The Last Solderslinger

For many years, I worked repairing TVs and videos, driving around in my white van. It was a family business, and it had kept us all gainfully employed for twenty years or so. But sometime in the late 1990s we realised that our days wielding the soldering iron and the Avometer were numbered. Most of the other repairmen, men who had started when you could warm a house from the heat generated by the thermionic valves in the back of a television, also lay down their irons around this time. I wrote this piece for us all.

Cyril Dennis retires after 53 years repairing TVs.

The last solderslinger drove out of town. It was showdown time. The Cyber Cowboy was going to pay. Twenty one years ago the last solderslinger had rolled into the city, sniffed the petrol in the air, and settled down to raising kids. Now the young whippersnappers thought they could steal stock from right under his nose. Well, today they were going to see the old timer still had a few tricks left in his toolbox.

The solderslinger pulled up in his Transit outside the new ‘light industrial unit’. Things sure had changed since he started riding the range twenty one years ago.

Striding towards his enemy’s stronghold, he remembered his first van: £4141 in 1980. Then only this year he had gotten a brand new transit from Dan Dan the Van Man for £11926.

But in that time his stock, ah, his stock. The first time, alone and nervous, he had gone out to see a sick TV was in 1980. There were three TV channels and BBC 1 played the national anthem shortly after midnight and went to bed like decent folk. And the TV, a Sony KV2204, complete with Trinitron tube and plastic wood appearance fascia, that fine piece of livestock had cost £530. Now a Sony KV21X5 went for £260.

Then his stock was 12.8% the cost of his nag. Now it was 2.2%. If he wanted to keep his ranch he was going to have to take out the Cyber Cowboy.

The last solderslinger burst through the doors, solder gun in one hand, Avometer in the other.

‘Come on then, you varmints, eat solder!’

The Cyber Cowboy looked up, startled. On the bench before him, innards indecently displayed to the watching world, lay a Sony KV28-DX30 hissing in pain from the torture instruments plunged deep inside its gizzards.

‘What are you no good son of a bitch doing to that there TV?’ demanded the last solderslinger, waving his gun menacingly.

‘Er, repairing it?’ said the Cyber Cowboy, some little whippersnapper who looked like he’d never even gotten a decent electric shock when disconnecting the EHT lead.

‘Sure,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘How?

‘Well, I just hook it up to the PC and it runs a set of diagnostics and then I do what it tells me to do,’ said the Cyber Cowboy.

‘Pah,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘Call that repair? Bet that gear costs thousands. Give it here and I’ll sort it with my Avometer in an hour flat.’

‘What’s an Avometer?’ asked the Cyber Cowboy.


A little while later the solderslinger sat in his van. He had lost. They had taken away his solder gun and Avometer and given him an application form for a training course in basic IT skills for the over-fifties.

He opened his flask and drank, but the milk tasted sour. No longer the last solderslinger, just the millionth mousketeer.

He got out of the van, went to the back and scratched a couple of words in the dirt, then got in and drove away.

‘For sale.’

A soldering iron.

An Avometer.

Adventures in Bookland: The Invisible Cross by Andrew Davidson


I really did not think it possible to shed new light on the First World War – the most written about conflict in history – but, in this remarkable book, Andrew Davidson does just that. For three years, Colonel Graham Chaplin of the 1st Cameronians served on the front line, making him, so far as we can tell, the longest-serving frontline officer of the war. Most every day he wrote to his wife, Lil, whom he’d married a year before the war’s outbreak, and whom he left pregnant with their first child when he sailed to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

There have been many collections of soldiers’ letters home. What sets this one apart is how Davidson puts Chaplin’s letters into context. Each chapter begins with Davidson telling the reader both what is happening in the wider war and in the particular battles being waged by the 1st Cameronians. This is followed by Chaplin’s letters covering the same time period and then the terse entries from the battalion war diary, mostly written by Chaplin as well. It’s the contrast between these three that brings home the long grind of war fighting and war waiting to the reader. Chaplin’s letters, which seldom mention the war directly, begin with the breezy confidence of the professional soldier confident of quick victory. But as victory recedes, and Chaplin is passed over for promotion, the letters become passports to sanity, a dialogue with a normality that the war is slowly erasing.

