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Friday 31 January 2014

FFB - Ghosts of Spain

When this book was first published (2006), about 75,000 retired British people move permanently to Spain each year and there are roughly 300,000 already living in Spain, mainly on the costas. Since the financial crisis of 2008, those numbers have reduced and several thousand have returned to UK. Be that as it may, the original impetus for emigrating to Spain remain valid: they’ve moved to obtain a better standard of living (still the case in most areas), to enjoy more sun and less stress, or to get away from ever-encroaching Big Brother government. A fair proportion of them have not bothered to learn anything about the history and culture of Spain and, sadly, the vast majority have failed to learn even the basics of the Spanish language. Whether you’re thinking of moving to Spain or simply want to spend a holiday here, this book is a fascinating introduction to the country’s “hidden past,” as the sub-title suggests.

Spaniards generally still believe it is their absolute right – even their obligation – to enjoy themselves. This may be the reason, researchers suggest, why Spaniards live longer than other Europeans.  Of course their diet, heavy in fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and olive oil, helps too. Inevitably, there is a down-side as well: the Spanish are Europe’s biggest consumers of cocaine, alongside the British. 

There is a dark side to Spain’s recent history.  The atrocities committed by both the left and the right during, and most pertinently by Franco’s regime after, the Civil War of 1936-39 have to all intents and purposes been buried with all those thousands of bodies. Only now, over sixty years later are unmarked graves being exhumed and stories being told. Tremlett movingly follows this tragic journey of the good and the bad, the victims and the killers. Supporters of the communist cause were murdered and buried along countless roadsides. About 30,000 children of communist Spaniards were abducted and adopted. Even after the transition to democracy in 1975, it seems that a tacit agreement of silence was made about all this.  [Indeed, these events inspired me to write the short story ‘Grave Concerns, published in a magazine, and now in Spanish Eye (Crooked Cat Publishing), paperback available post-free worldwide here].

Civil wars are often worse than other types of conflict, as it’s brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour.  At the war’s end, 500,000 Spaniards were dead, not to mention the Italians and Germans who fought for Franco and those Russians and other foreigners who volunteered for the International Brigades. Thousands went into exile. Then the post-war regime systematically rooted out sympathisers of the enemy and sent them to labour camps or executed them. Now, though, you’ll be hard put to it to find a statue of Franco; even the national anthem has been expunged of words - Francoist words; only now are they considering writing new words for the anthem.

To balance the endemic networking and nepotism of the Spanish system, they have other values, such as nobility, fairness, valour and justice.  In Spain, the politically correct brigade is never going to reach the idiotic levels it has attained in the litigation-fearful UK and US.  That’s because the Spanish are radically opposed to banning anything ‘that smacks of restriction or prohibition, as it’s considered immoral, old-fashioned and fascist.’ When you’ve lived through one dictatorship, you’re unlikely to welcome another.

Whenever possible, Spain has grasped change with eagerness.  Their women won the vote in 1931, only three years after the UK and well ahead of France, Italy or Belgium. Granted, many of these freedoms were curtailed by Franco while he was in power. But now, for such an ostensibly male chauvinist country, women can be seen in all walks and all levels of life, including the Guardia Civil (since1988). It’s estimated that Spain has the highest plastic surgery rate in Europe, and one of the highest rates of organ donorship. 
Eschewing the mañana stereotype, Spaniards actually have a can-do attitude. For example, the Madrid airport is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, three times the size of Heathrow Terminal Five. The builders won the project for Terminal Five fifteen years ago and work still hasn’t started; the same builders won the Madrid airport project four years ago and it is half-completed already. Yes, much of Spain resembles a building-site – but at least they get on with it!

From new buildings to old. The British Isles is rich in history and castles and many British tourists are saddened and surprised at the dereliction of many fortifications in Spain. But bear in mind that Spain has about 8,000 castles and other fortifications and hundreds of monasteries and convents.  It’s just impossible to allocate restoration funds to all of them.

Tremlett strives to learn what binds gypsies, jails and flamenco. He attempts to discover the attractions of legal brothels – night clubs. He travels throughout the Basque and Catalan lands in the hope of learning the reasons for their demands for separation from Spain, wondering why Galicia, who also has a strong case, is quite content to remain without autonomy. 

The foregoing is a random selection from an interesting, humane and well-researched book by a British journalist who married a Spanish woman and has lived in Madrid for over a decade.  Tremlett is clearly writing about a country he loves, a country and a people who amaze and mystify him. Spain’s history is still shaping him and his family and, indeed, all of those expats who have chosen to live here. [The book has been updated and revised since I read it. Latest print date, 2012]
It will also change several preconceptions about Spain and the Spanish. 

