Inspirations

Carnival Row – A fairytale for our dark times

Having just watched the entire run of the first series of Carnival Row, I can only say – when’s the next one?

Set in an alternative world more sinister and brutal than Lyra’s in His Dark Materials, this is most definitely a fable for grown-ups.

We discover here a well-realised world in which Victorian-level technology intersects with the wonders and magic of the creatures of Tir Na Nog – a once-fabled realm of real pixies, centaurs and other mythological beasts – whose unspoiled natural homeland two rival empires battle to rule: The Iron Pact and the Burgh.

When the Burgh withdraws from the war, leaving Tir Na Nog in the hands of the even more brutal Iron Pact, refugees come flooding into The Burgh, leading to all kinds of unsettling developments which strain the already tearing fabric of Burgh society.

This, then, is the setting for a very real discussion of the nature of racism in the realm of faery and humans. The half-human half-ram race of “pucks” are essentially slaves in the Burgh, and all Fae, nicknamed Kritches, are despised by human society. But there are glimmers of civilization, and acceptance among a few – and one strand that even echoes Beauty and the Beast in a very much grittier setting.

The story is brilliantly unwound. At times a love story, at others a devastating commentary on populist politicians who seek to create chaos in order to provide themselves with opportunities for advancement, at others still a version of Ripper Street with fairies, and occasionally a commentary on inter-racial (inter-species!?) sex and relationships, the show is beautifully filmed.

Cara Delevingne has a powerful presence, and Orlando Bloom is expertly matched as the grizzled and hardened inspector seeking to track down a murderer who is killing Fae folk. The scripting is usually pitch perfect with very, very occasional lapses into predictable dialogue.

In all, it’s a steampunk dream with a very dark edge, splashed with power hunger, bigotry and the desperate need to find love and meaning in a world that before our eyes lurches further and further to the right. If this isn’t a fairytale for our dark times, I don’t know what is!

When The Snow Witch Escaped Me

As a writer, I’m going through something of an adjustment at the moment. Something I never really factored into my experience as an author is happening to me.

To explain – some time ago I wrote a novel based in Portsmouth called The Snow Witch. I personally know it’s the best piece of fiction writing I’ve ever done. I wrote it in a particularly ethereal style, but made the characters and the town really gritty and real. Some I made deliberately enigmatic. This combination led to the book coming out in the genre of magical realism.

Magical realism is a fabulous genre. It mixes the allegorical, the real and the mystical into a quite addictive brew that plays with your sense of what is possible.

I knew I had done something right when people who read it approached me and told me how much they enjoyed it. Over and over again. I was selling my books off a market stall once, telling a prospective customer about it, when a previous buyer marched across to me having spotted me, their arm outstretched, stared at me intensely and pronounced: “That’s brilliant!” then marched off.

This is deeply gratifying.

But recently, an artist, Lucille Scott from Little Duck Forge approached me and asked me if she could run an art exhibition based on the book. This was again, deeply flattering. So, we are having an art exhibition in Cascades in autumn 2019 based on the book. 40 artists have signed up for it. It is quite extraordinary.

Then, another artist came to me, asking to make the book the centre of another arts project. This has become Cursed City – which tells another new story of Donitza Kravitch, the book’s eponymous witch – that takes place in Portsmouth, though social media, street art and live events.

Much of the original story takes place in The Model Village, Southsea. Last Thursday I went down there to meet up with local artist James Waterfield and Roy Hanney, who is the creator of this project. James is a great local artist, and he had been working on a secret project as part of Cursed City.

James Waterfield, AKA, Lawn of the Dead
James Waterfield, AKA, Lawn of the Dead

He had created two figurines to place in the Model Village both depicting characters from my book. I looked at them and had a moment of real dumbfoundedness. Basically, I was holding an action figure in my hand that was his conception of Donitza. Someone had made a whole new work of art based on my creation!

I’ve worked with artists before, but nothing – absolutely nothing like this has ever happened to me. It felt surreal. Like, a thing that I thought of had come to life, stepped into reality, independently of me. I didn’t know what to think.

The figurines of Donitza playing her violin and Reynold Lissitch pasting up street art are now safely installed in the village. And I feel like reality is shifting for me. That Donitza has escaped the pages of my book, and begun to take on a life of her own. And I am standing, watching her move and grow, and am bewildered.

A New Book – Mysteries of Portsmouth, Chapter 1

01. Ancient Mysteries of Portsmouth

The earliest accounts of Portsmouth

Most historians agree the little Hampshire village of Portchester is the father of the city of Portsmouth, and was already an ancient settlement when Portsmouth was a muddy island with a few fishing and hunting communities scattered across it. Portchester’s Roman castle (the best preserved example north of the Alps) dates back to the 3rd Century, and was built as part of the Saxon Shore defences designed to protect Britain from marauding Saxon invaders. But even back then when Portus Adurni was new (as the Romans called Portchester Castle), the settlement at Portchester was already ancient.

Before we jump into the mysteries and legends of Portchester, let’s look at what we know for sure about the village and castle, at the point it emerges from the mists of myth into history.

Portchester – Heart of an Empire

The man in command of Portchester Castle and the rest of the Saxon Shore castles just after they were built in the 3rd Century was also the commander of the Classis Britannica, the Roman Fleet that protected the English Channel from pirates. Carausius had started as a Belgian pilot and fighter, but proved so effective as a leader of men that he rose through the ranks of the fleet. A brilliant sea fighter, he had impressive success in quelling Saxon and Frankish piracy in the English Channel, both in Gaul and Britain and was given control of the fleet.

However, rumours soon began to circulate around Rome that Carausius often would wait for Saxon pirates to make raids before he engaged with them – thus enabling him to help himself to the treasure they had stolen, and keep it for himself.

Whether this was the gossip of jealous rivals or true, the effect was that in 286, Roman Emperor Diocletian sentenced Carausius to death. This proved to be a tactical error, because Carausius was still in Britain at the time. When Carausius heard he was being recalled to Rome to meet his fate, he realised he had nothing to lose, declared Britain a separate empire equal to Rome, and drove off Roman attacks.

Secure in his independence behind his forts, Carausius set about creating a rival state to Rome. He minted his own coins from high quality bullion that he hoped would boost his credibility over his Roman rivals and set about running an independent Britannia.

This early version of Brexit came to an end after his betrayal in 293 by his treasurer, Allectus, and Britain was once again taken back under Roman Imperial control.

