Sunday, 30 December 2012

Favourite Books of 2012: Prehistory, Myth and Fiction.

I have been engaged in debates during the course of this year, as to whether “historical fiction” can exist where there is no history. Writers such as Hilary Mantel and Cathie Dunn clearly draw extensively on the historical record to inform their fiction, but if one is writing, as I do in Undreamed Shores, about a period before written history, does it still count as “historical fiction”? It’s a semantic question, of course, but semantics matter to a writer.

Given my long-standing interest in this theme, it probably comes as no surprise that my final selection falls on two books that seek to push the boundaries of “historical fiction” back in time. Nancy Jardine’s The Beltane Choice (Crooked Cat 2012) is set in northern Britain in the 1st Century AD, J.P. Reedman’s Stone Lord (Mirador 2012) in southern and western Britain in the 2nd Millennium BC. Strictly speaking, Jardine does have some history to inform her work, notably Tacitus’s Agricola. Given, however, that Tacitus almost certainly never visited Britain; that he relied for information mainly on his father-in-law, whose biography he was engaged in writing; and that Jardine, in any case, like Dunn, is concerned with the lives of ordinary people caught up in the sweep of history (the sort of people unlikely to have come to the attention of the historian or his military father-in-law), the historical record provides only minimal assistance.

Archaeology and mythology provide far richer seams for these writers to mine. Both draw extensively on archaeological evidence, and both also make extensive use of myth, recognising the possibility that myths written down in one age may embody (in Reedman’s words), “older substrata,” a sort of literary equivalent to the physical marks in the landscape of which MacFarlane writes so eloquently.

Nettle-sharp tears of frustration reduced Nara’s vision,” writes Jardine, “as she…ploughed her way through pitted undergrowth. Wrenching aside jagged gorse bushes…the thorns scraped blood-red lines on her arms…A glance over her shoulder caught the beast smashing on behind, scattering leaves…its trotters pounding the earth…

Pursued by a wild boar - her prey, which has become her pursuer, Nara takes refuge in a tree, calling out to two deities, the goddess Rhianna and the horned god, Cernunnos. Gods and spirits haunt the pages of these novels, but this is not fantasy in the vein of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis: the reader is not called upon to believe in their reality on an objective plane, only to understand their reality in the minds of the characters.

Depiction, believed to be of Cernunnos, on an Iron Age cauldron found at Gundestrup, Denmark.

In similar spirit, Reedman writes of her character, Keine: “She had drifted away from the Mid-winter fire-feast to enter the woods, the taboo area of the Old Hunters…she returned, dazed and raving, telling tales of bears with the voices of men, and crows that stood as tall as young saplings. They had danced with her in the forest…She fled at night’s end, fearful of what she had done, of the dread being she had lain with in the shuddering forest, but it was too late. The horned chief…had left her with a gift – or curse – from that solitary coupling. The seed of his unnatural loins blossomed like a dark flower in her belly…”

“The horned chief,” dubbed Min’Kammus by Reedman, is Cernunnos in another guise, but in her reference to “The Old Hunters,” Reedman traces a conceptual thread back to the Mesolithic world of the hunters in whose footsteps Robert MacFarlane walked out from the familiarity of Essex into the now-drowned world of “Doggerland.” There is, perhaps, some archaeological basis for this, albeit tenuous. At Star Carr in Yorkshire, fragments of deer-skull have been found, dating back ten thousand years, modified so as to allow them to be worn as head-dresses.

Mesolithic head-dress found at Star Carr, Yorkshire, now in the British Museum.

This is not to say that the Iron Age “Cernunnos” would have been understood by Nara in the same terms that Keine understands Min’Kammus, or that either concept would have been the same as that of the Mesolithic hunters, only to suggest that people of all ages responded to the landscape around them, with each generation drawing on its own past (the gap in time that separates Nara from Keine being no greater than that which separates Nara’s world (a world peopled also by figures as familiar to us as Claudius Caesar and Saint Paul) from our own.

This is, of course, fiction. No academic writer would go nearly so far as Reedman or Jardine go in attempting to resurrect the belief systems of prehistoric societies, let alone the lived emotional responses to those beliefs that are depicted here, but that is what fiction, and perhaps only fiction, can do. 

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Favourite Books of 2012: Historical Non-Fiction

For my second selection, I have chosen two works of non-fiction. As a historical writer, I naturally draw on both fiction and non-fiction as inspiration for my own work. One of my main concerns in writing Undreamed Shores was the depiction of a landscape which is likely to be both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. It is the landscape of Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire, but in 2400 BC, before those transformations (including the building of the Roman roads and the Norman churches & castles; the Agrarian and the Industrial Revolutions) that made it the landscape we know today.

One of the books that first fired my interest in the English landscape was Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land, initially published in 1951, but re-released this year as part of the Collins Nature Library. I must have read it for the first time when I was in my early teens and, having grown up on the granite of Jersey, the chalk of Kent, and the “Old Red Sandstone” of Devon were largely unfamiliar to me. Later, as a student at Cambridge, I had the privilege of meeting Jacquetta Hawkes – she had quite a forbidding reputation, but I saw nothing to justify this – she shared generously of her knowledge and experience.