Spanish Eye e-book available from here
Spanish Eye e-book available from here

Thursday 30 January 2014

Year of the Horse

No, this isn’t about equestrianism or westerns, though it could be… Tonight, all round the world, Chinese will be wearing red and celebrating New Year. Currently, it’s the year of the snake. At midnight tonight, we’ll enter the year of the horse.

‘Seeing is easy, learning is hard’ – old Chinese proverb.

I might abhor the Chinese predilection for medicines that require powdered rhino horn and the slaughter of endangered species, but there is still much to admire in their ancient culture, their resilience in the face of a traumatic history, and their ability to innovate.

The Middle Kingdom, Zhongguo or Tschin or Da Qin – the People’s Republic of China is the third-largest nation in the world in land area and has the largest population. It has the longest continuously recorded history and has given the world some of the most significant scientific and technological inventions.

‘Everything in the past died yesterday; everything in the future was born today.’ – wisdom of Kung Fu master.
According to the world view of ancient China, the Middle Kingdom lay precisely below the centre of the firmament. The further you were from here, the lower in the cosmic hierarchy. The unfortunate people and cultures living on the dark peripheries of the earth were considered barbarians. Until more enlightened times, the westerners thought much the same about the far east.

‘In painting the tiger, you may delineate his skin but not his bones; in your acquaintance with a man, you may know his face but not his heart.’ - wisdom of Kung Fu master.

It was supposedly Napoleon who warned, ‘Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world’, alluding to China. As we know, in recent years there’s been no doubt that China is wide awake, an already formidable power for the new millennium, intent on perhaps dominating world commerce. This is a remarkable transformation for such an ancient country that has historically focused inward.

‘Read a few more books and talk a little less.’ – Chang Chao.

Perhaps the dark days under Mao are now merely shadows in the past. It’s too early to say.

I’ll conclude with a jewel of a truism from the Inscription on the temple of Everlasting Harmony: ‘A gem is not polished without rubbing nor a man perfected without trials.’ I think this can be applied to real individuals, male and female, as well as characters in our fiction.

Happy New Year!
Write a western in 30 Days by Nik Morton (John Hunt Publishing)

Bullets for a Ballot by Nik Morton (BTAP Publishing)
Old Guns by Ross Morton (Robert Hale)


Tuesday 28 January 2014

Noir Nation #3

International Crime Fiction #3

The India Issue

If you like crime fiction, then you might like this. Its 368 pages are value for money. The editor, Eddie Vega, says in his introduction, “Noir Nation is a search for beauty, dark and brutal. We can hear the initial call in these lines from W.B. Yeats’ masterful poem “Easter 1916”:
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
“There is a turning away from the light and the banal, the casual comedy, and a turning to the murderous passions and dark depravities of human nature and transgressive political bodies. In real life, such turns result in death, disfigurement, and prison. In literature, we can live and relive the mechanics vicariously and safely through the prism of the imagination.”

With over 1.2 billion residents, India is not only the world’s most copious producer of crime pulp, it is also its hungriest consumer. Even in her chirpy feel-good Bollywood films, guns and gangsters vie with the singing and the dancing. Although the work of many Indian writers of crime noir are not to be found in fashionable bookstores—next to the hardcover books of Jhumpa Lahiri, Salmon Rushdie, and Vikram Seth—they are in much more popular spots: the stalls and book carts of A. H. Wheeler & Co. found among the 8,000 railway stations that serve India’s 25 million daily commuters, riding 71,000 miles of uneventful track. That is India’s open secret: crime novels stay close to their devouring readers. This needs commemorating. Hence Noir Nation No. 3: The India Issue—with stories that are dark, brutal, and beautiful to the eye that loves the shadows—where the dark angels flock.

Illustrated with stunning Mehndi tattoos, Noir Nation's India Issue contains over thirty entries from some of the very best literary crime fiction writers in the world, among them Suparn Verma, Samrat X, Yaeer Talker, Bianca Bellova, JJ Toner, Richard Godwin, Simon Rowe, Graham Wynd, David Siddell, and Meeah Cross-Williams; and ace contributions from emerging noir writers Alastair Keen, Terrence P. McCauley, Frauke Schuster, Ryan Gattis, Chelsea L. Clemmons, Gila Green, Paul Alexander, Carmen Tudor, and Anthony Pioppi; and established hard-boiled wunderkinds Jonathan Sturak, Ed Lynskey, Mark Mellon, Christopher L. Irvin, and Nik Korpon, The issue also includes essays on noir-related poetry, music, and the visual arts by Atar Hadari, Vicki Gundrum, and Robert Brunet and two works of classic noir: "The Turkish Brothel" by the late Cortright McMeel and "The Perfect Courtesan" by Kshemendra.