Carausius’s story is a pretty exciting early history… but there are many more myths and legends. They include bloodthirsty betrayals, murder, a giant, the Holy Grail… and even King Arthur himself!

The Myth of Ferrex and Perrex

Ancient chronicler and recorder of unreliable histories, Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote in his History Of The Kings Of Britain in the 1200s that the original British name for Portchester was Caer Peris. He tells the following story as to how it got its name:

Around 491 BCE, two brothers lived in terrible rivalry. They were the sons of King Sisil “The Fox”, who founded the town of Silchester, and was so successful a leader that he was declared supreme chieftain of the area.

Though he had been a great chieftain, he hadn’t been able to control the bitter rivalry between his two sons Ferrex and Perrex, and after he died, they went to war with each other to gain control of their father’s lands. Ferrex, his mother’s favourite, was forced to retreat to Gaul by Perrex after a fierce battle. When Ferrex raised an army and returned to fight his brother, things went wrong for him again. This time, Perrex defeated and slew his brother.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us Perrex set about founding the fortified town where the Roman Portchester Castle would later stand, naming it Caer Peris – that is, Perrex’s Castle.

This is not the end of the story, however. Perrex’s mother, Idon, enraged at the fate of her favourite son, stole into Perrex’s room while he was asleep, and with the help of her maidens “cut him all in pieces.”

This is not a recommended model of motherhood.

Gurguntus and Beline

Another mythical beginning to Portchester is told by a later historian, Stow, who attributes the founding of Porchester to Gurguntus, the son of Beline in the year 375 BCE. However, Stow also says the same thing happened in Norwich with the same people in the same year – so it might be that he got a little bit muddled.

Nothing much more is offered about this supposed founding of the fortifications – however, it should be said there are many archaeological remains dating back to the pre-Christian era in the area. So, whether there’s any truth in these early myths or not, there’s no doubt there was early settlement and the building of defensive structures in the Portchester long before the Romans came.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Pompey (or Cymbeline’s sons, anyway)

The next mention Geoffrey of Monmouth makes of Caer Peris brings is to the First Century, during the period the Romans were still quelling the troublesome and rebellious Britons, after the Roman invasion in the year 43.

This account involves a young British king, Guiderius, the son of one king Cunobelinus, otherwise known as Cymbeline to anyone who knows their Shakespeare.

“After the death of Cymbeline,” writes Geoffrey, “the government of Britain fell to Guiderius, his son. This prince refused to pay tribute to the Romans, for which reason Claudius, Emperor of Rome, marched against him.”

The story goes that Hamo, the commander of the Roman forces made an attack on Caer Peris, and “began to block up the gate with a wall,” probably with the view of starving the inhabitants into surrender.

In the fighting that followed, Hamo killed Guiderius.

However, this was not the end of the matter. Guiderius’s brother, Arviragus, mightily enraged, took command of the Britons. They fought so desperately under him that they drove the Romans back to their galleys.

Once more, this was not the end of the matter. Later, when the Britons had departed, Claudius assaulted the fortification again, and this time he took it for Rome.

The rest, as they say, is history. Literally.

King Arthur and the invasion of Portsmouth

Another ancient story about the defence of Portsmouth takes us fully into the realms of Arthurian Romance.

Many of the early King Arthur stories date back to a time when Britain was being invaded by Saxon tribes, just after the Romans had left Britain’s shores as the Empire came under increasing attack at the centre.

The reality or otherwise of King Arthur is hotly debated. Whether Arthur was an imaginary folk hero spoken about around British camp fires to keep up British morale hundreds of years later, a soldier in the battles that occurred between the Britons and the Saxons, a vestige of a sungod (the twelve battles he fights that push him further West, his death, disappearance in the west and subsequent promised return are an interesting echo of the twelve months of the year, sunset and sunrise) or something else, doesn’t really matter for this book. The stories that have been woven around this most enigmatic of figures who stands on the boundaries of history and mythology are as rich in story detail as he is elusive in fact. But what’s great about Arthur is the amazing amount of stories this figure has inspired.

From soldier, through war leader, to king and finally emperor of a vast land, the legends about Arthur are increasingly embellished by the romance writers of the Middle Ages. In fact, the first description of Arthur as “emperor” is found in connection with Portsmouth. It’s in a poem dedicated to the death of another Celtic hero of Welsh literature – Geraint mab Erbin, that is, Geraint son of Erbin.

Geraint was a popular figure associated with southwestern Britain and South Wales in the late 6th century. He became most famous for an entirely fictional romance written about him in Welsh called Geraint and Enid, which mimics a similar 12th Century poem by French mediaeval poet Chretien de Troyes.

But Geraint had been around in literature long before this romance, and older poems speak about him as a real person. Thus, the very much earlier poem Geraint son of Erbin appears to be a true lament for the death of a British hero, killed in battle.

The location of the confrontation is given as Llongborth – meaning “haven of ships”, which writers and historians have identified with Langport in Somerset – or with Portsmouth harbour. The poem tells of the slaying of Geraint, a Celtic prince, by the Saxons in the 6th Century.

Could the ancient poem really be Portsmouth-related? Is there any other evidence of a battle in the 6th Century in Portsmouth in which a British hero was killed?

Interestingly enough, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles also contain a mention of the invasion of Portsmouth for the year 501 , as follows:

Port and his two sons, Bieda and Mægla, came with two ships to Britain at the place which is called Portsmouth. They soon landed, and slew on this spot a young Briton of very high rank.

Is it possible that the poem Geraint mab Erbin actually tells of the death of that same young prince mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles? And if Geraint a figure of myth was real, is it possible there was an Arthur after all?

It’s circumstantial evidence, but there are plenty who are convinced it’s true!

Ancient Burials and Brutal Deaths on Portsdown Hill

Staying on the theme of slain ancient warriors, it’s worth noting that at the top of Portsdown Hill as you head east toward the cutting where the A3(M) now slices through the chalk cliffs at the Havant end, around 1816, a tantalising discovery was made by labourers. Local historian Lake Allen tells the story in his 1817 History of Portsmouth:

Some labourers being employed in quarrying chalk during the month of September last, accidentally broke into a tumulus situated on the South side of the hill near the telegraph. The form of it appeared to be a parallelogram, extending East and West about 100 feet, in breadth about 20 feet, and in height 6 feet. In this tumulus or Barrow were discovered the remains of twelve bodies, some placed in cists, others laid only on the surface of the chalk, and covered by heaping the surrounding soil on them. The skeleton that was last discovered occupied a grave distinct from the others, but evidently too short for the stature of the person interred; loose flags were placed on it, their ends resting on the chalk. The radius and ulna were laid across the frame; the latter was the only bone entire, and was rather shorter than that of a well proportioned man. The occipital bone bore marks of petrifaction, and at the juncture of the temporal with the parietal bone, on the right side, was found inserted an iron head of a spear.

