Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Stories Unfold

Okay, here's where we're at.

I've sent off my latest drafts of the two premises or pitches for TV Drama. One is kind of a local story - contrasting village life during war time with the same village today - and the other is a political thriller.

These are my third run-throughs of the ideas. To my great surprise (and delight), both ideas in their original forms (two sides of A-4, slightly double-spaced, each) appealed to my executive producer contact (ex-colleague), and at my meeting with her in London we were able to chat over these ideas.

Redrafted versions of the two story ideas were submitted just before I went away on holiday (about which, more anon). Rightly, my exec spotted a few weaknesses in both, and I've now expanded them. The first, about the local village (two dramatic periods in the lifetime of one ageing farmer), I would see ideally as a three-parter. The idea now runs to four pages on that one. The other - what happens when high-profile 'fat cats' start being murdered - I would love to tackle as a five-part serial.

My exec expects to get back to me within a week or so. If these ideas are strong enough, she'll take them to the next level. Basically, she'll be bidding on the basis of these for the go-ahead to commission treatments - detailed plans for each project giving character information, episode storylines and other supporting material. So, if one or both of these projects goes to treatment stage, I'll be a BBC employee again, for the first time in twelve years ...

It's been odd, trying to readjust after the holiday. What I've come to feel is that the research trip to Ulva was symbolically the end of the road for my Arthurian studies. It was on the nearby Isle of Iona, my spiritual home, that I resolved to write my Shakespeare and Arthur books, fully four years ago.

Since then I have researched both subjects at great length and in considerable depth. I have acquired a leading literary agent, lost him, and picked up another. I have tested the material out on 'Authonomy', and in both cases scored something of a hit with the international writing community. And, okay, so, we've hit an obstacle. Publishing is a rabbit frozen in the headlights of economic uncertainty, the advent of e-books, competition from other sources, etc., etc. Nothing seems to be happening.

But the Divine Kim (who's not all that well, just at the moment, sad to say) has given me permission to investigate self-publishing. So I can work on my Arthur book, having visited the spot where the story ends, writing it my way, in the knowledge that even if we don't get a publisher on board in the New Year, I can still go ahead with a publishing arrangement.

So it's all systems go ... sort of.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


Well, I'm back. And yes, I found what I was looking for (even though it took a walk of some 10 or 12 miles over some pretty unforgiving terrain - but the views were magnificent!!).

Cille Mhic Eoghainn is actually a graveyard for the MacQuarrie clan ('Sons of Guaire') whose township was the ruined village of Ormaig. The graveyard is about as isolated and remote as you could hope for. But the village ... well now!

Ormaig, apparently, comes from the Norse for 'Bay of Serpents'. Now, 'serpents' was a common enough term for Druids (they were referred to in Welsh, for example, as Naddred - 'Adders'). And I suggested in my previous post that the name of the island - Ulva - might derive from ullamh dha (literally, 'Wiseman to him'). Of course, I'd forgotten that a Hebridean folktale, seemingly collected from Tiree (very close to Ulva), casts Sir Gawain of Arthurian legend as 'Sir Uallabh O'Corn' (Sir Wiseman of the Horn). This Sir Uallabh is the nephew of Arthur, just as the son of the original Guaire was Arthur's nephew. In the early legends, the son of Guaire is named Gwalchmai, a name which passed through the prism of medieval literature to reappear as Gawain.

Gawain, then, was originally the son of Guaire and the nephew of Arthur. The sons of Guaire formed the clan MacQuarrie, who lived at Ormaig and were buried at Cille Mhic Eoghainn on Ulva. In the Hebrides, Gwalchmai or Gawain was known as Sir Uallabh, or 'Sir Wiseman'.

In Gaelic, Ulva is Ulbha, so that the name of the island might indeed derive from ullamh (a sage or learned man) or, for that matter, from Uallabh (ditto). It could, then, be uallabh dha - The Isle of the Ullamh, or the Druid Isle.

And guess what? The now ruined village of Ormaig (population in 1841 - 52) once hosted a famous school for pipers run by the MacArthurs.

Seems that the family ties weren't lost after all!

Anyway, that was all fun, and I had the best oysters I can ever remember on Ulva. Fascinating place. Oh, and I stood on the grave of Arthur, too. So, all in all, a productive vacation.

But now I'm home. And, well, I'm pretty dissatisfied with the way all the work on the books (Shakespeare and Arthur) has been going. I'm still beavering away on a TV drama idea or two with my exec producer at the BBC - that's all going fine - but the publishing side of things is a right stinking mess.

It feels about as bad as TV did a decade or so ago.

And one of the problems, from my point of view at least, is that I've been concentrating on the first three chapters and a synopsis because that's what publishers use to base their decisions on, in the case of non-fiction. Except that they're not. Because they're not making any decisions at the moment. So I've been concentrating on the wrong shape of project to suit an industry that isn't actually doing anything right now.

So here's my resolution: I am going to commit to writing a minimum of 2,500 words a day on my Arthur project, until I have a complete manuscript which I am happy with. Then, I am going to see if there are any publishers out there who are interested. I am not going to fart about with three chapters when I can, and should, be writing them all.

If there's one thing I've learnt over the years as a writer, it's this: sooner or later, you have to start doing things your own way, because too many people will try to get you to do things their way, and that, my friends, hardly ever works.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Exploring the Past

I don't know many writers who actually find writing fun. No, by and large we have to get our kicks in other ways. For me, research is definitely one of them.

This is a photo of Ormaig, once the principal settlement on the Hebridean island of Ulva. It was home to the Clan MacQuarrie, the "Sons of Guaire".

A little further along the coast, the map shows a Cille Mhic Eoghain or 'Cell of the Sons of Owain'. In this case, Owain and Guaire were probably the same person - Guaire appearing as Guaire son of Aedan in Adomnan of Iona's Life of St Columba and Owain in all likelihood being Owain of North Rheged, a British prince whose mother was Aedan's daughter. She was also Muirgein, born in Perthshire, the half-sister of Arthur.

Ulva is relevant, then, to the Arthur story (the story of the real King Arthur, that is), because "Guaire" was also the father of Gwalchmai, who later became known as Gawain. The Sir Gawain of the later romances was thus one of the Sons of Guaire, a founder of the Clan MacQuarrie of Ormaig and quite possibly one of the priests of the Cell of the Sons of Owain.

The word in Gaelic for a doctor, a wise or learned man and, by extension, a Druid is Ullamh (Irish - ollamh). Interestingly, although possible derivations of the island's name, Ulva, include the Scottish Gaelic ullamh dha - 'ready for it' (i.e. occupation) - no one seems to have suggested that Ulva could in fact be the Isle of the Wiseman. This wise man would have been Sir Ullamh O'Corn, as he is known in a Hebridean folktale - that is, Sir Wiseman son of Horn, the nephew of Arthur. Given the near God-like status of his father among the people of North Britain until his land was overrun by the Saxon foreigners in the year of Arthur's defeat, Gwalchmai (otherwise known as Ullamh or Gawain) would most likely have been a Druidic priest of sorts, and so the remains of his chapel or cell on the southern coast of Ulva represent the hermitage of a wise man who had been ejected from his proper place on the nearby Isle of Iona by the coming of St Columba and his intolerant monks.

All this is of great interest to me right now because in a few hours I shall be setting off for the Isle of Mull. By Sunday I expect to have set foot on the Isle of Ulva, the first of what might be several exploratory visits over the next week or so. I want to see Ormaig, where the descendants of Owain/Guaire (the princely son of Muirgein and Urien) lived. I want to find my way to what remains of the Cell of the Sons of Owain, to stand where the genuine Gawain once stood, to gaze out across the Hebridean sea, looking south towards Iona, which the Christians took from the Druids.

That's my kind of research, folks. Writing can never quite measure up to something like that!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Double Falsehood

(No, don't worry - not another verbal assault on certain politicians; not this time, at any rate.)

A couple of weeks ago, a school-age daughter of very good friends phoned me out of the blue to ask how many plays Shakespeare wrote. Now, I'm often accused of never giving a straight answer, but on this occasion I was happy to reply -

"Nobody knows. It's true. We just don't know. If the school tells you it's 37, who are we to argue? But it's wrong. The real answer is, we don't know. Next question?"

I was in Stratford today - lovely old Stratford - for a talk about the publication of a new Shakespeare play. This is the latest in the Arden Shakespeare series. It's called Double Falsehood. And it's by Lewis Theobald (pronounced: "Tibbalt"). And by John Fletcher. And by William Shakespeare.

It's actually an early eighteenth-century version of an earlier play by Shakespeare. Quite possibly the last play Shakespeare wrote. Then, it went by the name of Cardenio, and was based on a story from Don Quixote (a bit of useless information - Shakespeare and Cervantes died on exactly the same day).

What makes this play enormously interesting for me is that the Lord Chamberlain, who probably commissioned it for performance at the court of King James, was Robert Carr, onetime favourite of the King. By the time the play was performed, Carr was married to the dazzling Frances Howard and King James was in love with another young man, George Villiers. And while Carr was happily embedded with the crypto-Catholic faction at court, Villiers was quickly adopted by the Puritan hardliners who were determined to see Carr and his Howard in-laws crushed.

