What was new in 2012?
19 December 2012
Each year I write a nonsense poem for my Christmas card. Sheer doggerel - but some people collect them. It has been suggested that I ought to put the series on my website. I've compromised: I've put six of the last nine years' poems here.
1 December 2012
As those who follow me on twitter already are aware, one of the reasons for my neglect of this page is a project that has been growing quietly in the background. For quite some time - years - John Farren of 360 Production has steadfastly looked for ways to produce my time traveller's guides as television programmes, first the medieval one and second the Elizabethan. This year he made some headway; now I am filming a three-part series based on my book The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England with a great crew, led by the series producer Mike Wadding. It means that some of my other projects are on hold, and I can't make progress as quickly as I had hoped with other things, but I have to give this series my all. If an opportunity is also a privilege, there can be no other choice. The end product of our labours will be screened on BBC2 some time in 2013.
19 November 2012
Complete neglect of website, sorry
I know, I know. I have not been paying my website the respect it deserves. My excuse - I've been to the South of France to look at castles and vineyards, have been to Denmark to speak at the Copenhagen Book Forum (and since I do not fly, that took a week by itself), have been discussing the script to an Elizabethan social history TV series with the producers, and generally keeping up with all my various commitments. Yesterday I updated the James Forrester website with details of all the reviews and interviews for Sacred Treason, which was published in the USA six weeks ago, and added links to the interviews page of this site too. My next commitments are speaking in Sheffield on Saturday, filming on location for the TV series from next week, and writing my book about change, which I have wanted to write for years. Apologies to all those who are waiting to read The Warrior of the Roses, as that has had to be put on the backburner for the time being.
2 October 2012
The first novel in the Clarenceux trilogy, written by me as 'James Forrester'is now out in the USA and various interview requests are coming in, so I'll try to keep the interview page up to date. Also, yesterday I did two online interviews as Ian Mortimer, one for American scholar Bruce Holsinger and the other for Richard O'Brien of Euradio Nantes. Links will go up on the Interviews page as and when I have them. Currently I'm looking over the copyedited text of my Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England for the USA edition (due in May) and doing some preparatory work on the forthcoming TV series to be based on the same book. Just finished jointly writing a guidebook to the parish church and a speech for the Historical Novel Society conference (delivered the day before yesterday).
13 September 2012
James Forrester fiction in the USA
The first novel in the Clarenceux trilogy, written by me as 'James Forrester' (my middle names, not a pseudonym), should on its way from the printers to the bookshops in the USA at the end of this week. It is called Sacred Treason - details can be found on the James Forrester website.
3 September 2012
Sock Puppet Reviews
A letter is reported in The Bookseller signed by a number of crime fiction writers against the practice of authors providing 'sock puppet reviews' - positive reviews of their own books and/or negative reviews of their rivals. I was with them at Harrogate a few weeks ago when Stephen Leather admitted posting about his books online. I wholly agree with the Society of Authors in condemning the practice of authors reviewing their own work. But there is more to this than just blaming a few rotten eggs.
For a start, historians have been known to go online and dish the dirt on their rivals either in their own name (as a certain author who shall remain nameless did to one of my books) or anonymously under a pseudonym (most famously, Orlando Figes). When talking about other people's work, this perhaps counts as valid criticism. But it can get pretty sharp (as Prof Figes showed) and there is not always a right of reply - or not a right of reply as prominent as the main criticism. When I complained about one sniping review by another published historian in February 2011 to amazon.co.uk, Amazon refused to delete it. Instead they encouraged me to submit a more positive review of my own book. (See this email for the detail.) Amazon are clearly happy for historians to snap at each other on their website, treating all criticism as that of 'an honest customer' even when it comes from a self-confessed rival. And their best suggestion for how to deal with this is to tell authors to submit reviews of their own work.
Just as bad was the following case, which happened this year. An astonishingly negative review appeared on one of my books from someone who just did not like the introduction (he seemed not to have read the rest of the book). I replied in the comments section of the website, patiently and courteously. After a string of five or six lengthy comments in which I politely pointed out the mistakes and lack of context in his review, he deleted his original review and then reposted it having taken away all my comments in which I corrected him. I complained to amazon.co.uk - the website refused to restore the deleted comments, somewhat smugly proclaiming themselves in their email 'Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company.'
