I read today in one of the historical novelists’ Facebook groups I belong to that the one constant when we write is how people felt in the (sometimes distant) past. We have to research the food they ate, the clothes they wore and the kind of social relationships that existed but the one thing we can be sure of is that the emotions we experience today are the same emotions as our forebears felt. I didn’t argue with the thought, but I’m just not sure that it’s true.
For a lot of years now, I have spent a good deal of my time in the Middle East and when I wasn’t there I was in other places – Africa, South East Asia and the Americas, North and South. When I started writing the James Blakiston series set in the north-east of England in the 1760s, I needed a way to show the religious views held by many of my characters. England already had no shortage of atheists but the majority of people would express Christian thoughts and you just don’t hear that in this country any more. You do still hear it in places like Saudi Arabia (though, of course, the religion being expressed there is Islam and not Christianity) and I quite shamelessly put that Islamic way of speaking into the mouths of eighteenth century English Christians. I found it worked quite well because I was reproducing a mode of speech with which I am familiar.
Religion and emotion are, of course, different things but I think you can extrapolate from one to the other. One of the things you realise in the Gulf is that the Enlightenment has not happened there which means that ways of thinking and of feeling that we take for granted in the West are far less common. I’m open to argument here, but it seems to me that a major legacy of the Enlightenment is that it makes the individual paramount. That is simply not the case in the Islamic Middle East and it seems to me that overlooking that fact is one of the most obvious mistakes made by our politicians when they formulate policy towards the region. We talk about western style democracy, in which the individual comes first, as something that everyone should have and, if they don’t seem to be asking for it, we should press it on them. For example, we completely misunderstood what people like to call the Arab Spring (and it’s questionable, in any case, how Arabic that “spring” really was since it was actually a Mediterranean phenomenon – the countries involved were Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and it’s easy from this distance to overlook the fact that those are all Mediterranean lands). We thought people were demanding the right to self-determination when what they actually wanted was to be sure of a roof over their heads, the ability to feed their families and educate their children and security from the knock on the door in the middle of the night.
One of the most interesting books I have read on English history is The Voices of Morebath. Christopher Trychay was vicar of the small Devon parish of Morebath from 1520 to 1574 and he kept a record of parish life in far more detail than most parishes can provide. The Reformation was, of course, a lot earlier than the Enlightenment and the glimpses this book gives us of what people thought and how they felt reveal an English people far from who we are today and much closer to what we still find in the Islamic Middle East.
For anyone who wants to understand who we once were and to think about how those people developed to become us, The Voices of Morebath is required reading. I recommend it in the strongest possible terms.
See more reviews of other people’s books here
Where does stuff come from? I mean, the stuff we write. I’ve written elsewhere about my puzzlement when I saw the first line of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper; what raised the question this time was a memory from sixty years ago that came back when I met by chance someone I hadn’t seen for almost that long.
In A Just and Upright Man, I wrote this passage:
It was simply the most modern and comfortable house Kate had ever been in. She knew Mistress Wortley to be a widow, and in Kate’s experience widows were always in want of money. There was no sign of that here.
Though the hovels of the poor – hovels like the one Kate lived in – had no floor coverings at all, she was familiar with the floor cloths better off people had. Sheets of canvas drenched in linseed oil and pigment, they gave some pattern and colour but, most of all, they kept the feet clear of the cold stone flags or beaten earth that constituted the floor of most houses. Here, though, were no floor cloths. This floor was smooth surfaced terracotta tiles, swept clean by one of the three servants who looked after this one woman’s every need; and on the tiles lay rugs of woven wool in intricate and brightly coloured designs. Kate stared in wonder.
‘I see you are looking at my rugs, Katherine. You are perhaps wondering why they are not on the wall, as you might have seen in, let us say, the Rectory?’
Kate nodded, though in truth she had never been further into the Rectory than the scullery, and the only hangings there were copper pots and pans.
‘This is the latest fashion, Katherine. Everyone in London is doing it. Hangings are coming off walls and going onto floors. And, see: the blue and yellow wallpaper. I had it delivered by James Wheeley in London. They sent their own men all this way to hang it, for I could not trust the local workmen. It is the newest thing. Would you really cover such a bright and beautiful paper in wall hangings?’