What became of these relics I do not know. But is it possible that the spearhead found in this body was none other than the one used by Porta to slay Geraint mab Erbin? It’s too much of a coincidence, surely..? And since we can’t examine the orginals, how can we ever know? But a man in a tomb, killed by an iron spear, hurriedly buried under loose flagstones by a vanquished army… is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to at least wish it were true?

Bevis’s Grave

Another archaeological site with mythical connotations lies near the one described by Lake Allen on Portsdown Hill. Again, heading east toward the motorway bridge, in the fields north of the road is the site of an ancient burial mound, Bevis’s Grave.

This was a giant long barrow – around 88m by 25m long with ditches to north and south. These days, it is largely buried, with only a part of it rising about half a metre above the ground. Nevertheless, it is actually about 4,500 to 5,500 years old. Part of an antler, probably the remains of a pick, was excavated from the ditches, along with sherds of late Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery.

In fact, the whole area along the crest of Portsdown Hill is rich in archaeological sites. Nearby is an area of early medieval burials, including two Saxon burials and eighty Christian graves dating from the 8th and 9th centuries. Who knew, as you take your dog for a walk or drive down into Havant that you are surrounded by so many relics of the deep, distant past?

So, back to Bevis. Who was he? And why is this his grave?

Bevis was a mediaeval knight from a Middle English romance called Sir Bevis of Hampton from around 1324. (Those of my generation will understand when I say I don’t believe that anywhere in the text is a mention of a companion or squire called Sir Butthead.)

Here are the bare bones of the romance:

Bevis is the son of Guy, count of Hampton (aka Southampton). Guy’s young wife, a daughter of the King of Scotland is unhappy in marriage and asks a former lover, Devoun, Emperor of Germany, to kill her husband. He happily sends an army to oblige and Guy is murdered in a forest. Fearful that their ten-year-old son Bevis will seek revenge, she decides that he, too, must die.

Saved by a faithful tutor, the young Bevis is later sold to pirates. After many adventures, Bevis ends up at the court of King Hermin, which is situated either in Egypt or Armenia – the writer is a bit vague on the details of where exactly. Bevis is involved in numerous exploits, including the defeat of Ascapart, a legendary giant from English folklore, and falls in love with the king’s daughter, Josiane. The king then sends Bevis on a mission to deliver a sealed letter to King Bradmond of Damascus. Bevis, not realising the letter requests Bradmond to execute him duly delivers it. He is imprisoned, escapes, finally wreaks vengeance on his stepfather and claims his inheritance. However, he is then separated from Josiane, and both are forced into false marriages, until in the end they are reunited at last.

It would make a great movie.

So, there it is. Though the barrow’s original inhabitant is long forgotten, a wonderful story has filled it with fresh life.

And that is the nature of legends, after all.

Hayling Island – home of the Holy Grail?

Whilst we are looking at ancient mysteries and the Celts, let’s have a look at another figure from the Roman era who some legends say came to Britain. That is none other than Jesus Christ.

A particular theory I stumbled over in an unusual pamphlet some time ago comes from the pen of a now-deceased local writer called Victor Pierce Jones. It puts forward the eccentric idea that the Holy Grail was, or is, buried at Hayling Island. In his book Glastonbury Myth or Southern Mystery, the author seeks to prove that “Jesus travelled from the Holy Land as a youth, lived on the south coast and was given a cup when he departed”- a cup which Joseph of Arimathea brought back to Britain after Christ’s death on the cross, “returning it to his first disciples and friends” in no place other than Havant – which is actually the “real site of Avalon”.

Further questions raised by the author include: “Did Merlin live at My Lord’s Pond, on Hayling Island? Did King Arthur find Excalibur at Havant? Was the Holy Grail found by Benedictine monks and a Knight Templar on Hayling – and is it still hidden there?”

Along the way, the author manages to include many of the ancient sites already mentioned in this book and some of its characters. King Arthur gets a look in, as does Bevis, William the Conqueror and countless duplicitous Glastonbury monks. Argued with a passion, it is quite joyous and, I personally think, completely bonkers.

But that’s just me. The construction of the argument is a work of art, and for seekers after mysteries, it’s a slim volume with which you can fill your boots!

An Ancient Ghost, A Countess Beheaded

There are many ghost stories associated with Portsmouth and the surrounding area. Here is one from Warblington to whet your appetite:

Five hundred years ago at Warblington, by the ever-moving waters of Langstone Harbour once stood a magnificent castle, of which only a few vestiges remain, and on whose ruins in the 18th century, a farmhouse was built. In its heyday it was one of the chief guesthouses of the Earls of Salisbury. The ghost that haunts the site is that of the unhappy Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. She once lived here in great state, dividing much of her time between Warblington and Lordington Manor, near Racton, which was commissioned by her husband Richard.

Their children included Cardinal Reginald Pole, who was the last Catholic Archbishop of England during the period of the Reformation, in which Henry came into direct conflict with Rome. Cardinal Pole was unbending in his attitudes to Henry VIII and strongly criticised him for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He also warned against his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Sensing danger from the king’s growing impatience and anger with him, Cardinal Pole went into exile in France, where he finally denounced Henry to the other princes of Europe.

The ruthless tyrant Henry VIII attempted an assassination of Pole, but when this failed avenged himself by having Pole’s family arrested. His mother, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two and a half years on trumped-up political charges. She was finally beheaded at Tower Hill in 1541, the last surviving issue from the direct male bloodline of the Plantagenet kings of England. Only one family member survived, her son Geoffrey Pole, who fled into exile in Europe. The Pole family was thus completely destroyed as a dynasty by their spiteful and merciless king.

Accounts of Margaret’s execution tell of a grisly end.

On the morning of 27 May 1541, in front of a crowd of 150 people, Lady Pole was led to the scaffold where she was expected to say a few pious words and submit to her fate. But the 67-year-old had no intention of going quietly. She refused to kneel or lay her head on the block, and told the executioner he would have to strike her head off where she stood. Guards roughly took her resisting form to the block, where the executioner raised his axe… and – thrown off his stroke by her defiance – swung the blade and struck her in the shoulder.

