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Monday 31 March 2014

Reminiscences - Ceremonial divisions in the rain

Back in 1969, during training in the Royal Navy. Jargon was everywhere. Certain groups of individuals belonged to Divisions; and to compound matters, Divisions also referred to the mustering in those groups on the parade ground. The entire collection of divisions or groups on the parade ground were referred to as Parade. I hope that’s clear…
Rain - Smithsonian/Wikipedia commons

Normally, if there is likely to be inclement weather, the parade is mustered in a drill shed for ‘wet weather routine’. However, on this particular day of insistent rain, due to the fact that it was Tuesday – Ceremonial Divisions day – the omnipotent officers decided to proceed as usual, with the Parade dressed in gabardines. Beneath our rain-proofs we wore our best uniforms. 

Parade got wet.

As we stood there, at ease, then ho!, at close order, the open order, at wet ease again, dribbles of rain drooled annoyingly off our cap brims onto our collars. Meanwhile, our Divisional Officer stood in his Number One uniform, including sword, without benefit of a gabardine. Presently, a rating crossed the parade ground at the rush and handed an oilskin to a neighbouring D.O.

An order was given: ‘Parade – up collars!’ Of course, by now, our collars were soaking; if our necks had been even slightly dry and warm, now they were wet and cold, and most uncomfortable.

During the intervals between orders, I listened to the sibilant patter of rain. It ricocheted off the parade ground like enemy fire; we appeared like toy soldiers, or rather wet toy sailors (or perhaps more aptly, penguins).

When the order ‘Paray-d will march past, into threes, right turn!’ was given, a husky growl of ‘Oh, for f***’s sake’ issued from the rear of our class, sounding very much like our Petty Officer Bishop. He was a tough taskmaster, but he clearly felt for his lads.

As ordered, we marched past the Commanding Officer, Commander et al, and our trousers were spattered with mud and drenched through and through.

As we marched in that rain, I felt oddly stimulated by it. Perhaps the act of marching got the blood flowing, warming the body? Anyway, there were no lasting effects, save that the uniform required laundering, and it was quite an experience, never repeated. Minor natural adversity, perhaps, but it was strangely exhilarating. Wet but exhilarating.

[These reminiscences were written at the time, 1969. Now, I doubt if ‘exhilarating’ would be appropriate!]

Next – The Polka-dot Parade



Sunday 30 March 2014

Music speaks to all nations

Here on the Costa Blanca we’re blessed with many choirs and bands, whether run by Spanish or expat nationalities. My wife Jennifer’s choir Cantabile has shared the stage with Ukrainian singers and dancers, Mexican ballet, Scottish pipers and drummers, Welsh choirs and Spanish guitarists. Few local choirs sing any songs in the language of their national hosts, though Cantabile does – a couple even penned by Jennifer. At one time the choir had a Ukrainian pianist and their common language had to be Spanish! A few weeks ago we enjoyed an a cappella concert of four young Ukrainian singers, offering songs in their own language, Spanish and English.

This afternoon we both attended a concert in the local church provided by the Danish choir Lyngby Kammerkor (Lyngby Chamber Choir from Copenhagen). The Danish choir sang five songs in English (Elgar, Purcell, Stanford, Bennett and Dowland), ten songs in Danish (including Carl Nielsen and Schultz) and three in Swedish. They sang a cappella, apart from the last three, accompanied on piano by Antonio Guillén. The conductor was Frank Sylvan. The choir has also toured to Paris and Berlin.
My Danish and Swedish are a bit rusty (!) but I enjoyed the event. Hearing songs in a foreign language is obviously enhanced if you can understand the words, but the clear tone and musicality transcends linguistic barriers; otherwise, the most famous Italian operas wouldn’t have become so famous, I suspect.

The concert concluded with Lars Edlund’s ‘Ant han dansa med mej’ – which was, roughly, about fifteen Finnish men who attempted to court a woman on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island in the Baltic Sea; she didn’t fancy any of these chaps and repelled their advances with axe, scythe and knife, ultimately cutting up all of them into little pieces. The choir particularly enjoyed singing this song! There was an encore to compensate for the blood and gore, all about peace…

‘Music has charms to sooth a savage breast.’ – Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697)

Saturday 29 March 2014

Saturday story - 'Tooth-walker'

Nik Morton

Co-pilot Erica screamed as the arctic gyr-falcon chased the great skua into our Skylane’s windshield. My ears buzzed with the tortured shrieking of the dying birds and the raucous blast of polar air. Flying plexi-glass shards had lacerated my face and the onrushing wind wrenched me back as the Cessna nose-dived towards the vastness of Labrador.

Over my shoulder, Quinn and Gurney were swearing. Even as I strained at the stick and gradually levelled off the crash-dive, I stayed very conscious of Gurney’s Ruger revolver at my sweating temple.

The sea’s wave-crests leaped up frighteningly close as we skimmed above the surface. An ice floe loomed ahead, stretching almost to the horizon.

But I couldn’t get sufficient height. The aircraft was keeling to starboard.

‘Brace yourselves!’ I yelled.

We hit, ripping off the starboard wheel. The plane slewed round, crunching flat-bellied onto the iced surface, and slithered fifteen hundred breakneck feet before its shattered single propeller thudded viciously into an outcrop of solid ice.