Kate was almost lost for words at such elegance. ‘No, miss.’
‘The people of Ryton do not know what beauty can exist in our world. Beauty is to be found only in Mayfair. And, of course, Paris, Rome, Venice.’
‘Lady Isabella goes every summer to Harrogate. We pray in church for her safe return.’
‘Yes, I can see that a provincial soul might warm to Harrogate. For me, Bath is not entirely without its compensations. And now, tell me. Why do you want to learn to read and write?’
All right, the main object of that scene was the same as the main object of all scenes – to move the story forward. There was something else though; I wanted to show that on the one hand we had Mistress Wortley, a widow of means with a high opinion of her own worldly sophistication and on the other was Kate whose idea of the unattainable would be a visit to Harrogate, 50 miles to the south and a day’s ride in the stagecoaches of the time. (Lady Isabella, by the way, is the rector’s wife). A little later, Mistress Wortley uses the word “provincial” again:
Kate’s reading was progressing well, and the time for her sixth lesson was here.
‘You are glum, child,’ said Mistress Wortley. ‘What troubles you?’
‘The Overseers of the Poor came to see me,’ said Kate. ‘They wanted to know why I was learning to read when we are receiving money from the parish because my father is ill. They say this must be my last lesson, and I must be put to work.’
‘They say that, do they? And you? Do you want this to be your last lesson?’
‘No, Miss. I mean Mistress Wortley. But…’
‘Then it shall not be. You may leave the Overseers of the Poor to me. I shall send them about their business. Now take the old vellum sheet you will find on the table and cover it in the first four letters of the alphabet while I work at my sewing.’
Kate could not prevent herself from looking up from her exercise to watch the widow’s fine work with the needle. ‘That is beautiful cloth, Mistress Wortley. What is it you are making?’
‘A frock for my sister’s son. She has not had my good fortune in avoiding the more sordid aspects of matrimony, and she has three children already after only five years of marriage. The boy is three and I promised to make something for him to wear on Sundays when better weather arrives. But attend to your own work and not to mine. You will not form letters a lady would be proud of unless you pay attention to what you are doing.’
Kate bent her head to the vellum.
‘You are right about the stuff, though,’ said Mistress Wortley. ‘This is the finest cotton, from Galilee. The French have the Levant trade to themselves. They bribe the merchants in Egypt, and it is the Egyptians who buy and sell the cotton from the Holy Land. The most tiresome thing about being at war was having to buy cotton from the Americas and the Indies. Such coarse stuff.’
Kate smiled. She revered Mistress Wortley as a woman of great kindness and she loved hearing her talk about Society, fashion and the world beyond Ryton, but Kate was a girl of common sense and she knew that, sometimes, Mistress Wortley spoke the most complete tripe. Kate loved to tease. But how would her benefactress respond to being teased? Casually, she said, ‘Lady Isabella has fine cotton petticoats. I believe the cloth comes from Manchester, though I do not rightly know where Manchester is. But Rosina told our mam…’
‘Mistress Wortley, I am sorry. Rosina told my mother…’
‘Rosina told Mother that the cotton was from the Indies. Though I don’t rightly know where the Indies are, either.’
‘They are far from here,’ said Mistress Wortley, folding her sewing and putting it aside. ‘And I can see that colonial cotton spun by some Manchester jade as she sings to keep her six starving children quiet might be very fitting for ladies who holiday in Harrogate. One would not wish to see such provincials challenged by anything of excessive quality. Show me the vellum. You are doing well, Kate. I shall not let the Overseers of the Poor come between you and your wish to read. Take this book in your hand. Now. Let us see what you can make of the first sentence.’
Kate “doesn’t rightly know where the Indies are” and it’s clear that Mistress Wortley is no better informed, but she isn’t going to admit it. She is very conscious of the way Kate looks up to her for her broader knowledge of the world. And that brings me back to the question: where does this come from?