In agony, Lady Pole jumped up shrieking, gushing blood into her white hair. The executioner chased her, wildly swinging his axe. It took eleven bloody blows before she finally died. Legend in the Tower of London says that on the anniversary of her death, her ghost is seen in the night, her white hair streaming with blood from her many wounds – forever pursued by her phantom executioner.

After the destruction of the Pole family, the estate was forfeited to the Crown, and a few years later, Thomas Cromwell had Warblington Castle demolished. What was left of it then fell into decay and farmhouses were built over part of it.

A local story tells of a different sighting of a spirit at the site. It says that the ghost of the beheaded and tragic Countess Margaret Pole haunts the ruins, as she mourns the passing of her lost life and her magnificent home.

How the mighty may fall!

*

Please note – There are many more ghost stories to come in the pages of this book, but first, let’s discover the Lost Lands around Portsmouth…

Her: Opening section to a new novel by Matt Wingett

Love.

Am I actually glowing, or is that a trick of the light? Is this really love? Really? I mean, what do I actually know about it? She laughs gleefully. – Except – I’m in it!

Jo Parris stands ecstatic and naked before a mirror, a sensation rising in her core as if someone has reached down and benignly electrified her insides. Gorgeous-beautiful-ache happy-delirium bursting-joy-pain. This is it all right. The real thing.

The early summer air is hot around her. Even at this time of day, when the shadows are cast on the ground by the red light of dawn, she feels so hot her skin might catch fire. Glorious morning light.

"Her" - cover art

“I’m home,” she says in a whisper, stepping to her bedroom’s sash window, through whose mouth cooler morning air kisses her skin.

Sol, the old currant bun, Helios, Starfire, shaking out his bedhead, she thinks, as he bounces a shaft against a car window and lights her up: a young woman exultant in a town where she only ever expected to feel marooned. She revels in the spotlight, picked out by the sungod, radiance washing through her.

Love’s like catching fire. It burns. Weird.

A passing gull dims the dazzle a moment and she recollects the meeting scheduled for later that day. A cloud of dismay dims her mood.

What will Aunt G say?

Her question to herself refers to her secret (because, yes, I have a secret!, she tells herself excitedly). Yet, today, even for Aunt G and her disapproval she feels indulgent – as if she might forgive her former attempts to shape her life and lead it in the old woman’s preferred direction –

I don’t know why, Jo puzzles to herself. – All her weirdness… Over all these years… Fuck that! This time, it’s different. He’s my secret. No answers to prying questions, no breathless revelations about relationships.

Her gut agrees – a compass-needle-north feeling that points to her resolve –

I’ll handle her. She shakes off the thought and soaks up the view from her first floor flat: green of common, leaves of palms, elms neat-queued beside a path first laid for holidaymakers when seaside was a novelty of mass transportation. Distant: a low castle, built in the time of one Henry or other. Beyond, unseen from her position, a blue margin, whose saline presence fills her sinuses.

The sea, the sea. She half-consciously registers it. Magic pool of life. Home of possibilities. Bucking road to all compass points. All life comes through this town she hugs her arms to herself and lowers her giddy head, breathing it all in as if she wants to contain the world, right here, right now. Life is fucking ‘A’.

Movement behind her – snorted breath. Pirouetting with dizzy delight to the source of her reverie, she wonders, – is he waking up!?

Earlier, before slipping excitedly from her bed, she lay for half an hour, transfixed, torn between waking him and just watching. Beautiful man. My secret.

Thus her excited turn about her bedroom – a space once a Victorian family’s living room; now, where once resided the primmery of Imperial life, her hot lover snores abed. She draws him in through her eyes. Still asleep, she registers, hoping his dreams are hooking him to the surface – and if not, they’re of her.

She stretches. Arms sideways, bracing invisible pillars; arches her neck. Yawns.

With him she is all herself. An innocent in the forest who looks up, breathless at the world around her, and loves it for what it is, knowing she is loved in return.

Maybe not actually innocent, she thinks, because he has been the source of seriously good sex from day one, – And it only gets better – she tells herself as she feels the full stretch.

Satisfactorily yawned out, she drops her arms and relaxes her shoulders.

I hated it here, she tells herself in wonder. Till two weeks ago. Hated.

She rests her elbow on her navel and plants chin on palm to think a moment. Considers The Shrine on the chest of drawers – a little resident goddess standing immobile, watching them both.

“It all changed with You,” she whispers to Her, half-playfully reverent. The target of her gratitude is a carved figure in a homemade leaf bower. A doll of exotic origin. The one she calls Her.

Jo feels the same pull she felt the first day she found Her. Steps over to Her. Imagines She is sentient – somehow watching the scene in the room.

Now Jo lifts Her. Near-religious tenderness. Eyes Her wooden face – my breath is tremoring!? – As if magic will happen!? Of course it does not, though a little bit of Jo thinks it could.

She holds Her a while longer, replaces Her on the chest of drawers, then walks back to the bed and looks down on the man she is in love – or at least in lust – with.

Still asleep. Breathing his dreams through his mouth – can I get an idea of what they are? They smell sweet.

She scents his sweat, too, the tang of last night’s sex. Jumbled sensations flash through her mind – and she remembers: exhausted, falling into black sleep together, winding around each others’ dreams, smell of fellow human, warmth of skin. This morning, her brief and by now familiar flash of surprise and joy when waking to find – Yes! he is real.

She takes a breath as all these thoughts wash over her, reaching a conclusion as she stretches her arm to wake him –

Yes. I’m in love!

Portsmouth: Be Inspired

As some of you may know, one of the things I try to do with writers is inspire them to get on and write, to support them when I can and to pass on the gift of encouragement and inspiration when I can. I was reminded earlier this week of times I have done that in the past – and I will always try to do it in the future.

One of the things that I’ve really found psychologically helpful is knowing that, actually, my home town has produced the most extraordinary writers over the years. It’s very easy, especially in a town like Portsmouth that on the surface can appear bleak and provincial to start thinking “No one from this town has really made it in writing”. To think so would be wrong, of course, but the psychological effect of such thinking is to hold you back. That’s why, sometimes you need to be reminded of the counter-examples.

It’s noted that before Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, it was generally considered an impossibility that anyone would break that record. Afterwards, when the counter-example was given and the psychological boost had been given to runners, records tumbled in quick succession. A new threshold had been set. The paradigm for the possible had been altered.