Hawkes, an archaeologist, set out to use “…the findings of the two sciences of geology and archaeology for purposes altogether unscientific,” to evoke an image of the land of Britain “…in which past and present, nature, man and art appear all in one piece.” Two themes dominate her book: the geological creation of the land itself over millions of years; and the growth, over thousands of years, of a human consciousness of it. Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson (both friends of Hawkes) contributed drawings to illustrate it. The image of the land that she evokes is built upwards and outwards from the rocks themselves.

The rocks, of course, were raw materials with which Henry Moore was intimate, and she writes of a personal epiphany in his studio, when she saw one of his unfinished reclining figures, with the shaft of a belemnite fossil exposed in the thigh, and had an overwhelming vision of the “unity” of past and present, of mind and matter, of man and man’s origins. Although trained as a scientist, she writes with a poet’s sensitivity. As Robert MacFarlane notes in his introduction to the new edition, a contemporary review compared her style to that of Donne’s sermons, having “…something of their imaginative range…their passion of exploration, their visionary sense of integration.

If it is good to see an old favourite given new life, it is better still to see some of its themes taken to a wholly new level in a new and original work. Such is Robert MacFarlane’s own book, The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton). The human consciousness of the landscape is very much to the fore here, as is the unity of past and present.  

MacFarlane himself identifies the poet and essayist, Edward Thomas, as “…the guiding spirit of this book,” but the influence of John Clare and Bruce Chatwin is also evident and, where Hawkes references Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, MacFarlane draws on Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Richard Long. Fundamentally, he is concerned with the traces that successive generations make on a landscape and the ways in which those traces contribute to the interpenetration of past and present:

                                                       Eric Ravilious, Chalk Paths

The snow was densely printed with the tracks of birds and animals – archives of the hundreds of journeys made since the snow had stopped…To all these marks I added my own…The snow was overwhelmingly legible. Each print-trail seemed like a plot that could be read backwards in time…

In researching the book, MacFarlane undertook a series of walks, following in the footsteps of a Mesolithic family (literally – their footprints are preserved in peat) in the intertidal zone of Essex and (figuratively) the Medieval pilgrims on the route to Compostela; following the Icknield Way across the chalk-lands of southern England; tracing the coffin-paths and drove-roads of Scotland; even accompanying a Palestinian colleague on a sarha (saunter) around Ramallah. The book is subtitled “A Journey on Foot,” but it includes also a number of journeys by sea around the western coast of Scotland.

Mesolithic footprints preserved in peat. Photo Derek Upton/Severn Estuary Levels Committee

This combination made immediate sense to me In Undreamed Shores, I write about a world (southern England and northern France in c2400 BC) in which all journeys were made either on foot or by boat. My research included a walk from Christchurch to Stonehenge (five days of walking, fifty pages of notes, only ten pages in the book, but I could not have written it without the research), and drew also on many years of experience of sailing and open water swimming in my youth.

MacFarlane’s rapturous descriptions of fragments of the landscape make this an unforgettable read but, precisely because they are only fragments of landscapes which no two people will ever experience in the same way, they inspire us to get out and explore for ourselves:

Sand mimicked water, water mimicked sand, and the air duplicated the textures of both. Hinged cuckoo calls; razor shells and cockle shells; our own reflections; a profusion of suns; the glide of transparent over solid.


Friday, 28 December 2012

Favourite Books of 2012: Historical Fiction

As 2012 draws to a close, I thought I would share some of the year’s books that have given me the most pleasure during the course of the year. It is a very personal selection (for which I make no apology, since it would otherwise duplicate the various lists widely available elsewhere), and reflects my particular interests. I have quite deliberately included both fiction and non-fiction, and works which might be considered (by those who believe in a clear distinction, which I’m not sure I do) “literary” and “commercial.”

On the British literary scene, and certainly in historical fiction, the book of the year was surely Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies (Harper Collins, May 2012), winning her a second Booker Prize as well as taking her onto the shortlist for the Costa Book Awards. It was a book I had been looking forward to reading, and it certainly did not disappoint. Another book I greatly enjoyed was Cathie Dunn’s Dark Deceit (Crooked Cat, July 2012). Between them, these two very different books set out what historical fiction can achieve.

Like Robert Graves’s Claudius novels and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Mantel takes us into the beating heart of the political establishment at a time of great political and social upheaval (Henry VIII’s “Great Matter,” the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the rise and fall from grace of Anne Boleyn), but gives us a window onto these events from an unconventional viewpoint, that of Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Other writers (Robert Bolt, Philippa Gregory, Jean Plaidy) have given us different perspectives on the same events, but Mantel is the first to take Cromwell’s point of view seriously, to “resurrect” him as a three dimensional character and explore this world through his eyes.

Dunn writes more in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities or Andrew Miller’s Pure, focussing on characters caught up in the great sweep of history (in Dunn’s case the 12th Century civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda), but at some distance from the “great” names that we know from the history books. It hardly matters whether such characters are fictional or historical since, in the latter case, we generally know very little about their lives. In Dunn’s book, we see the England and Normandy of “The Anarchy” through the eyes of members of the minor nobility, some of whom are “historical” (in the sense that their names and properties are known) and others fictional.