Many parts of the experience of fighting industrial war can be glimpsed between Chaplin’s lines, but what comes across most clearly is the sheer toil of it: the combination of labour, boredom, fear and constant lack of sleep that slowly saps his strength.

With officers killed even faster than the ranks, Chaplin expected to be promoted out of the line. But his querying of staff orders at the Battle of Loos led to his promotion being held back, so he fought on, marching with his men to and from the frontline trenches, fighting through the battles of Mons, Armentières, Loos and the Somme. Writing on 4 August 1917, Chaplin said, “Today is the third anniversary of the war – it seems like the third century to me.”

To the relief of this reader, in 1917 Chaplin was finally promoted out of the front line. He survived the war, living out the rest of his life with his wife and children, and seldom spoke of the war. How can anyone speak meaningfully of such a conflict? Here, long after his death and through the careful editing and contextualising of Andrew Davidson, Chaplin does so.

Write More In Less Time

Ever wanted to know how to write more in less time?

Here’s how: disconnect from the internet and switch off the mobile.

There you go.

‘But, but, it’s research,’ I hear you say. No. No, it’s not, it’s timewasting. If you really do have to look something up, find it in a book.

‘What about promotion and marketing?’ Yes, yes, I know. Every writer nowadays has to be a combination of Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian, and flaunt themselves online. Set aside a defined time to do this. If you try to do it during writing time, you won’t have any writing to promote.

So there’s your answer. Now, switch me off and do it.


First Day of Sorrow


First day of school,
First day of sorrow.
190 more days at that old dump
And he’ll be back tomorrow.

After a wonderful summer holiday, we sent son no.1, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school. Son no.2 to follow tomorrow.

(And, yes, I know the original quote doesn’t have the indefinite article before ‘snail’, but an eleven syllable line works much better here as the subject is supposed to be sorrowful. And it reads better too!)

Save Our Street Trees – Give Them A Drink


It’s a desert out there. You might not realise it, after one of the wettest winters on record, but for the trees, growing up through the pavements and tarmac of our cities, it’s a desert. No matter how much it rains, most of the water never gets through to their roots, since it flows off the pavements and tarmac and down the gutters. And the situation has become much, much worse in London over the last ten years with so many front gardens having been tarmaced and turned into car parks.

Now, in this hot, dry weather, our street trees are suffering. Those worst affected are the newly planted trees that haven’t yet had the chance to push their roots down deep, searching for the leaks in water mains that are the main sources of liquid for street trees. So, if you see a tree in your street suffering, wilting and browning in the heat, then water it. Fill up a watering can and give it a drink. Or, on your way home, empty out the rest of your water bottle around its base – do this every day and it’s remarkable what effect you’ll have. We have saved four or five trees on our street this way.

Considering what street trees do for us in the way of providing shade, shelter, filtering pollutants, it’s the least we can do in return.


The Canon of Historical Fiction – what’s in it and what’s not

What is a canon? Apart from a camera maker, it’s also a cathedral priest, a church law and, for the purposes of this blog, the measure against which we judge what is good and what is not in literature. The canon is the ultimate best-of list, the books that have survived the centuries to speak along the conversation that is human history. But the canon must also show the breadth and possibilities of a literary genre.

So here I’m going to make a stab at defining and starting the canon of historical fiction. First, though, we need to define what we mean by historical fiction. The most obvious answer is that it’s written about people in the past, so we will begin by defining our first criterion: to qualify as historical fiction the work must be set in a time at least one generation before the time of writing.

Secondly, to give equal weight to both parts of its name, it must be a story grounded in historical fact. So while there will be fictional aspects to the story, it should not contradict history. By that criterion, something like Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, which I would otherwise very much like to include, has to be excluded from the canon of historical fiction as Arthur – if he existed – fought very different battles to those depicted in Le Morte.

Following from this, we must also exclude historical fantasy. While it’s true that peoples in the past accepted the supernatural much more readily and therefore, to portray them properly, supernatural and fantastical elements may be introduced into a story, they should not take precedence over history. With that in mind, I think we would have to exclude The Odyssey from the canon, for while it’s quite possible that Odysseus wandered widely in his return from Troy, the mythical elements of the story put it firmly into legend rather than history.

So, with these criteria in mind, what makes up the canon of historical fiction through the centuries. Let’s go!

