Don’t Give Up


What’s the difference between an amateur writer and a professional writer?

The professional didn’t give up.

To emphasise the point here’s my publication history by decade:
1980s – one short story published
1990s – one short story published
2000s – two stories published (and a few articles in magazines)
2010s – about 40 short stories published, 11 books and I’ve lost count of the number of magazine features
So don’t give up and keep getting better.


Travel In the Old Style

Proofreading the excellent Bradt Guide to Somaliland, how about this for an insight into travel in and out of an unrecognised country:

Coming by road, a few 4x4s daily connect Djibouti and Zeila to Hargeisa [the capital of Somaliland]. These… cost around US$40 for a cabin seat, US$28 to sit in the boot, and less for a perch on the roof.

Note that the journey from Djibouti to Hargeisa takes a minimum of 12 hours, and that’s if your 4×4 doesn’t break down on the way. One traveller reported it taking him 36 hours to make the journey. That’s a long time to spend sitting in the boot!

Unintended Meanings

One of the unexpected perks of my occasional editing work is finding unintended explosions of double meaning in a piece of work. The one I found this afternoon is, however, probably the finest example of an unintentional double entendre I’ve ever read (and I know it was unintentional as this is meant to be a book for children). Enjoy!

He stretched his hand down toward that terrifying snake! The moment he touched it, his staff was in his hand, straight, and hard, and long.

Big Announcement Number 2

Second, sustained drum roll….

Here it is, big announcement number 2: my next non-fiction book will be called Warrior: the Biography of a Man with No Name, and it will be published by Granta.

Now this really is pretty big: Granta is about the most prestigious publisher in Britain and having them publish my next book will ensure it gets noticed in all sorts of places that have previously ignored my work, including the national press (although that also opens the possibility of scathing reviews from reviewers working on the principle that a good kicking is always more fun to write and read in review than any amount of glowing praise).

As to the book itself, it is the story of one of the people excavated at the Bowl Hole Cemetery near Bamburgh Castle. While human remains provide all sort of useful archaeological evidence, their great drawback is that skeletons are mute: they tell no story. But for a variety of reasons, we can say much more about one particular man, buried within sight of castle and sea, than is normally the case, and it is his story that we will tell in this book. When I say we, it really will be a book written in the first person plural, as I will be collaborating on it with Paul Gething, one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project and the man who excavated the body of this Dark-Age warrior.

Warrior will be published in 2019.

Photos from Prinknash Abbey

I had a wonderful stay at Prinknash Abbey with the Benedictine monks there before giving a talk on the Northumbrian kings on Tuesday 25 April at the abbey shop. The community made me most welcome, but I must give particular thanks to Fr Mark and Fr Martin, and Brother Chris for their warmth (and for coming to my talk!). This short experience of the monastic life was enough to tell me that only the most extraordinary of people have the discipline and dedication to lead such a life. At the shop, Caroline Turley made sure everything ran as smoothly as the coffee they serve in the shop (and it turns out she has three sons too). And the people who came to the talk made for the most wonderfully attentive and inquisitive audience – thank you all.

Here are some selected photos from my stay (there’s many more – ask if you want the rest).

My room in the guest wing (no radio, no TV, no WiFi – just silence and the view).

And this was the view from my window.

Looking over the Vale of Gloucester

While this is what the abbey looks like.

Prinknash Abbey from the front

And this view is from the monastic enclosure which is not open to the public.

Looking up to the abbey from the monastic enclosure

The abbey in bright morning sun.

The morning sun casts the shadow of the bell tower on the wall behind

Some views of the monastery garden which is being renovated.

The wonderful display of my books that Caroline had created in the monastery shop.

And this is me with Caroline Turley, the woman who organised everything so well.

Some of the lovely people who came to hear me speak about the Northumbrian kings.

And me thanking Fr Mark Hargreaves for asking me along in the first place.

Adventures in Bookland: Fire In Babylon by Simon Lister

It was the August of 1976. The sun burned down from a sky that had turned bronze in the heat. Grass, everywhere, was brown and parched. There had been no rain for two months, and for the last six weeks the temperature had barely dropped below 90F. It was the most memorable summer of my young life and, 13, I was going with my father to see the cricket.

But not just any cricket. Although my father is Sri Lankan, we were not going to see Sri Lanka play England (for the very good reason that Sri Lanka was not yet a Test-rated country). We were going to see England play the West Indies – and we were going to see them at the Oval, for the final Test match of the summer. England were already 2-0 down, and playing for pride and self-preservation. And when I say self-preservation, it really was. The West Indies deployed a truly fearsome array of fast bowlers in that match: Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel; and this was in the days before batsmen wore helmets, or indeed much in the way of protection beyond pads, gloves and box. It really was a matter of self-preservation. The pitch was a dustbowl, burned the colour of African mud.