This is the heart of the problem. By prioritising the customer over almost everything else - over the author, over the reader, over the book itself, over mutual respect and over every normal sense of decency, and only stopping just short of prioritising the customer over the libel laws - Amazon dehumanises the literary world. It nullifies the bonds of trust between reader and writer, exchanging them for the vendor-purchaser relationship, and thereby reducing everything to the ethics of the marketplace.
A website with the power of Amazon could be so much more. It could be enriching. But every attempt to encourage a more enlightened cultural approach to their vast resource ends in an executive in a grey suit saying something along the lines of 'oh, you authors are all the same'.
15 July 2012
Ways with Words
Proofs of the third and final volume of the Clarenceux trilogy went off to the publishers earlier this week. After that I was able to enjoy Ways with Words at Dartington, my favourite literary festival. I very much enjoyed meeting Jeremy Vine, Helen Rappaport, Guy Fraser-Sampson and Anne Somerset, wghose events I chaired. Also enjoyed many other events - Claire Tomalin talking about Dickens was probably my highlight. That and a comment by Sean Day Lewis about his left-wing father's explanation for sending him to boarding school. Apparently, when asked, Cecil Day Lewis exclaimed 'Good God, we're Communists not liberals!'
16 June 2012
Last Thursday I talked to the history society of Oxford University. A lecturer asked me afterwards: 'Where are they putting you up, somewhere plush I hope?' 'No,' I replied, I've been allocated a basement room in a college - and it is the worst place I have yet been put up as a visiting lecturer.' One of the organisers later commented, 'However bad it is, it can't be as bad as the rooms in our college.'
It was at the bottom of a narrow staircase which is less than six foot in height - I know because I bashed my head on the ceiling twice. At the bottom of the stairs, the paint had peeled off the wall. There was a strong smell of damp. As I opened the door to the basement room, a wave of heat hit me; clearly the storage heater had been left on full blast for some while (several days, I suspect) to counter the damp. The room itself was small, with just a table, chair, bed, and bedside lamp. The walls were bare - no decoration. No television, no internet access, no refinement. There was a mug on the side with some instant coffee and a kettle; but the mug was littered with dead flies. At least I thought they were dead - until all but one of them flew up out of the mug. The light well was not exactly bright, and there was a used plastic teaspoon on the window ledge; but opening the curtains trying to get some air into the room to counter the extreme heat of the storage heater revealed that the light well was full of decaying rubbish. The loo and shower were in a cupboard under the stairs and also smelled damp.
I sat on the bed and wondered what to do. True, there were people with worse accommodation - but I'd given up a day to come here and speak. For heaven's sake, I was a guest of the university. I was strongly tempted to go and check into a hotel and send the bill to the history society. However, I decided to see what my hosts were like first; if they were the arrogant sort, they'd get the hotel bill, otherwise I'd give them the benefit of the doubt. As it turned out, they were welcoming, intelligent and charming. It was not their fault. I did not sleep well - one of the curtains was shorter than the other and allowed in light - there was a fire alarm set off at 2am. Students' footsteps thundered out on the stairs above my head at various times of the night; and some very loud cleaners speaking in an Eastern European language crashed down the stairs at 7am. To cap it all, I bruised my head heavily on the low staircase ceiling as I left. I had to ask myself, why exactly was i giving up my time for free?
Since writing the above, I have had a kind and apologetic letter from the college in question. This was a rarely used student guest room. It is not intended to serve as accommodation for visiting speakers. These mistakes happen, even at Oxford.