When I regained consciousness, I was shivering. Bitterly cold. My cut face stung insistently. I jerked round in the pilot’s seat and realised that Quinn and Gurney had gone – and so had Erica. To compound my misery, my leather flying jacket had been pulled off me. They’d left me to freeze to death.

How the hell had I got into this mess?  Hazily, through my still foggy thoughts, the last few hours returned.

Erica and I had been waiting at Gander for two top-paying passengers destined for Fort George when we spotted two mechanics in green overalls hurrying across the snowed-covered runway. They gestured to be allowed onboard.

They certainly didn’t fit the description of our clients. I unstrapped and edged along the fuselage and opened the hatch.

The shorter one with curly blond hair thrust a .357 magnum revolver at my chest. ‘You may have heard of us. I’m Lee Gurney and this here’s my buddy, Dan Quinn,’ he said. His tall companion grinned.

Their prison breakout had been reported earlier on the radio. Apparently, they’d been jailed for an armed jewel robbery.

‘We need your services,’ said Quinn. It appeared they wanted me to land them on the Hudson Strait five nautical miles from Akpatok Island. Gurney’s thick lips curled derisively as I pointed out that the Strait was frozen over. ‘True enough,’ he said. ‘We’ve an important transaction to make.’

‘Do I leave you there?’
‘Yes – after we destroy your radio, of course.’
It seemed as though they’d had everything planned – except for the crash. They must have panicked, because they left the radio intact.
They had a rendezvous to keep, possibly with the buyers for their stolen gems. Head throbbing, I scrambled out of the frigid cockpit seat and unpacked the emergency gear. The pilot’s survival suit barely warmed me. My main concern was Erica. Once outside, I noted signs in the snow. She’d struggled and put up a bit of a fight. They’d probably taken her along as a hostage.
The snow was firm and crisp and presented me with a fairly easy trail to follow. Until I lost it, thanks to the fresh biting wind that seemed to howl out of nowhere.
Next instant, thin ice splintered and cracked under my feet and I sank to my armpits. I let out a yell of pain as the freezing brine shocked my system. My hands scrabbled at the edge but each time I found any purchase, the ice collapsed. I had to get out – and fast. My lifespan was reduced to minutes now.

Panic gnawed at my nerve-endings. Trying to stay calm, I spread my weight across the edge of ice. It cracked. I heaved. It shattered under me. My legs already felt numb. I didn’t know how long I’d have the strength to pull myself out, if I got the chance. I tried again. This time it held me for a few seconds before giving way. Third time lucky, I located a portion of thick ice that held my weight and, although exhausted, I heaved. Gasping for breath – which hurt, the air was so cold – I fell dripping onto firm pack ice.
I shivered uncontrollably with reaction and the numbing cold. My teeth chattered and my limbs shook. I rolled in the snow to soak up the water. Then, against all logic, I undressed and wrung out my vest and briefs. My knees, feet and hands were already an alarming shade of blue.

Four years out here had at least taught me the rudiments of survival. I’d let the outer layer of clothes freeze on me, providing insulation of sorts. My body-heat would dry my underwear. I dressed with as much speed as my violently shaking limbs could muster.
Fully clothed again, I shambled up a snow dune for a better view of the area.
An arctic hare jumped into its burrow. And, just beyond, I spotted a body. I recognised Erica’s green jacket. My heart lurched and I fearfully trod down the other side of the snowy slope. I broke into an aching ungainly trot, her name on chapped lips. My breath issued in great misty gasps. Sweat covered my cut face and hands and subconsciously I feared that my outpourings would freeze.
Blood patches round the corpse set my heart into overdrive. My throat was dry as I approached.
Barely recognisable, Quinn’s pallid features stared disbelievingly into oblivion. I’d seen men wounded by polar bears and Quinn’s wounds didn’t fit. He’d been gored by a predator with tusks. Although I was relieved to find it was him and not Erica, I felt sick at the sight. Somehow, I managed to keep my last meal down.
Steeling myself, I hurriedly divested Quinn of his pullover, gloves and Erica’s fur-lined jacket and put them on under my crisp frozen outer jacket.
I followed the tracks. Thankfully, there were no bloodstains. Then, not far away, I came upon a shallow depression where lay the bulky carcass of a cow walrus. Three bullet holes glistened in its huge grotesque skull. Its hide glistened and smelled vile.
Uninvited, visions of Erica being savaged by the hideous ‘tooth-walker’ sprang starkly to mind.

They hadn’t got far. By the rim of the ice floe, Gurney backed away from a bellowing bull walrus. He fired once at its massive bulk but it seemed to have no effect.
The creature’s tusks were about three feet long, capable of hauling him out of the water or disembowelling a seal or human. Great angry welts streamed across the hunchback animal’s tough thick blubbery hide – doubtless caused when fighting other males.

