Mortuary Swords

Lucky you! Mine is a replica – although it’s also seen quite a lot of action 🙂

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Basic cut-and-thrust broadswords favoured by cavalry officers and used throughout the Civil Wars were made in England between 1625 and 1670.  They had a wooden or corded grip,  a metal basket-hilt to protect the hand and usually a two-edged blade between thirty-three and thirty-four inches long.  In 1645, two hundred of them were made for the New Model Army at a cost of five shillings each – hard to believe these days.

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The main point of interest in these swords lies in the basket-hilt.  These were frequently decorated in some form or other; a coat-of-arms, a man in armour, intricate patterns of leaves – presumably whatever the purchaser wanted and was willing to pay extra for.  (It is reasonable to assume that the five-shilling ones, being mass-produced, were plain.)
But following the execution of Charles l in January 1649, a new trend was born.  Basket-hilts started to be engraved with…

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Practising Writing Gratitude

Two years ago, I hit “publish” on Red Horse, and I thought that was going to be it, all over and done with. The cover was awful, it hadn’t been properly edited or formatted, but it didn’t matter – I’d written it, and I loved it.

And I still love it. I am still more than a little bit in love with Captain Hollie Babbitt (even when he was as mad as Russell) and Lucey still makes me smile and I still cry a bit at the idea of the rain falling on the dead of Edgehill and what Hollie does about it.
(And of course, I thumb my nose at the Palatinate Pest. Always.)

But of late, I’ve started to feel that it’s not – I’m not – enough.

There were a few of us who, so to speak, graduated 1642 together: palled around together on-line, messaged each other, wrote anthologies together. Supported each other. And some of us have gone off and some of us are still ploughing the 1640s furrow and some of us don’t really write at all any more.
It’s not a competition. Reading someone’s review of a 2016 in which some really quite horrid things happened and skipping to where they say what articles they published in what magazine and thinking – I’m going to submit to them.I’m going to do that,like some kind of historical barracuda. (Shiny! Shiny!)

My friend’s book was reviewed in the TLS. Did I think huzzah! Well done? – or did I think how can I do that?
Friends have been Kindle bestsellers, and I wasn’t happy for them, I was looking for ways to copy them instead.
Well, Entertaining Angels was #1 for the better part of a month. Am I proud? Am I happy? No – I’m prowling round looking for ways to carry on promoting it, to keep pushing it beyond its natural shelf life.
Publishing contract? Yes. Wonderful. Now I want another one, a better one. Richard and Judy time. Prime time. More awards. More reviews. More sales. Always more, more, more.

I was chatting to one of my friends earlier. She was impressed that I’d sold something like five thousand copies of Angels in three months. Did I say – thank you? Yes, it is a good little book, isn’t it? No, I dismissed it. Not good enough. It pretty much sells itself.

I had a lovely review of Red Horse over Christmas and it pulled me up, rather.

Five thousand copies of a book in three months, a hundred new followers a day, Times Literary Supplement glowing reviews…they’re all great,aren’t they? But someone laughed out loud at the grumpy exchanges between Hollie Babbitt and Luce Pettitt, and that’s worth just as much. Someone cried over a shy middle-aged intelligence officer’s friendship with a girl, and that’s worth its weight in gold. Someone is talking to me about the Arundells of Trerice as if they’re real, living people, and that’s priceless too.

My success is mine. Your success doesn’t detract from mine, and nor should it add to it, trying to cover myself in a little reflected glory.
Two years ago I would have been happy with that review for its own sake: not for the status, not for the ranking, but because someone liked my book.
And that’s my New Year’s resolution.
I may not write every day. I may not be committed. I may not be professional.
But I will be happier.

Spring, and tulips

I know it’s only January 2nd, but that’s all right, here in west Cornwall it’s almost half past four and it’s still daylight and I have seen the sun today, so as far as I’m concerned it’s spring.

Next month I will be in Brugge, in pursuit of the Russells. (And, in passing, in pursuit of a young Hollie Babbitt in Amsterdam. I don’t know quite how he’d feel about the Kalverstraat now. When he lived there – and he lived in Amsterdam for a goodly part of his adult life, poor lamb – the Kalverstraat was the flesh-market, it was the place you went for the spring and autumn beast sales. It was where he bought his black horse Tyburn, as a two year-old, for a ridiculously small sum of money. Yes, Tib was bought as meat on the hoof. It’s the posh end of Amsterdam now – the touristy end.)

It’s a funny thing: one of the things that grieves me about modern gardening is how low-maintenance it is, one can either have scent or beauty but not usually both, and everything is meant to be easy to grow and easy to care for, and in the days of Tulipmania men sold small wrinkled bulbs for the price of a small estate , and it was the work of a team of gardeners to care for them as if they were babies. (The tulips, that is, not the gardeners.),

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This beauty is Amiral de Constantinople, one of the only two varieties of parrot tulip to survive from the seventeenth century.

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And this is Zomerschoon – and this is the painting by Balthasar van der Ast of the Zomerschoon tulip of the height of Tulipmania.

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And this – the Tulip Museum – is where I’m headed for an afternoon in Februar.

Wish me luck….

 

 

The Eye Of the Beholder

You will notice, if you read my blog or follow my Facebook page, that I will do almost anything but post photos of myself.

And, you know, you might think that’s a silly female vanity, the authorial equivalent of “does my bum look big in this?” – an affectation.

