Monday, May 5, 2014

Ave Atque Vale

This week I’m hosting a ‘blog tour’, in which writers take turns to answer the same four questions about their writing, and then pass the questions on to another writer. I'm also taking a bit of time out to focus on my writing.

What are you working on?

I’m currently working on a trilogy of novels. The first, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, is set in Dublin in 1920 during the Anglo-Irish War – or, as the Irish call it, the War of Independence. Aisling O’Flaherty flees to Dublin after her widowed father is murdered and her home town burnt to the ground by British troops. She finds work as a housekeeper for Harry Lovegrove, a British officer and a spy. Patrick Kelly, a member of the Irish Republican Army’s assassination squad, befriends her as a way of spying on Harry. However, Patrick finds he is falling in love with Aisling, while Aisling has already fallen in love with Harry and he with her. Aisling has to choose between her heart and her faith, country and family ...

The second volume, which I’m working on now, is called My Enemy’s Enemy and is set in London in 1940 during the Blitz. Kathleen is a young woman of Irish heritage from the East End who has been recruited by MI5 to root out fifth columnists. On her way home one night during an air raid she comes across Daniel Stein surrounded by the ruins of his home and the dead bodies of his family. He is a Jewish refugee from the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and a passionate Communist. As Kathleen grows closer to him she is drawn into the shadowy world of the Communist Party, an involvement she hides from her bosses at MI5; meanwhile, however, her work obliges her to face up to disturbing secrets from her own family’s past ...

The third volume, Ourselves Alone, is still only the most general plan at the moment. However, it is likely to be the most autobiographical, as it will be set in 1975, the period of my own childhood, in the part of South London where I grew up. It will also have an Irish theme (Sinn Fein is Irish for ‘Ourselves Alone’), and will carry forward some of the characters from the second volume, just as the second volume carries forward characters from the first.

  1. How does your work differ from others of the same genre?
I write historical fiction (though as one writer commented, ‘They’re all historical by the time they get to the printer’). I try to make it not only factually accurate – how many buttons there would be on a jacket, what people put on their toast, when that building was pulled down – but also, more importantly, psychologically accurate. What intrigues me is what it actually felt like to be a young woman in Dublin in 1920, a refugee in London in 1940, an IRA volunteer in 1975; how would you think? How would you see the world? How was that different from people’s consciousness now? It makes me sceptical about the notion of an unchanging human nature.

Why do you write what you do?

I find entering the minds, the hearts and the senses of people in the past endlessly fascinating. When I return, I see the world around me with fresh eyes. I hope my readers do too. And I couldn’t not write. Writing is like exercise; in theory I could live without it, but it would make both very grumpy and very unhealthy.

How does your writing process work?

Like exercise, little and often. I’m a lark by nature, and my brain is clearest in the morning, so I do an hour before work every day, while eating breakfast; the creative process is closely linked to porridge in my mind. I take weekends off, but snatch occasional intensive periods in school holidays when my daughter’s term finishes later than mine or she is engaged in some supervised activity. I measure it by time, not output; sit in front of the screen for an hour every day, and it will come. As Hemingway said, ‘The art of writing is the application of the writer’s bottom to the chair.’

On which note ... on the advice of my agent, I’m taking a break from my blog for a while to focus on my novel as first priority. Thank you to everyone who has loyally and appreciatively followed it! Hope you enjoy the novel when it comes out.

Tessa Arlen
The blog tour continues next week with Tessa Arlen, like me a historical novelist, whose Edwardian thriller Death of a Dishonourable Gentleman comes out in January 2015. Born to British parents but brought up all round the world as a diplomat’s daughter, Tessa has made her home in Seattle. However, she finds herself drawn back to Britain, and particularly to the period just before the First World War when it seemed at its most confident and assured, even while catastrophe was just around the corner ...