24 May 2012
'Infinite growth on a finite planet'
This article by Tim Worstall in the Daily Telegraph has been grating on my nerves for the last week. Its message is basically 'Don't panic, let's carry on as we are' and he gives one example of why it is okay to do this. To quote: 'we've got 1 million tonnes of copper and that's it. We use that copper to make paperweights. Then we learn how to make copper into computer motherboards and we recycle all paperweights into computers. We value the computers more than the paperweights: we've just had GDP growth, we've just had economic growth, with no increase in the consumption of resources. Even in this steady-state economy therefore, even one in which everything is recycled, we can still have economic growth through advancing technology.' This is reductionism, which is perhaps necessary for a daily newspaper; but I cannot help feel it is unhelpful. Today's news that GDP in the UK is down due to a 4.8% decline in the construction industry is another indicator that such thinking is wrong and such complacency unwise. His model of 'infinite growth' by infinitely recycling and adding value is based on the assumption that most resources fit this model. They don't. In fact probably none do. For a start, some resources (like gas, petrol) simply can't be recycled. Some things are not cost-efficient to recycle, so no one will do it. And some things have severe limitations on their recycling potential. Consider land: although one can continue rebuilding and thus 'recycling' land, there will come a point where a limit is hit. Imagine all the available land was developed (this excludes National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, farmland and pasture, floodzones, lakes, roads, listed landscapes, gardens and previously developed land, so it is likely to run short soon), you'd have to knock down and rebuild housing stock and industrial buildings for the sake of it, just to keep that sector of the economy buoyant. In other words you'd have to waste energy and other resources deliberately in order to maintain the construction industry at today's levels, forget growth. The same thing applies to 'computer motherboards'. To take David Worstall's own example: you can't recycle your 1,000,000 tonnes of copper endlessly. Some uses will remain permanent, as resources find their most efficient or most valuable use, so (unless you adopt the energy-draining strategy of the pointless destruction of everything created) the amount of any resource available for recycling will diminish over time - and it only has to diminsh a little for that sector of the economy to contract, lessening the potential for growth. As I see it, we have finite resources (and Worstall does not disagree) and so the availability of those resources is bound to reduce, and even though we may find ways of adding value in the recycling process (as Worstall argues), the best we can hope for is that the 'added value' temporarily compensates for the reduction in the availability of resources; no one can presume that it will lead to 'growth'.
23 May 2012
The Final Sacrament
The third and final volume of the Clarenceux trilogy has gone to the publishers today. First draft was 145,000 words but I cut it down to 130,000 for the submission. Should be published on 16 August. Check the page on the James Forrester website
8 May 2012
Dartmoor National Park Authority have added a resume about my fund-raising event to their website.
1 May 2012
Still trying to catch up...
I cannot believe a month has passed since my last entry here. Life is hectic; I've added a few details on Twitter now and then - and perhaps that has distracted me from updating this page. In the last month I've spoken on Newstalk Radio (Ireland) and Radio Devon, and given talks about my new book in Taunton, Cirencester, Bath, Guildford and Reading. I've done my duty in attending meetings at Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Lord Chancellor's Forum on Historical Manuscripts and Academic Research. All the time I've not been out and about I've been working on the new James Forrester book: on 2 April I had completed 81,000 words; today it weighs in at 117,000. Given how much rushing around has been required, being away from home for five days, I reckon 36,000 words good progress.
The highlights of the last month have to include giving an event about life in Medieval England and Elizabethan England at Higher Uppacott on the afternoon of the 21st. This was a fund-raising exercise: twenty people paid £50 a head to hear me speak for the whole afternoon. When people are paying that much, the prospect is quite daunting. Only afterwards I discovered that one couple had come all the way from Peterborough for the event. Given that it is very difficult to think one's way into, and talk about, two distinct time periods (and I do not use visual aids or notes), the scope for making a dog's breakfast of it all was enormous. But it went well. It sold out and my publisher donated twenty copies of the new Elizabethan book; and I gave out free copies of my medieval guide. And doing such an event in a grade one listed house was special.
Another highlight was catching up with two ex-colleagues after too many years, namely Alex Ritchie and Dr Andrew Lewis. I used to work with them at the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts in the nineties. Alex now works for the National Archives, continuing his work on business records. Andrew has taken the bold step of becoming a freelance researcher (see his website). That ups the standard of private research considerably: having shared an office at the Royal Commission with him for two years, I know that no one is more conscientious. I recall his fastidious attention to detail - the word 'painstaking' comes to mind, as he would always go to great lengths to get things exactly right. He doesn't work with medieval documents, unfortunately - his speciality is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history - but it will be most useful to know there's someone in London I can call on to look things up for me, especially as my Time Traveller's Guide sequence moves forward into the late-seventeenth and late-eighteenth centuries. To anyone in need of a London-based researcher, I wholeheartedly recommend him.
