Out Now!

Friday, 25 May 2018

Monmouth in May

Another fine day in Monmouth and the perfect excuse for a walk. At the very top of that wooded hill is a temple to Admiral Nelson and the victorious admirals that thrashed the Spanish and French in such battles as 'The Nile' and 'Trafalgar. Monmouth had a 'man-crush' on Nelson but then again we benefited immensely from the Napoleonic Wars. War in Europe meant the end of the 'Grand Tour' and so many looked to the Wye Valley instead. Why bother with Tuscany with this on your doorstep.

We were almost seduced by the Wye. Just sitting there doing nothing seemed like a pretty good idea.

But then we saw the Temple and White House on top of the Kymin.

And this is looking down on Monmouth from the top of the Kymin. Once upon a time, London was as green as this. Perhaps in the near future all this will be concreted over.

The picture below is not one of mine. (Wrong season.) For some unaccountable reason I failed to take a picture of what we had come to see. Mental decrepitude, I guess. Still, it's a good reminder of Winter.

At the top of the Kymin are Beaulieu Woods, a favourite C18th beauty spot. The light was brilliant
and it was hard to stop taking pictures. Two hundred or so years ago, artists painted them instead.

I love the way stone and wood appear fused in the picture below.

And who says there are no gnomes in Monmouthshire. A whole family lives in the small 
           cavern below.

Time for a picnic. 

In the far distance is Gloucestershire  

And the ancient forest of Dean

But we'd had enough. It was time to go home.

The following day it rained.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Pimping Trollope


PimpingTrollope sounds like a term of abuse, but there you go. It took me ages to work out what would best serve as the opening chapter to the new book. The problem was how to make ‘academic’ interesting – in particular the opening pages that Amazon allows the idly curious to check before buying. Still don’t know if I’ve made the right call. . .

Booming laughter filled the room. A moment later it stopped, and Anthony Trollope collapsed on the floor suffering from a paralytic stroke. A month later he died. The book that made him laugh so violently was F. Anstey's Vice Versa, a work of comedy and speculative fiction about a small boy who swapped bodies with his father.
Trollope’s book, The Fixed Period, was published the same year as Vice Versa, although, as far as we know, no one has yet died laughing while reading it—nor did his publisher who sold less than 900 copies.
It was Trollope’s one foray into speculative fiction, and although a shrewd and profound analysis of euthanasia, was limited by Trollope’s inability to imagine a future (1980) not dominated by steam and landed power.  It does though explain the title of this book, Trollope: Power, Politics and Society 1847–1980
Early speculative fiction is filled with astounding things. Jules Verne would predict air conditioning, automobiles, the internet and television, helicopters, submarines, and jukeboxes; H. G. Wells, inner city decline and suburban flight, sexual permissiveness and the E. U. In contrast, Trollope struggled. The future he envisioned remains dominated by the British Empire and landed power. His forays into technology are woeful, provoking the occasional wry smile or a shake of the head.
The Fixed Period contains references to steam tricycles with electric lamps, steel climbing arms for mountaineers, and cricket dominated by catapults and steam-bowlers. The latter is carefully described: "Then the steam-bowler was ridden into place by the attendant engineer and Jack began his work as . . . he carefully placed the ball and peeped down to get its bearing." Such a steam-bowler was an exhibit in the Great Exhibition of 1851. It hadn't been taken up by 1882, so it is hard to see why Trollope thought this machine would dominate cricket in 1980. It must have made some impression on him, if he remembered it thirty years later. Even so, Trollope did anticipate cricketers needing more adequate protection against faster balls: " . . . so completely enveloped was he in his India-rubber guards, and so wonderful was the machine upon his head by which his brain and features were to be protected."
These are far from the only examples of futuristic technology that appear in The Fixed Period. In Trollope's 1980, men wear weather-watches and communicate via "hair telephones" that have a broadcasting range of ten miles. Speeches are recorded by a "reporting-telephone apparatus." These transfer words from mouth to paper and conveys them to the world's printing presses within the hour. In 1980 the violin is "nearly obsolete" and society has forsaken the "old fashioned' piano" in favour of Mausometons or "the more perfect Melpomenon."
Trollope was no prophet in terms of geopolitics, either. The Prime Minister in 1980 is Sir William Gladstone, great-grandson of the original. Victorian technology rules the waves in the form of "250 ton steam-swivellers"—gunboats on a massive scale and used in ways familiar to Lord Palmerston. Likewise, Trollope's vision of a future British army would have been recognised by Jane Austen: “ . . . a company of a celebrated English regiment with its attendant officers, who by their red coats and long swords will no doubt add to the cheerfulness of your social gatherings."
In foreign affairs Trollope is more adventurous with mixed results. By 1980, Arizona, Idaho, and other American states to the west have formed a new Union; Britain and France fight for control of the seas against the united fleets of Russia and America; and in the 1940s great battles "ravished" India's north-western frontier. Africa remains both "dark" and colonised, and there are references to "the cannibals of New Zealand."
What makes The Fixed Period a significant and underrated piece of speculative literature is not its vision of the future, but a central theme that resonates more and more strongly in our own ageing societies. "The Fixed Period" refers to the age at which euthanasia becomes legally enforceable.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