Walrus - Wikipedia commons
Erica was lying behind the wounded bull, red hair strewn on the snow. I stumbled up to her and switched my clothing and put the green jacket on her.
At that moment, the bull’s giant hind flippers – measuring three feet across – propelled its two tons amazingly fast. Its muscular lips curled back, bristling, and the blood-stained tusks lashed out.
Gurney fired twice, point-blank into its beady little eyes.
The hulk faltered, greasy skin quivering all over, then it convulsed and floundered like a stricken ship. Almost graceful, it slithered into the sea, discolouring the water red as it went.
I rushed Gurney. But the crunching snow betrayed me. He swivelled round and my heart seemed to stop as he aimed. I reckoned he only had one shot left, but that’s all it took to stop me. I wasn’t going to make it. I threw myself headlong forward, chest and stomach hitting the ice. I tobogganed over the snow-covered ice. His shot went wild and then I cannonaded into his shins.
Wailing with surprise, he overbalanced and fell backwards into the sea.
I grabbed for his flailing hand but the swirling water bubbled emptily. There was a bumping noise beneath the frozen surface at my feet. As though he was futilely banging his head against the impenetrable ice.
Presently, he floated into view, face down. I managed to fish him out. The state of him suggested that the bull walrus hadn’t been quite dead.
Inside Gurney’s pockets I discovered a large hide pouch brimming with sapphires.

‘There’s a US experimental station sending us a seaplane,’ I told Erica as I switched off the Cessna radio.
We were in a deep snowy hollow I’d prepared next to the crashed plane. I’d rigged a tarpaulin cover, but allowed ventilation to offset the CO2 from the hissing primus. Moisture dribbled down the shiny walls. One of the plane’s wings afforded shelter from the wind.
A bed of lifejackets beckoned.
‘You know,’ I said, ‘there’s probably a hefty reward for these gems.’
‘Well, I reckon we’ve earned it!’ Erica shivered. ‘The Yanks better hurry – the reward’ll be no good to us if we freeze to death!’

I kissed her. ‘I don’t think we’ll be cold, Erica…’
Previously published in New Coastal Press, 2010.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.
More exotic tales can be found in
Spanish Eye
Spanish Eye, which can be purchased post-free world-wide from here
and the Spanish Eye e-book bought from Amazon com here
or bought from Amazon co uk here
Blood of the Dragon Trees
and the Blood of the Dragon Trees e-book bought from Amazon com here
or bought from Amazon co uk here

Friday 28 March 2014

FFB - A Small Part of History

Peggy Elliott's 2008 book is a fictional account of a wagon train journey from Missouri in the 1840s to Oregon. The trek took them just under eleven months, often only travelling a few miles a day.

It’s told from the women’s perspective: there’s Sarah’s diary and the Journal of Rebecca Springer, recently wed to John. She’s his third wife, his previous spouses, Hannah and Mary, having died. Travelling with them are John’s only daughter Sarah and his three sons, Matthew, William and Daniel; Daniel’s new wife Elizabeth and their baby daughter Betsy.

In all there were fifty wagons, 200 people but only fifteen were women; these statistics were quite normal for the time.

Another character observes in her notebook: ‘Friends find one another by instinct, no matter how unlike they may be.’ This is certainly true of the characters in this wagon train. Circumstances shoved them in close proximity where privacy was tenuous and privation was commonplace. Combatting rain and mud and sweltering heat took its toll. Accidents were unavoidable and some perished as a result. The weak and the obstinate fell by the wayside; many gave up and went back to Missouri. The trail was littered with discarded furniture and utensils and graves both adult-sized and small.

A heartening and often heart-rending story about the tenacious women who helped win the West against tremendous adversity.

The story is well told and engrossing, though I feel that the male characters don’t seem to have been brought to life as much as the females. It's still a rewarding read.

The title comes from a notation made in Rebecca’s Journal: ‘Like it or not I was going to be a small part of the history of the nation.’


Thursday 27 March 2014

In need of another life

Today, the contract for my vampire thriller set in Malta, Death is Another Life, ended and the rights have been returned to me.

I have many favourite books, and this is definitely one of them. Its gestation period was over several years. Not that I was working on it for that length of time - rather, for quite a while I didn't feel competent to do the story justice. Eventually, everything fell into place and it evolved not only as a thriller but also as a screenplay.
Cover I designed for the ex-publisher

In the coming weeks I shall endeavour to find a new home for the book. Inevitably, it will need a new title (though the book itself will advise readers that it is a reprinted version of Death is Another Life). And I might eschew the penname Robert Morton and stick with Nik Morton.

So, take heart, just because your book is no longer currently available, it can still enjoy a new life - indeed, another life.

Where there is light, there is shadow…

This cross-genre thriller is set in present-day Malta and has echoes from pre-history and also the eighteenth century Knights of Malta.

Malta may be an island of sun and sand, but there’s a dark side to it too. It all started when some fishermen pulled a corpse out of the sea... Or maybe it was five years ago, in the cave of Ghar Dalam?

Spellman, an American black magician, has designs on a handpicked bunch of Maltese politicians, bending their will to his master’s. A few sacrifices, that’s all it takes. And he’s helped by Zondadari, a rather nasty vampire.

Maltese-American investigative journalist Maria Caruana’s in denial. She can’t believe Count Zondadari is a vampire. She won’t admit it. Such creatures don’t exist, surely? She won’t admit she’s in love with him, either...

Detective Sergeant Attard doesn’t like caves or anything remotely supernatural. 

Now he teams up with Maria to unravel the mysterious disappearance of young pregnant women. They’re helped by the priest, Father Joseph.

And there are caves, supernatural deaths and a haunting exorcism. 

Just what every holiday island needs, really.

Reviews of Death is Another Life

Kay Lesley Reeves (Spain)
I'll never look at bats in quite the same way again. An original twist on vampire legend with a hint of tongue-in-the-cheek humour.