The third highlight has to be a day at the London Medieval Society's 'Postgraduates Present', at Queen Mary, University of London. I went primarily to met Professor Paul Strohm, for whom I have a very high regard but had never previously met. The academics and students were all very welcoming; and I was intrigued by the papers. 'What is the difference between lying and perjury?' was one that sticks in my mind; and 'the paw that rocks the cradle' (an examination of animals as parents in medieval literature) was another. The two I felt I could engage with most, however, were a paper on 'the roles of leprosy' and another on 'coin hoards 924-1135'. The latter pushed me to that point where I just couldn't shut up but found myself thinking aloud - searching the implications of the research. In that case it was the near-absence of any hoards, or even single coin finds, from the south west that excited me: this absence, combined with the very long distances between markets, rather suggested to me that in 11th century Devon and Cornwall the common man did not use money in the same way as his south-eastern and later contemporaries. Rather than using coins daily to buy things, in rural areas money may have been something you tended to obtain only when you needed it to pay rent or tax. Just as tithes were paid in kind, so too could in-kind exchange systems have been the norm. Looking out of this window at the Devon countryside, that possibility makes sense. I will think of it when I go on my next walk along the old lanes, and pass the foundations of the long-forgotten medieval houses up the valley.
1 April 2012
Trying to catch up...
Too many things happening to be able to keep up with this page. Today The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England is no.5 in the Sunday Times non-fiction top ten, which is fantastic as I've never had a book placed so high before (previous highest was TTG Medieval England, which reached no. 6 in the paperback chart two years ago). A piece by me about the Englands of Elizabeth I and II in the Daily Telegraph yesterday. More reviews have come out, and a piece by me in the Sunday Times in early March was republished as 'The last word' in The Week. George Miller has put up some podcasts of me talking about the book (see bibliography). I was on expatsradio.com yesterday and on John Govier's BBC Devon radio show yesterday morning with my son playing two of my songs and chatting. Have spoken in a number of places recently (Salisbury, Exeter, London, Richmond, Tunbridge Wells - see past events page) and have more lined up (see forthcoming appearances page). Also I have had James Housego of Jam Design redesign the pages of this website, which I am starting to change over. Finally, I am over half way with the third and final Clarenceux novel, to be published in the summer under my middle names, James Forrester.
12 March 2012
Sunday Times No. 7!
The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England is no. 7 on today's list of hardback non-fiction bestsellers.
4 March 2012
Waterstones competition: walk and talk
Waterstones are offering three of their card holders the chance to win a tour of Stratford-upon-Avon with me. This is not because I live in the area but because Shakespeare's hometown is a wonderful forum for talking about the daily life of our Elizabethan forebears, and so it features heavily in my new book. Parts of my book were written in Stratford too: I began work on it there - taking my son to stay at the Shakespeare for a few days there - and the rest of the family complained so much about being left out that I took them all back there when I finished chapter twelve. What I envisage is not so much a formal lecture as a conversation about the period as we visit several well-preserved houses and investigate the street scene, and reflect on how life changed over the period. Winners will have the chance to quiz me as much as they want. Details of the competition are available on the Waterstones website.
4 March 2012
Article on life in Elizabethan England
The Sunday Times today carried a piece by me on visiting Elizabethan Englnad (in the 'News Review' section, p. 6). Reviews of The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England have appeared in The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.
1 March 2012
New book published
Today sees the publication of my second Time Traveller's Guide by The Bodley Head. To mark the occasion I have written a short note on the writing of the book, which is available here. Today also sees the formal publication of the paperback of my book of challenging essays, Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies. Yesterday saw the publication of ebook editions of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England and 1415: Henry V's Year of Glory. Something that doesn't happen every year: four new editions in two days.
7 February 2012
Walking along a street in Lewes last weekend I looked in an antique shop wnidow. There on the wall was a massive tin advertising sign saying 'Burgoyne's'. The name caught my eye: my great-great-grandmother was Louisa Burgoyne, her brother John Trist Burgoyne. But then I read 'Tintara' and that excited me. John Trist Burgoyne's son, Peter Bond Burgoyne (1844-1929), is in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as the 'Leviathan' of the wine trade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: he owned the largest vineyard in the world (in Rutherglen, Australia) and sold 500,000 gallons of wine annually. This tin sign advertises his company, which took off in the 1880s. (Something appropriate about my thrice-removed first cousin having the biggest vineyard in the world...)
18 January 2012
Wikipedia and Politics
Wikipedia going off-line? Felt the need to write a note on why is this not A Good Thing?
10 January 2012
About writing Medieval Intrigue
As the paperback of my book of essays comes out on 1 March, I thought I'd write a note about writing it.
9 January 2012
Decided to write a few thoughts on the seasonal business of giving things up - alcohol in my case, but it could equally well apply to chocolate, cigarettes, eating too much and everything along those lines.
What was new in previous years