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.


I’m delighted to say that I’m now being represented, for my non-fiction work, by the Robert Dudley Agency. So I’ll finally have the chance to say: speak to my agent!

It’s worth pointing out as well, to any would-be writers, that despite what it says in all the How to Get Published books about an agent being absolutely vital, I’ve got this far (nine books published by five different publishers) without an agent, and I still represent myself for my fiction work. So, while I’m hoping being with Robert Dudley will help move me into a higher division, having an agent is certainly not necessary when starting a writing career.

Advice for Writers – no.1 in an occasional series

  1. Trust the words.
  2. Remember, readers have less knowledge but more imagination than you realise. They don’t know what’s in your head but they can bring your words alive in their minds.
  3. No, really; trust the words. They’ll do the heavy lifting for you.
  4. Disconnect from the internet. If possible, find an old computer or laptop that doesn’t have a modem; write on a typewriter or use a pen and paper. Your productivity will immediately double.

Birthday Boy: New Story Out Now

For lovers I’ve short fiction, I have a new story out, published in Page & Spine magazine, called Birthday Boy. (A little secret: Page & Spine, published by the lovely Nancy Wagner, is one of my, if not my absolute favourite, markets: Nancy is a writer as well as a publisher and understands the process from both ends, which shows up clearly when she deals with submissions.)

Here’s an extract from the story:

Martin came in, limping a little, and stopped. He glanced at the table, saw Chrissy looking at him, and nodded.
“I told you this morning.”
“Yes, sorry, I forgot. Bad day.”
“It’s his birthday.”
“Of course. Which is it again?”
“Fifteen,” said Chrissy.
“Fifteen? Already? So long.”
“Yes, you’d never believe it, would you?”
Martin paused. “I would,” he said, quietly.

To read the rest, go here.

The Drama of the Good

The Portal
The Portal

I’ve now read six of Andrew Norriss’s books and I think I know what his work is about: every story I’ve read has been a drama of the good. But if drama requires conflict, how can there be drama where all the characters are good? That is the question Andrew Norriss seems to me to be setting out to explore in his books, and his writing, and its success or otherwise, represents an answer to that question.

‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Thus begins Anna Karenina, with one of the most famous quotations in literature. And of course, if happy families are all alike, they must be inherently less interesting than unhappy ones. But thought and experience both tell me Tolstoy was wrong. Happiness ramifies, producing unique results; misery contracts, collapsing everything down to a cold, solid core. In this, Dante was right over Milton: the devil in the Inferno is encased in the ice of his own evil, immobile, but seeking to draw everything and everyone down into his own eternal stasis, whereas the Satan of Paradise Lost is active and engaged, more of a character than anyone else.

Here, Milton and other writers and film makers have fallen foul of one of the great shortcuts of dramatic art: it’s much, much easier to write an interesting evil character than a fascinating good one. Why should this be? One answer is that evil, at least in its everyday modes, is encoded into our substance. You don’t have to be an Augustinian to note the evidence of something very like original sin in our substance: simply think of the ease, the positive relief, with which good habits are shucked off when compared to the struggle against bad and destructive habits. We are creatures bent out of true, and thus it is much easier for a writer to understand what is so readily to mind in his or her own nature.

But goodness, true goodness, now, that is something else. Rarely encountered, even more rarely written about, it is almost impossible to capture in words or images precisely because it escapes the categories of thought: the normal binary operations of our mind (black/white, right/left) fail when we encounter true goodness and real evil. Evil is not the opposite of good, it is its absence, the hunger of the abyss for a being it is determined to expunge.

We are empty creatures, seeking fulfillment, and goodness is that fulfillment, in all its various, simple, ordinary forms. Each happy family is unique; it is the unhappy families that are alike, tending towards the dark attractor that is the cause and gourmet of human misery.

Andrew Norriss, is his deceptively slight books, provides a glimpse of escape from that core of despair. In his stories, good people are, genuinely, good, and work towards good ends, yet the threads of circumstance and the workings of providence (which is not without its own humour) conspire to provide the narrative tension that, on the artistic level, pulls the reader along, a smile of unknowing recognition on his face, towards the denouement. For, somewhere in our hearts, buried under the hurts of lives, we know that, really, this is what the world should be like – and will, one day, be.