Mr. M. C. Iles "Longman" (UK)
I visited Malta many years ago and Robert's description is spot on. In fact his research is so exact that half-forgotten memories soon came flooding back and I found myself walking those ancient streets once again. A dark and classical tale with excellent twists that will keep readers enthralled.

Angela M.
Death is Another Life by, Robert Morton has a strong structure and is full of rich writing and action. The plot has page turning twists and the main characters are likeable, especially the female lead. I hadn't read a vampire book in a while and was reminded of how intensely gruesome they can be. While this one has its squeamish moments it's not atypical for the genre, and I can't help liking a well written book! The Malta setting was perfect, making this a great escape read.

E. B. Sullivan (California)
Set in picturesque Malta Death Is Another Life offers the reader a refreshing twist on the popular vampire genre. Mr. Robert Morton weaves a story with multiple surprises. From the beginning, his plausible and complex characters lure the reader deeper in his yarn. In particular, Maria and Michael are hypnotic, compelling, and seductive. The desire to learn more about these romantic and dashing figures makes this book a true page-turner.

Kathleen Anderson (Kathleen Janz-Anderson (Oregon)
The story carefully unfolds into a complex, and chilling tail not exactly for the lighthearted. Maria Caruana, an investigative journalist and police Sergeant Francis, investigate the disappearance of young pregnant women. They put their lives on the line to learn whether or not black magic is alive on the Maltese islands.

A startling find as Maria watches her father Dr Nicholas Caruana, a police pathologist, do an autopsy pulls her into the forces of good verses evil. Some people make good out of bad, but Bryson Spellman takes his bitterness to the dark side. Michael Zondadari, a vampire, and Bonello a politician, and his right hand man, Grech are just a few he sucks into his evil plan. Maria's search for answers takes her to Michael Zondadari. He has a hold over her from the moment she sets eyes on him, and even as she wonders if she loves him, she fears that he is a vampire.

The dark forces gather, and then the story breaks wide open and reveals the depth of evil that has befallen the beautiful tourist island of Malta. This is a rather deep story with some x-rated parts that I feel should be placed as a warning. This is not something I normally read, and will have to admit that I had to skip a couple of those x-rated paragraphs.

Heather Savage (Zimmerman, MN, US)
Dan Brown meets Dracula. Robert Morton's Death is Another Life is a fast paced, intelligent read that kept my pulse pounding until the last page. Vampires are certainly enjoying a revival, but Morton's take is entirely fresh, certainly not like the one so overdone today.

I will be removing the links in earlier blogs...

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Writing tips – Book titles

Many writers struggle with finding a suitable title for their book. Just browse the book shelves and you’ll see the variety. Some stick in the mind, while others don’t. You might be contemplating writing a series, so immediately it would be a fine idea to have the titles linked for the series.

Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb has the word ‘Death’ in her near-future series.

John D. MacDonald used a colour in his Travis McGee titles.

And Simon Brett uses alliteration in his Fethering crime series, viz:

The Body on the Beach, Death on the Downs, The Torso in the Town, Murder in the Museum, The Hanging in the Hotel etc.

The following is an extract from Chapter 6 of Write a Western in 30 Days.
The title of your book should attract the reader’s attention and even provide sufficient intrigue so that the cover will be turned over and the first page will be read. If the cover and title do that, it’s done the job. Of course, it helps if the title is memorable!

The title should be one or all of these:
Phrased concisely

Expressed in concrete terms – not abstract ones

Able to arouse curiosity concerning the main character’s predicament

Often, the ideal method to conjure up a suitable title is to fasten on an aspect of the book’s conflict.
A turn of phrase that sums up the underlying theme might work, too.

Or play on the words: Blind Justice at Wedlock was about the hero being blinded and seeking justice. I couldn’t simply use Blind Justice, as that title was already over-used. There is no copyright for a book title, but it pays to check that your title hasn’t just been released into the marketplace. If it was used several years ago, then that’s not a big problem, but if the title is recent, then it can cause confusion. It might also suggest that it’s not particularly original.

Sometimes, a phrase from a quotation might serve. Beware of using quotations from individuals who have not been dead for at least seventy years – they’re probably still in copyright and you might need to get permission to use the quotation. Prolific author E.V. Thompson’s story about early Texas, Cry Once Alone (1984) used this title from a lengthy quotation of Comanche Chief Ten Bears.    

Generally, one-word titles rarely work in the memorability stakes. If there hadn’t been a film featuring Paul Newman, would Elmore Leonard’s book title Hombre be as memorable? Probably not. One-word titles don’t evoke any image in the mind’s eye, particularly if they’re abstract – hence, the recommendation to use concrete terms.

Yet, to contradict that observation, they’ve always been popular with western writers – not least, Louis L’Amour: Brionne, Callaghen, Catlow, Chancy, Conagher, Fallon, Flint, Hondo, Matagorda, Shalako, Sitka, and Sackett, among others, so perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule? If the title is a character’s name or the town’s name, it might work.

In the end, maybe it comes down to personal preference. But don’t always go for the simplest option – the character’s or the town’s name.

Sometimes, the theme is significant and can be used for the title, as long as it isn’t too abstract.

Indeed, the title might depend on whether or not you’ve decided to write about a series character. That may dictate a slightly different approach to selecting a title. Oliver Strange’s character Sudden, for example, started out with the book The Range Robbers (1930) but was followed by Sudden (1933) and six more with the Sudden name in the title.