And you might also think well, hang on, this lass writes about a romantic lead with a conspicuous facial disfigurement, with a degree of authority. I wonder if that’s significant?

Once upon a time, you see, there was a girl who was pretty, who had perfect porcelain skin. And attracting men was a sport – “the night I pulled ten guys one after another in the Ritz Ballroom”. I didn’t have to be kind, I didn’t have to be thoughtful, I didn’t have to be clever or considerate or thoughtful. I was just – pretty. First thing in the morning, I was pretty in smeared eyeliner. Last thing at night, I was pretty and glamorously raddled.

I was not kind.

I didn’t need to be, because I was pretty. I could have all the attention I craved, just by having big green eyes and a slightly forlorn droop to my mouth and good cheekbones.

I don’t think I ever didn’t get – even if only briefly – a man I wanted. I think it would have done me the world of good if I had. It would have taught me a little humility, I think: that just looking the way I did, did not guarantee me any preferential treatment.

And then one day I wasn’t. All the things I took for granted – that I could go out to a nightclub with a pound in my purse and no cigarettes, in the sure and certain knowledge that someone else would buy my drinks: not bothering to be on time,because the pleasure of my beauty was enough, or to be particularly civil to people I didn’t like – I suddenly had to learn all those things, fast and hard. People had always wanted to be my friend, not for the pleasure of my company, but because of how I looked. Being the friend of the most beautiful girl in the world has its perks. Being the man who dated the most beautiful girl in the world… Well, you get the idea.

And then suddenly this girl who had never had to conform, had never had to learn to please or flatter or charm, had to grow a personality.

Which I did, and it’s not a bad one: it has a certain wry dark humour that it had not previous, a degree of self-mockery that would have outraged that proud beauty.

The irony of rosacea is not lost on me: old age wouldn’t have troubled me – doesn’t trouble me – I still have good bones, and big green eyes and a slightly forlorn droop to my mouth and good cheekbones.

Even a tragic disfiguring scar like Russell’s would have its own ruined glamour.

Instead, it’s spots. Blisters and rawness and a burned-looking redness, patches where the skin is dry and it cracks like plaster next to teenage zits.

Sometimes it looks okay, sometimes I can cover it up with makeup and people don’t think they can pass remarks, no matter how sympathetic, about that girl’s poor face. (Which is not burned, and nor does she have chickenpox.)

Sometimes it gets so miserable and sore that I have to take antibiotics, and it’s itchy and infected and so swollen that those lovely cheekbones I still have disappear.

So – no, there are no photos of me, if I can help it. I don’t mind that I’m not the same beautiful as I was. I’m different- pretty now: I built that new personality quicker than Redrow Homes, and it’s in the charm, now, and the smile and – yeah, it has wrinkles about the eyes and a laugh that can strip paint off walls but what of it? It listens, it’s funny and literate and intelligent and witty and loving.

But you can’t see that in a photo.

“Reiver” by David Pilling – a review

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I recently had the opportunity to read David Pilling’s book “Reiver” and I snatched it with both hands. I often see David Pilling’s books linked with mine on Amazon – not sure who buys which first, but we seem to appeal to many of the same readers! – and having read this novella, set in the Scottish Border country in the year AD 1569, I can see why. I have a strong suspicion that one lolloping russet-haired North Country boy would fit right in….

It’s got it all going on, for a novella. Action, intrigue, love and politics – all in 190 pages.in fact, my main problem with Reivers is that it wasn’t long enough – not only in that I wanted to know more, but that I was left with a strong sense of questions unanswered at the end, as if this was a prequel to a full novel.

There’s a strong sense of the Robin Hood about Richie o’the Bow, the young hero – he’s a very young hero, aged all of sixteen, we meet in the opening pages with his equally-young lover, Ruth. (As an aside, I liked Ruth a good deal. She’s that rare thing in the world of historical adventure, a young woman with her head screwed on, whose femininity is not germane to the plot.) And the reader is lulled into a false sense of Wolfshead security: that when Richie and his Bairns hole up at Hope’s End, we are venturing into the territory of Merrie Men, with Ruth in the sweet guise of Marian under the greenwood tree.

Nah. This is a much harder, much darker, story than that.

Richie is a “broken man” but he’s not by any stretch broken by his outlawry.

These are not a band of tragic outcasts and misfits. They’re rough fighting men who – for the most part – are the instruments of their own destruction, part of a society with all the moral rectitude of a weasel in rut. At one point, Richie suggests that they ought to stop fighting and try and work towards a society where they can all live in peace. His lads look at him blankly…He can’t see it happening, either. It’s the only world they know, every man for himself and Devil take the hindmost. And they quite enjoy it…no wrestling with conscience here, thank you.

David Pilling writes with a zest and a very appealing black humour, and a firm grip of the chicanery of 16th century Scots and English politics. Wonderful, vicious action sequences vy with regional dialogue that thrums with colour and threat. Most of my knowledge of the Border reivers – to my shame, my mother being a McLellan, descended from this brawling knot of amoral cattle-rustlers! – comes from George Macdonald Fraser, and the author is kind enough to give his source material for those who want to go further.

I can see this as an early episode in the career of Richie’s Bairns, despite its completeness as a work in its own right. Is the Countess going to be Richie’s own Milady de Winter, in future books? Will the Bairns come to acquire a moral compass, under the shadow of the English?

I do hope we’re going to find out.

Grab your own copy on Amazon here