Carr. Cardenio. Get it?

Anyway, Carr's fall from grace came shortly afterwards. In order to marry him, Lady Frances had been forced to divorce her hopeless husband, after which Carr's bosom pal turned against her. Evidently, this chap must have known something because he was suddenly imprisoned in the Tower of London. Where, after a short while, he died. The assumption at the time was that he'd been poisoned.

Carr and his wife eventually stood trial for the supposed murder of his friend, Sir Thomas Overbury. They were effectively pardoned (four lesser mortals had already been executed for their roles in what probably wasn't a murder anyway). But Carr and the crypto-Catholic faction were ruined. And by then, Shakespeare himself was dead. In fact, he died the day before the jurors received their summonses to attend the hearings.

It was only typical of Shakespeare that he would have been batting for the Catholic faction - just as it was typical of his great rival, Ben Jonson, to be the pet poet of the Puritan bunch. But given the way Shakespeare died, and given that he died rather suddenly in the midst of the greatest scandal to engulf the notoriously scandalous reign of King James I, and given that Ben Jonson was with him, or not far away, when he died, the role of Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio in all this courtly intrigue is ... well, intriguing. Because it was Shakespeare's contribution to a bitter factional war at the heart of the English government, one that involved the two leading poet-playwrights of the day, the leading lords and ladies, the king's two favourites, the country's foreign and domestic policies and the greatest issue of the age (religion), not to mention claims of murder, witchcraft, treason and sexual perversion ...

Frankly, I'm looking forward to getting hold of my own copy of Double Falsehood. It won't be quite what Shakespeare wrote, but it can only help to advance our knowledge and our understanding of the man and his times. It might even offer a clue or two as to why Shakespeare had to die when he did. The whole Carr thing had got way too embarrassing for the King, and Carr's enemies (including Ben Jonson) were not prepared to let that master of eloquence William Shakespeare speak out. And so, there was a 'merry meeting', and Shakespeare died.

Yep - plenty of interest in Double Falsehood, the closest thing we have to Shakespeare's lost play, Cardenio.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Something in the Air

Okay, so the meeting went well. Really well.

There was me, the very picture of nonchalance as I wandered into the famous BBC Television Centre, probably looking like someone who's spent too long in the countryside and might actually have arrived by tractor. And it turns out that they've moved the drama department. We used to be across the road, behind the bike sheds. Now we have something called 'The Drama Building'. And before long, we'll be moving again.

Hey - dig that "we"!

Anyway, a great chat, most encouraging. And oddly enough, there's a guy working a door or two away on Lark Rise to Candleford. He was script editor on the last series I worked on with the producer I was meeting (she's now an executive producer, two steps down from God). I haven't seen this script editor chap in fourteen years. Only yesterday, though, he was asking after me.

Now, all this is just a wee bit weird. But I've been having a strange sense of a return to business-as-usual after something like ten or twelve years. Let me explain.

One of my very first writing jobs in British TV was developing an idea by Paul Theroux into a potential TV drama series. This was for a firm called Euston Films, a company for which I had, and still have, almost unqualified admiration.

The project stalled rather suddenly when the parent company, Thames Television, lost its licence to broadcast. It lost its licence because it had annoyed a certain Margaret Hilda Thatcher. See, Mrs Thatcher had unleashed a death squad to assassinate a group of Irish people in broad daylight on the streets of Gibraltar. Thames TV made a documentary about it. By doing so, they signed their own death warrant, so to speak. Their broadcast licence was effectively revoked, and my series with Euston Films withered on the vine, basically because Euston Films no longer knew if it had a future.

I got my revenge, up to a point, by restaging the shooting of the Irish Republicans for another TV drama series (we did it on Brighton sea-front, though, rather than in Gibraltar). But it was a hollow victory. I had in fact lost one of my very first jobs because of a politician who went ape whenever somebody questioned the terrible things that happened while she was in power.

But it was a golden period for me, following on from Thatcher's own political demise, because her party remained in government for another seven years. Great news for hard-hitting drama and political thrillers. Why? Simple:

Because we expect Conservatives to misbehave. We know that they're up to no good. We can devote all our energies, 24/7, to uncovering their multitudinous peccadilloes, their evil little schemes, their shady deals, their assaults on civil liberties ...

Thirteen years under a centre-left government just weren't the same. Okay, so the Labour leadership might mess things up a bit. They might annoy us somewhat. They might even lead us into illegal wars. But they're not hideous, twisted, self-serving swindlers, bigots and cheats. Right-wing conspiracy theorists will go out of their way to invent strange stories about Labour but they're unlikely to be true.

The last thirteen years have not been very good for drama in the UK. But no sooner have the forked-tongued chinless wonders of the right got back into power and, hey, the BBC beckons me to The Drama Building. Former colleagues are enquiring about me after all this time. Looks like we might be back in business. TV Drama is about to be reborn out of fear and loathing, the anguish and the outrage which it is only sensible and proper to feel in the face of this dreadful coalition government.

Something in the air, my friends. Something in the air ...

(Oh, and BTW - hi, Shayne!- a really good friend who works in arts documentaries has suggested that the BBC might be interested in a documentary or two about Shakespeare, or rather about the revelations I can offer. So that's something else I'll be looking into very closely, while publishing's very, very quiet just now.)

Friday, 2 July 2010

Good News/Bad News

Apparently, it's hell out there. Nobody's buying anything. And it's worse in the UK than in the US of A. Publishers in London, poor things, are staring out of the window wondering what to do with their lives. It can't go on.

That, at least, would appear to be the case with popular non-fiction, a genre (?) which has been hit rather badly by the recent economic uncertainty (and that uncertainty is currently enjoying something a come back here in the UK). Historical fiction, so they say, is thriving. And knowing some fantastic writers of excellent historical fiction I can only say, well that's great news.

But I'm too scared to write historical fiction. I keep thinking I'll go to pieces if I don't know what colour doublet Will Shakespeare was wearing on a certain Monday morning (and if I make it up - well, then it'll be made up). No, I feel safer with historical non-fiction, especially my own sort of investigative brand. Which just happens to be what publishers don't think anyone is interested in buying at present. Not just me - it's across the industry. Something to do with a certain High Street bookstore chain and its dullard management, fortunately elbowed aside after a truly dreadful Christmas season and now replaced by some human beings.

Anyway, that's what my agent told me over the phone yesterday. Best to wait until a publisher somewhere stops staring out of the window, gives a little shudder and thinks out loud: "Better do a bit of publishing, then."

So what's a poor writer to do in the meantime? Well, here's the weird thing. I'm heading back to the BBC!! Haven't passed through that hallowed portal in twelve years or something crazy. But, couple of weeks from now, I'll be back in the building, discussing DRAMA.

All a result of meeting up with an old producer colleague a few weeks back (just go down a few posts and you'll find it). An idea or two was sent, both were liked, so we're seemingly back in the game. How cool is that?

Like I say, it's been a dozen years since I crossed the threshold of the BBC Drama Building, and I'm extremely optimistic that things have changed. Most important, though - I learnt, way back, that in TV drama you have to be working with people you trust. If you don't, or can't, trust your colleagues to make the right decision every once in a while, the project's probably doomed. And I trust my old producer colleague, not least of all because she's done some terrific stuff while I've been out in the sticks. She's kept the torch alight, bless her, like a beacon in the darkness.

So, while we wait for the publishing industry to shift its collective arse, heigh-ho, it's off to the BBC in London, and a break from history for a wee while.

Funny old world.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Consensus Busting

Wasn't all that sleepy last night, so I watched a movie. I chose "All the President's Men". Partly because I could watch it for free, partly because it's a very good, intelligent film (great script, great cast, great director), partly because I wanted to see something about two guys beating the system.

It's not the complexity of the Woodward-and-Bernstein investigation into the Watergate scandal that sticks with me, having watched the film again. It's the sheer number of nay-sayers, gainsayers, cowards and downright liars who tried to stop the investigation in its tracks.

Amazingly, the Washington Post stood by its young reporters, when the entire Nixon administration was crying foul and denying, denying, denying everything that turned out to be true.

But as you watch the film you occasionally get the distinct impression that, had it not been for the sheer persistence of the journalists and a good old-fashioned sense of right and wrong at the Washington Post, the scandal might never have been exposed. There were so many moments when the whole thing could have been called off because only a handful of people doubted the official line.

The pressure to give up, to leave the story alone, and to let Nixon get on with his presidency unencumbered by investigations into his devious ways, must have been incredible.

Still, between them, after an immensity of hard work and many reversals, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein managed to bust through the consensus.

Now, history is basically consensus, and that consensus is always susceptible to change. For example, I discovered only two nights ago that some 300-400 black sailors fought for Britain under Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. As did a number of Americans, Danes, Portugese, French ... It was kind of a multinational force. Britain won, famously, but many races helped.