A little while ago I was selling my books at a market stall, and someone pointed to my latest. With a sneer and a sarcastic grin they said: “To be honest, ‘Portsmouth A Literary And Pictorial Tour’, must be very small. It’s the literary part. Surely any book with ‘Literary’ and ‘Portsmouth’ in the title is going to be super thin.”

Of course, I set this person right, telling her about Conan Doyle, Dickens, H G Wells, Kipling, Jane Austen, Wodehouse, C J Sansom, Jonathan Meades, William Cowper, Olivia Manning, Jean Rhys, Neil Gaiman and numerous other major authors who had either grown up here, or had something to say about the town. It surprised her, I think. And it changed her beliefs.

I say it to you, too, as writers who sometimes may doubt their abilities or their purpose: Portsmouth has already produced four of the greatest writers of the Victorian era, produced some of the greats of the 20th Century and (I am sure) is poised to do more with the 21st. You can be part of that future history, too.

We all deserve to feel good about where we’re from, and we deserve to draw inspiration from success stories to feed us on our own journey. So I thought, in case you didn’t know about it, that I would let you know that’s part of why I wrote my book.

Portsmouth, A Literary and Pictorial Tour celebrates this island city’s rich and diverse literary heritage, but more than that, it asks you to imagine that perhaps one day, you will be in future editions.

In fact, some of you already are in this one, alongside those famous greats, some of whom I’ve named above. So, as Christmas and the New Year come along, I wish for all of you to have the success you deserve in the coming years and months.

Merry Christmas all.

Turmoil in the Marketplace for Ideas

There is a story that on arriving at the scene just a few minutes after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India was met by an increasingly angry mob. One voice suddenly rose over the crowd, saying: “A Muslim shot him…” The story goes that Mountbatten, seeing the danger of a massacre by enraged Hindus shouted loudly: “You fool, it was a Hindu!”

Whether this story about Mountbatten is true or not, and whether or not a Hindu or Muslim had been responsible, the wisdom in such a reply – to quell rage and prevent scapegoating of the minority Muslim population is obvious. In fact, the murderer actually was a Hindu. But even if you put this to one side, the instinct was still sound.

As a writer, for some time I have been imagining how best one might cause a civil war in an imagined country. Suppose there were an invader seeking to destabilise the regime, but wanting to do so discreetly. What would he do? The land I imagine is low tech, pre-industrial and ruled by an increasingly distrusted Prince who has perhaps made one or two poor decisions, but who is in fact a kindly and beneficent ruler. How might agents foment revolution, I asked myself?

In a thought experiment, I imagined a marketplace, where people convene from all parts of the country to trade, meet and enjoy a two week fair. The fair-goers would include members of the ruling classes, tradesmen and merchants with connections to trade routes and fleets. It would include guildsmen, jealous of their work and their skills, guarding against impostors. There might be harlots and mountebanks and cheapjacks and performers all mingling with the general population who have come there to buy, meet others, share news, gossip and talk.

It was there that I realised that the revolution would start. In the marketplace for ideas.

It might happen thus: at one end of the market, a gossip spreads news about a well-established merchant. He uses those ships to trade in people, and whenever his ships land at ports, children always go missing. Is this a coincidence? The gossip only asks the question, but it is a question that others with no knowledge of the gossip’s agenda repeat.

In another part of the market, a rumour starts that local guildsmen were heard hatching a plan to kill another merchant because he brings in goods from the shores of Cathay that are putting local tradesmen out of work. Elsewhere a rumour goes up about the Prince, that he is using the taxes from the fair to raise an army, and will be conscripting soon. Others say that this is not true, but that he is in fact using the money to line his own pockets, or that the Prince is in the pay of foreign powers.

More rumours abound. An army was seen in the East, and those of the Eastern faith are accused as spies for that army. After all, wasn’t it invaders from the East who killed a child in the woods last year, even though no-one can quite remember the name of that child? Butchers are accused of selling infected meat and bakers of adulterating their bread with alum.

Soon, the harmony of the marketplace is disturbed by the rumours. Butchers and bakers look defensively at their rivals, tradesmen pit themselves against tradesmen, all look suspiciously at foreigners and more so at the Prince on whose watch this is all happening.

Over the next few days, factions form. Those who have been accused complain and grumble. Others of the secret invader’s agents, pretending to be on the side of the aggrieved, amplify their complaints, turning them from a mild grievance into an angry counter-accusation. The newly aggrieved on the other side respond, and soon the agents have very little to do as the factions take their grievances to each other.

For those spreading the rumours, the truth of one claim or another is irrelevant. The purpose is to spread discontent wherever possible. For those in the marketplace of ideas who have no idea of the agenda, they naturally take sides according to their preferences and predilections, their biases and loyalties, and soon, hardened factions have formed within the marketplace, where formally there was only interest in trade.

Neighbours look at neighbours on the stalls distrustingly, and guard their goods against theft. Accidental overturnings of carts, genuine accidents or planned, are immediately met with outrage and anger as proof of the ill intentions of one or other faction. The mood of the marketplace has changed so that reasonable discourse and the sorting out of problems is no longer possible. Everybody is aggrieved. Everybody is simmering and angry. The rumours become truths in the minds of those who now seek to interpret the actions of their neighbours from within the grossly distorted paradigms they have internalised.

Now the rumour goes out that groups from the East are carrying concealed weapons. They are challenged on the streets by butchers, with meat cleavers.. Though they are not carrying weapons, they soon begin to. The butchers are joined by the blacksmiths and the knife sharpeners. But these two factions already distrust each other, and arguments start between them, at the agents’ instigation.

Soon, everyone feels unsafe, and no-one trusts anything anyone says, except their own small factions. Civil society is breaking down. The Prince posts guards to ensure safety on the streets, and soon more whisperings are complaining that the Prince is both taxing and oppressing them. The guards themselves become the subject for distrust – and one night after a drunken brawl a guard is killed.

Rumours blame the people of the East, the butchers, the merchants, the traders, the guildsmen in turn. Each accuses the other and none will listen. Soon the factions are so widely separated and angry that more guards are called in as more and more discord breaks out.

And then, one man with a louder mouth who seems somehow to have the ear of the armed factions steps in. He ousts the Prince and installs himself in his place. He is a strong man He is one the crowd trust to “get things done”. Those who armed themselves are grateful for his intervention as he brings in increasingly Draconian rules to deal with foreigners and traders, and anyone who steps beyond his increasingly eccentric and tight restrictions.