The undercroft of the stronghold of Mortagne de Perches, Orne, a site associated with one of Dunn's characters.
Loyalty and trust are key themes in both books. They are in short supply both at the court of Henry VIII (“Wolf Hall,” which Mantel took as the title for the first of her Cromwell novels, is the historical Wiltshire seat of the Seymour family, but is used by Mantel as a metaphor for Henry’s court more generally) and in the ungovernable lands of Normandy and England amid the shifting alliances of the mid-12th Century.

One of the threads running through Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is Cromwell’s loyalty to the person and memory of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, a man of similarly humble origins who rose to greatness, like Cromwell himself, on the basis of his own talents. After Wolsey’s death in Wolf Hall, Cromwell sees echoes of his presence whenever he sees the colour red:

                                                          Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

The Cardinal’s scarlet clothes…cannot be wasted. They will be cut up and become other garments…Your eye will be taken by a crimson cushion or a patch of red on a banner…You will see a glimpse of them in a man’s inner sleeve or in the flash of a whore’s petticoat…

In Dark Deceit, the heiress, Alleyne de Bellac, is caught between two men, not knowing which (if either) to trust, and whether their apparent concern for her is genuine or motivated by mercenary considerations. The fear of violence is never far from her mind, and can be foregrounded by the most innocent of circumstances:

With unsteady hands, she picked up a clay jug brimming with rich, red wine and poured a generous measure into a goblet. When a drop splashed on the snow-white sheet she jumped backwards…A stain spread out over the white linen like blood. A vision of Father…came to her unbidden…

In both cases, it is the distinctiveness of the viewpoint that takes us into territory that the historian can rarely penetrate.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Winter Solstice - a pre-Christian Epiphany

Western Christians celebrate the feast of the Epiphany on 6th January, commemorating the presentation of the infant Christ to the Magi, as outlined in the Gospel of St Matthew. In Matthew’s account, this is the first time that the child is seen by anyone apart from Mary & Joseph (the story of the shepherds is in the Gospel of St Luke – Mark and John say nothing directly about the Nativity).

The Greek word ἐπιφάνεια refers to the direct physical manifestation of a deity on Earth. Anthropologists often use the word “epiphany” to refer to a religious ceremony in which a deity symbolically becomes present, often through the medium of a priest or similar specialist.

There is evidence, however, that the pre-Christian peoples of Europe, for whom the sun itself was a deity, aligned their religious sites in such a way as to create their own “epiphanies” on particular days of the year without any need for the deity to be represented or impersonated by a human being. The Summer and Winter Solstices, together with the Autumn and Spring Equinoxes, may not have been the only such days, but they were probably the most significant, and are certainly the easiest to demonstrate.  

The passage grave of Newgrange in Ireland, built around five thousand years ago, is oriented so as to receive the rays of the rising sun on the morning of the Winter Solstice. I was privileged to witness this some years ago. We crouched in the chamber and waited for the sun to pass through a specially designed box above the entrance, illuminate the entire chamber briefly, and then gradually recede down the passage.

                                         Sunrise at Newgrange (Cyril Byrne, Irish Times).

The contemporary monument of Maes Howe in Orkney is oriented to receive the last rays of the setting sun at the Winter Solstice. I was there 29 years ago, but was not so lucky as I was at Newgrange: clouds got in the way.

                                                Sunset at Maes Howe (Charles Tait).

Rather fewer people get to see the Midwinter Sunset at Stonehenge. The main axis of the monument centres on the Midsummer sunrise and the Midwinter sunset. For the past few years, English Heritage have opened it for the Midwinter sunrise, which slightly misses the point. Both the summer and winter ceremonies are featured in my novel, Undreamed Shores. It is difficult to imagine just what the experience would have felt like and signified to a man or woman four or five thousand years ago, witnessing it for the first time. You enter a narrow passage in the pitch dark at the behest of a priest, shaman or elder, who tells you that the god will appear to you personally, and it then happens! What would one feel? Fear? Awe? Amazement?

Unless you have won the lottery (literally – there now is a lottery for admission), you won’t be able to greet the sunrise at Newgrange tomorrow morning. You can, however, follow it on a live webcam from around 0730 GMT at I am not sure of the current arrangements at Maes Howe – when I went, one had only to turn up – but again, there is a live webcam from around 1530 GMT at

If you miss these, or if the weather fails to oblige, you will find prior recordings at:


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be pucrhased from Amazon

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Year's Midnight

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,

Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;

The sun is spent, and now his flasks

Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;

The world's whole sap is sunk;

The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,

Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,

Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,

Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.”

John Donne, “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day.”

Donne’s poem is dated 13th December, 1627. The 13th December was then, and still is, Saint Lucy’s day; but it no longer marks, as it did in 1627, the Winter Solstice. Donne lived his life according to the Julian Calendar, whilst we (post-1752) live ours according to the Gregorian (a fact to be borne in mind by those of us who write historical fiction and care about whether a particular date in a certain year fell on a Sunday or a Tuesday, or whether the moon would have been full on the night our characters set sail from a certain port). The Winter Solstice now falls on 21st December (same day in solar terms, different position in our human calendar). Donne’s “Nocturnal” is, on the one hand, a lamentation on the human experience of bereavement and, on the other, a meditation on the transience of life and its concerns. Donne draws an explicit link between the low point of the solar year (the Winter Solstice) and the low point in the life of an individual (the death of the person he most loves).