In 1954 I was in my first year at grammar school. I went into a shop to buy a chocolate bar (it would have been about three pence at the time, and by that I mean old pence which were worth less than half of the present coin, and you’d need about thirty of those to buy the same piece of confectionery). The mother of one of my schoolfriends from the year before (he had not passed the 11+ and was therefore not with me at grammar school) was explaining to the two women behind the counter (one of whom was my mother) that the behaviour of Italian men – their whistling after women and groping of female behinds – was something that anyone who had been to Italy would expect and think nothing of. “If it becomes too much, you simply give them an earful in Italian and they back away immediately. Mamma’s boys, the lot of them.”
My mother said nothing but I knew from the look on her face that she was not impressed. I hadn’t thought of that incident until the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, for the man I met after a gap of almost 60 years was the son of the woman in the shop who could tell Italian men off in their own tongue. The scene came back to me and I said, ‘What had your mother been doing in Italy?’
‘Italy? I don’t think she was ever there.’
‘But she spoke Italian.’
‘Is this the beginning of dementia? Or are you confusing my mother with someone else? She didn’t speak a word of anything but English. She might say “Pardon my French” when she swore, but that was about the extent of it.
I laughed it off and turned the conversation to other things but I had the answer to my question. Mistress Wortley got her snobbery from Terry Malin’s mother. A writer’s mind is a fermenting hodgepodge of memories (some of which are false), quotations, sudden insights, old fights and old friendships, and things we may have read so many years ago that we have forgotten them. If we are lucky, they come together to form the soil in which something new can grow.
I’ll leave with one last extract from A Just and Upright Man. It comes immediately after the first one I quoted, which ended when Mistress Wortley asked Kate why she wanted to read and write and I think it shows very well the widow’s view of the correctness of the social order as it existed in north-east England in the seventeen sixties. And I know exactly where her ideas of what constitutes correct speech came from – they came from my primary school teachers, more than 200 years later:
‘Miss, I want to better myself. I want to read the bible for myself, instead of hearing only what someone else thinks is important. And I’d like to know what’s going on in the world.’
‘Very well. Estimable wishes, so long as you do not think to rise above your station. But reading and writing are not enough. You must also learn to speak.’
‘Speak, Miss? But, Miss, I speak every day. I am speaking to you now.’
‘That is not speaking. You have much to learn. For now, let us content ourselves with but a few simple rules. You must not say us when you mean me. You must not say our Mam, but my mother. Or, better still, simply Mother. You will not call people Man, whatever sex they may be. And never, ever, shall you address someone as pet. Is that clear? There will be more to learn, when you have mastered this. I shall call you Katherine. You will call me Mistress Wortley, or Ma’am. And now, let us begin.’
The Historical Novel Society announced the shortlist for its 2015 Indie Award on Friday, and included in the list is A Just and Upright Man . The winner will be announced and the award presented at the society’s annual conference in Denver, Colorado, in June.
I was stunned when I got the news. Of course you always hope to be recognised, and the book has had some very good reviews, but still it’s a surprise. To know that they started out with so many historical novels and, after they’d whittled them down to just nine, mine was still in there – it feels like a validation of all my hard work.
A Just and Upright Man is the first in the five-book James Blakiston series of historical romance/crime novels set in northeast England in the 1760s (with one set in the American colonies as revolution looms). So much historical fiction is written from the viewpoint of the rich and aristocratic, or at least the well-off. I wanted to write about the lives of the people at the bottom of the heap – the agricultural labourers, shepherds, cotton spinners and miners from whom I (and, in fact, almost everyone) am descended. You think at first that these people are invisible but when you sit for hours, day after day, (as I have) poring over the notebooks and other records kept by vicars and overseers of the poor – and, indeed, the courts – individuals start to emerge from the darkness and speak to you. I wanted to tell how their lives unfolded when enclosure took away their livelihood of the past two or three hundred years and to show that they, no less than the gentry, fell in love, married and had children; that they knew happiness and grief; that they mattered. The reviews I’ve been getting suggest that I’ve succeeded, which is rewarding in itself.
Poor Law, the second book in the series, should be with the proof-reader before the end of this month.
The book is available:
Here for Kindle
Or you can get it here as a paperback (the price includes postage, wherever in the world you may be).