To learn that sort of thing is to find that history is different - richer, deeper, more complex - than previously imagined.

But there is always resistance to that sort of thing. Those who create and enforce the consensus have a nasty habit of fighting tooth and nail to preserve it.

Like those White House officials who continually slammed the Washington Post (until some of those officials were found guilty on a number of counts), there are conservative egos out there who will stop at nothing to try to ensure that no view, no perspective, no reading of history - no consensus - ever changes.

I feel a bit like Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. The evidence is definitely there. But there are powerful voices who won't allow their delicate little consensus to be busted. Even though it is vital, if we want to understand Shakespeare's works or recognise Arthur's key role in the history of Britain, to blow that consensus to smithereens.

It is the cosy consensus that stands in the way of such understanding. Why? Because it made up its mind long ago (according to the standards of the time) and has refused to alter it ever since. Which means that generations of students are being fed outdated nonsense in the name of "history". They are also being fed boring history - which is a crime against humanity. History is one of the most fascinating, engaging, intriguing subjects there is. To make it boring is to conspire against knowledge and the spirit of enquiry - it is to destroy when it should be creating, to depress when it ought to inspire.

Currently, the historical establishment is sitting on the facts, rather like those officials at the White House, and doing everything it can to silence or belittle anyone who offers a real insight into their subject.

The establishment relies on consensus - even when that consensus is outworn and no longer of any real value. In fact, it's an elitist affront to learning and understanding, to history itself and to those who lived it.

The historical consensus must be busted altogether. Woodward and Bernstein were right, and the Post was right to stand by them.

So where are our heroes of free speech today? And who is supporting and defending their efforts?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010


So. It's done.

Yesterday afternoon I pressed "Send" and then sat back, exhausted. And was completely useless the rest of the evening.

It happened like this a couple of months back, when I sent the revised book proposal for Will's Treason - Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot off to my agent. That had taken me two full months to research, write and revise.

And now, same goes for Commanding Youth - The True Story of Arthur and the Fall of Britain. Weeks of work, then off she goes.

So now what?

Wait and see ...

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Life of Will

What's this? Two blogs in a week? Has he gone mad?

No. It's just that I'm so lucky. Stratford-upon-Avon is a thirty-minute bus ride from the top of my lane. It'd be even quicker if the bus didn't have to explore every village in between - but that wouldn't be quite so much fun.

So this afternoon I popped over to Stratford (by bus) to attend a talk about Shakespeare biographies. It was kind of an informal interview, as Professor Stanley Wells (Chair, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) asked David Bevington (University of Chicago) about his new book.

There have been quite a few biographies of Shakespeare published in recent years and I've read pretty well all of them. David Bevington has examined how all these biographies differ from one another.

His is rather a slim book.

The fact is, Shakespeare biographies are tiresome because they are almost all the same. Okay, you get Germaine Greer trying to convince us that Mrs Shakespeare was just brilliant (oh yeah? hardly a marriage made in heaven!), Rene Weis looking at the Shakespeare's neighbours in Stratford, Charlie Nicholl looking into Shakespeare's London lodgings on Silver Street, James Shapiro concentrating first on a year-in-the-life (1599) and now on all the theories about Shakespeare not really being Shakespeare.

(Actually, the best thing I heard at the talk was an argument against somebody else - e.g. the Earl of Oxford - having written the plays of Shakespeare; basically, if there had been such a conspiracy, Ben Jonson would not have been able to keep quiet about it. So there.)

Anyway, I did contemplate asking the esteemed gents up on their podium to what extent they felt that most Shakespeare biographers basically just say whatever somebody said before. And then illustrating it by pointing out that all biographers insist that Anne Whateley (the woman named in Will Shakespeare's first marriage licence, issued 27 November 1582) didn't exist, but that I've found a will at Worcester County Records Office which proves that she did exist.

I didn't say that out loud, though, probably because there might have been a commotion. How dare anybody introduce any controversial new facts into such a genteel symposium? Prof. Stanley Wells might have had a coronary, for crying out loud!

But oh, I would so love to have shouted out, "Ben Jonson murdered Shakespeare!"

And yeah, I do believe that's the truth. Don't know if I'll blog about it, though. Ought to try and write the book, really.

It's annoying, though. The two experts briefly skirted around the subject of Will Shakespeare's religion in such a way that they might as well have said, "Hmmnn - best not go there!" Which leaves me thinking -

What is the point of a Shakespeare biography? Is it meant to tell us anything about Shakespeare the man? Or is it an exercise in not rocking any boats?

Hilariously, Stanley Wells countered the suggestion that Shakespeare might have been Catholic by pointing out that so much of the documentation about him was connected with the reformed English ("Anglican") Church. But there wasn't any other Church available at the time. Catholicism had been banned. So Wells was basically using the Germaine Greer defence - an argument which is patently senseless and tantamount to saying that so-and-so was in the army and homosexuality isn't allowed in the army, so therefore so-and-so can't have been homosexual ... hardly watertight, as arguments go.

The curse of Shakespeare biography, it would seem, is not the lack of information (there's plenty) but rather the pressure to produce an 'orthodox', meaningless, fundamentally safe and pointless book about a man who was much more exciting (as were his works) than these people want to admit.

We need a revolution in Shakespearean biography, dammit!!! And maybe I'll get to throw the first petrol bomb, given half a chance.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Rebuilding TV Drama

Went to the first of three meetings yesterday, in my old hometown of Birmingham. This was of a strategy group working under the aegis of the Producers' Forum and Screen West Midlands. The issue to be discussed - how to rebuild a sustainable TV drama industry in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

The drama industry in Birmingham was the casualty of a cultural sea-change in British TV. I remember it because I was working on a couple of Birmingham-based drama series when the sea-change happened.

There was a BBC1 drama series called "Back Up". It was an interesting one for me because it was based around a police support unit in Birmingham, and my kid brother was then a member of a police support unit in Birmingham. Which meant that, for a week or so, as part of my research I was effectively working alongside my brother.

The first series went pretty well. That was when management looked on Birmingham as a production centre in its own right, and the Head of Drama at good old Pebble Mill took the trouble to find out what Birmingham and the region had to offer. There was a real sense of an alternative to London, and that BBC Birmingham had just enough independence of outlook to develop and produce its own slate of drama projects.

The second series turned into a bit of a nightmare. The management had changed - and the new lot simply didn't want to be in Birmingham. They hated spending time there. It was like a gulag to them. They couldn't stand being so far away from The Groucho Club. They feared that, if they weren't stalking the corridors of BBC Television Centre or hanging around Soho House, somebody else would get noticed, somebody else would get the promotion.

The atmosphere, the culture, and the quality of the product had changed radically, overnight, and for the worse.

There was no third series. Not long after that, there was no more Pebble Mill. What we got instead was Doctors, a kindergarten for people entering TV. The BBC's weird obsession with medical stuff had meant a conveyor-belt daytime drama, pumped out of Birmingham for the benefit of those who happened to be at home, was the contribution of my great city to the schedules.

You can tell how bad things are: Doctors doesn't even admit it's in Birmingham; Hustle came and filmed here, but only to keep costs down (the viewer was not meant to realise they'd popped up to Birmingham for some shots) and Survivors ... well, that was just crap.

So how do you rebuild an industry that has been destroyed by cultural prejudice rather than economic conditions? Maybe we should be asking other regions who have suffered a similar kind of devastation for what were purely political reasons. But one thing's for sure - for as long as there were senior managers in the media who felt such contempt for the audience that they couldn't bear to be out there where the viewers actually are, there was never going to be a strong drama industry anywhere in the UK.

I mean, just because people are in work - in the mythical town of Holby, or that strange London suburb of Walford, for instance - doesn't mean that the drama side of things isn't on life support.

Maybe the return of a viable TV drama industry in the Midlands will mark the rebirth of TV drama in general. Now wouldn't that be nice?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

What is Britain for?

Any thoughts?

It's a question my agent posed me in connection with my book about Arthur ('King' Arthur, that is - the original, the historical, the one!) "What is Britain for?" What's the point of the book - current subtitle: "The True Story of Arthur and the Fall of Britain" - if we haven't decided what Britain is, and why we should give a damn?!

And at first I thought - "What is Britain for? Well, it's kind of for keeping the wind off Belgium. And for making sure Ireland doesn't get too close to the Continent."

But that was just me being facetious.

Anyway, I've spent about two months now on my rejigged opening chapters to Commanding Youth and I think I'm getting there. The question. What's it all for.

The Romans invaded, but they only took about a half to two-thirds of Britain - essentially, the same part as the invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes would later turn into a place called 'England'.

The rest of Britain got renamed. The tattooed people to the north got called 'Picts' (from pictii- 'painted'). Their Irish equivalent was the 'Cruithne' - effectively, the Picts in Ireland (or, as Diodorus Siculus called them, 'those of the Pritani who inhabit Iris'). The Britons, according to a description given by Claudian Claudianus just five years before the Romans left Britain for good, remained rather 'Pictish' themselves.