Find out more about Tessa at her website.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Saints are in the news at the moment. On Sunday Pope Francis, in a nifty piece of ecclesiological triangulation, ‘raised to the altars’ (made saints) two of his predecessors, the liberalising John XXIII and the conservative John Paul II. And then last Wednesday, April 23rd , St George’s Day, the national day of England, was met in London with ... well, a very English polite indifference. Apparently there was a feast in Trafalgar Square on the Sunday before, but it certainly didn’t spill out into neighbouring streets like Chinese New Year, pack pubs like St Patrick’s Day, or cause a tenth of the travel disruption even a routine Premier League home fixture brings. The flag of St George flew from 10 Downing Street for the day, and I spotted a few limp flags in the suburbs. And that was about it, in London at least.

Why do we feel so embarrassed about England’s national day in England’s capital city? One reason – a sad one – is that when I see a flag of St George my train of associations instantly leaps to racism, bigotry, and prejudice. And, even more sadly, I’m usually right. The red cross on the white background has been appropriated as a badge of resistance by those who fear and resent modern England. Fly a stars and stripes from your house in the USA and you’re merely doing your civic duty by the rest of the street; fly a flag of St George from your house in England and you’re pretty much sticking up two fingers at anyone in the street who happens to have a black or brown skin.

There are those who argue that it is all the more important therefore to reclaim the flag from the racists; but here we run into the other problem, that many Londoners, myself included, simply don’t feel English. England is the country which surrounds our city, and it’s full of beautiful places and lovely people, but it is a different place. New York, where I was last week, felt vastly more familiar, more like home, than any provincial town in England. I support England in sport, but only really by default. (Lord’s, Wembley and Twickenham are at least places where the racist associations of the flag are suspended; I vividly remember, on the morning of England’s Rugby World Cup triumph in Australia, seeing a young Asian woman and a black man dancing together on the terrace of a pub, literally wrapped in the English flag.)

So what about a day for London? Wikipaedia lists Erkenwald, Mellitus, Michael, George and Paul the Apostle as patron saints of London, which seems to me to risk a dangerous confusion of responsibilities if the delegation isn’t handled carefully. In any case, perhaps having a Christian saint at the head of our celebration is just not appropriate for such a multicultural city (go on, Daily Mail, you can have that for free.) Or maybe we should go for Shakespeare, whose birthday (450 last week) coincides with St George’s Day. April 23rd is also the date of his death, when saint’s days are traditionally celebrated, that being the moment when they achieve the ultimate promotion. He is an internationally recognised and esteemed brand. His plays have the teeming variety, the encyclopaedic sweep and the global scope of London. And he was, after all, pretty much a typical Londoner, not born here, but instead getting out of his small town as fast as he could to come to the capital, live it large, make good, and then go back home to lord it over the provincials he’d left behind with the proceeds. Saint William, pray for us.

Monday, April 21, 2014


Last week Lifelong Londoner was in New York, the second most exciting city in the world.

It belongs to everyone. 
Don’t worry if you haven’t been there; you know it already. It’s the most filmed location in the world. It’s the heart and lungs of New York: Central Park

We went there on a Monday, hoping to escape the crowds, but still, with temperatures climbing to the twenties, and an uninterrupted blue sky, it was awash with people, and dogs (a lot of dogs – New Yorkers love their dogs). We took a rowing boat out on one of the lakes and passed little islets colonised by turtles and drifted under bridges famous for a thousand fictional and real romantic encounters.  A prep school (in the American sense of exclusive private school) on their spring break tour (you’re not allowed to say Easter here) had bagged most of the other boats, and handsome teenage boys in chinos and ties swopped competitive insults across the water. Afterwards, we headed for the Boathouse Restaurant by the lake. It doesn’t take reservations (we had to wait nearly an hour), it serves food which isn’t just hamburgers and hot dogs, and you sit in the shade and watch the sun gleaming off the water. Then we strolled down the Mall to the south side of the park, flanked by statues of famous writers (mostly English) and lay in the sun as our daughter scrambled on the rocks and explored one of the twenty-two children’s playgrounds.