At the Chorleywood Indie Fair on 16th November a lady asked me to tell her about my books. I did that and when I reached A Just and Upright Man I said, ‘This is an historical romance and crime book. It’s set in the north-east in the 1760s. So, you see, men can write romance.’ I meant that as a little joke and she didn’t seem to have a problem with it but one of my fellow ALLi author members who was listening to the conversation spat out a derogatory remark about the very idea of romance and male authors. A review in Romance Reviews Magazine, quoted on the front cover, said, “A very enjoyable and worthwhile read” and the Historical Novel Society (also quoted) said, “A truly superb novel and indie publishing at its very best” but clearly this lady was not impressed. Men can’t write romance and that’s that.
I covered up my irritation (at least I hope I did) and it was only later that I looked dispassionately at the question. That’s when I realised that twenty years ago – perhaps even ten years ago – I couldn’t have written A Just and Upright Man. Romance to me then was not what it would be now. I don’t have to search very far for the reason. In my early sixties I had trouble sleeping. It wasn’t serious enough to see a doctor but I did mention it when I was at the surgery for a cholesterol check. ‘Oh, I can fix that,’ said the doc. ‘Testosterone Replacement Therapy – that’s the answer.’
He must have been joking; in fact, I told him so. Almost all the trouble in my life has come from an excess of testosterone. I don’t think that’s unusual; it’s what people mean when they say that having testicles is like being chained to the village idiot. Be that as it may, now that that tedious hormone was depleted I had no intention of building it up again. And that turned out to be the right decision because the sleeping problem went away. It’s now, in this post-lunatic stage of my life, that I find romance easy to write.
I wrote this post in my head this morning during a six mile walk along the country lanes close to my house that I took because it’s such an unexpectedly beautiful day (especially as tomorrow is the first day of winter). While I was composing it I remembered that I had actually used that testosterone replacement suggestion in a short story. I hope you will enjoy that story – it’s free and available for download here.
She stood on the bridge at midnight is, of course, the opening line of that liberal anthem of which the first verse runs:
She stood on the bridge at midnight
Throwing snowballs at the moon
She said, “Jack, I’ve never ‘ad it”
But she spoke too bloomin’ soon.
The chorus that follows sets the tone:
It’s the same the ‘ole world over
It’s the poor wot gets the blame
It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure
Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame?
Common politeness prevents me singing other verses outside a rugby club (which is where I learned many of my choicer ditties; it’s only now that I wonder whether other people know a more wholesome version of this song), although there’s no harm in telling you that the last two lines before the final chorus are:
She is now completely ruined
And it’s all because of ‘im.
I found these lines running through my head after receiving an email telling me why A Just and Upright Man was such rubbish and how pleased my correspondent was that she’d bought it for her Kindle and read it quickly because she’d been able to get her money back from Amazon, the miserable skinflint, and so my trash hadn’t cost her anything other than the few hours of her time I’d stolen.
My offence was to write an historical romance/crime novel from the point of view of the people at the bottom of the social heap—the poor. Lizzie Greener and her family, as well as Tom Laws and his, should be beneath notice. Literature, whatever that is, should concern itself only with the upper classes. If some people of the past are invisible there is, it seems, a reason for that. They are not worthy of notice.
Well, I can’t agree. I suppose I’m influenced by the fact that, if Lizzie Greener and Tom Laws had not lived in the northeast two hundred and fifty years ago then I wouldn’t be here now, but it’s more than self-interest. Those peasants and paupers whose every day was a struggle to survive make for better fiction than some spoilt princess.
In any case, they’re not invisible. You have to look a bit harder—I’ve spent hours in archives around the country, going through original documents, and I’ll spend hours more and after doing that for a while these “invisible” people start to look out at you from the pages. Look at this from a 1765 parish account book:
Three Fox and two Foulmartens heads four and twopence
Who trapped and killed those foxes and martens so that they could claim the bounty? And what did they do with the money? Four shillings and twopence was a fortune at a time when they could also write:
To Hauxley Todd for 2 carts of coals & loading three shillings and eightpence
and when it cost the parish a guinea—one pound and one shilling—to keep Edward Scott in the Poor House for 14 weeks.