 The Braque Family Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden, Musee du Louvre, Paris.

In making this connection, Donne is drawing on a much older theme, a link between death and the Winter Solstice. That the Winter Solstice was marked in prehistory has long been understood. The principle axis of Stonehenge, for example, is solsticial, with key alignments based on sunrise at the Summer Solstice and sunset at the Winter Solstice. A team of archaeologists led by Professor Mike Parker-Pearson have recently argued that the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge may have been more significant than the Summer Solstice, linked to their understanding of the site as a funerary monument. The winter sunset would be viewed from the Avenue, almost certainly the ceremonial approach to the monument, whereas the summer sunrise would have to be viewed from the other side of the monument, or from within it.

                                                      Stonehenge in Winter.

In my novel, Undreamed Shores, I depict both a winter and a summer ceremony at Stonehenge. I have more people from a wider area participating in the summer ceremony (in a society without permanent bridges, it would be difficult to travel around a landscape in which the rivers are likely to be in flood), but it is the winter ceremony that I describe in greatest detail (for the simple narrative reason that this is the first ceremony experienced by my protagonist at the site).

 The Lin Brook (a tributary of the Salisbury Avon, which runs past Stonehenge - "the River Elawar" in Undreamed Shores) in flood.

Given that the Stonehenge Avenue connects the monument to the river, it is likely that the Winter Solstice ceremonies involved some form of procession along the river from the settlement of Durrington Walls and, in the novel, my heroine, Nanti, explains this to my protagonist, Amzai:

All our life is a journey, and death too. We can no more go back to childhood than the dead can come back to the world of the living. Like the river, life has its twists and turns, and we don’t always know where it will take us, except that, one way or another, it will always carry us forwards, never backwards. The river can’t run uphill…Each drop of water flows along the river only once, just as each person lives only one life here…And at the end of the river, each drop of water flows into a new and different world, that of the sea, just as, at the end of our lives here, we are taken into another world…of which we know little.”

 Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Age of Bronze in Prehistory, Art and Fiction

In one of the earliest commentaries on world history (c700 BC), the Greek writer, Hesiod, placed the “Age of Bronze” mid-way between the “Age of Gold” and the impoverished “Age of Iron,” in which he considered himself unfortunate enough to live. More than two and a half millennia later, the Danish archaeologist, Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, reinstated the idea of a “Bronze Age,” albeit within a very different conceptual paradigm. Thomsen’s “Three Age System” (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age) remains the basis for the chronological understanding of European prehistory to this day and, in the British Isles, the Bronze Age can be dated between c2400 BC and c750 BC. I have written, in my biography of Sir John Lubbock (, of the process by which this framework was refined and popularised.

The Bronze exhibition currently showing at London’s Royal Academy of Arts (until 9th December) explores the aesthetic value of bronze as a material from earliest times down to the present day, displaying Bronze Age objects alongside some of the masterpieces of classical antiquity, and sculptures by artists including Cellini, Rodin and Picasso.

Recent works of historical fiction, including J.P. Reedman’s Stone Lord and J.S. Dunn’s Bending the Boyne, as well as my own Undreamed Shores, have set out to imagine the culture and motivations of the very first bronze workers in this part of the world. Those early bronze-smiths could surely not have conceived of a work on the scale of Cellini’s Perseus, which is one of the centrepieces of the exhibition, yet, in a very real sense, their efforts paved the way for this extraordinary grandeur.


I was naturally attracted to two of the earliest pieces in the exhibition, which I think have much to say about the real “Age of Bronze.”

The first of these objects is a figurine, believed to be of a tribal chief, from Late Bronze Age Sardinia (7th or 8th Century BC). Wherever bronze was first introduced, perhaps especially in communities that did not already have iron, it seems to have been accompanied by fundamental changes in social structure, with the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few individuals. Unlike iron, copper and tin (the components of bronze) are relatively rare elements, and often need to be obtained by trade: those trade routes can be monopolised and defended by a combination of charisma, diplomacy and, where necessary, warfare. Though separated both by hundreds of years and by hundreds of miles, this Bronze Age Sardinian belongs recognisably to the same social milieu as Reedman’s Ardhu, Dunn’s Elcmar and my Gwalchmai.

The second object is a model chariot, with a gilded disc usually assumed to represent the sun, found at Trundholm in Denmark, and dated to around 1400 BC.  Sun worship may not have begun in the 3rd Millenium BC, and may not have been universal in the European Bronze Age, but the period certainly provides some striking testaments of it, and this is surely one of them. There are two other points of interest here. The world of Undreamed Shores (set around 2400 BC) includes neither domesticated horses nor wheeled transport; that of Stone Lord (set around five centuries later) includes both. Exactly when either was introduced is difficult to determine, but both seem to have made their appearance during the Bronze Age, and to have been well-established in most parts of Europe by the end of it. The trade and exchange that enabled the first bronze-smiths to obtain their raw materials almost certainly facilitated the spread of other ideas and technologies as well.