Don’t get bogged down thinking about a title. Quite a number of authors simply use a ‘working title’ just to get started, feeling sure that by the time the book’s finished, a title will come to mind.

E-book from Amazon com bought from here

E-book from Amazon co uk bought from here

or paperback post-free world-wide from here

On this book has eight 5-star reviews and two 4-star reviews; on it has an additional three 5-star reviews.

This book is a very useful guide for anyone wanting to write genre fiction – that is, any genre, not only westerns. Those aren’t my words, but the opinion of reviewers on Amazon.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

A book is never finished

A book is never finished is what they say, and they're right. You get to a point where you have to be satisfied with the work. There will always be things to change, scenes or descriptions to add, bits to change... but you have to let go.  So a book is never finished, it's abandoned.

I've just finished my book, having a thorough self-edit more than once.

Things I needed to sort out:

nodded occurred 53 occasions; I reduced them to 18.

smiled - 58, reduced to 24

grinned - 30, reduced to 12

sighed - only 7...!

laughed - 14, reduced to 6

just - 104 (but that included inclusion in other words, such as 'justified') - reduced to 48

down - 90 (but the same applied, with words like 'downstairs' etc) - reduced to 30

Then I did the final spell check to eliminate any oddities.

And I have just sent it off to my publisher.

Now, it's the waiting game.

(While I get on with another book, which I'm already 18,000 words into...)

Monday 24 March 2014

The Spanish City in England

Anyone who has visited Whitley Bay (my home town) on the north-east coast of England will have heard of the Spanish City. I grew up with this fairground as part of my life. On the waltzers, I suffered a split lip when I inadvertently hit the safety bar. I lost money on the penny amusement machines, got my face covered in the sugary cobwebs of candy floss, and believed the people who ran all the rides and games were magical. Little did I know then that I would move to Spain to live!

The Spanish City was founded in 1908 and formally opened in 1910, when a dance hall was added.

The Spanish City, 1910 - Wikipedia commons
The Spanish City earned its name in 1904 when Charles Elderton, who ran Hebburn's Theatre Royal, brought his Toreadors concert party troupe to perform there. The City was formally opened by Robert Mason, chair of the local council, at 7:30pm on Saturday, May 7, 1910, when it was known as The Spanish City and Whitley Pleasure Gardens. The new building housed a 1400-capacity theatre, shops, cafes, and roof gardens.

In 1920, the Spanish City became the Empress Ballroom. In 1979 the Rotunda Ballroom was converted into the starlight rooms for live entertainment.

Its funfair was extremely popular with fairground rides and amusements, including a 'Corkscrew' roller coaster—which has now moved to Flamingoland in Yorkshire—ghost train and the waltzers, the House that Jack Built, and the Fun House.

Its centrepiece was its distinctive dome, now a Grade 2 listed building; when it was built it was believed to be the second largest unsupported concrete dome in the UK. There are towers on either side of the entrance to the fairground, and situated on top of them two half-life-size female lead figures, one carrying a cymbal, the other a tambourine. The building's architects were from a local firm.

The Dome has had a number of uses over the years as a ballroom, amusement arcade, and Laser Quest Laser Tag Arena.

The band Dire Straits immortalized the Spanish City in their 1980 Mark Knopfler song, "Tunnel of Love," and thereafter the song was played every morning when the park opened. Cullercoats and Whitley Bay are also mentioned in the song.

All things considered, it lasted a long time but was mostly demolished in the late 1990s.

[Most facts supplied by Wikipedia, the rest from memory...]

Saturday 22 March 2014

Saturday Story - 'A Heinous Crime'

Nik Morton

John Dee performing an experiment
for Elizabeth I, painting by HD Glindoni - Wiki Commons
In this the year of our Lord 1555, as I write my thoughts down on this parchment scroll, I fear that my calculating has found disfavour with the still new queen’s powerful factions who would silence me. They are not satisfied that they imprisoned my father two years ago when she instigated her terrible campaign against eminent Protestants. Verily, they eventually released him, but only after they had stolen all his financial assets and left me not a whit to inherit.

Tonight as May draws to a close, four candles flicker around me. The candlelight does not dispel the shadows in my stygian book-lined study. There are shadows over all learning these days. The spectre of fear. Black days for education and mathematics in particular.

It is as if they detest knowledge of any kind. History, I know, is strewn with ignorant people who destroy anything they cannot understand. They must feel threatened, which is a joke of the highest order, as it is we Protestants who are threatened by Mary’s Roman Catholics.

I feel that it is not heresy to believe that God designed with mathematical precision this universe we inhabit. Everywhere I look, I see evidence of this. On my desk is an exquisite ammonite paperweight and on the bookshelf to my left a perfect spiral conch-shell. That stuffed eagle on his perch died of natural causes but it was made faultlessly by the Creator to soar the heavens and to espy its prey with two sharp eyes, its feathered wings mastering the ether.

Heartily do I pray that mastery of numbers can one fine day mend the split between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. If mathematics can bring order to the universe, then understanding should surely follow and with comprehension will come peace and harmony: universal justice for all.

Is this too much of a dream for a scientist?

Perhaps the first step to spreading understanding and knowledge is to create a national library. A repository of all important books which men could consult to settle such doubts and points of learning as might cumber and vex their heads. Indeed, it would wonderfully advance learning.