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Cortright McMeel (1971-2013),  ‘Co-founder of Noir Nation, visionary writer & publisher of dark tales, loving husband & father, luminary teacher of writing, literature, and life.’ e-book here e-book here

You can buy the paperback with all those gorgeous colours here post-free worldwide

Next up is #4, surprisingly. The Canadian Issue.


On the stage to Brokeback Mountain

Annie Proulx’ tragic story Brokeback Mountain about discrimination is to have its world premiere as an opera at the Teatro Real in Madrid from today until February 11.

Wyoming Stories, collected 1999

Proulx agreed to composer Charles Wuorinen’s project on the understanding that she could write the libretto. Gerard Mortier, the newly appointed general director of the New York City Opera got wind of this and commissioned the work and, when he suddenly left in 2008, took it with him to Madrid. Wuorinen began work on the opera in 2008 and completed it February 2012. The opera’s two acts are performed without an intermission.

Both author and composer wanted to emphasise the sense of threat and danger which seemed mitigated by the lush landscape scenes of the film.  Wuorinen visited Wyoming and says, ‘The mountains of Wyoming are very dangerous. People die, and so do animals, and the weather can turn violent all of a sudden.’ Yet he adds that the mountains also represent freedom for the characters.

The stage director, Belgian Ivo van Hove believes the opera will put a spotlight on places where being different is still cause for persecution. He quotes India, Russia, for example.
Jack Twist is played by tenor Tom Randle and Ennis Del Mar is baritone Daniel Okulitch.

Condensed from an article in El Pais, ‘Singing cowboys on the Madrid stage’ by Daniel Verdú.

Monday 27 January 2014

Reminiscences, Naval-02 - 'New Entry'

October, 1965

[More notes scribbled at the time.] The preceding blog can be read here

On arrival in the Royal Naval training camp, we were informed we’d be staying in the New Entry Block for a week; virtual isolation.

New Entry consisted of a row of connecting huts (or messes, as we learned later), a dining hall, and a NAAFI hut out the back of the mess. Firstly, we were led into the kitting-room and were confronted by Mr Marney, who seemed to have adorned New Entry since time immemorial. Set out on metal counters were neat piles of bedding, with the respective cards for same. Mr Marney was Irish and spoke rapidly, and every word seemed to be learned off pat (no pun intended), for he frequently repeated himself word-for-word for the benefit of any inattentive listener: a human record which in that week we desired to be turned off many times. In fairness, it was the only way to process the new recruits – a kind of mass production line.
Outside our hut:
Mick, me, Wyatt and (foreground) Taff

We were all issued with a wooden block, letters of our name glued together to form a name-stamp. In one of Mr Marney’s ‘classes’ we stamped our names on all our items of clothing and bedding, using black paint. My stamp read R.W.N-MORTON, as Nicholson-Morton was a bit too long! We were also issued with a ‘housewife’, a small cloth bag, which contained cotton thread, sewing needles, pins, scissors, and darning wool. The scissors were inscribed with our names – I’ve still got mine, a blade incised in script R. Nicholson-Morton.

By coincidence Mick Siddle’s gear was next to mine. Having been instructed to carry our stuff and follow Mr Marney, we carried the gear and followed the man: we were learning fast.

The hut next door (down a small flight of five steps and along the connecting corridor) was Mess 11; a number of us were escorted within its hallowed walls, yet another contingent of prospective matelots. [Some 49 years later, my house number is... 11...]

Apparently, this was a bad week for recruiting numbers; only 87 had joined up. We filled three messes. I don't know what constitutes a good week these days, but I suspect that the numbers are quite low, thanks to political meddling.


If you want to read more about the joining process, try the book Odd Shoes and Medals. This is the memoire of Ron Hudson, who joined the RN a over decade earlier than me, but the process was very much the same.

Non-fiction from Manatee Books. “War broke out when I was eight. My short pants had holes in the backside, which was doubly embarrassing because I didn’t have any underwear and anyone could see my bum. So I used to walk sideways to school if any other kids or grown-ups came by. Miss Grafton, the teacher, let me stay at my desk during playtime to avoid embarrassing exposure. She liked me a lot and I used to take love letters for her to an American soldier. “

These reminiscences cover a span of over seventy years and will jog several memories and remind people that the so-called poverty of present times is nothing compared to the 1940s and 1950s.