So - all of the British Isles, plus a substantial part of Ireland, were once 'British'. Then Rome came along and turned just a part of the territory into 'Britain', the rest becoming somehow alien. And the bit Rome called Britain then got taken over by Germanic immigrants (the English) who were anything but British.

And therein lies the problem of Britain.

Over the centuries, England has tried to govern every part of the British Isles (and Ireland) from London. But England is the odd-one-out, the non-British part of the whole. Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall ... these are aspects of the real Britain, and they have all been imposed upon, trampled, exploited and frequently despised by the controlling English in their southern capital.

So I'm beginning to formulate an answer to the question "What is Britain for?"

It's for uniting against the stranglehold of London and the southeast, and for remembering that Britain existed long before England was invented.

Now I've just got to get that idea past my agent, who's based in ... yes, you've guessed it.


Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Whose History?

Well, if you want a good argument, history is the place to be.

Or do I mean 'historiography' - the writing of history?

See, history is a very political subject. I know that. But suddenly, it seems, it's got a lot more so, with our gloriously awful new coalition government in the UK. Michael Gove, a glove puppet posing as Education supremo, has approached a right-wing bigot and asked him to sort out the history part of the schools' national curriculum.

Terry Deary, the author of those Horrible History books (which, let's face it, are a fantastic introduction to history for kids), has already had a go, describing contemporary historians as 'nearly as seedy and devious as politicians.'

He branded Niall Ferguson, the apologist for the British Empire whose idea of history is so attractive to the Tories, 'a deeply offensive right-wing man who uses history to get across a political point.'

Good stuff, eh? But what's this - the rudest man in history (David Starkey) has had a little rant at female historians, saying that they write 'historical Mills and Boon.' (For those who don't know what Mills and Boon is/are, it's low-rent romantic melodrama written by the bucket-load and sold to subliterate women in hospitals.)

Now, I've got my own gripes with historians, thanks to the years I've spent working on Arthur and Shakespeare. Most of them, I've discovered, just repeat what somebody else previously said. Take the Shakespeare biography industry. Endless re-runs of the same stuff, slightly re-worded but nothing new. And what I've found is that, for those who are prepared to dig, there is a wealth of material about Will Shakespeare, mostly untapped, completely ignored by the "historians" who are so terrified of departing from the script that they'd rather publish gibberish than a book about who Shakespeare was.

Or Arthur. Historians insist - against all the evidence - of looking for Arthur in the wrong place and in the wrong century. And when they can't find him there, they throw their little arms up in the air and moan "Then he didn't exist!" When there's a bloody obvious Arthur, perfectly visible, the first on record with that name, surrounded by individuals whose names are uncannily similar to those of the Knights of the Round Table ... oh, but no, it can't have been him, say the "historians". Just sour grapes, really. They wanted to find him in England, failed, and now don't want anybody else to have him.

So it is true - historians are petty, intellectually lazy and committed to telling their version of events regardless of the evidence.

Or they're callow, conformist regurgitators of the accepted 'message' who'll go to extraordinary lengths to avoid touching on 'difficult' or 'dangerous' material.

Many of them are guilty of collaborating in a process of keeping history away from the common people or broadcasting a narrow-minded and orthodox view of what happened.

And then you get the Niall Fergusons and their right-wing followers, making up stupid lies about the BBC pursuing a left-wing agenda and trying to convince themselves and everybody else that the British Empire was the best thing ever.

We can really do without maniacs like that. History is a bitchy enough game as it is, without bringing in the madmen and the arch-propagandists to tell us all what to think.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Old Friends

Went to a talk last night in Birmingham. The two guest speakers were Tony Garnett and Hilary Salmon, both top TV producers. I worked with both of them in the 90s.

It was great to see them both again, and really nice to chat with them briefly afterwards. But it felt rather odd. See, I've been out of TV for nearly ten years now, because - well, basically, because it just wasn't worth it. I'd learnt at the feet of the masters, and now a bunch of minnows had taken over and were screwing up everything in sight. I couldn't afford to carry on writing for television, not if I wanted to retain my last remaining shred of sanity.

At the same time, it was odd to think that I had worked with some of the best, and had really learnt my craft. And that, for the whole of the noughties, all that know-how was redundant. Even thinking about working in British TV was a waste of my time.

Could things be changing? Is it possible that, with big cuts coming to all sectors (the BBC included), we can get rid of the thousands of spin-doctors, marketing wonks and unnecessary 'executives' who have been cluttering up the BBC for years, getting in the way and preventing the creatives from making good programmes?

I'm almost daring to hope so. Of course, I still want to carry on with my books; I've done far too much research and development on them to let all that go to waste.

But I would be happy to go back to TV, if I could bypass all the bullshit and just work with a first-class producer on a real good project.

After all, at one point I had a four-part series with the BBC, who were eager to discuss a potential second series and would I be interested in a screenplay adaptation as well? Then somebody new came along and I've never worked for the Beeb since. Maybe it's time to venture back - just dip my toe in the waters - listen out for the approaching-shark music - see how we go.

Meanwhile, I've stared into the hole in the ground where Shakespeare's house was (you can see the cellar walls now) and may well be helping to enlarge it before too long. That should help me keep my feet on the ground (or even under it) while thoughts of TV drama begin to distract me.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Digging Shakespeare

A chance to volunteer on the archaelogical dig taking place at Shakespeare's last home. What do we think about that? Should I go for it?

Of course I should. As you walk along Chapel Street in Stratford at the moment, large panels prevent you from looking over the wall at New Place into the dig that's going on there (although an open-top bus tour seems to give you a good view as you go by). But to be in there, as part of it, rummaging among the foundations ...

The house only seems to have been known as New Place after Will Shakespeare bought and refurbished it in 1597. Before that it was the Great House, a 'pretty house of brick and timber' built a hundred years earlier by a local worthy and onetime Lord Mayor of London.

Royalty stayed there in 1643, in the form of Henrietta Maria, the Catholic queen-consort of King Charles I. The Queen was a guest of Will's daughter, Susanna.

In 1756, a preacher, the Rev. Francis Gastrell, was living there. Outraged at the number of visitors and passers-by who wanted to see a mulberry tree in the New Place grounds, which supposedly had been planted by Shakespeare himself, the reverend took an axe to the tree.

The very next year, a mysterious document was discovered hidden away among the rafters of the roof in the house where Will Shakespeare grew up. It proved to be a handwritten copy of a Jesuit Last Testament and Will of the Soul, signed by Will Shakespeare's father.

In the meantime, Gastrell had a few of his windows broken by people angry at his felling of the Shakespeare mulberry. Finally, in 1759, he freaked out altogether and demolished New Place brick by brick.

The town seemingly did nothing to stop him. Whether a lone preacher could destroy a three-storey house on a busy street without anybody noticing, or whether (as seems much more likely) he had a substantial mob to help him, the town bided its time and then sent him packing. He was marched out of town accompanied by booing crowds, and a local bye-law was passed forbidding anybody with the surname Gastrell from ever living in the town again.

Like so much of the Shakespeare story, we are usually expected to accept that Shakespeare's final home was simply destroyed by an angry clergyman - and that's that. Whatever you do, do not draw any conclusions from that astonishing act of vandalism, least of all that there may have been some sectarian issues hanging around the memory of Will Shakespeare.

Whatever you do, do not imagine that a Protestant preacher destroyed a part of our national heritage because of its Catholic associations with our national poet. No, no, do not think that. It's just one of those things, okay? And maybe we shouldn't have mentioned that Jesuit will. Don't want anybody getting any ideas, do we?

But as a way of getting just that little bit closer to the Bard, what could be better than sifting through the soil of his demolished house?

Of course, I'm not actually working on my Shakespeare book just now. I'm sweating away on my Arthur book. But Stratford's just a few minutes away. Shame it's not Arthur's grave I could get to in a few minutes. Heigh-ho ...

(PS: Hi, Shayne!! Great to see you! I'll get some blog links organised soon, I promise.)

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Round the Block

All last week, I was thinking "I'll write a blog about writer's block!"

How's that for irony - meaning to write about writer's block but just never quite managing to do it.

But I was going to. Because I don't believe in it. Or, rather, I know it happens, but I don't think of it as 'writer's block' at all. Whenever it happens to me (yep - guess what last week was like) I know it's because mentally I'm trying to take a short-cut.

When you write something, you shouldn't imagine that it's set in stone. The first draft will have garlic and sapphires in it, and the second draft should restructure it and give it a better shape, and the third draft (really) should round it off with a final polish and that little extra zing.

The first draft ought to be just a determined effort at getting everything down on paper in some form or other. We can worry about how good it is, how well it's working, later.

But so-called writer's block happens (I believe) when you're working on the first draft but you want it to be as good as the third draft.

Working in TV, there'd be the occasional nightmare when a script editor would phone, just days before deadline, and ask you to change all the locations, or alter the ages of the characters, or something equally dumb. Which meant that, in just two or three days, you had completely to rewrite the script. That's when I began to learn about writer's block. There was a dreadful panic when it came to putting any word on the page - a vertiginous sense that 'This is it' and that it had to be right, first time, every time.