The day before, I’d taken an early morning run, exploring the north part of the park. There is a theatre, which in the summer stages Shakespeare plays in front of another lake, for free; tickets are handed out on a first come, first served basis, and the line starts at dawn. There are half a dozen baseball diamonds which anyone can use. There are carefully maintained jogging and cycle trails, with regularly placed water fountains. On the day I ran, they were preparing for a Women’s Half Marathon, the volunteers already walking the course and setting up the drinks tables. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir at the top of the park is circled by a running track, and your efforts are rewarded by a panoramic view of the iconic Manhattan skyline.

The park is New Yorkers’ backyard, in a city where even the phenomenally wealthy don’t have backyards. The sense of ownership is apparent from the naming of benches. One, welcoming a new born baby boy ‘to the world and to New York’, was dated April 1966. Where is that 48 year old now? What has his life been? Does he ever come back to his bench? Some announced proposals of marriage. One simply said ‘What a day!’ Private moments, celebrated in public.

A couple of cafes, the Zoo, and a handful of mobile stalls selling pretzels and soft drinks are the only commercial enterprises allowed in the park. You have to spend a few days in New York to realise how remarkable this is. Two square miles with almost no one selling you anything. Two square miles of prime real estate on the most expensive twenty square miles in the world and no one has built on it. Two square miles where you can lose your way among rocks and trees. Two square miles that belong to everyone, wherever they come from.Two square miles that are everyone’s backyard.

Monday, April 14, 2014


This week Lifelong Londoner is in New York, the second most exciting city in the world.

Baseball and cricket are pretty much brothers. Both boil down to the same dynamic: one man propels a ball as fast and as unpredictably as possible towards another man, who tries to hit it as far as he can with a wooden bat. Both are summer games. Both are stop – start. Both generate a bewildering algebra of statistics, addictive to the adept and incomprehensible to outsiders. But they’re brothers who were separated at birth and brought up in very different countries with very different cultures, as I discovered on a trip to the Yankees Stadium in New York.

There’s a lot of justified concern about the way in which growing economic inequality is prompting a stratification and atomisation of societies around the world, and this is more evident in the USA than anywhere else. However, a ball game remains a profoundly inclusive event, hardwired into Americans young. Every age, every race, every class is there; push chairs, and even baby slings, are commonplace. The Yankees stadium is so well designed that there is virtually no distinction of rank by seating, and all the seats have a pretty much equally good view of the game. There are none of the empty rows backed by hospitality suites filled with schmoozers ignoring the game that are the bane of British sporting events. There is, however, a lot – a lot – of advertising. Everything and everyone is sponsored by somebody. Players are announced by a ‘call to the bullpen’ from a phone company. If you see the Yankees score more than six runs, you get 10% off your next pizza. There is even an official hospital for the Yankees, which presumably gets first dibs every time someone gets brained by a 100 mph ball.

There is also a lot of food and drink, and large parts of the game are spent queuing for it and consuming it. Mindful of the obesity epidemic, all outlets display calorie counts in lettering as big as – sometimes bigger than – prices. (French fries with cheese will set you back $7 and 1,327 calories.) I was flattered to be asked for ID before I could buy a beer, despite it being 31 years since I passed the minimum age for purchasing alcohol in the US. The beer was so weak, however, I could have been 41 years younger and it wouldn’t have had much effect on me. The famous American service ethic is everywhere; we are not customers, we are guests, and even the toilets, foul smelling, squalid places in British stadiums, have a mission statement. (‘It is our mission to offer our guests the highest possible levels of comfort with regards to quality and cleanliness.’)