Due to my impecunious state, I have been unable to add as many tomes as I would have liked, yet my own library is quite considerable and to be cherished. Perhaps some knowledge is misplaced or incomplete, but new discoveries can be made and measured against the written word of the dead seers and scientists and thus our world can be immeasurably improved.

My friend Gerardus Mercator has already proved that the world is shrinking before our eyes. Indeed, I can vouch that travel enriches the soul and broadens the mind. Should you possess the correct instruments of navigation – like those beautiful examples that I acquired in Paris on the side table – it seems that you can travel anywhere in the world.

I would have thought my being a consultant to the new Muscovy Company established by the navigator and explorer Sebastian Cabot might have helped me become accepted as a normal man devoid of any threat to religion.
After all, the company was granted a monopoly of Anglo-Russian trade. And one of its chief aims is to locate the Northwest Passage – the back door into the Orient. Surely their religion needs the fruits of this company’s commerce? Have I not instructed crews on geometry and cosmography and prepared nautical charts for the navigation of the Polar Regions?
All this learning and skill to explore this marvellous God-given world. Why do they still whisper against me? It is as though they want to police our thought processes. The country abounds with informers, many of whom are of dubious probity. Is it jealousy or something more sinister behind it?

There are, too, heavenly influences which affect our daily lives, each planetary body emitting rays of force that acts on other planets and even on us, we separate and unique individuals on this Earth. The mathematics of this does seem to me to be irrefutable.
Yet there are whispers that astrology is demonic. But it is only an extension of astronomy, after all.

Hark, I hear them coming for me now. The night-watchmen possess a distinctive and fearsome tread at three of the clock in the morning...
‘John Dee!’ shouted the sergeant-at-arms to the accompaniment of a fist pounding on my front door. ‘Present yourself, John Dee! Or we shall force an entry!’
Shrugging into my scarlet and black robes, I hurried along the passageway with a black candle that illumined cobweb-garnished wooden walls festooned with charts and maps.
I unbolted the heavy door and swung it wide.
A slight draught flickered the candle flame but it held.
Standing on the cobbles outside were two heavily built men and the sergeant-at-arms, Joshua Gilpin. ‘This is a late visit you make, Master Gilpin,’ I said.
‘Don’t come the innocent with me, John Dee!’ he said, his fleshy lips curling in a sneer. He had gained his position through favours and could neither read nor write. He was also lacking in courtesy. Clasping his cloak close around his body, he pushed past me, almost toppling the candle from its socket; but, glimmering, it held.
I stepped back and the hallway suddenly seemed very crowded.
As I shut the door on the early-morning damp and chill, Gilpin flung a side of his cloak over his shoulder and pulled a parchment sheet out of his belt pouch. His rheumy eyes held me then cast down on to the paper, staring. He gave a good impression of someone reading and intoned, ‘John Dee, I am arresting you–’
‘On what charge?’
‘Don’t interrupt while I am about official business, Mr Dee,’ he growled. He didn’t give his piece of parchment another glance. ‘The charge is calculating.’
A heinous crime indeed, then. These Roman Catholics considered it to be the equivalent to the possession of magical powers. Perhaps the English language is at fault here? Because it does seem quite magical to arrive at certain results through mathematical means. At one time I know that even the ability to write was considered otherworldly and evil...
‘Who has denounced me, Master Gilpin? I believe I have the right to know.’
‘An informant by the name of George Ferrys,’ said Gilpin, ‘who alleges that one of his children was struck blind and another killed by your “magic.” This is a serious charge, Mr Dee.’
‘If it can be proven, yes,’ I replied equably.
‘However, Ferrys further declares that you have been directing your enchantments against the Queen’s life.’
I sighed and presented an unconcerned face to these preposterous charges. Yet inside I was quaking, because if those worthies in the Star Chamber are determined to have my life, no matter how outlandish the charge, then they will have it.
Young and fit though I was, I knew I was no match for Gilpin’s henchmen. ‘Then you must do your duty, Master Gilpin.’ I gestured to the study at the end of the short hallway. ‘Might I take a book with me to prison?’
Gilpin laughed. ‘I think not, Mr Dee! They have got you into too much trouble already. Prescott here has orders to search your dwelling and to remove all sacrilegious conjuring books.’