Others complain that he is taking away freedoms, others that he is favouring certain groups over others, others that he is a bully.

All of these things may be true, or none may be true. The point is that while the people are thus preoccupied with their rage and accusation at each other, they do not even notice the coup that has taken place, nor fully appreciate how their lives have changed. The few who do notice and make a stand are shouted down and buried with rumours by agents. And in order to discredit those seeking to reinstate rational discourse, new rumour-spreaders join the rational side, so that there is very little rational discourse, only more and more rage, and more and more accusation.

Against those who do still persist in trying to speak their milder or more perceptive truths, it is not difficult now to raise an outraged mob. Some are intimidated into silence. Some disappear.

Meanwhile, the loudmouth who got to power continues to strengthen his hold, spreading further lies and adding to the general sense of distrust with proclamations and with increasingly sweeping powers. Those who want order at any cost rally round him, calling those who oppose his approach traitors, not seeing that what he is doing is quite the opposite of what they wanted, which was to bring them peace and liberty. And what his agenda is, nobody knows, though some suspect that the foreign power that some voices warned about in regard to the old Prince, have in fact installed this one in his place.

That is how one uses the freedom of the market to bring about its opposite. It is also, of course, an allegory of how free speech can, ironically, be democracy’s worst enemy.

 

Why Conan Doyle’s Southsea Life Should Inspire Writers

Writers looking for reasons to keep going when times are tough, should look no further than Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life in Southsea. His story of struggle, finding his way and eventual success is one for every writer to learn from.

In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle talks about those early years after his arrival in Southsea.

I made £154 the first year, and £250 the second, rising slowly to £800, which in eight years I never passed, so far as the medical practice went. In the first year the Income Tax paper arrived and I filled it up to show that I was not liable. They returned the paper with “Most unsatisfactory” scrawled across it. I wrote “I entirely agree” under the words, and returned it once more. For this little bit of cheek I was had up before the assessors, and duly appeared with my ledger under my arm. They could make nothing, however, out of me or my ledger, and we parted with mutual laughter and compliments.”

So, what changed? Doyle confesses that he never imagined he’d be able to make a living from writing. In the early days, he was so poor he had no staff at his surgery on Elm Grove and cooked bacon over the gas lamp in the back room. But, he adds:

In many ways my marriage marked a turning-point in my life. A bachelor, especially one who had been a wanderer like myself, drifts easily into Bohemian habits, and I was no exception… with the more regular life and the greater sense of responsibility, coupled with the natural development of brain-power, the literary side of me began slowly to spread until it was destined to push the other entirely aside.

Though Doyle did write before he married, he was paid an average of £4 per story and made around £10 or £15 a year from his work, which works out at between £1000 to £1500 a year.

A great insight into his creative life follows:

But though I was not putting out I was taking in. I still have notebooks full of all sorts of knowledge which I acquired during that time. It is a great mistake to start putting out cargo when you have hardly stowed any on board. My own slow methods and natural limitations made me escape this danger.

A Study In Scarlet in the famously rare 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, of which only 11 complete copies are known to exist.

After he married, he wrote most of the stories that appeared in his book, The Captain of the Polestar. He progressed steadily, until he appeared in the prestigious Cornhill magazine, with his short story Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.

Doyle had to deal with hostile reviews and keep on, even then. One reviewer stated: “Cornhill opens its new number with a story which would have made Thackeray turn in his grave.”

Doyle was also willing to take on any writing job that came his way:

I was still in the days of very small things—so small that when a paper sent me a woodcut and offered me four guineas if I would write a story to correspond I was not too proud to accept. It was a very bad woodcut and I think that the story corresponded all right. I remember writing a New Zealand story, though why I should have written about a place of which I knew nothing I cannot imagine. Some New Zealand critic pointed out that I had given the exact bearings of the farm mentioned as 90 miles to the east or west of the town of Nelson, and that in that case it was situated 20 miles out on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. These little things will happen. There are times when accuracy is necessary and others where the idea is everything and the place quite immaterial.

Doyle’s next realisation about his writing is a useful one for any writer.

It was about a year after my marriage that I realized that I could go on doing short stories for ever and never make headway. What is necessary is that your name should be on the back of a volume. Only so do you assert your individuality, and get the full credit or discredit of your achievement.

His first venture was The Firm of Girdlestone, which he acknowledges as a “worthless book”. He adds:

When I sent it to publishers and they scorned it I quite acquiesced in their decision and finally let it settle, after its periodical flights to town, a dishevelled mass of manuscript at the back of a drawer.

Then came his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes:

Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own? I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. I would try if I could get this effect. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction?

Doyle adds: “It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it—such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards…” Next came the choice of the name. something not too obvious for a clever man, such as Mr Sharps or Mr Ferrets, but something else.

First it was Sherringford Holmes; then it was Sherlock Holmes. He could not tell his own exploits, so he must have a commonplace comrade as a foil—an educated man of action who could both join in the exploits and narrate them. A drab, quiet name for this unostentatious man. Watson would do. And so I had my puppets and wrote my “Study in Scarlet.”

In fact, Doyle wrote the book over a period of 3 weeks in 1886. It was a novella rather than a novel – but he was rightly proud of his achievement.

For the writer, the question then, is how to deal with publishers who just don’t “get” your work? To push on and hope, appears to be the answer. And a matter of luck is always part of the equation, it seems:

I knew that the book was as good as I could make it, and I had high hopes. When “Girdlestone” used to come circling back with the precision of a homing pigeon, I was grieved but not surprised, for I acquiesced in the decision. But when my little Holmes book began also to do the circular tour I was hurt, for I knew that it deserved a better fate. James Payn applauded but found it both too short and too long, which was true enough. Arrowsmith received it in May, 1886, and returned it unread in July. Two or three others sniffed and turned away. Finally, as Ward, Lock & Co. made a speciality of cheap and often sensational literature, I sent it to them.

“Dear Sir,” they said,—”We have read your story and are pleased with it. We could not publish it this year as the market is flooded at present with cheap fiction, but if you do not object to its being held over till next year, we will give you £25 for the copyright.

“Yours faithfully,
“WARD, LOCK & Co.”
“Oct. 30, 1886.”

The story famously appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Doyle never received another penny for it.

Doyle did not wait for publication the next year, but wrote a historical romance, Micah Clarke. For which pains, he was asked by publishers how he could waste his wits and time writing historical novels. Other comments from publishers were in a similar vein.