We arrived at the Oval to find it ringing, vibrant with West Indian fans playing instruments, singing and dancing. But I was a serious, studious boy – something of the archetype of the Asian school swot. We settled down at mid-wicket, with our drinks and our sandwiches, and waited for the day to begin.

And what I remember even today, 41 years later, is watching Michael Holding gliding over the ground as he ran in to bowl, moving as smoothly as liquid mercury, and then the leap into the bowling stride, a single puff of dust as the bowl struck the pitch, and an image of the batsman, contorted into some position of avoidance or defence. Even with my young, sharp eyes, I never once saw the ball moving through the air, but only the effects it had on wicket and man.

There has never been a team like that West Indies team, that came into itself on that tour of England in 1976 and then proceeded to dominate international cricket for nearly the next 20 years. This marvellous book tells the story of how they reached that position of dominance and, much more difficult, how they kept it for so long. It’s a tale of resistance, revolt, and hours and hours and hours of sheer bloody hard work made to seem completely effortless in the smoothness of Michael Holding’s run up or Viv Richard’s lifting the ball to the boundary for 6. It’s a tale of all the once-colonial peoples, such as my father’s Sri Lankans, realising that they really could match and beat the English who had given them these games. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come from the everyday racism of the 1970s. And it manages to do all this through the medium of grown men throwing and hitting a ball around for interminable periods of time. Cricket is one-on-one combat in a team context; it’s gladiatorial and, despite all the talk of the spirit of cricket, inherently confrontational, veiling its violence behind its pristine whites. It’s the most perfect game and also the most ridiculous. And this is one of the best books I’ve read about it.


Adventures in Bookland: The Road from Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva

This is a book about civil war and reaching across the bloodlines of that war; it’s a book about making a desperate journey through jungle; it’s a book about birds and animals and plants; it’s a book about Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, the teardrop shed by the Indian subcontinent, is a land that was drenched in tears for the 25 years of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Estimates suggest that over 150,000 people, military and civilian, were killed during the war. The war was essentially fought over the Tigers’ demand for a separate Tamil state – Eelam – within Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lanka government’s refusal to countenance such an idea.

My father is Sri Lankan. Unusually, his mother was Sinhala (the majority and predominantly Buddhist part of the population) and his father was Tamil (the minority Hindu section of the country, who mainly live in the north and east of the country). Even back when my grandparents were married (and this was a long time ago, around 1916), such marriages were rare and faced much hostility. My grandmother’s parents, who were high-caste Sinhala, largely cut-off contact with their daughter after her marriage: my father only met his grandparents once.

Under British colonial rule, these tensions were subsumed but when Ceylon gained independence on 4 February 1948, the Sinhala majority moved towards asserting their political control of the country, most notably by making Sinhala the state language. Since Tamil is not just a different language but uses a different script, this effectively threw many Tamils out of work.

Tamil separatist organisations began to spring up, of which the most important was the one organized by Velupillai Prabhakaran that became the LTTE. As attacks mounted, from both sides, the political tension worsened until full-scale civil war broke out in 1983. The war continued for 25 years, with the Tigers for much of that time controlling huge tracts of Sri Lanka in a parallel administration. A ruthlessly efficient organisation, the Tigers were the first group to develop the use of suicide bombers, and using them assassinated two heads of state: Rajiv Gandhi of India and Ranasinghe Premadasa, president of Sri Lanka.

This book was written in 2000, when it seemed the war would never end. The author, Nihal de Silva, examines the justifications and reasons for the war through his two main characters: a captain in the Sri Lankan army and a female cadre of the Tigers. The captain, Wasantha, is detailed with the job of conveying Kamala, a Tiger cadre turned informer, to Colombo so she can pass on vital information. But when the Tigers attack, the mis-matched pair are forced to go to ground, and then attempt to make their way south on foot, marching through the no-man’s land of Wilpattu National Park.

The depiction of the arid scrub of the north, a land pockmarked by the reservoirs dug by the ancient kings of Sri Lanka to irrigate the land, is excellent and the author’s knowledge of the flora and fauna shines through. The description of rural Sri Lanka, as the couple make their way through dirt-poor villages and abandoned tracks, is among the best I’ve read. And while Wasantha and Kamala head south, hunted by predators both human and animal, the author skillfully presents both sides of the conflict through their interaction.