Young Ron and his sister Audrey were shunted from one home to another, in excess of a dozen, ‘fostered’ by ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’, and indeed for many years the pair of them didn’t know where the other sibling lived!  His absentee father barely gave him a thought – though he did present him with ill-fitting clogs, once…

Occasionally, he was bestowed with kindness and, despite moments of great despair, he carried on and eventually joined the Royal Navy. Ironically, for the first time he found a place he could call his home: the navy. He travelled the world, saw the sights, and ‘learned a trade’. When he was demobbed prematurely by politicians, he embarked on a career in British Gas, and has a few amusing tales to tell about (nameless) customers! He set up his own business and became the oldest registered gas fitter in the country, until he retired at age eighty.

As told to Nik Morton

Paperback available from here
Paperback available from here



Sunday 26 January 2014

Newspaper catches up with Writealot blog

Daily Mail, Saturday, 25 January. ‘William’s war on the rhino butchers’ by Andrew Malone, in South Africa.

It’s a well written, harrowing article about the plight of the rhino, despite the brave efforts of rangers.  The forces of evil are not only the killers, but the crime syndicates – notably the Chinese mafia, many of them permanently based in South Africa. Sadly, demand in the Far East is booming for rhino horns, which supposedly can cure impotence, cancer and Aids. Clearly, trades description laws don’t apply there… In Vietnam, the affluent believe taking rhino horn powder protects their livers so they can drink alcohol to excess without damage! Maybe they should check with their doctors first.

As Andrew Malone points out, the horn isn’t magical at all. It is simply compressed keratin – the same protein found in human hair and nails. So those duped individuals in the Far East would obtain just as much benefit from chewing or drinking powdered clippings from their own toenails.

It seems to me that the fight is not only against the poachers, the syndicates, and the traders, all who get rich, but also against the closed minds that believe in the ‘magical’ properties of rhino horn.
Where does Prince William come in? Next month he will attend and support a conference in Downing Street on the illegal wildlife trade on behalf of United for Wildlife. The £12billion trade in this illegal trade is presently just behind drug, gun and people smuggling in terms of illegal earnings; and of course these international crimes feed into each other.

See my blog 'more valuable than gold or cocaine' here

‘Tons of confiscated ivory will be burned’ – Hong Kong

According to the International New York Times, 24 January, Hong Kong intends to destroy 95% of one of Asia’s major hoards of confiscated ivory. China is understood to be the world’s biggest end-market for poached ivory. Twenty-eight tons of ivory held by the HK authorities is to be incinerated, beginning this year – though it will take one or two years to complete the job. One ton of the stockpile will be retained ‘for legitimate uses, such as enforcement and education’ – Reuters.

Also see my blog 'China tackles illegal ivory trade' here 

I make no apology for returning to this subject, a subject which forms the core of my book 
Blood of the Dragon Trees:


Andrew raised a hand in surrender. ‘I wasn’t joking when I said I was into conservation, you know.’

            Laura spread more paste on her chunk of bread, studying his lips, waiting.

            ‘I’m working for CITES.’

            ‘What’s that, an eco-friendly building firm?’

            ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.’

            Endangered species, she thought, that’s worthy. She swallowed and sighed. ‘I’m not much wiser. What endangered species does Tenerife have that needs protecting?’

            ‘Beautiful teachers?’

            She felt her cheeks redden and sipped her glass of Dorada, on-tap lager beer. ‘Stick to the confession, Andrew.’

            He sipped his black coffee, annoyingly taking his time. ‘Jalbala works with me. We’ve been assigned here as Tenerife seems to be a conduit, one of many, for transporting certain forbidden items derived from endangered species.’

            ‘You know, you talk like a politician at times. What do you mean, “certain forbidden items”?’

            ‘CITES banned more than eight hundred – yes, eight hundred – species. And the trade in another 30,000 items is controlled worldwide.’

            ‘You still haven’t told me what your “items” are.’ Despite herself, she found that her tone was bordering on exasperation.

            ‘I’ll give you a few for-instances, then.’

            ‘That would be helpful,’ she said. ‘I could do with a few for-instances right now.’

            ‘Tigers are being hunted to extinction, but I’m sure you know that.’

            Condescending swine, she thought, and nodded.

‘Well, tiger bone is supposed to help rheumatism. The poor animal’s nose is used for treating epilepsy and its brain gets rid of pimples and cures laziness!’

            ‘You’re kidding me, aren’t you?’ She lowered her Dorada glass, and licked the foam off her upper lip. ‘This is the twenty-first century, you know.’

            He shook his head and said ruefully, ‘I wish I was kidding. Believe it or not, Chinese stores in UK sell this banned stuff – and a lot more besides. And similar shops exist throughout Europe.’