In praise of book covers

Don’t judge a book by its cover is a nonsensical statement, for a writer that is. ( And nonsense in other spheres too, if the evolutionary significance of 'gut reaction' has any validity.)  More books are sold on the basis of a good cover than any amount of blog tours or the incessant Facebook ads that readers scroll down without looking—unless the cover is utterly compelling. And now the sermon comes to an end, because I’m not just ‘selling’ my latest book ‘Anthony Trollope: Power, land and Society 1847 – 1980 but advertising one of the best cover designers in the business, Maria Zannini. I’ll let the covers speak for themselves, and please feel free to share – for her sake as much as mine.


Thursday, 3 May 2018

In praise of the tall story

I am a huge fan of the ‘tall story’ and was told many by my dad and uncles when a gullible child. I inherited the gift when, as a child incarcerated in hospital, I convinced the entire nursing staff my dad was a Red Indian and that was why he hadn’t come to see me. When he finally appeared, deeply tanned from his latest sea voyage, he was followed by a bevy of nurses who took his darkened skin as proof of my story. I imagine he was mildly confused by the attention.

The memory came back to me on reading this Tall Story, which I repeat verbatim, from the pen of Wilbur Smith, writing of his Grandfather Courtney James Smith. Courtney Smith had been  a transporter rider in the Witwatersrand gold rush in the late 1880’s and in the Zulu war decimated the enemy with a Maxim gun team firing 600 rounds a minute. And before a UN commission accuses me of glorifying massacre, all I can say is, ‘What goes on in the past stays in the past.’ One thing for sure, the photo reveals one imbued with Victorian certainty.

This is his story as told by Wilbur Smith.  Enjoy.

I remember the day he told me the tale of the sjambok — a long, stiff whip originally made of rhinoceros hide. 'One time I won a dog in a game of poker,' Grandpa told me. 'It was the biggest, dumbest boarhound you ever saw. 
Four foot high, a big jowly brute, totally untrainable. I called him Brainless.
'One night, we were camped in the Lowveld. I was laid out to sleep in the cot in the back of one of the wagons — but that dog, that dog just kept barking, on and on, keeping us all awake. 
'I groped around and I found my sjambok, and I slipped from the wagon and clobbered that dog until, suddenly, on the fourth or fifth strike, the dog started acting in a different way.
'It made a new sound, a sound it never made before. I was a bit taken aback. I reached into my pocket, struck one of my matches and held up the light.
'Right where Brainless the boarhound should have been was a fully grown male lion, its eyes mad with fury, its mane matted with blood. It had eaten my dog!
'I froze. Because there I was, giving this beast the hiding of its life with the sjambok. I turned and ran back to the cabin, jumped inside and stood there panting with horror and relief.
'And then I felt the sjambok twitching in my hand! I lit another match. It was no sjambok I was holding. It was a snake. I'd been beating that lion with a black mamba!'
Grandpa Courtney hollered with laughter, his guffaws echoing around the room.