In 1745 there were sixteen paupers in Ryton Constablery (sic) and we know their names and how much they were given to get them through the year (it wasn’t much). Turn to the parish registers and there they are lined up for us: the year of their birth; the year they were baptised (not always the same as the birth year and there’s a story there, too, for anyone who cares to look); the names of their parents; who they married (and when); what children they had; and when they died.
What about Richard Evans, imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour for being “a loose disorderly fellow of ill fame”. Evans was convicted on no more than the oath of a churchwarden. Who is going to tell his story if not me? And what would that churchwarden have made of the man I saw sixty years ago trying to get the key into the door of his miserable cottage while concealing from this small boy the fact (actually quite unconcealable) that he was as drunk as a Lord? Why does this woman who abuses me by email and steals the fruits of my labours by reading and then not paying believe that the Lord’s story would be more worth telling than the labourer’s? Those shabby cottages were knocked down years ago—is every trace of the people who lived there to vanish?
Not if I have anything to do with it.
I’m editing Poor Law, the sequel to A Just and Upright Man and second in the five book James Blakiston series. At least, I thought I was. But a couple of days ago a series of strokes of the sort of genius known only to the greatest minds meant I had to accept that I was into a wholesale rewrite and not just an edit. I’ve spent a large part of today in 18th century Durham county, the POV I’ve been writing these scenes in is that of a young woman and I got into that trance-like state that comes—sometimes—when it’s going well, you’re undisturbed and you’ve left your own world behind and moved completely into someone else’s. If you like—though it’s a word I don’t like—I’ve been channelling a sixteen year old girl from the 1760s. A number of things happened and Kate told me each time how she felt, what was in her mind and what the reaction of other people was. Times like that you have to keep going, keep writing because you don’t know when you’re going to have that rock-solid connection to another world again. When I finally came out of it (because I needed to eat) I was reminded of that time I’d been writing a 20th Century criminal and, when I finally stood up, I was patting my pockets, desperate for a cigarette. It took twenty minutes before I remembered that I don’t smoke.
That took me on to Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, where protagonist Billy McErlane stood over me while I was working telling me, “Don’t forget the anger management. Tell them about the psych. Wendy wouldn’t have behaved like that, she’d have done this.” And from there it wasn’t a huge step to When the Darkness Comes and Haile Selassie elbowing his way forward when he caught the scent of Barabbas (who he didn’t care for one little bit) and saying, “If he’s in, I’m in.” The Lion of Judah had no place in my plans but he wasn’t going to be denied. He took control, too. So I suppose the question is fairly obvious. Am I completely round the bend? Is there any hope?
The visible crises in A Just and Upright Man are the murder of Reuben Cooper and James Blakiston’s search for the killer, and Blakiston’s equally urgent wish to deny—to himself as much as to anyone else—that he is in love with Kate Greener. Those are the matters the book is concerned with. No-one, though, can get away from the troubles in the wider world that surrounds them and the threat of enclosure weighs on Blakiston and everyone else in Ryton.
We look back now on the enclosures in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as things from which we benefited. At the most, necessary evils. In Poor Law, the second book in the series, Blakiston himself ponders on this: Times were hard for those without land, and getting harder. He was confident in what he was doing; future generations would be grateful for the larger farms, the transfer of strips of land in common ownership to more effective units, the modern farming methods that meant fewer people could produce bigger crops. Better agriculture would make the country richer, and so would the mining and manufacturing industries that were growing as men and women no longer needed on the land expanded the workforce in the towns and pit villages. Still, many of the people who had worked the land were paying a terrible price now for the benefits others would have in the future. The Rector would say that all was ordered for the best in God’s world, and the poor would have their reward in the life to come. Walter Maughan on the other hand would say that the poor were being punished by God for sins known to Him though invisible to us. But these comforts were not available to Blakiston.
Blakiston was a Sussex man before family ruin forced him to the northeast of England, and enclosure came to Sussex decades before it reached Durham. When his employer, Lord Ravenshead, asks what he knows of enclosure, Blakiston says,
‘My Lord, in Sussex all the land is enclosed. There are no common lands left.’
‘And have the enclosures been successful?’