She put out a hand and rested it on Andrew’s. ‘That’s absolutely awful. Maybe they’re only wild animals, but they’re beautiful creatures and don’t deserve to be slaughtered for idiotic reasons like removing pimples!’

            Andrew sighed. ‘If it were only so simple. For over a thousand years, the poor old tiger has been known for its supposed healing powers – pills, creams, plasters, powders in traditional Chinese medicines. And it’s not just tigers they rely on for their medicines: leopard and rhino are slaughtered to pander to their needs.’

            ‘I know the rhino isn’t the most attractive of creatures, but even I have heard that the white rhino is close to extinction.’ She smiled, gazing into memory. ‘Their babies, like the hippos, are cute, just miniatures of their parents…’

            ‘Cute doesn’t cut it where big money’s involved, Laura. Not so long ago, 150 rhino horns, valued at over two million pounds, were seized in a couple of London lock-ups.’

            ‘I see,’ she said soberly. ‘That’s a lot of money.’

            He nodded, eyes sad. ‘The tip of the iceberg.’
Blood of the Dragon Trees – pp64-67

See my blog 'endangered species' here
The Kindle e-book Blood of the Dragon Trees
can be purchased ( here or ( here

Saturday 25 January 2014

Saturday Story - 'The Reckoning'


 by Nik Morton


Across the fields, on the other side of Naseby village, the fires of the Royalist camp glowed in the dusk. They were roistering and carousing, Matthew thought, while the soldiers around him watched and prayed. Tomorrow, he would ride out with Cromwell’s cavalry, perhaps to slaughter his own cousin, Richard Brampton.

            It promised to be Sir Thomas Fairfax’s first major engagement as general of the New Model Army. A thoughtful, judicious and humane man, Fairfax was greatly liked by his own troops and civilians alike. Matthew had also seen Cromwell – ‘the plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows.’ The presence of both men inspired him.

            The battle was not his first, but Matthew dreaded it - perhaps because he felt instinctively it would be decisive.


It was decisive. And terrifying. Rupert’s cavalry defeated the Parliamentary left and charged off the battlefield in pursuit.

            Matthew knew that so long as the Royalist pike-men kept their nerve and tight formations, it was almost impossible for cavalry to penetrate the ranks of pike-heads and lay about them with swords. Nevertheless, Cromwell led the charge against these tough infantrymen.

            Hearing the heavy breathing of the horse, feeling its flanks rub against his thighs, Matthew still believed he could detect his own heart pounding in a mixture of fear and excitement.

            Sweaty clothes chafed at his flesh and his helmet wobbled on his head; he was a big powerful man who had difficulty finding a uniform that fit. Matthew’s calf-hide gloved hands tightly gripped the reins as he rode towards death.

            In front of the pike-men and under cover of the protruding spikes, the Royalist musketeers fired steadily. Puffs of smoke discoloured the air. Behind their ranks soldiers swore, jeered and cheered. With each rank taking it in turn to fire while the others reloaded, the musketeers poured repeated volleys into Cromwell’s horsemen.

            Matthew felt musket balls split the air near his face and on two occasions heard the awful dull thud of a ball hitting his saddle leather.

Within minutes, the battlefield was wreathed in smoke and resounded with the shouts and cries of the wounded and the dying.

            If the gunpowder and shot in the musketeer bandoliers held out, then the cavalry would be decimated. Recklessly, Matthew leaned down and heaved up the corpse of a comrade and set the man in front of him, dead legs astride the horse, acting as a shield. Then Matthew charged, at the last second swerving his horse and tipping the dead man on top of three pikes and two musketeers beneath them.

            Matthew swerved his horse round again and trampled the Royalists underneath, sword scything left and right.

A musketeer used his weapon to club the head of Matthew’s horse. The poor animal lost its footing and Matthew toppled.

            But his foolhardy strategy had created a breach and through this Fairfax’s cavalry charged, firing pistols and carbines.

            By sunset the King had deserted the battlefield and there was a trail of bodies all the way to Leicester.

            Matthew searched them all. Unless Richard was one of those whose features had been obliterated by horse’s hooves, axe or pike, he was not among the dead. Oddly, that comforted him a little.

            Bloodied, tired, aching in every muscle, his head still ringing with the clash of weapons, Matthew rode among the thousands of captured Royalists, seeking out Richard Brampton.


Night fell. Astride his horse, Matthew carried a flickering torch to light his way.

            Suddenly, out of the shadows stepped Richard Brampton, his fine brocade clothing in tatters. “You seek me, dear cousin?”

            Matthew charged, feinted then sliced down, shattering Richard’s rapier.