Undreamed Shores can be purchased from and, as well as from

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Island stamps celebrate megalithic heritage

A set of stamps recently issued by the Post Office in Jersey celebrates the island’s megalithic heritage and, in doing so, provides a glimpse of some of the places that lie at the heart of my novel, Undreamed Shores.

The stamps ( show five megalithic sites: Mont Ubé; Le Couperon; Ville-ès-Noaux; Grantez and Faldouet.

Mont Ubé, which one has to imagine with its original capstones and covering mound, is the 6000 year old site, already ancient when the story opens, that features in Chapter 3 as ‘the Shrine of the Gannet Clan:’ “In his dream, he found himself in a confined space, crouching on the ground. Water dripped onto his shoulder from the crack between the heavy capstones…The quartz and mica crystals of the stones twinkled in the flickering light of his uncle’s lamp. He felt he was falling backwards, being pulled back into the belly of the earth. The signs of the ancestors flashed before his eyes: bindweed tendrils, spirals, whirlpools in the air. Gero…reached into the depths of one of the stone boxes that lined the wall of the shrine and produced a skull, handing it to Amzai…”.

Mont Ube (top left), Le Couperon, Ville-es-Nouaux (top right), Grantez & Faldouet
The construction of Ville-ès-Nouaux takes place during the story, and is described in Chapter 19: “She pointed to the spot where the magpie had fallen.’Please bury his body separately over there, and cover it with the largest rock you can find, so his spirit cannot walk the Earth. Cover the rock with clay and place a circle of stones around the mound. I will cast a spell on that circle that will contain his poison forever…’”.  

The Faldouet dolmen, already shown on one of the island’s coins, features in my short story, “The Thread that Binds (”
Undreamed Shores, the paperback edition, is available at £8.09 from

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Oral Tradition and Historical Fiction

However far back in time a historical novel may be set, the characters that feature in it must have an awareness and an understanding of times that came before them. Their narratives about those times will, almost invariably, be different from ours. They will frequently be based on oral tradition rather than written sources, raising the fascinating question of how long an oral tradition might survive.

One of the turning points in my novel, Undreamed Shores, comes when an old man recites a poem that tells of a voyage made by ancestors more than a thousand years before his own time. The book’s ending (which I do not intend to give away here) is loosely based on a legend, first written down in the 16th Century, and bearing all the stylistic hallmarks of a Medieval romance (a gallant knight, a dragon, a treacherous betrayal; a noble and constant lady). By adapting this legend in a story set in 2400 BC, I explore the possibility that the story itself might be based on a tradition that goes back millennia, rather than merely centuries. J.P. Reedman, in her recently published novel, Stone Lord, goes even further, in taking the familiar legends of the Arthurian cycle back to the age of Stonehenge. Neither Reedman nor I has evidence, of the sort that would convince a historian, to support such a contention but that, in a sense, is the point about writing historical fiction:  it enables us to explore aspects of the past that historians and archaeologists have no means of reaching.

So how far back might oral traditions go? Some of the descriptions of weapons and armour in Homer’s Iliad seem to predate the poem itself by four or five centuries. Among the folk songs collected by Cecil Sharp are some that appear to go back as far as the Hundred Years War. The French archaeologist, José Garanger, working on the Pacific island of Vanuatu, found material evidence in support of a legend concerning a powerful chief, Roy Mata, who had lived seven hundred years earlier. Is this a truly exceptional case, or just one of many stories that endured?

The grave-marker of Roy Mata on Vanuatu, evidence that the precise details of a historical event can survive in oral tradition for many centuries.

Our own “collective memory,” as Europeans, goes back around 2500 years: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Socrates all have a place within it. Going back beyond this, we may still have names (Achilles, Odysseus, Jason), but it becomes increasingly difficult to separate out the fact from the fiction. Perhaps, indeed, it is the fictional element, the fantastical, that has allowed these stories to survive at all? All of these stories, of course, have survived with the aid of written records. If we imagine, however, that oral traditions might have allowed a British contemporary of Julius Caesar to see back into the past as far as we can: that person might be connected by these traditions to the builders of Stonehenge; and they, in turn, to the first farmers in this part of the world.  

Undreamed Shores, the paperback edition, is available at £8.09 from Further information, including two short stories linked to the novel, is available from my website:

Friday, 12 October 2012

Launch of Undreamed Shores - The Paperback Edition

The paperback edition of my novel, Undreamed Shores, is published today by Crooked Cat Publications (

Set in 2400 BC, and ranging over southern England, Northern France and the Channel Islands, Stonehenge features prominently in the novel. Coincidentally, just as the paperback edition went to print, English Heritage announced the results of new research using 3D laser scanning technology (, including a detailed analysis of the way in which the stones were shaped by the builders of the monument. Whilst previous research on Stonehenge has emphasised the monument’s alignment towards the rising sun on the day of the Summer Solstice, the new research suggests an equally important focus on the setting sun on the day of the Winter Solstice.