The hostly duty extends to ensuring that there is not a moment’s rest from being entertained during the game. Singalong tunes are played continually, with lyrics flashed on the screen, alternating with automated rhythmic clapping. Should the crowd show any signs of slacking off, a cartoon character appears and shouts the message GET LOUDER. I CAN’T HEAR YOU. GET LOUDER !!! During one break, a soldier just returned from Afghanistan posed by the plate with his wife and family and was announced as ‘Veteran of the Game’, while we all stood, put our hands on our hearts and sang ‘God Bless America’; this was abruptly followed by a compulsory singalong of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’. The big screen shows not just scores, stats and replays, but constantly cuts away to different parts of the ground, encouraging people to perform for the camera. This happened so often that I feel sure every spectator was covered at some point (we were caught singing along to ‘YMCA’ – had they forgotten it started life as a covert gay anthem?) A second screen flashes up welcomes to cub scout packs and congratulations on birthdays and golden wedding anniversaries. One message asked Karen Hudson to make someone (unnamed) the happiest man alive. What if Karen Hudson wanted to say no?

The overall effect is like being at a child’s birthday party: the piles of food soaked in sugar, fat and salt, the loud music, the singalongs, the primary colours, the manically short attention spans, the insistence that no one is left out, the black and white moral code, the sentimentality, and, at the back of it, the discreet but firm grip of parental control. And I have to say it was the most tremendous fun. Much as I love my outings to Lord’s, six hours sitting down watching not much happen can be a very long time, but this three hours went by in a flash, and my ten year old daughter enjoyed it almost as much as I did. If I lived in New York, I’d get a season ticket. At the end of the game, as Frank Sinatra belted out ‘New York, New York’ on a loop in honour of the Yankees’ 7 – 4 thrashing of the Boston Red Sox, the man next to me turned and said to this ironic Limey, ‘Not much like cricket, is it? You have a good one, now.’ 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


It’s supposed to be meritocratic, but in fact it’s dominated by the white male products of Oxford and Cambridge and a handful of public schools, along with a sprinkling of foreigners who have been allowed to dodge the citizenly duties of the rest of us.
It’s completely dependent on the sponsorship of the financial services industry. It’s frozen in Victorian tradition. It’s pretty obvious before the start who’s going to win, and completely obvious five minutes after the start. And it’s inescapably centred on London. In other words, it is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with British society. But I still love the Boat Race.

There must be hundreds of other races involving boats on the Thames, and thousands on other rivers around the world, but there is only one Boat Race. The arrogance continues in its official title, the Universities’ Boat Race, as if there were still only two. (I’m reminded of a headmaster I worked for once who, asked which university an applicant for a teaching post had attended, answered ‘Neither’.) But perhaps the arrogance is justified by the archetypal nature of the occasion. Two teams of eight men, a river, and a trial of physical strength: for all the chatter about tactics with which the commentators try to fill up the spaces, that’s about it. There’s also something almost levelling about two universities predicated on intellectual elitism, at the heart of a society where status is determined nowadays far more by mental than physical prowess, deciding their relative merits by muscle alone.

It is a thoroughly London occasion. As part of the pre-match warm-up, a reporter interviewed spectators on the terrace of a pub by Hammersmith. ‘The Boat Race attracts interest from all over the world,’ she said breathlessly. ‘I’ve got people here from Russia, Poland, Australia, New Zealand.’ She made it sound as if they had flown in long haul specifically to stand in the rain and watch the grunting crews strain by for three minutes. More likely it was their local where they were having their regular Sunday afternoon drink, and were wondering bemusedly where all the extra people had come from. Thus the multinational population of the city dips in and out of native traditions.

It’s a London occasion too because it centres on the Thames, which runs both literally and metaphorically through the city: the foundation of its prosperity from Roman times till the closure of the docks in the 1960s, the most common mode of transport for hundreds of years, the silver ribbon that guided the Luftwaffe by moonlight to the near destruction of London in the Blitz, and the great dividing line that denominates social standing. The Thames is especially important to me because I live three hundred yards from it, and cross it daily via Richmond Bridge for shopping, travel, church, and my daughter’s school. Every working day I cycle its towpath up to Hammersmith Bridge, covering half the Boat Race route.