            Richard’s mouth worked, but no words came. He backed into a tree trunk.

            Dismounting, Matthew strode over.

            “She wanted us to, Matthew - I swear!”

            Matthew removed a parchment sheet from inside his battered blood-smeared breastplate. “She fled after you and your friend Ralph ravished her! She has written me from a convent and confessed all!”

            Swiftly, Matthew’s sword completely severed Richard’s right hand.

Richard screamed in shock and pain.

            “I only spare you for your father’s sake since he took Elizabeth and me in as orphans.” Fiercely, he thrust his torch at the stump: it hissed as the blood-flow was staunched.

            “My hand!” Richard whimpered.
            God, forgive me, Matthew thought. Turning away, he snarled over his shoulder, “Think yourself fortunate I only cut off your hand and not what hath offended my sister Elizabeth!”
A very short story.
Previously published in 2011 in The New Coastal Press. Copyright 2014, Nik Morton
A collection of my prize-winning short stories can be found in
When the Flowers are in Bloom here or here


Friday 24 January 2014

FFB - Winter in Madrid


Sansom is not strong on good memorable book titles but he’s strong on writing style.

For too many decades, there was a ‘pact of forgetting’ concerning the Spanish Civil War atrocities, not least the forced abduction of thousands of children of Republicans; this book is dedicated to their memory.

Madrid, 1940. The Civil War is over and Spain is struggling to recover. While Hitler rampages throughout Europe, Franco maintains Spain’s neutrality though he and his government are on friendly terms with their fellow fascists.  The British government is understandably concerned about Franco abandoning neutrality. If he should allow the German army into Spain, they would immediately march on Gibraltar and use that stronghold to strangle Allied access to the Mediterranean.

Shell-shocked survivor of Dunkirk, Harry Brett volunteers to become a spy for the Secret Service. The spymasters believe that Harry might prove useful as he knows from his school-days a shady English businessman, Sandy Forsyth, who seems to have the ear of powerful men in Madrid. 

Bernie Piper is another of Harry’s old school acquaintances. Communist supporting Piper went missing during the war in 1937.  Bernie’s girlfriend Barbara Clare had been a Red Cross nurse but she’s now married to Forsyth and is barely coping with the children in the state orphanages.  Then Barbara discovers that Bernie might not be dead, but working in a secret labour camp in the mountains.

The scene is set for several character threads to be intertwined in the traumatised city; indeed, the city itself is almost a living, breathing character thanks to Sansom’s ability to evoke a place and time.

The walls of Madrid had ears after the war. Neighbour against neighbour. It only took a few words of denunciation to have you carted off to a labour camp or even shot.  Harry found love with the tragic Sofia, another victim of the war. He also helped Barbara search for her ex-lover Bernie while she deceived her husband Sandy. And Sandy was not above deception either. 

Every character, no matter how minor, rings true in this book. You feel what they feel. The action scenes are few but they’re depicted with great verve and you’re there with the protagonists, so vital is the writing.

Sansom captures the deprivation and ugliness of modern post-war urban living. It’s squalid and grim, especially in winter. This is an authoritative piece of writing, combining the elements of a thriller, a romance and an historical drama.  The political chicanery, the ideological imperatives and the treacherous double-crosses seem very believable in Sansom’s hands.

These 500-odd pages are turned very quickly because you want to know what happens next and the last few chapters are tense and suspenseful.  After any conflict, there are survivors and they carry the scars for the rest of their lives. The surviving characters in this book are scarred by politicians as much as the violent men with guns. Masterful writing. 

Note. Sansom has enjoyed success with his historical tales about Matthew Shardlake in Tudor times. Recently, he published his alternative history novel Dominion, set in 1952, with the Nazis in power in Britain.
The short story 'Grave Concerns' featured in the above Spanish Eye collection
is about the 'pact of forgetting' and its tragic consequences today
Spanish Eye paperback can be purchased post-free worldwide here
Kindle e-book from here
Kindle e-book from here

Thursday 23 January 2014

My e-book initiation

Compared to many, I joined the e-book revolution rather late. I have a private library of over 4,000 printed books – many thousands more were consigned to charity shops when we moved to Spain. I like to see them on the shelves. And, let’s be honest, the majority of titles aren’t on the bookshop shelves more than a couple of months, so you need to buy when you find them. I know that this attitude has been negated somewhat by the remarkable availability of books on the Internet. Yet I still like browsing bookshops of all kinds, hoping to find that nugget I’ve been seeking for years, or coming across a useful reference tome.
About a quarter of my home library

I started with a Kindle for PC on my desktop and soon realised I needed the real thing for its portability. Serendipity knocked and as I stepped down as Chairman of the Writers’ Circle, the members kindly clubbed together to buy me a Kindle.