The Iliad – Homer. The grandaddy of them all. The foundation stone of pretty well all western literature. And, for fans of hard hitting historical fiction, it contains some of the most brutal depictions of battle ever written, and all in dactylic hexameter! My favourite translation is the one by Robert Fagles.


By my criteria, The Aeneid can’t be included as historical fiction (but it’s certainly still worth reading), nor Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (just as worth reading and considerably more fun).

Moving into the early medieval period, Beowulf is disqualified because of its fantastical elements but  The Song of Roland, despite the somewhat unlikely casualty figures, makes it both as an account of a real battle and as an unparalleled insight into the beginnings of chivalric culture.

Although they’re plays, Shakespeare’s histories are supreme examples of the writer bringing the historical past to life and interpreting it afresh through the ages. Indeed, Shakespeare’s take on the Wars of the Roses has probably influenced our ideas of what happened then more than those of any historian. As he’s recently resurfaced, try Richard III (although a particular favourite is Henry VI part 3).



But historical fiction as a genre really gets going in the 19th century and the man who set it running was Sir Walter Scott. His Waverley novels introduce characters at the meeting of competing social groups, while Ivanhoe pretty well invents the modern medieval novel.


Most of the 19th century giants of English literature turned their hands to the historical novel, with examples ranging from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (pretty well my least favourite of his works) to Vanity Fair.

But the greatest 19th-century work of historical fiction must be War and Peace. Tolstoy wrote it some 60 years after Napoleon’s disastrous (for him) invasion of Russia, although in the story Tolstoy is as much concerned with his present as the past.


Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed also uses the events of the past – Italy in the early 17th century – as part of an examination of pre-unification Italy. It’s one of the great novels of Italian literature.


Moving to the new world, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper pretty well created the idea of the noble Indian, while tinging it with elegiac wistfulness for a disappearing people.


Coming into the 20th century, Georgette Heyer pretty well single handedly created the Regency romance novel – she can’t be held responsible for its subsequent mutations! Robert Graves might have regarded I, Claudius and Claudius the God as literary hack work but they show less sign of being forgotten than his poetry, while of Mary Renault’s superb novels about ancient Greece my own favourite is The Mask of Apollo, which shows Plato trying, and failing, to put his political philosophy into practice through his teaching of Dionysius the Younger, ruler of Syracuse.


There’s a strong strand of historical fiction written for children and, of these, I’d single out Rosemary Sutcliff and her Eagle of the Ninth as one of the best examples – and certainly worthy of a place in the canon.


While I’ve mainly confined myself to the English-writing world, there is one 20th-century novel from an entirely different cultural milieu that every fan of historical fiction should read: Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Writing as a Japanese Catholic, Endo is both a part of and stands as observer to his culture, a position also endured by the hero of Silence, a Portuguese missionary priest in the 17th century who is forced to abjure his faith in the face of the torture meted out to Christians. Silence is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, so it definitely earns its place in our canon.


I am no great fan of The Name of the Rose, but as an example of a sub-genre of historical fiction, the historical detective story, it deserves a place in the canon. On the other hand, I admit to being a complete fan boy of George Macdonald Fraser and Patrick O’Brian: I will complete this list of the historical fiction canon with Flashman and the Aubrey/Maturin books.



Now, it’s your turn. Tell me what else you think should form part of the canon of historical fiction.

Tell Us What You Really Think, Mr Teacher

This may be the finest example I have yet read of a teacher saying what he really thinks of his pupil. Sadly, nowadays school reports are anodyne documents, cloaked in cliches. But this example, from a Geography teacher’s report, I can personally vouch for: I have seen and read the dog-eared report (a report treasured down the years by the boy, now man and a teacher himself, who received it).

David has failed completely to impress me favourably this term. Apart from his manner, which is frequently offensive, his term time marks and exam scores are abysmal.

A Proper Peer

On a recent visit to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, we saw this quote, in the Bowling Green House, from Jemima, Marchioness Grey:  ‘Have been strolling most of the morning with my book, and my dog and my fawn.’ 1744.

Now that is the quote of a proper aristocrat! And here she is – Jemima, Marchioness Grey (9 October 1723 – 10 January 1797):

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Bowling Green House, Wrest Park
Bowling Green House, Wrest Park

The Presence of the Past – no.1 in an occasional series

Writing, as I do, about the seventh century AD, you’d think there would be precious little left in the way of physical connections to this time. After all, the Romans built in stone and stone endures, but the Angl0-Saxons were master carpenters, rejecting stone and brick-built dwellings for great halls made of wood – and wood decays, or burns.