Great way to panic yourself into writer's paralysis, folks.

Anyway, so, having figured that out, it's easy to know how to deal with writer's block. Just write. Write whatever. And then come back later and clean it up.


But I didn't write that last week because I'd had a couple of trips to my nearby town of Stratford, and I'd watched Shakespeare in Love, and I was wondering - why do so many actors read Shakespeare all wrong.

Take that famous balcony speech:

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

How often have you heard the first line spoken as if it read: 'O Romeo, Romeo, where are you Romeo?'

Is that what it says? No. What it says (or means) is: 'O Romeo, Romeo, why are you Romeo?'

It's all about his name. And at a time when the State was trying to impose a Protestant form of religion on a rather conservative country, a name like "Rome-o" would surely stand out as a declaration of tribal Catholicism.

So Juliet asks, "Why are you 'Romey-o'?" Why can't Romeo change his name (his surname, Montagu, was shared by one of the most Catholic families in England, and Shakespeare's then patron, the Earl of Southampton, was related to them: Southampton's mother had been born a Montagu) and therefore deny his faith?

Or, failing that, Juliet will renounce hers. The Protestants wore little woollen skull caps in church. Juliet is a Capulet.

So it should be read with something like the former Troubles in Northern Ireland in mind. This is a life-and-death situation.

But I didn't blog about that, either.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Anyone Here From Porlock?

Famously, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge woke up from a laudanum-fuelled dream with a complete poem perfectly formed in his head. He rose and instantly began writing out the inspired verse, which became known as Kubla Khan.

Coleridge had only got a few lines in when there was a knock at the door. It was an unidentified man from Porlock, a nearby village. No one knows what the man from Porlock wanted, but he kept the poet occupied for upwards of an hour. When he finally left, Coleridge had forgotten the rest of the poem.

The world is full of people from Porlock. They are the writer's nemesis. There you are, struggling to make headway. Maybe you've just built up a head of steam, struck a rich vein, and you can start to feel like you're getting somewhere, and just then ...

Knock, knock.

Or the phone rings.

Now, I'm a Piscean. Which means I'm torn. When I'm on my own I get listless and crave company. And when I'm with other people I wish I was on my own.

But, being a writer, I know that the being-on-my-own time is vital. Without it, nothing gets written. But achieving being-on-my-own time, and keeping those Porlockian interrupters at arm's length, is getting harder and harder these days.

Bardic poets used to lie in the dark with a heavy stone on their stomachs overnight. In the morning, their latest poem had to be fully formed in their heads.

So I'm off to find myself a heavy stone. Those bards knew a thing or two. One of them being, never answer the door to a Porlock type when you're trying to get something creative done. The stone, I think, is there to remind you of that. And it gives you a very handy excuse: 'Sorry, can't come to the door just now, I've got a huge stone on top of me!'

BTW: progress on the Arthur book - I've introduced Camelot (yes, it existed) and started work on Arthur's ancestry. Woke up this morning reminding myself to mention that refugees to Armorica (Brittany, or the Lesser Britain) recalled their homeland as Leon or Leonais - the legendary Lyonesse. We know it today as Lothian.

Now, where's that stone (he says, just as the phone rings)?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Can I be paid by the word, please?

As a screenwriter I never paid much attention to the word count. It was pages you'd be keeping your eye on, not words. But I've done a few calculations, and it seems that the sample chapters I'm doing for each of my books are longer, in word terms, than a full-length screenplay.

No wonder I struggle sometimes. I mean, yes, a large canvas can be great fun, but when even your sample is longer than the longest script you ever expected to write, then you're into a new realm, really, where everything is bigger and more complicated.

This has just occurred to me again, because yesterday I read a screenplay. One of my sidelines is reading and reporting on scripts for film and TV. It's quite a responsibility (when you've received a few crits yourself you begin to realise just how much damage can be done by an inept or callous editor). And the one I read yesterday was actually the rewrite of one I read and reported on a few months ago.

And here's the good news. This revised draft is pretty darn good. It works. A lot of the stuff I didn't like in the earlier draft has either gone or been subsumed more successfully into the story. The characters are credible, the scenario believeable, and what has emerged is a really good domestic thriller with some great surprises - the last few pages were especially tense, and the whole thing built in pace and pressure brilliantly. Overall, a terrific result.

Now, all this was a thrill because I read a lot of scripts but I seldom if ever get to see the rewrites. Each script gets a detailed report, but I very rarely get to find out how the writer received the good/bad/indifferent news, and what they did with it. Part of me dreads bumping into a budding writer one day and finding out that they bear a grudge (I'm a nice guy, really, and I only ever completely rubbished one script - it had it coming, by the way). So to see a revised script and to find (with immense joy and relief) that it's really cooking is great.

But, of course, that's a screenplay. Not quite as many words are there are in just my three sample chapters (let alone the full manuscript, if and when I get to write it all). It costs enough to get a detailed report on a TV or movie screenplay. To get as detailed a report on a full-length book MS must cost a bomb. Maybe two bombs.

This is one of the things that makes writing (when you're exploring a new field) such a trying passtime. How do you know whether what you're doing is any good or not? How do you judge the quality of the feedback you're getting? Where is the detailed advice you sometimes need so badly?

It's London Book Fair this week. Over the past five or six years it's been the non-fiction deals done at the LBF that have turned out to be successes. So I'm typing this with fingers crossed, which is hard work, I can tell you. But not as hard, I'd say, as writing in the dark.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Keeping the Faith

I realised, after many years as a screenwriter, that writing is essentially an act of faith.

People talk about the 'magic' of cinema. When you think about it, though, there isn't a lot of real magic involved (and, with the advent of CGI, there's arguably even less). But where there is still magic - where something is made out of nothing, or where nothingness is given shape, form and life - is at the scriptwriting stage.

Anyone who can take 120 sheets of plain white A4 and turn it into a gripping and memorable story of fascinating characters in complex situations with some heartstopping moments is without doubt a magician.

And novelists - well, they just have more paper at their disposal (and don't have to worry about too many other departments wrecking their precious baby).

Magic, of course, requires various things if it is going to work. The main thing, I would argue, is faith. I mean, what's the point of setting out to achieve some magic if you don't believe it's going to work?

Which brings me to my current slough. I have started revising my opening chapters for Commanding Youth, my brilliant historical revelation of the real Arthur, who he was, where he fought and where he is buried. It's brilliant, I tell you.

Only, I haven't really worked on CY in well over a year. Back in March 2009 it squeaked into the top five on Authonomy. Two publishers had asked to see it. One of them told me back in September that a colleague of his was reading it and he'd have a firm response for me by the following week. Then, silence, and the occasional glimpse of tumbleweed.

I've spent most of my time in between working on my equally brilliant Will's Treason, the first three chapters of which went winging their way to my agent late last week. So maybe I'm a but bleeuuugghhh because I've been working so hard on that one and I'm waiting to find out whether my agent loves it or wants to get me sectioned.

Maybe it's harder to build up the necessary faith in order to work some magic if you've had a go at this trick a few too many times already. Maybe it's easier if you're tackling something fresh. But, I'll be honest, I feel like I'm struggling with putting the new Commanding Youth together. Okay, so it's early days, but how long, I wonder, before the faith returns ... The faith that this draft will be fantastic ... The faith that somebody out there is going to go nuts over it ... The faith that, one day, it'll be out there in paperback ... ?

Hard to work magic when your faith's not quite up to the challenge, don't you find?

Friday, 9 April 2010

And ... relax

Okay, the deed is done. Yesterday afternoon I had one of my moments and pressed 'Send'.

Actually, it wasn't quite as random as that. Two months it's taken me to revise three opening chapters to Will's Treason (subtitle: 'Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot'), although the last week or so of that was mostly devoted to the 'proposal'.

What's a 'proposal', apart from something you do on bended knee? Well, it's like a sales pitch, or a business plan, for a TV treatment, or any of those things which really aren't all that important but people like to pretend they are. The worst is probably TV treatments (although I'm sure a lot of business plans ultimately caused the recent recession), because nobody reads them, they're a waste of time, they're not what we're good at and they end up crippling the writer's freedom and imagination.

And ... relax.

Anyway, after many a long dark night of the soul the three chapters, plus pitch, info, chapter outlines, tra-la-la, were done. Finished. Revised. Pored over. Checked.

So I asked people on Facebook whether I should send the 103-page project straight off to my agent. Some replied along the lines of, 'NO! God, no! By no means! Keep checking it!' Others were more like, 'YES! Send the damned thing NOW!' A few bets were hedged, i.e., 'Check it. Then send it. Or send it. Then check it. I dunno.'

I sent it. And I feel about a hundred pounds lighter. The sun is shining. A fine weekend is promised.

Only I've now got to start on the opening chapters and proposal for Commanding Youth (subtitle - I'm not sure, yet; currently it's something like 'Arthur and the Fall of Britain'. Suggestions on a postcard, please, to: So the whole process starts again. And instead of trying to live my life in 16th century England for two months, I'll be heading back to the Dark Ages.