Stonehenge at Sunset, by John Constable (Yale Center for British Art). 
Whilst Undreamed Shores includes both a summer and a winter ceremony, it is the winter ceremony that I have chosen to imagine in greater detail, because this is the first ceremony that my protagonist, a stranger to British shores, witnesses at Stonehenge. This ceremony is likely to have involved a boat journey along the River Avon from Durrington Walls (the closest large settlement), followed by a procession along the Stonehenge Avenue, with the sunset being observed from the north-east, and this is precisely what I describe. The following extracts are from Chapter 9.

When the day came for the Winter Sun Ceremony, Amzai emerged from the house into a world transformed by snow. It was only a light dusting, but the sun’s rays reflecting off the clean snow created a brilliance of light that made the land itself seem to vibrate, like a low musical humming…”

…On the riverside, a large ceremonial boat was moored, close to the village gate…On either side of the river, the white snow of the hillsides gleamed and glistened like quartz dust…They alighted by the carved posts…and…processed along the avenue, their shoes crunching the crisp but shallow snow…The sun was already low in the sky ahead of them, casting long shadows on the snow, as the shrine came into view…In the entrance to the shrine, just in front of the large, bulky stone that stood there, a small fire burned. Beside it, on the snow, lay a thick blanket of fox-pelts…

“…Only when the gathering night had extinguished the tiny puddle of red light that lingered on the horizon, did the drumming and the ululating cease, leaving the shrine in silence once again…

The Stonehenge that Amzai visits is not the monument we see today. The bluestones, transported from west Wales, are present as a double circle, with a monolith at its centre, but the larger sarsens, including the great trilithons, exist, at this stage, only as an idea in the mind of one of the characters, Amzai’s brother-in-law, Gwalchmai. There is scope, here, for a sequel, but that is far into the future!

Undreamed Shores, the paperback edition, is available at £8.09 from Further information, including two short stories linked to the novel, is available from my website:

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

"The Next Big Thing"

This questionnaire, entitled “The Next Big Thing,” seems to be doing the rounds on the internet (it was brought to my attention by fellow writer Nancy Bilyeau –, so I thought it would be interesting to answer the questions and introduce my next major writing project.

What is your working title of your book?

An Accidental King.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

When I was a child, growing up in Jersey, we used to take a two week holiday most years, spending the first week in the New Forest and the second week with my grandfather in East Sussex. My parents did everything they could to encourage my interest in archaeology and history and, since Fishbourne Roman Palace (near Chichester) was roughly midway on our journey, we generally stopped there. I must have been 8 years old when I first saw it, and immediately wanted to know more about it: why it was built, and who lived there. Since then I have studied and taught archaeology, but those questions have kept coming back to my mind.

What genre does your book fall under?

Historical fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Difficult to answer, since the book covers the events of four decades (43 AD-80 AD). Essentially, my protagonist, the client King, Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, looks back on his life from his late 60’s, so I’d love for that role to be played by Sir Ian McKellan. We might need to find someone else to play him in his younger days. It would be great for Sir Derek Jacobi to return to his earlier role as the Emperor Claudius, and for Sir Patrick Stewart to play Vespasian.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, the pro-Roman client King of Southern Britain, looks back on his life and reign; at his friendship with the Emperor Claudius, and the future Emperor, Vespasian; at his attempts to maintain peace & prosperity in his kingdom, to prevent the Boudican Revolt (and, later, to limit its extent and deal with its aftermath); and at the shifting nature of the relationship between Britain and Rome.  

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don’t intend to self-publish. Whether or not it will be represented by an agency is subject to on-going discussions.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I think it took about a year (working full-time for around half of this) to write the first draft. It has taken me a further three years (working part-time) to get it to its current point (i.e. the submission stage – Draft 12), with professional assistance from The Literary Consultancy ( and help, also, from an online critique group.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It is written in the first person, so the obvious points of comparison are Robert Graves’s Claudius novels and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, both of which I love. It is written, however, for a 21st Century readership, so the writing style is quite different. Also, the focus is specifically on Britain and, in this sense, it comes closer to Manda Scott’s Boudica Dreaming series, though told, of course, from the completely opposite point of view.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Apart from my early visits to Fishbourne (which many archaeologists and historians believe to have been built for Cogidubnus by Vespasian), my subsequent academic studies and countless conversations with colleagues and students, I have frequently made connections with more recent events.

This, in one sense, is my response to 9/11. I can so easily imagine someone like Cogidubnus being seduced by elements of Roman culture (the architecture of the Forum – which my fictional Cogidubnus sees as a young man, the beauty of the written word in the poetry of Virgil & Ovid) in much the same way that, all over the world, people of my parents’ generation were seduced by aspects of American culture (Jazz, Rock & Roll, Hollywood, not to mention the charisma of politicians such as FDR and JFK).

A Mosaic floor at Fishbourne, probably from Cogidubnus's time (photo: Immanuel Guel).
 The Roman Forum, through which my fictional Cogidubnus rides alongside Vespasian, in the Triumph of the Emperor Claudius (photo: Carla Tavares).
The ancient mine-shaft on Iceni territory, where the protagonist is held hostage in the aftermath of the Boudican Revolt (photo: Ashley Dace).