On Magic and Science

Wizard worlds
Wizard worlds

So, you’ve got – as a writer – your carefully worked out world, complete with dragons, various branches of the faerie folk with names artfully changed to suggest that no, you really didn’t mean Elves like in Middle-earth, and, of course, magic. After all, what fantasy world would be complete without a bit of magic, a little sprinkling of wonder and strangeness across the boundaries of the mundane that hem us into our own world. And, what’s more, the book works! You find a publisher, the public read it, clamour for more, you are rolling in authorial clover (if not money; get real, this is a first novel after all). Time for the sequel. Ah, the sequel. Now, what exactly can Wizard Wiz do – and what can’t he do? What about the Witches? Broomsticks – that’s as read. But what other powers do they have? Better start working this out.

And this is precisely where so many fantasy worlds and fantasy authors start going wrong. Yes, as one goes deeper into a secondary world, you have to work things through and understand them more deeply, but the danger with magic is to start treating it as engineering with a veneer of Latin. So, taken to its conclusion, you have a sort of Tops Trumps version of magic, where strength 5 wizards with additional special powers are, literally, trumped by the authorial McGuffin of a blocking ability or the amulet or token that trumps other powers; it becomes a Marvel/DC universe, where fans (and the Lord knows I’m one of them) can spend enjoyable hours debating whether the Hulk would beat Thor: power trumps everything.

Engineering is magic, but not the right sort of magic
Engineering is magic, but not the right sort of magic

But this is not magic. This is to view magic through 21st-century, scientific eyes. To put it simply, magic is not science. Science proceeds by virtue of its method, which means that while it might take a genius such as Newton or Einstein to propose a new theory, once published it is possible for anyone of reasonable intelligence to follow the reasoning by which they came to their conclusions. Similarly, science is demonstrated by experimenters of genius, like Michelson and Morley, running tests to show if predictions match results. But, once the experiment has first been run, anyone following the same method should be able to replicate the results.

Science is repeatable. That’s its point. It might take a genius to find the path through the overwhelming array of data, but once the path is found anyone should be able to follow it. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can do it.

The point of magic is that any Tom, Dick or Harry cannot do it. A magician, a wizard might take years to learn a spell, a craft, a potion but even if you, the reader (or indeed, the would-be wizard), followed the same practices as diligently and for as long, there would be no guarantee that you could repeat the spell. Magic is personal and particular; in that it resembles elite sport or virtuoso musicians. I might practice batting for as long as Kevin Pietersen, working as diligently as he does, and yet at the end of it I would not be able to do what he does. Why not? The short answer: I don’t have his talent. The slightly longer answer: I do not have the combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics that make him a great batsman – my deficiencies ranging from poorer eyesight and being a good six inches shorter through to lacking a taste for physical confrontation as confirmation of my own abilities.

Only 9,982 hours to go
Only 9,982 hours to go

Similarly with music. Pace Malcolm Gladwell, but 10,000 hours of practice might be necessary for mastery of an art, it is not necessarily sufficient for it. I could have set aside eight hours every day on the guitar – I did, for a number of years – and yet I never even came close to mastering the instrument, and this for a particular combination of physical and psychological reasons. To coin Albert’s law: practice is necessary for mastery of an art but it is not sufficient for it; you need talent too. And by talent I mean the particular combination of physical, psychological and spiritual traits that are necessary for a particular person to master a particular skill – and note that these will differ according to person and art.

Similarly with magic. A wizard is, by nature, singular. Defining magical laws, turning it into engineering, is to filter it through the wrong lens. Try applying the laws of performance to it, and you will be on stronger writing ground.