I was on the point of putting the worn manuscript into hospital with its mangled brother “Girdle-stone” when as a last resource I sent it to Longmans, whose reader, Andrew Lang, liked it and advised its acceptance. It was to “Andrew of the brindled hair,” as Stevenson called him, that I owe my first real opening, and I have never forgotten it. The book duly appeared in February, 1889, and though it was not a boom book it had extraordinarily good reviews, including one special one all to itself by Mr. Protheroe in the “Nineteenth Century,” and it has sold without intermission from that day to this. It was the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation.

As for Sherlock Holmes, British literature was fashionable in the United States at the time, and it was a Mr Stoddart, an American agent for Lippincott’s who asked to meet up with him in London in 1889. He thus had dinner with Stoddart and Oscar Wilde, the latter of whom had read Micah Clarke, and liked it very much.

The result of the evening was that both Wilde and I promised to write books for “Lippincott’s Magazine”—Wilde’s contribution was “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” a book which is surely upon a high moral plane, while I wrote “The Sign of Four,” in which Holmes made his second appearance.

Doyle now went on to write The White Company, feeling once again the urge to write historical romance. When he finished, he writes:

I felt a wave of exultation and with a cry of “That’s done it!” I hurled my inky pen across the room, where it left a black smudge upon the duck’s-egg wall-paper. I knew in my heart that the book would live and that it would illuminate our national traditions. Now that it has passed through fifty editions I suppose I may say with all modesty that my forecast has proved to be correct.

He goes on:

This was the last book which I wrote in my days of doctoring at Southsea, and marks an epoch in my life, so I can now hark back to some other phases of my last years at Bush Villa before I broke away into a new existence. I will only add that “The White Company” was accepted by “Cornhill,” in spite of James Payn’s opinion of historical novels, and that I fulfilled another ambition by having a serial in that famous magazine.

These remembrances should act as inspirations for writers in Portsmouth, and indeed, everywhere. It’s one reason I decided to celebrate him and his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes by bringing out a facsimile reprint of the first appearance of A Study In Scarlet through my publishing company, Life Is Amazing. The truth is, the most famous writers come from somewhere. One of those places could be where you are right now. In fact, one of those writers could be you.

[NB: This article was updated on 12th February 2019]

Trip to Dartmoor, May Day Bank Holiday weekend.

I’ve just got back from a real surprise. And that surprise is Dartmoor. I mean, I just had no idea.

True, I went to the National Park when I was a kid. My dad was in the Royal Navy, and had gone along as a natural expression of the ruggedy outdoorsy thing that he was connected up with as Exped Officer.

My memories are: dad struggling up a hill with a caravan (attached to our car, obvs), a cute antiques shop in a small village where I saw a badge depicting a Nazi spreadeagle clutching a swastika in a laurel wreath and big, open empty spaces. I was young.

I’ve also crossed the edge of the moors on a number of occasions, often in the rain, and have been struck by its complete bleakness.

This time, we headed west on Friday afternoon of the Bank Holiday in the camper, and spent our first night part way there in the The Haymaker Inn, Wadeford, Chard – a real local’s boozer, which did great pub classics – my ham, egg and chips had high quality crumbed ham and was just yumptious. The team were welcoming of a camper van, and we slept well after a few beers.

Early next morning, we headed on our way – torn between Exmoor (which we love) and trying out Dartmoor. Both of us had the idea that Dartmoor was a big, bleak open space – but we decided to give it a try, just for a change.

What a great choice that was! The first day we headed to the wonderfully named Castle Drogo, a Lutyens-modelled modern castle, where we stopped for breakfast in the impressive entrance driveway, before heading up into the National Trust car park and taking a walk down to the valley floor. It was a steep drop down in glorious sunshine, and we made our ways through luscious woodland in light that seemed to have have been specially laid on for artists. It’s a weird effect at this time of the year that I’ve also noticed previously in Exmoor – as if the trees have not grown, but been drawn by a fine draughtsman, with black shadows and startling deep green mosses and lichens on trees whose newly-sprouted leaves make them the sylvan equivalent of life-loving teenagers. There is something beautiful about trees at this time of the year, with luminescent greens overhead spreading deep cathedral light.

At times, the path opened up to stunning views across the valley where the soft leaves cotton-woolled into  emerald clouds.

Jackie and I walked with a kind of joyous anticipation at what was next. The valley floor vouchsafed a kingfisher and a yellow wagtail, and so much greenery and reflections on the river that it was like the world was new-made. The climb back up took us out to a viewpoint in which the hills spread out far into the distance, and it seemed that someone had fashioned the perfect landscape with us in mind.

A bite to eat, and a drive through more gorgeous and verdant woodland took us to the village of Moretonhampstead, where we mooched in the shops and I couldn’t resist an antiques buy. Then, newly provisioned after chatting with the locals who were super-friendly, out, up, on to the moors.

Taking a side road that squeezed and turned and twisted and dipped, single tracks with passing places and an occasional local farmer hurtling round corners with wild abandon, we climbed up on to the moors proper and found a space to park. We were up, now, in the sky, with the coconut smell of gorse bushes around us, and the steady khom khom khom of ponies that were sculpted by sunlight. Here we came to rest, sitting in the blaring silence that drowned everything else out, and feeling the slumber that sealed my spirit come upon me – that calm at the centre of being where the true me is. Except it wasn’t slumber. I didn’t sleep, but passed into eternity, the zen state where time reveals itself for what it is: illusion – and the world turns on its axis oblivious to the minutes and seconds of man. I was the same as the horses and the stones and the pools with the waterboatmen and the gorse in muddy green and the shaggy blonde of dried sedge.

Reading up here gave every word concreteness, and I read a novel, The Red Sailor, with joy as Jackie sat and crocheted, and we drank tea in the silence, and the sky came down to kiss us.

That night, I woke in the darkness to see the stars bewilderingly bright. The constellations seemed to be changed, and though some of the sky was familiar, it was teeming with new-bred stars. I aligned the centre stroke in Cassiopeia with the tail of Ursa Major to triangulate Polaris, but could not see it. Someone had stolen my night sky and filled it with milk, or the semen that fills the belly of the sky and creates newborn worlds – and I felt primitive and modern and bewildered and holy all at once, while the ponies stood around me, stock still, as old as the stones.