‘For the landowners and the larger farmers, My Lord, yes. For the ordinary people, enclosure has been disastrous. They have been ruined. Cast out to make their living where and how they might.’
Tom Laws, a labourer whose marriage to Lizzie Greener brought him tenancy of a farm, knows nothing of this. We can feel his shock in this passage as he learns what the gentry can do to a hard working labourer:
‘We are poor men, master. The wife and me have three bairns still at home. You know how it is with us, for you were one of us not so long ago. Meal is dear and meat near impossible. Without the chickens and the pig and potatoes from the garden, and milk from the cow, we would starve. Now I must kill the cow because their lordships will take the common I feed it on. That land belonged to all of us and soon it will be theirs alone.’
‘It is hard, I grant. You will still have the chickens and the pig and the garden.’
‘Aye,’ said Zeke. ‘But for how long?’
‘I don’t understand.’ ‘What do you know of enclosures?’ asked John.
‘Nothing. I was never part of one. And neither were you.’
‘No. But my cousin in Barton, James Savile, he was in one. After the Act was passed the commissioners came to divvy up the land. James was to get a little piece to make up for everything they took away from him. So he didn’t have his grazing or his turbary but he would have some land. What they call his allotment. Not the best land, mind, the squire would get that, but land.’
‘Yes. That’s fair.’
‘Of course it is. But they had to pay for the fencing, see, man.’
‘Well, if you’ve got some land of your own, of course you have to fence it. You’ll be feeding someone else’s pig instead of your own, else.’
‘No, man. James didn’t just have to pay for his own little bit fence. He had to pay for the squire’s and the rector’s an’ all.’
‘No, John. No, that can’t be right.’
‘Right? We’re not talking about right, man. We’re talking about what’s in the Act, and who wrote the Act, and that wasn’t the cottagers and the squatters. It’s the squire and the rector and their pals in Parliament who wrote the Act. And that’s what it said. The squire and the rector and all them that were getting big bits of land out of it, they didn’t have to pay one penny for fencing. But all the poor little buggers that were getting enough land to raise a pig and grow cabbages, they’re the ones who had to pay for all the fencing. Their own and everybody else’s.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘You can believe it or not, man. It’s true. And that’s what’ll happen here an’ all. Mebbes Lord Ravenshead might be ready to pay for his own fences but yon greedy bugger in Durham Cathedral, he’ll not, the miserable Welshman that he is. And as for the Blacketts, who believe we are nothing…we’ll get no mercy there.’
‘So what happened to your cousin James?’
‘Exactly what they meant to happen when they wrote their bliddy Act. “Oh, James, man, can you not pay your bit fence money? Well, divven’t ye worry, man. We’ll help you out. We’ll buy your bit land off you for five pound and you can have yourself a nice drink and we’ll have all the land for ever. And you can forget about your bliddy pig.” And that’s what’ll happen to me and me pig and me cabbages and me chickens.’
‘I knew nothing of this,’ stammered Tom.
‘You know it now,’ said John Robinson. ‘We were wrong to talk behind your back. You are not our enemy.’
‘Mebbe not,’ said Zeke. ‘But I warn you, Tom Laws. Watch out for Isaac Henderson.’
‘Zeke’s right,’ said John. ‘Isaac hates you. If he can bring you down, he will.’ He stepped closer to Tom. ‘You are a fool to let him take your rabbits. It brings him onto your farm. He has big eyes, that one. He sees things he should not.’
Did I make that up? I did not. What John Robinson describes is exactly what some rapacious landlords did to swindle their labouring men out of the small pieces of land—the “allotments”—that the law said they should have. When I learned that while researching A Just and Upright Man I was determined to get it into the book and expose this awful piece of history to a wider view.
In Poor Law there is another insight into the effects of enclosure when Tom Laws, newly elected against his will as one of the Overseers of the Poor, tells Blakiston this:
It is not farmers who say that an old widow-woman must be removed to her place of settlement, a place she may not have seen since she came here as a young bride. It was not farmers who built the Woodside Poor House two year ago and said the poor must enter it or starve. But it is farmers who are made Overseers of the Poor and have to carry these things out on behalf of their betters, and farmers who get the blame. When a labourer has no work and must go to the mines or see his children sent as apprentices to some place from which they will likely never return, it is a farmer who has to tell him. Our people go off to the towns and the pit villages and they do not like it and they blame us.’