Forgive me if I only blog occasionally, for a while, at least, or until there's some news. Only we didn't have blogs in Manau Gododdin.

(Curses - forgot to mention a fantastic meeting of the Screenwriters' Forum in Birmingham last week. Great to meet up again with Natasha, Dan, Catherine, Simon ...)

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Night Shift

I'm working nights.

People often used to ask me, when I was a younger writer, 'Do you find working at night is more creative?' And I'd think, is there a sensible answer to that question?

Writing at night isn't more creative - how can it be, unless the Moon somehow influences us? (I believe the jury's still out on that one). It's just quieter.

How often does the phone ring at night? Or someone knock at the door? How often does a member of the family come home early, or start talking to you, in the middle of the night? How many heavy vehicles suddenly discover that they can't get up the lane in the wee small hours?

You can hardly make a sound yourself. The curtains are drawn (so you can pace up and down the room without looking to the outside world like some institutionalised animal or trainee serial killer), the TV is off (or, at least, the sound's turned right down). Everyone else has buggered off to bed. It's just you, your laptop, and your demons. Oh, and buckets of coffee.

I worked nights all last week and managed to revise my sample chapters. I haven't worked this hard on a project since some scripts I did for the BBC back in the late '90s. I wrote those at night, too.

Of course, you become strangely anti-social, divorced from the day-to-day world and a little too familiar with silence. We went en famille to the CSI exhibition in Birmingham's Bull Ring shopping centre today - a Good Friday treat - and I found walking into a busy city centre shopping mall a little like entering Dante's Inferno.

But hey, I've nearly finished the revisions to the Will's Treason proposal I began almost 2 months ago - phew!!! Getting a bit stressed out by the horrors of modern consumer culture is a small price to pay, innit?

Monday, 29 March 2010

Falling Back on the Familiar

That's what I've accused Will Shakespeare of doing with The Merry Wives of Windsor.

See, I'd come across this Worcestershire tradition that our Willy spent eight months, at some point in his life, hiding out in a village called Earl's Common. Why would he be hiding out, I wondered? And when did he have had eight months spare to do his hiding?

Exploring Earl's Common and its environs, a few things struck me. One was that it was a profoundly Catholic neighbourhood back then, with one of the closest houses belonging to two of the Gunpowder Plotters (in fact, three brothers died as a result of the plot - the house is called Huddington Court, and I bigged it up a few blogs back as one of my favourite places). The other was that I kept finding echoes of The Merry Wives of Windsor in the area.

So, the theory I evolved was that Will, aged seventeen or thereabouts, had to go into hiding. He'd been associating with Jesuits, principally Edmund Campion, and when Campion was arrested, tortured and executed by the government Catholics all across the country panicked. Will had to lie low.

According to Shakespearean legend, The Merry Wives of Windsor was written in a hurry. Queen Elizabeth demanded to see 'Falstaff in love' and Will had just two weeks to come up with a show. Under that kind of pressure, what could he do but fall back on the familiar? So he recalled those eight months spent hiding from government agents and turned it into comedy (and, in the process, 'invented' the legend of Herne's Oak in Windsor Great Park).

The thing is, I'm falling back on the familiar, too. What with a host of distractions and suchlike, it's taken me ages to write my sample chapters for Will's Treason. Last week I realised that I was far from satisfied with what I'd got, so I set about rewriting the chapters, yet again, only this time with STRUCTURE.

Structure is one of the things I teach as a screenwriter. In screenwriting, structure is everything. 'Normal' writing (like fiction novels) has always scared me because where's the structure?

So now I'm trying to apply some of the rules of screenwriting structure to my historical chapters. Will it work? Who can say? But that's what we do when we're under pressure, yeah?

We fall back on the familiar.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Life in Middle Earth

Oh, this is bad ... and it's not as if I haven't had one or two things worth blogging about. But what with birthdays, colds, gigs, balls and various other distractions, let alone trying to finish my sample chapters of the Shakespeare book, I've neglected my blog.

Bad me. Bad, bad, naughty, thoughtless me.

Anyway, it's not just Shakespeare round here, you know. Yes, I know I've written about visits to Shakespearean places, but there was someone else whose trail I keep stumbling across.

Every day I went to school I passed a road in Hall Green where one J.R.R. Tolkien was said to have grown up. A bit further on was Moseley Bog (a tiny bit of nature in the midst of the city), where he was supposedly inspired.

When I moved to the wilds of Worcestershire, my wife - the Divine Kim - told me that she'd grown up in a wee village called Abberton, which the locals called 'Obbiton. A little while later I was having a chat with an entertainer in a local hostelry and he explained how he had traced the journey undertaken in The Lord of the Rings from somewhere nearby to somewhere on the Welsh border.

Seems J.R.R. Tolkien wrote more or less from memory, inspired by places he knew - the Hobbits came from 'Hobbiton', of course. And it was all around here. Looks like I live in The Shire.

At the weekend, I took Divine Kim out on a special birthday treat. She wasn't allowed to know where. We drove to the Forest of Dean (very strange place - lovely, but weird) and stopped at Puzzlewood, where we had a picnic, talked to some animals ... and then entered the wood.

The Romans did a bit of mining there, a couple of thousands of years ago. Thereafter, nature slowly reclaimed the workings. Now, as you walk through this wood, following curious little paths through mini gorges of mossy stone, you feel as though you're walking through the long-forgotten ruins of an ancient civilisation. Or you're in Jurassic Park. Or a fairy/elf/witch/dragon is about to appear.

It's difficult to describe the magical, enchanting effect of Puzzlewood. I'd been there once before, one week day, on my own, and I was a little disconcerted at the weekend to find that there were other people in the wood (but never mind, they were all very friendly and polite, and we rarely saw them). Kim and I took loads of photos (they're up on Facebook) and she loved it - I think it cured her lingering cold.

But - guess what. J.R.R. Tolkien used to spend quite a bit of time wandering round Puzzlewood. They say it inspired him ...

I've never seen the Lord of the Rings movies. In some ways, I feel I don't need to. I mean - they were shot in New Zealand, on the other side of the world. Whereas I grew up in, live in and occasionally get to visit Middle Earth.

Friday, 12 March 2010

What I'm Looking Forward To

We've got our main holiday booked for this summer - a week at Calgary Bay on the Isle of Mull.

Usually, we'd head straight for the Isle of Iona, where Kim and I got married in 2002, but this year it'll be the neighbouring island we'll mostly be exploring - if, that is, we can tear ourselves away from Calgary beach.

But one place that's top of my agenda to visit is the island of Ulva, just off the coast of Mull. It was once the family territory of the Clan MacQuarrie or 'Sons of Guaire'.

Guaire (meaning 'hair') is a name to conjure with if, like me, you're fascinated by the historical Arthur and his brethren. Arthur's nephew Gawain (originally, Gwalchmai) was supposedly the son of 'Gwyar', a version of Guaire rendered phonetically into Welsh.

Guaire himself appears in the seventh-century 'Life of St Columba' as the 'strongest layman' in Argyll in his time and a man who died in a rather curious way, reminiscent of the Celtic triple-death sacrifice. In the 'Life of St Columba' he was referred to as 'Guaire son of Aedan', making him brother to Arthur (Artuir mac Aedain) and Muirgein.

Finally, in Taliesin's funerary poem for Arthur, Preiddeu Annwn ('The Treasures of the Cauldron'), Guaire is the only person to go into the grave before Arthur. Go back a few blogposts and you'll see this grave.

So, Guaire was fairly important, in the Arthurian scheme of things. I suspect that his real name, as it were, was Owain, and that he was the prince of North Rheged (Cumbria), as well as being Arthur's nephew (the son of his half-sister Muirgein) and an adoptive son of King Aedan. St Columba tried to convert him to Christianity, which may explain the need for his sacrifice after Arthur's last battle - because Owain had betrayed the faith and, directly or indirectly, caused the death of Arthur.

The island of Ulva was seemingly colonised by Owain/Guaire's descendants - Gwalchmai or Gawain included - after their true spiritual home was denied them by Columba's monks. They were the Sons of Guaire, forerunners of the Clan MacQuarrie.

I can't wait to set foot on the island of Gawain.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Decisions, Decisions

Okay, no blog post for a week or two (had a birthday to deal with, amongst other things). And now, I'm torn ...

Do I blog about some of the fantastic Shakespearean places I've visited with the Divine Kim over the last couple of weekends?

Or do I write something about some workshops I've done for SCRIPT, a terrific agency based in the West Midlands dedicated to helping writers in film, TV, radio, etc.?

Oh, decisions, decisions ...

Places then (workshops sometime soon). My birthday - 28 Feb. The Divine K said, 'Where do you want to go?' We'd had a busy weekend anyway, with a surprise birthday party for somebody else, then a day-long workshop and a family event, so I thought we'd keep it simple. Visit Huddington, then head over to some friends of ours in Throckmorton.