The next day, we headed through perfect countryside, and I felt as if we were suddenly in a fantasy world. Down into Widecombe where one of Dartmoor’s signature four-finialed church towers points stolidly at the sky, then out again onto the Moors. We climbed to the top of Haytor, a pile of striated granite left by a careless giant and sat in silence a while, taking in the scene. Then, joined by a pair of Slovaks, I broke the ice with the question: “Does this mean anything to you: Strc prst skrz krk?” They laughed and we fell into conversation.  They were I.T. developers out from London for the weekend, and had never been here before. We shared the sense of wonder at a place newfound.

And so the day went on, with us exploring, going through fairy dells where I was sure Mr Tumnus would suddenly appear, looking at Hobbit-shire fields and feeling like that small child again who stepped on to the moors. But this time, focussing on the really powerful stuff, the gentle and inexorable throb of deep life in the land.

That evening, we headed off the moors and stayed in a pub car park at Lydford. The Castle Inn is situated next to an ancient tower once used for court sessions and, next to that, a mediaeval church. The whole of life is there: social, legal and spiritual, in a microcosm. The food at the Castle Inn was excellent as was the beer, and we slept early and woke early, to break our fasts outside the castle tower as the sun beat down.

Next, a walk to Lydford Gorge before 8 am, descending down to stand at the base of the White Lady Waterfall, and feel the pagan magic of the world here. The thundering power of the water filled my ears and I felt more wonder. I paid an offering to the water deity in an atavistic moment and felt completed, somehow.

We lingered on the moors a while longer after eating a Devon Cream Tea at Lydford Gorge National Trust centre, and then made our ways home, filled with a kind of elation.

These moments, these are what life is for.

Stay here a few days and walk through your dreams:
down through green valleys, from high barren hills,
to lichen-scaled trees by numinous streams,
where moss-thickened walls ring deep fairy dells.
Feel, in your dreaming days far from the town,
all weight lift, till only a daisy chain
tied to your ankle keeps you on the ground –
else dandelion-clock-like, you blow away.
When you wake, you will wonder: were they true –
those careless nights and days which time fleeted
as though I walked in a magic-imbued
land, where world weariness is defeated?
If love is a dream of sky-kissing moors
Then I fell in love. Dartmoor: mon amour.

Stream of life – a piece of spontaneous writing

Stream of life:

This is the great stream of life, we are in. Wait. Stop. Listen. Notice the movement on your skin, the slightest of shifts as the sensory cells activate and fire off, reporting all that is going on in your life. It washes over you, washes through and drags you along in its current. There is nothing you can do but submit to it. It loves you, it is you, it is the whole universe, and it knows everything and nothing about you and your thoughts and your hopes and your fears. The stream of life is intimately you, and abstractly both uninterested and disinterested in your life, you future, your past, your pains, your joys, your woes, your smiles and your tears. It is greater than you and you are so much greater than the you that you think you are. The stream washes on. Wait! Stop! Do you hear that sound? It is the laughter of the water, washing all around you.

I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai – Matt Wingett Book Review.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban

I’ve just finished reading I Am Malala, The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban, and I’m far more moved than I expected.

This is partially because of the excellent skill of the co-writer who has interviewed and put together this powerful account of a young girl’s life in the Swat Valley in Pakistan – but it’s more than that. It’s also a story of great personal suffering as the result of simply wanting to do something we take for granted in our lives – the chance to learn to read and write, and from there to learn more things.

There is something deeply authentic about the way Malala’s story unfolds. From her early life she faces the deep conservatism of the Pashtun tribal system which does not celebrate the birth of a girl and fetes the birth of a boy. As their first child, her parents are deeply proud of her and her father is aggrieved when his father won’t bring gifts to celebrate her birth. Since Malala’s grandfather didn’t acknowledge her birth, he prevents the grandfather from then celebrating the births of the boys who came after. Radical thinking for Swat Valley.

Thus Malala grows up supported by a father who is an educationalist, living at first in utter poverty as he borrows money to try to start a school – and several times being flooded out by unexpected deluges. But slowly his reputation grows, and the school he sets up becomes well attended. Scenes of village life and the beauty of the Swat Valley are lingered over in the book, with idyllic scenes of the girls playing among the ruins of the Stupas of the former Buddhist religion that fell into disrepair over a thousand years before.
This section is rich and powerful, and the structuring of her slow rise to becoming a renowned local speaker as a schoolgirl, all the while encouraged by her father who has a strong belief in girls’ education is brilliantly evoked.

Then come the Taliban, as part of the overspill of the war in Afghanistan. The political background to their rise in the Swat Valley is clearly explained. Malala describes how, in order to bolster previous governments, former dictator-presidents had made Pakistan a Muslim state – encouraging a hardline Muslim attitude to life in contrast to the everyday Islam that Malala and her classmates enjoyed at their enlightened school. Thus, the arrival of the Taliban is sanctioned at least tacitly by central government and the Pakistani secret service.

The Taliban’s rise to power has a chilling lesson for anyone concerned with freedom. A self-appointed Talib, or teacher, a man called Fazlullah starts a radio station, apparently deeply pious and benign in intent. In natural disasters, it is always the Taliban who arrive on scene first to help, while Fazlullah’s pronouncements on the radio are approved of by the populace, who see his observations about the length of a man’s beard or whether women should go out covered up or not as wholly in keeping with the Qur’an’s holy message.

But over time, as Fazlullah’s influence spreads, the message hardens until he has turned the population in such a way that it accepts the whipping of people in the streets, and shrugs at the murder of those they disapprove of. All videos and CDs are handed in and burned. No ideas other than Fazlullah’s ideas are allowed. And slowly some of the population begin to wake up to what has happened, despite many also approving of his hardline message.

In many ways my blood ran cold with this. Because although the techniques are different in the West, I see the same creeping doctrine of Far Right organisations in the West mirroring this rise. Brexiteers spread division through lies about Europe, while suggesting that Britain in some way has a special place in the world – a playing to the myths and the hankerings of the general populace, whilst hiding their Far Right agenda. The same happened with Trump in America – normalising extremism and demonising the enemy. It is extraordinary how the techniques of misinformation are echoed in this story.

That Malala reports all this in anonymous reports for the BBC makes her secret alter ego a natural target for the Taliban.

The upheaval and displacement that comes for Malala and her family is well reported – but eventually the secret of her identity comes out.

The final section of the book deals with the revenge of the Taliban. The personal suffering her shooting causes is brilliantly handled, and the reality and colour of the lives of the family are truly vibrant. I confess, I cried.

This is a great book.

It’s available here.