The realisation of the unequal nature of the “special relationships” that arise from such a seduction comes later, and draws a variety of responses, which are not easy to reconcile.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
The central part of the book gives a graphic account of the Boudican Revolt, from the perspective of its victims (most of whom would have been British, rather than “Roman” in the strict sense), and in a way which, I hope, has strong contemporary resonances.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Historical Fiction and the 2012 Man Booker Prize

Here is the 2012 long-list for the Man Booker Prize. Those high-lighted in blue are those that have made it onto the short-list. The final result will be announced on 16th October.


Bring Up The Bodies                                      Hilary Mantel

Narcopolis                                                       Jeet Thayil

Swimming Home                                             Deborah Levy

The Garden of Evening Mists                         Tan Twan Eng

Umbrella                                                         Will Self

The Lighthouse                                                Alison Moore

Communion Town                                           Sam Thompson

Philida                                                             André Brink

Skios                                                                Michael Frayn

The Teleportation Accident                             Ned Beauman

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry          Rachel Joyce

The Yips                                                           Nicola Barker.


Of the twelve books on the long-list, three can be considered as historical fiction (Bring Up The Bodies, The Garden of Evening Mists and Philida), and two of these have been short-listed. To return to an earlier discussion (my blog post of 6th May), this does not quite suggest “a somewhat gimcrack genre, not exactly jammed with greatness.”


Of the books on the short-list, one of the historical novels, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies seems to be emerging as the hot favourite to win the prize. My money was on this book from the start. To my mind, it is a worthy sequel to Wolf Hall, and I can’t wait to read the third book in the series. Mantel pulls off brilliantly the difficult task of getting the reader to see a past world through the eyes of someone who could so easily be seen (and so often has been seen) as a villain. She does not make Thomas Cromwell a hero: his ruthlessness and vindictiveness are not glossed over by any means; but she also shows another side to him – a caring family man; loyal to his true friends; capable of pity and compassion as well as cruelty; in short, a three dimensional human character. The reader is continually confronted with the question (as I have heard the author herself remark) “if you were Thomas Cromwell, what would you have done in this situation?” The easy answer might be to say that I would never have become the kind of person that Thomas Cromwell was; but this is a 21st Century response, and Mantel does not allow her readers to get away so easily. This is historical fiction at its challenging best.

The judges, of course, might prefer to back a less well-established writer (Mantel has already won the award for Wolf Hall and is, I suspect, set for yet more exalted heights of international literary recognition in the future). If there is one author on the short-list who could give her a run for her money, I think it is probably Tan Twan Eng, with his second published novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, set against the background of the Japanese occupation of Malaya.

As a recent reviewer in The Guardian pointed out, it is “impossible to resist” a book which begins: “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan." That same reviewer, however, describes the book as “bland,” a sentiment with which I cannot possibly agree. It charts the growing relationship between this old man and a retired Malayan woman judge, Teoh Yun Ling, as they build a garden together amid the mists of the mountain. It is a book with an almost magical sense of place. I don’t envy the judges their task of choosing between such different books (not to mention the contemporary fiction works on the list, not all of which I have read), but I look forward to hearing the result, and am glad to see historical fiction holding its own amid such a wealth of diverse literary offerings. 

Are there books on the long-list that you think deserved to be on the short-list but aren't? Are there other books that you think should have been on the long-list (mine might include Andrew Miller's Pure and Katie Ward's Girl Reading).    

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Guest Blog with Nancy Jardine

I'm delighted today to introduce my fellow author, Nancy Jardine, who will tell you a little about her book, The Beltane Choice. I'm currently writing about this period myself, so very much looking forward to reading Nancy's book!

Why Celtic Britain?


I’m delighted to be with you today, Mark, to explain a little background to my first historical adventure-The Beltane Choice-released yesterday by Crooked{Cat}Publishing.


Why did I set The Beltane Choice in AD 71 when the Romans were invading Britain? Researching for a Regency, or a Victorian, novel might have been easier, but the truth is my Celtic and Roman studies weren’t undertaken for writing a novel.


During my teaching career I taught 11-12 year olds who typically learned about World War 2, and The Victorian Era-though on rare occasions I taught about the might of the Roman Empire swooping onto the shores of Celtic Britain. Since I live in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, ancient history is on my doorstep. I used local archaeological evidence; collected information from public library sources; bought suitable books to use with the kids, and scaled it down for classroom use. Those were my first Roman /Celtic researches.


Archaeological digs, at the Deer’s Den site, in my home village of Kintore during 2002 to 2004 sparked my imagination further. The digs had been funded because the Victorian built village school was being replaced by a brand new building. The foundations for the new school would encroach on land long-designated as a historical site of Roman occupation, and no building work could happen till the digs were undertaken. The results were spectacular. Evidence of more than one Roman occupation of the area was uncovered- over two hundred and fifty bread ovens unearthed a stunning amount. The findings from Neolithic times were numerous, too.


Since I live opposite the school building, I was involved as a village resident and as a teacher. We were invited to view the excavations a few times over the duration of the dig. My class worked on stories where an invented character lived in a Celtic roundhouse village near the Deer’s Den site when the Romans attack- a short story of my own having been drafted as an example for the kids. Though an avid reader, I hadn’t been serious about writing fiction before then. That dig was the catalyst!