Huddington Court is surely one of the loveliest houses in England. It's a half-timbered manor house with a separate private chapel, a moat, beautifully landscaped gardens (not huge, but just lovely) and a footpath which leads through a copse, past the lake which feeds the moat and alongside the moat beside the house to the summer house at the end of the garden. When I grow up, I want to live there.

Queen Elizabeth visited Huddington in 1584. I suspect that a young Will Shakespeare might have visited two or three years earlier. But the house's real claim to fame is that it is where three brothers involved in the Gunpowder Plot lived, and where the plotters spent their last night as they tried desperately to escape.

The quiet beauty of the place prompts reflection. You see, having studied Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot for years now, I find I don't really believe in the Gunpowder Plot. That is to say, I'm not quite sure what really happened, but I'm damn sure it wasn't what the government made it out to be. Rather, it was a fake plot, at least in part, engineered and/or manipulated by the government with one purpose in mind - to destroy Catholicism in England.

At Huddington, you get a glimpse of Shakespeare's world - and a sense of something under threat, hated or coveted by powerful 'new men' enough for them to murder, massacre and malign as many as they needed to in order to possess or destroy.

At Bordesley Abbey, that feeling became stronger. We went there yesterday (Sunday), after dropping our daughter's boyfriend off in Bromsgrove.

Bordesley Abbey is no more than a few ruined remains. Once, it was a grand church and monastic complex, but all that was destroyed in the 1530s. Such beauty, such magnificence ... and such utility, such a settlement created to provide food, alms, shelter, knowledge and support. Destroyed.

Shakespeare must have despised the people who ordered the desecration of such places. He may even have had family connections with Bordesley Abbey (a Roger Shakespeare, buried in 1558, was thought to have been 'the old monk of Bordesley'). And a legend attached to Bordesley concerning the folklore figure of Herne the Hunter was transplanted by Shakespeare to Windsor Great Park in his 'Merry Wives of Windsor' in 1597. Herne (or Horne) was also the name of the priest-hunter who had terrorised a local Catholic chaplain, the last abbot of Westminster. So maybe Shakespeare was trying to make a point. But, if so, English thickos chose only to think that Herne the Hunter was something to do with Windsor, and not that Herne was the Reformation in action.

From Bordesley, it's a mile as the crow flies to one of the prettiest churches I've ever been to. Beoley seems to be a prosperous little village close to the Worcestershire/Warwickshire border. That affluence is reflected in St Leonard's Church - beautifully preserved - and its surprisingly popular churchyard. Didn't get to look inside the church (there was a service of baptism taking place), but checked out the exterior masonry.

According to the vicar of Beoley in the 1880s, Shakespeare's skull was hidden in the private vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel in St Leonard's Church. There was supposedly a way into the vault from the outside through a broken ventilation grille, back in 1799. I think I could see where it would have been.

Huddington, Bordesley, Beoley - these are all local places, seldom if ever mentioned in biographies of the Bard. And yet they all have something to tell us about him - even if the story of his skull is a bit weird (although I've researched a great deal of the Rev. Charles Jones Langston's tale, 'How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found', and discovered that much of it is verifiable).

And continually, there is that question of the state of England, with a vicious, sly government of men on the make and two monarchs whose personal preference for Protestant beliefs meant that the country as a whole had to agree or face dreadful penalties. The abbey at Bordesley was razed to the ground, the land sold. Huddington was privy to secrets concerning the Gunpowder Plot - whatever that was. And Beoley ... why should Shakespeare's skull have ended up in the private vault of a defiantly Catholic family - the Sheldons - with whom he shared various links?

I'm lucky to be able to wander round these beautiful places, but they do make me wonder why there is seldom if ever any mention of Catholicism or the Reformation in discussions of Shakespeare. Explore his world, and you can't escape those issues. So why do the so-called experts keep ignoring, overlooking or sidelining the matter? (and yes, Germaine Greer - that includes you!)

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Shakespeare Land

On Valentine's Day I was given the choice of where to go for a bit of fresh air. We're not short of choice round here, but I plumped for Stratford-upon-Avon.

Stratford's got some great shops. And some nice places for tea/coffee/beer. Or you can just wander round soaking up that Shakespearean vibe; maybe even visit his grave, walk past his old house (demolished in 1759) or see where he was probably born.

Stratford's just 15 minutes away from us. I've been going there since I was literally a baby. And my wife was born there. She still has relatives in the town. My brother, meanwhile, ran an art gallery in the centre of Stratford for a year or two. So, in many ways, the place feels like home.

Well, the Valentine's Day trip was a success - a couple of good books, for instance - and a night or two later I was treated to an early birthday meal when the Divine Kim (my wife) took me to The Garrick Inn, which has been serving food and drink since before Shakespeare bought his house just up the road from there. The Garrick is next door to Harvard House - the facades of both are wooden and wobbly and knobbly. And, I have to say, my meal was fantastic.

I can forget how lucky I am living so close to Shakespeare's town. I know it so well - although sometimes I wonder which century I know best: Stratford in the sixteenth, seventeenth, twentieth or twenty-first centuries? (as for the last of all those, just don't mention the redevelopment of the Bancroft Gardens - most unpopular!)

But where we live is in the midst of a much wider Shakespeare territory. Some of my favourite spots are in the areas where the Shakespeare family originated, and which later turned out to be hotbeds of religious and political resistance to those two awful monarchs, Elizabeth and James. And, in the opposite direction from Stratford is the ancient city of Worcester.

Kim and I visited Worcester County Records Office last Friday to track down a will. It's an important document, because it reveals the existence of a woman whom historians have argued for many years simply did not exist. Shakespeare's 'first' wife.

So that's one thing I can be thankful for. Writing a book (or two) about Shakespeare, I couldn't be in a much more favourable position. I can almost see the panicked gunpowder plotters riding by.

Monday, 15 February 2010


A year ago, my old computer got a Trojan or Spybot or whatever you call the things. The timing was a nightmare. My first book, Commanding Youth (the one about Arthur), was in the top ten on Authonomy. If I failed to get it into the top five for February, i.e. because my computer wasn't working, I'd have to spend another month reading, flirting, plugging, begging and going Authonomad.

But then, two publishers had already asked to see the proposal for Commanding Youth, so being in the Authonomy top five (which guarantees you an editor's critique from HarperCollins) seemed slightly irrelevant. I made it into the top five at the beginning of March ... and then took my book off Authonomy. The nice part of me said it was to give another writer a chance. The nasty part said, I can't bear to spend another minute on Authonomy.

So what's Authonomy? It's a website. HarperCollins publishers couldn't really be bothered to wade through their 'slush-pile' of unsolicited manuscripts so they created Authonomy. Writers upload some of their unpublished book(s) on Authonomy. Other writers read a bit, or a lot, and give them feedback. You can support a book by pretending to pop it up on your virtual bookshelf. Add some complicated algorithms, some rather large egos, plenty of gamesmanship and some 6,000 authors from all corners of the globe, and that's about it: Authonomy (

Now, Authonomy was great for me. A lot of the feedback you get is neither here nor there (some people just want you to read and back theirs), but a great deal was extremely useful. Editors cost money, but on Authonomy you could rack up a couple of hundred comments, some of them detailed, and figure out what you needed to do with your manuscript next. There was help, advice and sympathy online at any time.

I completely rewrote my opening chapters for Commanding Youth while I was on there, and put the first three chapters of Will's Treason (my Shakespeare project) up there last summer - the latter to find out if what I'd written was working. It was, and that gave me the confidence to go back to publishers and to get a new agent.

But that's the thing - I think I've outgrown Authonomy, now. I'm still doing rewrites, but I can't see myself uploading those onto the site because of the sheer amount of time, energy and commitment required to make sure that enough people read it so that I'll know what its strengths and weaknesses are.

And there are just far, far too many books on Authonomy. Too many people scrabbling to reach that coveted Ed's Desk (the monthly top five). Authonomy's been going for a year and a half now, or thereabouts. HarperCollins have just announced the publication of the fourth book to be picked up from Authonomy.

There are some FABULOUS writers on Authonomy, and some EXCELLENT books. I seldom read fiction because I tend to hate it. 99.99% of Authonomy is fiction, much of it YA ('Young Adult') sci-fi/fantasy and chick-lit, none of which I would usually go anywhere near. But I read loads and loads of great stuff on the site.

None of the four books acquired by HC publishers (so far) made it into the site's top five, which suggests that, unless a so-so critique from a HarperCollins editor is your main goal in life, you should forget trying to get to the top of the rankings. I saw too many weirdos preening themselves on Authonomy, and the risk with a popularity contest is that the best books will not make the Ed's Desk (almost inevitable, considering that getting into the top five is a full-time job in its own right).

Authonomy gives a writer something to do with his or her manuscript. The feedback will have much to tell the writer about their title, pitch and chapters. If the writer is prepared to listen, do some revision, listen again, edit, try again, and so on, and so on, their manuscript is likely to get better. If they're not prepared to listen, then they're not a real writer.