‘But they’re mathematical treatises!’ I protested.
‘That’s what I said, Mr Dee. Sacrilegious! They will burn!’
There’s nothing like a good book-burning for ignorant people to feel self-righteous. Thank the Lord that there are more books in this world than idiots like Master Gilpin. Surely, they will have their petty little triumphs – the destruction of the Library of Alexandria was a crime against all humanity – yet these Philistines cannot stop the march of knowledge.
While the one called Prescott ransacked my home, I was led away.
I was barely twenty-eight and really feared my life was about to come to an early end. As I walked in chains along those dank dark prison passages, it occurred to me that it was perhaps foolish of me to communicate with the captive Princess Elizabeth through my cousin Blanche Parry. Yet Elizabeth was eager for my horoscope readings.
Those were bleak days.
Charged and acquitted of treason, I was rearrested as a suspected heretic. Someone seemed determined to see me damned...
With conviction I managed to argue my way out of conviction. The Star Chamber of the Palace of Westminster reluctantly exonerated me, as did the Catholic Bishop. I suspect that it was not insignificant that I had also been astrologer to Queen Mary. Sadly, Queen Mary did not take up my plan for a National Library, though I am sure its first stone will be laid in good time.
When Mary died three years later, Queen Elizabeth called for me to determine an auspicious date for her coronation. This queen was as brave as any man. She knew the dangers of having a suspected magician in her court entourage, yet condoned my presence and continued to consult with me. I was able to help too by bringing esoteric forces to bear upon the Spanish Armada. Some say that mere mortals cannot influence the weather, but I believe it is possible, though perhaps not in a global sense.
I was able to travel abroad to collect numerous books and many seekers of truth frequented my library of over 4,000 tomes. At times too I have been of service to the realm, indulging Walsingham with my discoveries in ciphers and cryptography.
My tour round Europe with the wretched Edward Kelley gleaned much, indeed. Consulted by the powerful men and women of Europe, I was able to peer into their hearts and minds and pass on to my spymaster what these foreigners desired and feared most. Little did my critics know that I, ‘a companion of hellhounds and a caller of damned wicked spirits’, was employed as a secret agent to protect our British Empire.
In retrospect, I can see that my life has not been easy, and perhaps I did not help myself by believing Kelley in his conversations with angels. The last straw came, I suppose, when he wanted us to exchange wives at the behest of an angel. I doubt if dear Jane ever forgave me for that nonsense. To punish me, either the plague or God took her and my children three years gone; it pains me to outlive my children, save for poor Katherine who tends me still. Truly, life is not just.
My search for true spiritualism was a quest for universal justice, since it does not reside on earth as I write. True, the foundations are there, to be built upon by good and true men. Yet the men of influence do not understand that justice is for the common good, not simply for those with wealth and means.
While I am fortunate to end my days here in my home at Mortlake, it grieves me that I am known as a wizard and considered no better than a fortune-teller. This is life’s little irony, the injustice of Fate, perhaps. Though I am poor again, over all, I have had a long and good life and in that time I’ve written seventy-nine works that deal with logic, mathematics, astrology, alchemy, navigation, geography and the calendar. And even now I am not sated and still wish to learn more.

But I am in my eighty-first year, a very old man, and I fear that my time is almost done.
That knave of an assistant, Edward Kelley, duped me into talking with angels by means of my magic crystal. But I finally saw through him, if not the crystal.
Soon, though, I believe I will discover the whole truth of everything, angels included. I am about to embark on the greatest, most magical adventure and, dear Lord, I feel quite ready.
Originally published in The New Coastal Press, 2011. Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.
Tolerance had no currency among the monarchs of this period, it would seem, judging by a new book just published: God's Traitors by Jessie Childs (Bodley Head).

Friday 21 March 2014

FFB - The Unknown Soldier

This was published in 2005 and was Gerald Seymour’s twenty-second thriller and it’s up there with his best, though my favourite is still Archangel, a moving story about a man’s doomed yet glorious fight against the authorities in a Russian Gulag. 

As ever, Seymour was up-to-date with the world’s headlines at the time of writing.  The story begins in Afghanistan while various followers of Al Qaeda are being ‘mopped-up’. 

There’s an interesting mix of characters whose lives are going to converge - and every one of them is believable, as are the subordinate characters, whether Arab, Israeli or American; a sure sign of thriller-writing of the highest order.

Caleb seems to have denied any past beyond two years ago.  He survives an American ambush and is shipped off to Guantanamo Bay for processing; yet he doesn’t seem to be a terrorist and after many months of interrogation he’s returned to Afghanistan ...

Marty and Lizzy-Jo are two young Agency whizz-kids who fly the unmanned spy-planes, the Predators; they’re being shipped out to Saudi Arabia.

Here already is Beth Jenkins, a school-teacher and amateur meteorologist and Bart, a doctor with a distinctly shady past, who happens to be one of several spies garnering any titbits for Eddie Wroughton, the Saudi MI6 man.

Back in London is Lovejoy, an old spy, who sits through briefings to understand the psychology of today’s terrorists: the men Al Qaeda want to recruit for their dirty work are not loners, they want men who are tough, persistent, determined and bright.

Jed Dietrich is an interrogator in Guantanamo; while he was on vacation, Agency know-alls let Caleb go.  On his return, he managed to unmask Caleb as a liar - too late, the man had beaten them all... 

The manhunt was on for someone wily enough to bide his time and beat the interrogators.  Someone Al Qaeda would like to use, probably as a mule to deliver a lethal package to any city in the West...

‘The explosion would cause thirty injured and three deaths, but unseen in the air heated by the detonation and moved on the wind - particles of caesium chloride...’  The fear of a dirty bomb.  Panic would ensue.  And the creation of panic is the terrorist’s principal aim.

Inner cities would be abandoned.  ‘The panic caused would initiate a new Dark Age.’

The manhunt leads to the Empty Quarter - sand dunes and shallow mountains that cover a quarter of a million square miles of emptiness.  And through the fire of the sun’s unrelenting heat is a caravan with Caleb getting nearer to Al Qaeda and an appointment with immortal fame.

Unless he can be stopped.  Thoroughly researched, Caleb’s journey becomes your journey and you can’t help rooting for this brave young man who seems determined to blot out pain and other emotions just to reach his goal. 