As the Editor in Chief of Solstice (2011-2013), I found this Kindle invaluable. I converted submitted MSS to PDF and loaded them on my Kindle and read the submissions away from the computer and email interruptions.

Of course there’s nothing like holding your own printed book in your hands. That’s a special feeling. Any of my e-books that haven’t been printed yet, I create and print a DVD cover and insert it into an empty DVD case; this is then stowed on my bookshelf, physical evidence of my book’s existence. When the book is printed, I remove the DVD case from the shelf.

The first time I ordered an e-book through my Kindle, I was impressed. What I like is that any e-book I order from (all non-UK orders have to go through .com and not, once I’ve read it I can remove it from my device and it resides in the Archive at Amazon. I can call it back to my Kindle at any time.

I’m not impressed with the fact that 99c books bought through Amazon end up costing a lot more – about $3.40 due to taxes; though the read is usually still a bargain.

And, unlike most print publishers, e-book publishers will accept novellas and even single short stories. In the old days, action and adventure stories had a market in men’s and weekly magazines, but that’s long since been closed. Indeed, several popular male writers of the sixties and seventies started with magazine stories. Now, e-publishers may provide an outlet for that material. As long as the standards don’t slip.

And that’s the downside of e-books - the proliferation of self-published books. There’s nothing wrong with getting a book self-published, so long as it has been properly edited. Sadly, many e-publishers pay scant attention to editing. I know, even mainstream publishers are guilty of howlers these days. A Clive Cussler co-authored book mentions the Royal Army, presumably assuming that since there’s a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force, it must be right! And that was in hardback, not e-book. Danielle Steel’s The Ring has at least 35 typos, after which I stopped counting. So sloppy editing isn’t just the province of e-book publishers. Granted, some things always tend to slip through, no matter how many edit passes you make. I’ve invented the editor’s curse: readers spot the things you missed, but don’t notice all that you do because it’s invisible.
As the saying goes, everybody has a book in them – but for the majority that’s where it should stay. The e-book revolution has made it too easy for dross to get published. It was bad enough with the countless vanity publishers whose editing was generally abysmal, but now it’s worse. I’ve reviewed a few vanity/assisted published books in my time and to be fair I believe that both Matador and, in particular, Pen do serve their clients well.
Because an e-book can be produced relatively fast – as compared to the mainstream lead-time of eighteen months – there’s a tendency to rush the work out. This undue haste should be mitigated with quality control constraints.

Not surprisingly, one type of e-book has undergone a remarkable surge in popularity – the erotic novel. Where somebody might have baulked at reading an erotic paperback in public, they have no inhibition about reading one on an electronic device. Brown wrapping paper has probably seen a drop in sales.
And in this information age it’s quite likely that people who wouldn’t dream of reading a print book – I read a book once, why read another one? – might be drawn to e-books because they’re onscreen and digital. In the old days, you had your purchasers of hardbacks and of paperbacks, often separate individuals; now you can add to the mix purchasers of e-books.
Of course, e-books don’t suffer from broken spines, spilt liquid stains, page discolouration and mould. They remain pristine. There’s another plus: no shelves to dust.

E-books are not demons or replacements for books. They’re another outlet for creative writing. As before, the reader needs to beware that not all books will live up to their promise on the blurb.
Where once I didn’t see the relevance of e-books, now I can accept them as yet another method of reaching readers.
My e-books are:
Blood of the Dragon Trees (Crooked Cat Publishing)
Spanish Eye (Crooked Cat Publishing)
Write a western in 30 Days (John Hunt Publishing)
Bullets for a Ballot (BTAP Publishing)
Death is Another Life (Solstice Publishing)
When the Flowers are in Bloom (Solstice Publishing)


Wednesday 22 January 2014

Reminiscences, Naval-01 – ‘Journey of 16 hours’

When I joined the navy, I’d already succumbed to the writing bug, having written two spy novels (still unpublished). So it seemed logical for me to write down any impressions and events I encountered. As life and work intruded, these notes became thinner… and stopped after a couple of years; though my letters home did contain certain impressions and memories for some years afterwards.

It was October, 1965, and I was a few months over seventeen. Dressed very smartly, my parents saw me onto the train at the Newcastle upon Tyne platform, pleased to learn that I was travelling with other young men destined to join the Royal Navy at HMS Raleigh. My two fellow travellers were Michael (Mick) Siddle and Thomas (Tom) Gibbon.
Newcastle upon Tyne central railway station
We waved our good-byes as the train departed at 7:05a.m from the old Victorian station and settled down. We were so polite – would you like an apple, an orange? Sure? Would you like some chocolate? Oh, it’s melted… We buried our noses in our respective if not wholly respectable periodicals.