My fledgling writing career began, though it had a very shaky start. I wrote the first draft of a time-travel novel where contemporary children travel back to the Kintore of AD 83/84, and are involved in the battle of Mons Graupius – Romans against the Celtic tribes of the north. I sited the battle at Bennachie, a range of hills with a distinctive conical peak which lies 9 miles away from our village.  Sadly, that draft was abandoned since non-fiction writing projects took up my vacation time for the next few years.


In 2008 I wrote the first draft of a Celtic/Roman adventure. That eventually evolved- I’m delighted to say- into The Beltane Choice now published by Crooked{Cat}Publishing. Though, instead of setting my historical novel in Aberdeenshire, I set it in the border areas between Scotland and England, at an earlier time of AD 71. Any knowledge of Celtic life I’ve used in the writing of The Beltane Choice is my own interpretation of historical facts I’ve learned through my teaching. My hero and heroine are, respectively, from Brigante and Selgovae tribes. I used the Roman mobilisations around Eboracum (present day York) as a reason to bring what were warring Celtic tribes together. This scenario is a total fabrication on my part, though I have made a conscious effort to make the novel appear as authentic as possible.


However, I have started a sequel to The Beltane Choice which will take the protagonists on to the Battle of Mons Graupius…


Some readers may be interested to know my children’s novel has also been redrafted, but now covers the Roman Severan Campaigns of AD 210, in north-east Scotland-the action happening around Kintore and Bennachie. I’m hoping to see that work published some time, too.


I’d be very interested to know what might have been the catalyst that spurred other authors to take up their pen. What was your trigger?

Blurb for The Beltane Choice:

Can the Celtic Tribes repel the Roman army?

Banished from the nemeton, becoming a priestess is no longer the future for Nara, a princess of the Selgovae tribe. Now charged with choosing a suitable mate before Beltane, her plan is thwarted by Lorcan, an enemy Brigante prince, who captures her and takes her to his hill fort. Despite their tribes fighting each other, Nara feels drawn to her captor, but time runs out for her secret quest.


As armies of the Roman Empire march relentlessly northwards, Lorcan intends to use Nara as a marriage bargain, knowing all Celtic tribes must unite to be strong enough to repel imminent Roman attack. Nara’s father, Callan, agrees to a marriage alliance between Selgovae and Brigante, but has impossible stipulations. Lorcan is torn between loyalty to his tribe and growing love for Nara.  


When danger and death arrive in the form of the mighty Roman forces, will Nara be able to choose her Beltane lover?


Buy links for The Beltane Choice: Book Trailer for the Beltane Choice:


Tags: historical, romantic, Celtic, adventure


Author Bio:

Nancy Jardine lives in the picturesque castle country of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, with her husband who feeds her well or she’d starve! Ancestry research is one of her hobbies, as is participating in exciting events with her family which drag her away from the keyboard. In her large garden she now grows spectacular weeds, which she’s becoming very fond of! She cherishes the couple of days a week when she child-minds her gorgeous granddaughter.

Other books by Nancy Jardine:

MONOGAMY TWIST Book Trailer for Monogamy Twist:

TAKE ME NOW  Book Trailer for Take Me Now:



Monday, 6 August 2012

Why Paulo Coelho is wrong about Joyce's Ulysses.

Paulo Coelho is one of the World’s greatest living writers. He deserves his place alongside Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and (at the risk of offending him, but risk has always been my friend), James Joyce.

On the subject of Joyce’s Ulysses, however, I believe that Coelho is, quite simply, wrong. He says that it has “harmed literature.” How can any book do this? Bad books (history alone will judge whether any of mine, or Paulo’s, fall into this category) fade into obscurity and harm nobody. Occasionally one of my postgraduates unearths one, and uses it to make some comment on the time in which it was written. Will people still be reading Ulysses in a thousand years’ time? I don’t know, but if there are bookmakers in Heaven (or in Hell), I will put a few pounds on it (as I will on Coelho’s Aleph).
Ulysses is, according to Coelho, “pure style,” by which, presumably, he means that it has no real substance, just, perhaps, some sort of literary eloquence. Well, I accuse Coelho of literary eloquence, and would even like to claim some measure of it for myself! But there is substance, also, in Ulysses, an attempt to create an epic from the mundane: to say that, in the lives of the most ordinary people, there hides an Odysseus, a Telemachus, a Circe. If this does not ennoble the human spirit (which I think is what literature ought to do), then I don’t know what does.   

One of my friends, a fellow writer, commented recently that she would have to live 142 years in order to read all the books she would wish to read. My response was that it would take me far longer. But perhaps, if I were immortal (which, of course, I’m not), I could spend 142 years or more just reading and re-reading Ulysses. I’ve read it, I think, six times now, each time discovering new and different things. The Irish-American writer, Frank Delaney, has a fantastic podcast ( which puts a new gloss on it, even for me. He is taking his time, as the book deserves, aiming to finish, I think, in his hundredth year. At that point, I think I might just be ready to take on his mantle, and do something similar with Finnegan’s Wake.