The ending, when it comes, is tense, and shocking. It’s the ending appropriate to a land still at war without apparent end. But, in the end, there was an end. The Sri Lankan army, reorganised and rejuvenated, drove the Tigers into smaller and smaller pockets of territory and eventually destroyed the leadership, but at the price of many civilian lives.

Nihal de Silva did not live to see the war’s ending. He was killed by a landmine while visiting his beloved Wilpattu National Park, the scene of so much of this work. The Road From Elephant Pass is his memorial, and it’s an eloquent one.


Letter to a Friend Whose Father had Died

I wrote this letter many years ago to a friend whose father had died. I think it has something to say, so I reproduce it here.

My dear friend,

It has been two months since your father died. Now is the time when friends become unsure whether to speak or remain silent. Perhaps it would be better to keep quiet about the dead, let them sleep their sleep, and allow the waves of time to slowly smooth away the marks of memory and loss. For now, inevitably, the overwhelming physicality of new grief will have died away to some extent. Now there may be minutes, hours even, when you forget that your father has died and then the memory returns and perhaps you think that if even you, his son, cannot keep his memory alive, then what will happen ten years from now. I suppose this is one of the most difficult things about the dead; one knows that they will never again come and remind us of themselves, of their overwhelming suchness, of the fact that each and every one of those who have died was once alone and unique, and there will never again be their like in this world.

I remember when my Auntie Dottie died. She was the last of my father’s sisters, the slightly eccentric old spinster who had never married. Well, in her later years Auntie Dottie defied all the expectations one might have of an ageing spinster by moving to Italy to work as the housekeeper for an old Italian. Expectations were even further astounded when she went and married him. ‘There’s juice in the old girl, yet,’ one might have said.

But I do not want to be sentimental about her. Auntie Dottie was a lovely person, kind and gentle and slightly vague. Yet one could also say that she was ineffectual, that the world marked her passing even less than it had marked her presence. Like so many many others she will be forgotten when those who had known her are themselves dead. It will be as if she never existed. There are no children, no traces of her presence in the continuing blood of others. So what does her life mean? It means, if meaning is to be found in terms of worldly effect, virtually nothing. She, like so many others, was one of the extras in the movie of history, one of the people who appears briefly on the screen and then disappears, and is not even mentioned in the credits at the end of the film.

But this is not true. For if it were then we too would be fools and idiots playing in a shadow show for the drooling amusement of idiot gods. But an idiot god could not have made Auntie Dottie, nor the blind and stupid forces of chance and necessity. No, she was held in being as gently as a child holds a puppy when it is first given to him and knows that this squirming licking ball of life is his to look after.

Is this not the reason for the extraordinary uniqueness of each and every created thing? That when first they are held, cupped in being, there is again the sense that that which was not, now is. It is alive, it exists and it is itself and no other.

Then this also must be true. It cannot be that all the things that have their existence have been brought into being for any reason other than a love that passes all our understanding and yet we know well. For think now of how it was when your daughter was born. And then imagine how it will be in the years to come. There will be times, no doubt, when she will irritate and anger you, yet in memory those will fade away quickly yet that which is in her and in you, causing the love between father and daughter to grow, that will be remembered.

And this I think is the essence of it. Here I believe the action of our memory mirrors the structure of reality in its deepest nature. That which is beautiful does not fade away. It remains in our memory as a trace of what caused it.

Nothing beautiful ever dies. Nothing good passes away. Because they are the only things that are real in the first place. Ugliness and evil, these are illusions and like all illusions they must disappear when the conditions from which one views them disappears. And this illusion is life, when viewed as restricted to our passage from the womb to the grave. We no more come into existence at birth than we leave it at death for I do not hold my existence in my hands. No, I am held in the arms of another.

Think of this letter. The thoughts take form in the words I write. But once it is finished the letter will be taken to the post office and pass through the hands of many others, over land and sea and time, until finally you will sit and read it on a night and in a place far removed. Yet in the reading I will be with you again.

So it is with all of us. As you hold your daughter in your arms, and you were once held by your parents, and they by their parents, and so on through all the generations of mankind back to the first parents of our kind, so we can trace our writing back to the mind of God.

Nothing beautiful ever dies. Nothing good passes away. The flower blossoming for a day on the slopes of an unknown mountain is seen, the song of a bird on a lonely island is heard, the myriad lives that have passed unremarked by that whore we call history are known. There are no extras. Each spear carrier is a hero and everyone is a star.

With all my best wishes,