So, yes, there is on one level much less left from the seventh century than from the four centuries of Roman rule. However, in writing the Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve been surprised at what there is to be found: places, buildings, structures and artefacts that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries to bring into the present the witness of the past.

Of these, the Bamburgh Sword (which I wrote about for History Today here) is possibly the most evocative. Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it. The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect. Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.

After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. This is what it looks like now (in the hands of Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project):


And this is a newly forged reconstruction of what the sword would have looked like when it was wielded in defence of the kingdom of Northumbria:


Far away from Bamburgh, on the isle of Anglesey, is another, much-less known, connection with the seventh century. Back then, the kingdom of Gwynedd was the proudest and strongest of the kingdoms of the Britons that continued to resist the slow conquest of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons. The kings of Gwynedd had their fortresses and strongholds in the mountains of Snowdonia, but the ancient island over the Menai Strait served both as the breadbasket for the kingdom and its political centre, with the royal court based in what is now the small village of Aberffraw. Just two miles east of Aberffraw is an even smaller village, Llangadwaladr, and set into the wall of the parish church is a gravestone. But not just any gravestone. This stone marked the grave of Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd and father of Cadwallon, the nemesis of Edwin of Northumbria.

Go to the quiet, serene church of St Cadwaladr and there, embedded in the far wall, is the stone. It reads, ‘Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum’, which means, ‘King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings’. This is what it looks like:


And here I am, touching this direct link to the world of seventh-century Britain, when we visited Anglesey last summer.


It is extraordinary to think that these, the sword and the gravestone, have managed to survive when so little else has. If people are interested, I’ll write about other places and things that bring the past into the present in further articles for this new series.

What’s Wrong With Runners?

weakness-clipart-TiredWhy don’t they smile?

You see, it went like this. I was into my fifth decade, I was sitting at a desk all day, and gravity was beginning to win in its battle against the flesh. So, to fight back, I decided to try running. After all, it only required me to step out the door. There are some lovely parks nearby. And running – unlike pretty well every other form of exercise – doesn’t require any money (as a dirt-poor writer, this latter was a major consideration).

So, one morning not so long ago, I put on my trainers and stepped out the door. It was a lovely morning. The sun was out, the birds were singing and, what’s more, having expected on my first run only to be able to puff my way once round the park, I found that I could run quite a bit further. There’s few things more flattering to a middle-aged man’s vanity than to find he’s fitter than he thought he was.

Running was fun. Running was great. Everyone should do it.

But then, I started passing other runners. Heads down, staring at the pavement, or looking glazedly ahead. What was going on here?

Maybe it was down to the time I was running. After all, people aren’t usually at their best early in the morning. So, I thought I’d try going out when lots of runners were around, when everyone would have had the chance to wake up properly and enjoy the day – and the run.

Good Friday was a bank holiday, it was sunny, it felt like the first day of spring and the park was so crowded with runners that traffic lights where paths crossed would have been useful (the green man would be shown jogging on the spot). In fact, it’s got so busy, the council is running a consultation on creating jogging paths. But not a single runner I passed even made eye contact, let alone acknowledging another runner. I had expected some sort of fellowship among runners but it seems that sharing a moment of (slightly breathless) camaraderie, or even giving a rueful (if you’re middle aged and slightly spreading, like me) or smug (if you’re young, fit and full of breath) grin to someone else pounding the pavements simply does not happen. So, what is the matter with runners? Are they all so caught up in a dopamined, iPodded solipsism that they are simply unaware of anyone or anything around them? Or is there some mysterious runners’ etiquette, of which I am unaware, which precludes any contact with other runners?

Come on, runners, smile! Let the world know you’re enjoying it, and this is not some form of modern self-flagellation. (Or maybe it is. After all, we’re a civilisation so fallen away that we now worship our own physical form rather than any god. Self-torture in expiation for crimes against the ideal body; future ages will look at us with the aghast amazement we regard early medieval anchorites, perched on pillars in the desert.)

But if there is some sort of running omerta, could someone tell me. Please. You’ll know me. I’m the chap who grimaces as he passes. That’s me, trying to smile.