‘I am sorry.’
‘And when enclosure comes…’
‘…and it will come, as it has come everywhere…’
‘…people will see some farmers with big farms and many small men driven from the land. It will be the Bishop of Durham’s doing, and the Blacketts’ doing, and it is they who make money from enclosures but it is us the people see and us they blame. People have long memories. They remember not only their own grievances but those of their fathers and their grandfathers.’
Economic historians will tell you that enclosure paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, for two hundred years of world domination by the Royal Navy and for the birth of the United States of America as a bastion of freedom and I don’t doubt that all of that is true—but the price paid by the poor was a dreadful one.
When I’d finished A Just and Upright Man, I wanted to start on something different—a story set in the 21st Century instead of the 1760s. I sat at my keyboard and waited to see what would come. It was this: All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. I sat and stared at the screen. Where on earth had that come from? I really didn’t have a clue. People ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” and in this case I’d have had to say, “I haven’t the faintest idea.” And I didn’t.
But somebody did because the story, which became Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, developed—and, while it did, someone was talking to me. It took me a while to identify the someone as Billy McErlane, narrator and hero of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. He was so heavily invested in the story that he kept prompting me: “Tell them about the anger management”; “Don’t forget the psychologist”; “Don’t say that, because that isn’t really how it was.” By the end of the book I knew as much about Billy’s life as Billy did. I knew how he’d felt when Wendy dumped him; I felt his fear as he watched The Creep being beaten to death and his impotent fury at the lies told about him in court. But I still didn’t know where all this was coming from. Who could possibly be telling me all this?
And then I remembered that time while I was writing When the Darkness Comes—a book so complex in design that it still after four years isn’t ready to meet the public—when Barabbas walked into the Canaries hotel where a TV chat show was being filmed and Haile Selassie arrived out of nowhere in a very bad temper to tell me what I could and couldn’t do with a man he regarded as a usurper.
That was a sobering experience. One result is that, when people do say, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I don’t attempt to tell them because I know they’d think I was nuts.
Now where would they get that idea from?
Bit by bit, A Just and Upright Man gathers reviews. It seems that quite a lot of people have to buy the book for each one that reviews it. Somehow, that makes the reviews even sweeter when they come. This one turned up last week on Amazon’s UK site:
4.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable 23 Feb 2014
Superbly written historical fiction with plenty of suspense and tension to keep you turning the page. I am not familiar with the period in history but had the distinct impression that it was an accurate portrayal of the times. Will be looking for more books from the author RJ Lynch.
“Superbly written”. I like that—who wouldn’t? Another four star review had appeared on the UK Amazon site a few days earlier:
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing and Educational 20 Feb 2014
‘A Just and Upright Man’ educated me enchantingly about the culture and practices of the late 18th century, in words I could understand. I wasn’t sure that I grew to know all the characters fully, but it was certainly clear that many of them, including the protagonist had light and dark sides, which left me curious to read more.
I was fascinated by the difference between now and then in how people communicated. If Blakiston needed to ask someone a question, there were no telephones, Facebook or Twitter, and it was not always practical or possible to visit someone or somewhere to simply ask questions. Communications were face to face, by third party word of mouth or in writing, so that geography and transportation mattered, and a single communication became an event or the day’s activity. This, and the story being set against a backdrop of political tensions over change to come and the early challenges to class and gender inequalities, characterized the period very clearly for me.
I experienced the odd unexpected shift from a safe to shocking scene, but suspect that these leaps were carefully designed to depict the harshness of certain aspects of the culture. Dark fears also lurked towards the end of the story, with an 18th century curse threatening to reach its clingy fingers out into Blakiston’s future. This worries me still, but I shall have to wait…
That’s a total now of four reviews in the UK, all of them good, and there are three on Amazon’s US site. I’m glad to have them, even though given the total sales of the book seven reviews since October doesn’t seem a heck of a lot. People like it, though, and they say they’re looking forward to the next in the series. That is so satisfying.