Thanks to Authonomy, I got my two projects up to a reasonably good standard. The problem I now have is that I have to go beyond that. And I'm not sure that Authonomy will be much help any more.

Basically, you can write, or you can be on Authonomy. It's a rare bird that can do both.

Monday, 8 February 2010


I had a meeting with my new agent last Thursday.

We'll not dwell here on how I came to be stopped by the police in London, and we'll pause only briefly to note that I missed bumping into Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon by something less than twenty-four hours.

The meeting went well. A great chat. Most encouraging.

But some of the time, at least, was spent weighing up the relative values of historical fiction and non-fiction.

See, historical fiction is going great guns at the moment, apparently. While a certain chain of bookstores seems to have decided that homo sapiens is incapable of reading - or, at least, buying - 'serious' books (to that bookstore I can only say: 'Don't make the same mistake as television! We're not all sheep!')

Now, with both of my major projects I have, at times, considered whether fiction might not be the way forward. But then I've stopped considering and carried on trying to tell the story of what (I believe) actually happened.

Had I been writing them as fiction, I would have wanted to present descriptions of people when no genuine descriptions or portraits of them exist. I would have wanted to describe the meals they ate, what they wore, what the weather was like ...

In short, I'd have made stuff up. And once you start doing that, you might as well make up the whole thing.

But then, I'm biased. I rarely read fiction. Too often, I've picked up a novel, read the first page, and then given up - which is why Authonomy was such a shock to my system (more of that anon). I find non-fiction infinitely more comforting. Reality, to me, has always been more interesting than, well, somebody else's imaginary world.

I put it down to my Welsh blood. We're a race of preachers and teachers (and poets and perverts), and we believe passionately in learning. I began researching my main subjects - the historical Arthur and the life and times of Will Shakespeare - because I wanted to know who these people were. And I've found out some fascinating things about them.

Would I really want to bury all that in a work that somebody could easily dismiss as 'just fiction'? I don't want the Dan Brown get-out clause: I'd rather have written 'The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail' (although I think the authors of the latter got it wrong).

So, for me, the real issue is: can non-fiction be as gripping, as engrossing, and as entertaining as fiction? Not just for an autodidact like me, but for your average reader?

Can we not prove that 'truth is always strange - stranger than any fiction'?

Still, the good news is that my long chat with my agent dispelled any nagging worries about e-books, self-publishing and all the current malarkey that so concerns the writer of today.

Got some more work to do on the projects. That should keep my mind off things for a while.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Caer Sidi - Arthur's Grave

This mound lies on the west side of an island off the coast of Britain. Somewhat disregarded now, it was at once one of the most sacred sites in Europe - perhaps even the world.
It shows up on the map as Sithean Mor - the Great Spirit-Mound - or Cnoc nam Aingeal, the 'Hill of the Angels'. The latter is a Christian designation and is slightly inaccurate. Properly, Cnoc nam Aingeal would translate as Hill of the Angel (singular) or Hill of the Light or Fire.
The historian E. Mairi MacArthur noted of the mound that, 'on the great quarterly festival of May Day, Latha Bealltuinn, fires were said to be kindled on its summit and the cattle driven through in an act of purification.' This was typical Beltane behaviour, and would suggest that long before the mound acquired a Christianised designation it was the scene of pagan rituals. On the eve of St Michael's feast day, the islanders ran their horses thrice round the mound in a sunwise direction.
In the 1770s, an Irish bishop informed a Welsh traveller that a cairn surmounted the grassy knoll, surrounded by a circle of stones. Local tradition also recorded that there were twelve of these stones, forming a Druidic temple, and that a human body was buried beneath each of the stones. The stones, however, have long since vanished.
The island on which the mound stands was long ago associated with the yew - a tree held sacred because of its great longevity (even today, most churchyards in Britain feature a yew or two). An early name for the Great Spirit-Mound would seem to have been the Cairn of Yews (Carnyw) or possibly the Corner or Retreat of Yews (Cernyw). And herein lies the solution to one of the mysteries surrounding the most famous inhabitant of the Great Spirit-Mound - Arthur.
Since the twelfth century it has been commonplace for writers to place Arthur, the fabled Once and Future King, in Cornwall, in the extreme south west of Britain. The identification of Cornwall as Arthur's legendary stamping-ground rests entirely on a mistranslation of the word Cernyw.
In Welsh, Cornwall is Cernow, so writers from Geoffrey of Monmouth happily translated 'Corner of Yews' as Cornwall. As a result, for hundreds of years scholars have been looking for Arthur at the wrong end of Britain.
A medieval list of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain (almost certainly grave goods) includes Llen Arthyr yng Nghernyw, to which the note was added:
'The mantle of Arthur in Cornwall; whoever wore it was invisible, though he could see everybody.'
Again, though, Cernyw did not mean Cornwall. This particular 'invisibility cloak' was worn by Arthur at the Cairn of Yews.
The sixth-century bard Taliesin would appear to have been present when Arthur was buried in the Great Spirit-Mound. He referred to it by a series of names, but most prominent of these was Caer Sidi or 'Fortress of the Sidhe'. The Sidhe were those ancestral spirits who eventually evolved into the fairies of Irish and Scottish lore. Hence, the name of the mound: Sithean Mor (pronounced: shee-un more), the Big Mound of the Sidhe.
Certain people claim to have heard 'sweet music' emanating from the mound - and no wonder, for, as Lady Gregory observed in Gods and Fighting Men, 'a house of peace is the hill of the Sidhe of Emhain'. There were two Emhains - one, Emhain Macha, was the seat of the kings of Ulster; the other, Emhain Abhlach, was the 'Yew-Plain of Apples', later to be known as Avalon.
The Christian story of the mound concerns that Irish saint, Columcille or Columba. Towards the end of his long life - i.e., at about the same time as the historical Arthur fell in battle in Perthshire - Columba told his monks one morning that he was crossing to the far side of the island and none of them was to follow him.
One monk disobeyed and spied on Columba from a nearby hill. As described by Columba's hagiographer, Adomnan, a hundred or so years later, the rogue monk witnessed a 'marvellous apparition':
For holy angels, the citizens of the heavenly kingdom, were flying down with amazing speed, dressed in white robes, and began to gather around the holy man as he prayed. After they had conversed a little with St Columba, the heavenly crowd - as though they could feel that they were being spied on - quickly returned to the heights of heaven.
This was not the saint's only encounter with angels who behaved in a rather unangelic way, but the legend sufficed to account for the mound's change of name, from Great Spirit-Mound or Hill of the [Beltane] Fires to the Angels' Knoll.
An entirely separate account has the monks present when Columba held a 'colloquy' with a 'youth at Carn Eolairg', at the end of which the gnomic youth mysteriously vanished (rather as if he was wearing Arthur's cloak of invisibility). Carn Eolairg woud signify a cairn on a plain of yews - much the same as Carnyw or Cernyw.
St Columba died in 597, so the date of his strange meeting with angels 'dressed in white robes' on the Great Spirit-Mound can be pinpointed with some confidence to around 595, the year in which Arthur died. Mortally wounded, Arthur was carried from the far-off battlefield and transported to the Yewy Isle for treatment at the hands of his half-sister, Muirgein, who led a sisterhood of priestesses. In all likelihood, Arthur died en route, and his body was buried in the hills of Brolass in the Isle of Mull, beside Sidhean Allt Mhic-Artair - the Spirit Stream of the Sons of Arthur. It was his head, the Celtic seat of the soul, which was carried on for burial on the sacred isle.
And so, to visit the grave of Arthur, one has only to go to the very end of the road, on the western side of the Isle of Apples, and stand by the Great Spirit-Mound, where for centuries the Beltane fires were lit and a Druidic temple was formed by a circle of stones.
Why this place was named after Afallach, the apple-god, will be explained in another post.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010


This is a new beginning (well - it is the festival of Imbolc, after all).

I used to write drama scripts for television, but I'm better now (or TV's worse). In the summer of 2006 I went to my favourite thinking place to figure out what I wanted to do next.

The decision? To write those books.

You see, a few years before I had stumbled across some very interesting information about Arthur - the real 'King Arthur', who he was and when and where he lived. I'd been digging and digging inbetween times, and now I felt it was time to put the book together.

And then there was Shakespeare. I'd spent twenty-odd years working on him (growing up near Stratford-upon-Avon helped). As a result, I'd got stuff you don't find in most biographies.

So there it was: the Arthur book, the Shakespeare book - and after that, who knows?

Which brings me to the start of 2010. There's been a lot going on. And that's what this blog will be about:

- the journey of my precious books towards publication (and beyond?)
- the difficulties of breaking into publishing (or even self-publishing)
- things I've discovered (including sneak previews and new information)
- general chat, etc.

There's bound to be some stuff about myself (although I'm a shy, retiring sort of person, really) and things I've been reading/watching/hearing/thinking about.

But mostly it'll be about an experienced writer working in a new field (or newish, for him), researching fascinating and much-misunderstood subjects, bringing new material to light and hoping to break into the bestseller lists.

Your feedback will always be welcome.