Even a short while afterwards, when I first jotted down these reminiscences, I found it difficult to recall the entire journey. Most of the time, for me, it seemed somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, and I always felt I was on the borderlines.

Even then, Tom was pretty tall, about 5ft 7 and he masterfully contorted himself into positions unimaginable to sleep in: legs on one side seat, body on the other, his midriff sagging in between; yet, he slept. He was about sixteen. Mick remained silent most of the journey, alternating between reading and sleeping, being on the same seat as Tom. He was seventeen and a half, a few inches taller than my 5ft 6.

We all had long haircuts. And we were thoroughly bored.

I ploughed through my book, prophetically Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, until my eyes became bleary and the words on the page floated away, far away. Then I would stretch awkwardly the length of my seat and sleep lightly, using my overcoat as a pillow.

At one station, well into the night, the train stopped. Tom and Mick left the carriage for some milk from a vending machine on the platform. I finished off my portion of Tom’s pomegranate.

Another time I was on the verge of sleep when our speed decreased, and we shunted into a station which glared out of the black night. This brightness was eye-watering to sleep-laden eyes. The place was undergoing modernisation – neon lights everywhere, cold white concrete, men’s badinage and hammering reaching our ears. Steam sifted from somewhere on the track. The train stopped there a while, then a shrill whistle and we left the raucous place behind, slid into the black night again, and the train’s motion encouraged sleep.

I felt a hand shaking my shoulder shortly after I had finished Childhood’s End, about 4:30a.m. Sluggishly, I climbed out of oblivion, reflexively but probably ineffectually chopped out at the disturbance, and checked my blow in time. Mick had awoken me as we were pulling into Bristol shortly. [In later training, all men were warned to have a care when waking someone to go on watch – many a black eye has been sustained as the sleeper jerks awake!]
At 5a.m. we alighted from the train onto a deserted station, which speedily filled up with sailors and airmen in uniform. Mail-trolley wheels rumbled, echoing. Doors banged. A porter was whistling somewhere. In the British Rail café, while we ‘partook of a light refreshment’ – I used to write like that, then – we looked about, at a couple of sailors and civilians. We must have appeared a woebegone sight, lost to our mothers if they could have seen us.
Around 5:30 we boarded the train for Penzance via Plymouth. As the train pulled out, a cock crowed and a Petty Officer in our carriage exclaimed, ‘Bloody hell!’ at realising he hadn’t returned the BR café’s cup.
A little later on, we glimpsed the red sunrise.
The second half of our journey was as tedious as the first. My stomach was in knots and I was just waiting to be sick, it seemed inevitable, but just then, as we passed through Teignmouth I was surprised to see phosphorescent breakers. The sea was angry, a brownish-blue, the cliffs coloured red. I ducked my head out the window and the wind thrashed my hair; it was exhilarating and quelled my roiling stomach.
We slept, if restively.
About forty-five minutes out of Plymouth, I glanced out to see a thick seething mist that meandered about skeletons of trees. Shortly afterwards, we pulled into Plymouth station, an ultra-modern building of glass panes and light brickwork. Outside the large glass doors, the three of us met up with a group of new recruits. It was easy to identify them; we all looked about the same, lost and all-in. Lads of all sizes, from towns and cities, from Scotland and Ireland, even Rhodesia, we gathered outside the RTO office to the left of the station entrance. A large well-built lad (we later learned his name was Mick Deering) collected the forms we’d brought with us.
Tired, in a cold station, surrounded by strangers, my first impression was resignation: I’d come this far, I wasn’t turning back now. I was blessed – or cursed – with a good imagination and it was tempting for it to go on overtime, but I decided to leave my mind open, prepared to meet anything. Those who had been in the Scouts were probably better prepared than most. Maybe my time in the Sea Scouts would serve me in good stead.
We clambered onto an RN bus which drove us down to the River Tamar, where we boarded the Torpoint Ferry, which was pulled across on chains. On the other side, we were herded into another bus, and some of us by then broke out into song, started up by Mick and Tom in typical Geordie fashion. Already, new friendships were being forged. What seemed like fifteen minutes’ later, the bus turned into the gateway of HMS Raleigh, our home for the next few weeks.
HMS Raleigh
We were in, almost beyond the point of no return. Silence fell then.
This was our journey’s end – at least as far as those who stayed were concerned.
Next reminiscence: New Entry