Thursday 20 March 2014

'Hang onto your hat'

A 5-star review just posted today on for Blood of the Dragon Trees. Thank you KB Sharp. You have made my day!
If you enjoy a fast-paced, exciting thriller set against an exotic background, then Blood of the Dragon Trees is the book for you. The intense contrast between stomach-churning danger and the relief of rescue is terrific. And it doesn’t just happen once, either, so hang onto your hat. The story never lets up, but somehow finds time to immerse the reader in the beauty and atmosphere of Tenerife. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.
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Wednesday 19 March 2014

Father's Day

It seems quite appropriate that Spain celebrates Father’s Day on March 19. This was the date I became a father, when our daughter Hannah was born. I won’t mention the year, as one doesn’t do that with regard to a lady, though I’d add that she doesn’t look her age! Anyway, it was one of the greatest moments of my life (and our life, I might add!)

I was on leave and destined to join HMS Mermaid, my new ship, docked in Rosyth. We seemed to be cutting it fine; Hannah was ‘late’ – as if there is a definitive schedule that babies have to follow… We’d driven the car over nearby cobbled roads in an abortive attempt to help nature along. Monday approached, when I would have to leave.

Then, on the Friday a policeman arrived at our front door. Because I was between ships, the new ship didn’t have our house phone number, so they had resorted to contacting the local police to deliver a message: I was not to join my ship as planned, but to stay at home, since HMS Mermaid was called out for the Cod War. [There are some stories to tell about that time, when I eventually joined the ship and we faced the Icelandic ships; tense days when on more than one occasion lives were almost lost]. So by this strange quirk of fate I was fortunate enough to attend Hannah’s birth in Bolton hospital.

March 19 is Saint Joseph’s Day. Apparently, in 1948, a schoolteacher in a town north of Madrid decided to mark the day at her school to keep the fathers of her students happy, as some had wondered why there was only a Mother’s Day. She chose the date as it coincided with the day dedicated to St Joseph, since he was an ideal role model for Christian fathers. The event she staged involved mass, gifts for the fathers hand-made by the girls, and a party with poetry, dancing and a play. The idea caught on and spread to other local areas. In 1951, thanks to publicity on the radio, it went national. Two years later, two big stores, Galerias Preciados and El Corte Ingles promoted the event.
Valencia falla - as high as a building... Wikipedia commons

In Valencia it is considered by many to be the most important day of the fallas celebrations. Each neighbourhood has a group of people, the Casal faller, that works all year holding fundraising events in order to produce the fallas. These fallas are made of papier-maché and each of the figures is known as a ninot or doll; traditionally, many figures are satirical digs at famous people. Each group takes their ninot out for the parade so they can be seen and appreciated before they’re burned to the accompaniment of noisy bangers and colourful fireworks.


There’s an allusion to fireworks in my short story ‘Pigeon Hearted’, one of 22 cases from Leon Cazador, half-English, half-Spanish private eye, ‘in his own words’ – Spanish Eye.


“I’d just witnessed the first cracks in a breaking heart.”

Fireworks in daytime are not particularly spectacular, but that doesn’t deter my Spanish compatriots from setting them off. The clear blue sky was momentarily sprayed with silver and red stars as the single rocket exploded above the town square. Minutes afterwards, a profusion of colours darted above our heads, but this display wasn’t the transient starburst of more pyrotechnics. The palette that soared in the sky came from garishly painted pigeons released from patios, balconies, rooftops, and gardens. In the next few minutes, the number of male birds increased to perhaps seventy.
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Tuesday 18 March 2014

Ghost towns

Ghost towns aren’t only to be found in the Old West of western myth. We have them here in Spain, too; thousands of abandoned villages.

These ruined buildings must have many stories to tell, some happy, others sad. People’s lives, their dreams and high hopes blossomed amidst these stones, but now they’ve gone – either elsewhere to create new hopes and live new dreams, or to join the dust of generations departed.

Currently for sale is a village of A Barca in the north-west region of Galicia, nestling in a hillside that overlooks the Mino river close to the Portuguese border. Selling price is zero euros. The twelve crumbling stone dwellings admittedly need work, too. This particular village dates back to the fifteenth century, so the catch is that the successful applicant must present a development project that will preserve all of the village’s buildings.

There are many reasons why villages are deserted. Some were left after the Civil War, when the men didn’t return; some sought greener grass for better farming, while others were abandoned gradually as people sought work in the towns and cities. The residents of A Barca left in the 1960s when a dam was built, which flooded their farmland.

Spain's National Statistics Institute estimates that there are around 2,900 empty villages across the country. There’s even a website specialising in the sale of deserted hamlets called, which has to be an enterprising endeavour. Another site is About half of this number is in Asturias and neighbouring Galicia, a mostly rural region that is home to the famous pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela.

The dismal economic climate of the past few years has prompted many writers and painters to sell up, too. There is also the problem of locating the owners of the abandoned properties. They may have moved away long ago and haven’t been heard from since. In other cases, property deeds have been lost or even destroyed.

Recently, British, Norwegians, Americans, Germans, Russians and Mexicans have purchased abandoned rural properties in these areas. One town, which is on sale for €62,000, is made up of five stone houses with slate roofs, surrounded by pine and eucalyptus trees. Apparently, the family who once lived here made knives, while others were carpenters and farmers.

Their ghosts may still remain, grinding blades, hewing wood, tilling fields…

 Jennifer and Hannah in a ruined building
[My accompanying photos were taken in Murcia; copyright 2014]

Real Spain, as above, can also be found in the pages of Spanish Eye,
22 cases of half-English, half-Spanish private eye Leon Cazador, as told to me 'in his own words'.
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