hours after starting out, I finally made it. And I have to say, the people in Raleigh - the airport staff, in the hotel, restaurants and bars - are all exceptionally friendly and helpful and that was true throughout my stay. And the weather was gorgeous – warm and sunny!

After a few hours’ sleep, on Wednesday morning I headed off to the Sheraton and immediately bumped into Ali Karim, our tireless , tremendously warm and welcoming Bouchercon programmer, who introduced me to, among others, the lovely George Easter, editor of Deadly Pleasures   

In the afternoon, I met up with my friend Nancy Bilyeau – we had met online, but not in person. We went for an enjoyable dinner together and chatted away as if we had known each other for years.

On Thursday I had my first panel, which I was moderating, with Elly Griffiths and Susi Holliday, Anne Cleeland and Deborah Crombie

Monday 29 June 2015

Daggers Drawn …

Many years ago, when my son was about 15, he visited his grandparents  in the UK (we were living in Spain at the time). They had recently been on a trip to Japan, and knowing that the lad was very interested in all things Japanese, they had brought him back a ceremonial sword as a present. It was, I am told, quite large – too large to put in his case. So he carried it under his arm and headed for the airport. It will come as no surprise that he was stopped as he was going through security. He was searched for fitting the profile of a ‘potential terrorist’ (male, under twenty five, wearing jeans and an anorak, and carrying a lethal weapon). ‘Where did you get this?’ He was asked.  ‘My granny gave it to me.’ They told him to quit trying to be funny, and the sword was confiscated.

I remembered this a few years ago after being awarded the CWA Historical Dagger. I  had planned to fly back to Edinburgh, where I live. But would the dagger be deemed a lethal weapon? In the end I opted for the train and had the satisfaction of giving the dagger in my bag the occasional pat, safe in the knowledge that it would get home safely.
Everyone likes receiving awards. A Dagger is a huge honour. The appreciation of your fellow writers, readers etc, is touching, and very greatly appreciated. But what do you do with it when you have it? Put it on the mantelpiece? Could be a bit ostentatious. I read recently that Emma Thompson keeps her Oscar in the loo, and Russell Crowe keeps his in a chicken coop. Other favourite places are in the sock drawer, tucked away at the back of a cupboard, under the desk, by the bed (a handy weapon in case of intruders?) and even in the fridge next to the beer.

I put mine, unostentatiously in its box, on the mantelpiece. Soon after, my small grandson, who was four at the time, came to visit from Spain, where he lives. He knew about the Dagger and asked to see it. “Is it real?” “Oh, yes, I said.” “Can I see it?” The box was opened. “Can I hold it?” “Well, if you are VERY careful and sit perfectly still while you are holding it, yes.” So he did, sitting on the sofa almost reverently, holding the dagger in both hands. From then on, whenever he visits, the dagger must be visited. The performance has developed somewhat as he has grown older. Now, he adopts a different stance, perfectly still, depending on whether he is being Robin Hood, D’Artagnan, Captain Hook or whoever else.

The beautiful new design of the Daggers this year may make transport by plane a lot easier.

Tomorrow is the CWA Daggers Dinner. Very good luck to everyone. Have a lovely evening!

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Emerging Again .....

After a silent and rather complicated year, a new blog post!

I'm very pleased to have been elected to the CWA committee - I will make every effort to do my best for all. First committee meeting is on 29th of this month, so I shall look forward to meeting everyone in London.

Following this, at CrimeFest in Bristol. I have two panels, both on Friday 15th May. The first is at 10.10 am - Identity and Viewpoint: Writing 'The Other' , and is with Quentin Bates. Kate Ellis and M.R.Hall, myself, and participating moderator Alison Joseph.

Here they are:

.                                                                   Alison Joseph

The second is at 4 pm - 'War Crimes'- with  Jason Hewitt, Robert Olen Butler, Laura Wilson, Luke McCallin - and myself as participating moderator.

If you're around in Bristol on 15th May, do come and see us - two lovely panels of authors with scope for interesting discussion!

Monday 3 November 2014


The Historical Writers Association  in association with ‘Previously ....’ . 17 – 23 November 2014, present

History and Story

 To celebrate History Writing Month in Edinburgh, fellow writer Andrew Williams and myself have gathered together some of the most interesting and respected writers of historical fiction today to present a thought-provoking series of events. The events will be held in Adam House, Chambers Street. The periods covered range from 11th to 20th centuries. Together, they not only reflect how fiction can reveal the realities of history and help us understand the present, but also represent an interesting variety of approaches to writing historical fiction. 

You can buy tickets now to these events by clicking on the links below each panel descriptions

1.      Spies, Traitors and Secret Conspirators: A question of loyalty? 

 William Ryan, Edward Wilson and Andrew Williams
Monday 17th November at 18:00. Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

Historical novelists, Andrew Williams, William Ryan and Edward Wilson discuss the shadow world of spies and secret policemen, from World War 1 to Vietnam. 

Ticket link

2.     From Hot to Cold War: Portraying Reality in Fiction
John Lawton, Laura Wilson and Aly Monroe

Tuesday 18th November at 18:00. Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

Join historical novelists John Lawton, Laura Wilson and Aly Monroe as they discuss the living sources they draw on and how the social and political changes that characterised the post-war era provide fertile ground for the fiction they create.

Ticket link

3.     Secrets and Signposts: the Past within the Present.

Tom Harper and Iain Pears

Wednesday 19th November at 18:00. Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

Tom Harper and Iain Pears write multi-layered novels, seamlessly intertwining stories across different eras of history from the ancient world to the present day. Join them as they discuss how they tackle these complex books, peeling back layers to reveal why the past is never truly dead and buried.

Ticket link

4.     Female Characters – Writing Women back into History
Imogen Robertson, Samantha Norman and Sara Sheridan

Thursday 20th November at 18:00. Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

History is full of fascinating characters, male and female, who have for generations been dismissed as irrelevant by the historical establishment. Now a new approach to social history is beginning to make some of their stories available and historical writers are finding new perspectives and people with which to populate their fiction and enthral their readers. Come to hear three female writers of historical fiction discuss what inspires and informs their writing and how they bring the women of history back to their rightful place - centre stage alongside the men.


5.     Terror, Faith and Reform: Stories of Renaissance Scotland
Shona Maclean, Marie Macpherson and Louise Turner

Sunday 23rd November at 14:30.
Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

From Flodden to the union of crowns, historical novelists, Shona Maclean, Marie Macpherson and Louise Turner discuss life in Scotland at a time of riot, murder and reformation, in the context of their novels. 

Details for ticket bookings will be available soon on the 'Previously ...' website, as well as here.

Ticket link

Looking forward to seeing you there if you're anywhere near Edinburgh!