The Four Causes
The Four Causes

As so often when writing fantasy, JRR Tolkien provides the best example. He barely mentions magic in The Lord of the Rings, and when the Elves do talk about it, they say that what they do is not magic as understood by mortals. And nor is it. Tolkien, being well grounded in Thomistic theology, understood better than most the Aristotelian underpinning of Elvish magic and its relationship to the four causes indentified by the Stagirite, to whit the formal, material, efficient and final causes, so Elvish magic, or art as they themselves more likely saw it, was the deep understanding of causation in relation to any object and the ability to see more clearly through to its true end, and bring that about. Tolkien distinguishes this from sorcery, where the ultimate aim is the subjugation of the free will of others to the sorceror – the greatest sin within Arda, for it seeks to subvert the supreme gift of Eru (God).

So, writers, when writing magic and wizards, banish thoughts of Warhammer outcome tables and video game power ups; think rather of Yo Yo Ma or Zinedine Zidane then apply that mixture of refinement, ability and the pursuit of perfection to magic and you won’t go far wrong.

Knocking on a Journal’s Door

Tincture Journal issue 8
Tincture Journal issue 8

Tincture Journal, the fine Australian literary magazine, has a new issue out now (rather confusingly, for us northern hemisphere readers, called their summer issue) which features stories and poems by some excellent writers, and my piece on the perils of waking up in the middle of the night when someone rings your door bell, ‘Knock Knock’.

To buy a copy – and the editors actually pay their writers, so please support them – go here.

A Tidy Desk

Is this weird? I get a huge thrill in tidying up my writing desk when the rest of the family, who encroach on it constantly, have covered it in tottering mounds of books, magazines and papers, not to say messing up its perfectly logical internal arrangement.

My tidy desk
My tidy desk

Here it is, looking pristine and neat. Isn’t it lovely?

Harrogate History Festival

In the words of Samwise Gamgee, “Well, I’m back.”

Admittedly, I’ve not been to Mordor, just Harrogate (a considerably pleasanter place), but it was just as much a journey into the unknown: my first history festival, my first literary event, my first time meeting other writers; presenting myself at the reception desk, I was a most unlikely virgin!

But I’m delighted to say it all went well. I got to meet and speak with people whose books I’ve read, one of them actually bought my book (thank you, Giles Kristian!), I had a free supper while talking with some lovely members of the public, met the brains behind Salon London (the lovely Helen Bagnall) and the voice of Scotland (the enchanting Sara Sheridan). And here are some photos to prove I was there!

First, one of me with my books (a slightly pathetic show compared to the feet of shelf space required for other writers but gratifying nonetheless).

Me and my books (dark glasses not because I'm too cool but because I'd just come in from outside)
Me and my books (dark glasses not because I’m too cool but because I’d just come in from outside)

Then one of me sidling in between two of the best young writers of historical fiction in an attempt to catch some of their lustre: Ben Kane (left)  and Giles Kristian (right).

Ben Kane (left), me (centre), Giles Kristian (right)
Ben Kane (left), me (centre), Giles Kristian (right)

And finally, but certainly not least, the two finest beards in Harrogate, possibly the world: Robert Low (author, journalist, raconteur, life liver) and Irving Finkel (Assyriologist and rediscoverer of cuneiform tablets from Babylon with instructions on how to make the Ark).

Rober Low (l), me, Irving Finkel (r)
Rober Low (l), me, Irving Finkel (r)

Future Fiction

There’s an excellent article by Claire Musters on the future of Christian fiction on Christianity Today, with some fascinating comments from a couple of the new writers that Tony Collins at Lion Fiction has found and published – and me, too. The other writers are much more interesting. Here’s an extract:

“I write books about people – the choices they make, both good and bad, and how those choices influence the present. This aspect is particularly important: that my central characters do not always make the right choices. They make mistakes and sometimes – even knowing it is wrong – continue to do so. Yet their faith is important to them and they try to live guided by it.”

Mortal Fire by CF Dunn
Mortal Fire by CF Dunn

Dunn believes that it the characters’ humanity, their struggles, compromises and efforts to put wrongs right again, that is key to her writing because it reflects life as we all experience it – irrespective of the fact that we live in a different century to the people in her novels.

Her faith is an intrinsic part of the writing process: “I set out to write books for the general market – wait, scrap that – I set out to write books for people irrespective of their beliefs or none, but I do so as a Christian, and can no more divorce my writing from my faith than I can the blood running through my body.”

To read the whole article, go here.