And, though I never picked up an oar in my three years there, Cambridge is important to me, too. It was a formative time in my life, the source of lasting friendships and a space to read and think. The letters after my name haven’t done my career any harm either. So I feel a visceral loyalty to the Light Blues. (The colouring is interesting. The two institutions are essentially the same, different shades of one colour, but with the suggestion that Cambridge is a little lightweight by comparison to Oxford’s Dark Blue, having been around a mere eight hundred years to Oxford’s nine hundred and something.)

Oh, and the result? After a clash of oars five minutes in, one of the Cambridge crew slipped from his seat and lost his rigger, the metal hook which keeps his oar in place. (At first I heard the commentator say he had ‘lost his rigour’, which lent a rather moralistic tone to proceedings). Thereafter, Cambridge, who never had much chance, had no chance at all, and the race was over. Oxford eventually won by eleven lengths, the biggest margin since 1973, and their fifth victory in the last seven years. Five minutes! All the early starts, the duvets abandoned, the textbooks untouched, the girlfriends ignored, the beer undrunk, all gone in five minutes. I hope they enjoyed the process. And I hope that the Boat Race will still be going in another hundred and sixty years, and that Cambridge will start winning before then.

Next Sunday it’s off the river and onto the streets for the London Marathon, a much more inclusive, civic and generous spirited sporting event. But Lifelong Londoner will be in New York, the second most exciting city in the world.

Monday, March 31, 2014


Once in a while something happens that is absolutely and without qualification good, and will be the source of enduring goodness in the future. That happened this weekend with the legalisation of gay marriage in Britain.

Gay marriage is both a reflection and an engine of a profund, and profoundly welcome, shift in social attitudes, most of which has happened in my lifetime. I’ve been able to track this shift through my work, teaching always having been a gay-friendly profession. When I began teaching in the 80s, the generation of teachers above me, those who had grown up when homosexuality was still illegal, was stuffed full of closet cases. Some of the luckier ones got away with living with a ‘lodger’ or a ‘friend’. Others, less fortunate or less brave, fought their own nature. Sometimes it was through an obsessive need for control, screaming at children for wearing the wrong kind of socks or flying into a panic if all the pencils on their desk were not pointing in the same direction. Others punished themselves with depression, or drink, or overeating; many lashed out at colleagues with bitchy, barbed character assassinations, pursued obsessive petty vendettas or humiliated children with their cruel put downs. Some let their frustrated need to love leak out onto their students by burdening them with emotional or even physical demands. All of them were a daily rebuke to the notion that there is anything remotely heroic in denying one’s sexuality. Then, in the 90s, little by little, toes started to appear out of closets; on one memorable occasion, a monument of camp nastiness and evasion walked into the Staff Room and said, ‘I’ve just been showing that Romeo and Juliet film to my class, and I must say that Leo Di Caprio is quite a cutie.’ Well, it was a start. Now, in London at least (leading the country by example as ever ...), the whole thing is completely routine. There are a number of Staff Room couples at my school, and half of them are gay. The Head Teacher announces staff’s civil partnerships (and I hope will soon do the same for marriages) in Assembly in the same breath as their straight equivalents. To my students, homophobia is as unimaginable as witch-burning.

This is not yet the case everywhere, however. Here I’m tempted to reach for Edward Heath’s formula: ‘There are people who disagree with me. They are wrong.’ But instead, let’s take the critics on their own terms. Doesn’t it undermine the institution of marriage? I’m in a heterosexual marriage but, strangely, I don’t feel an urge to leave my wife because gay people can get married. If I think about at all, it reminds me of what a good thing marriage is if more people want to do it. It is against nature. Denying the sexuality you have been given is against nature, with predictably disastrous consequences (as my examples above indicate). It is against the Church’s teaching. Here I’ll come out, and proud, as a committed, practising Catholic. The Church is right about most things, and wrong about some things. It was wrong about slavery, it was wrong about anti-semitism, it was wrong to support Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy and it was wrong to turn a blind eye to the Holocaust. It knows now it was wrong about those things, and please God it will know one day it was wrong about homosexuality. Being gay is not like smoking or eating chocolate biscuits, something that can be given up with a bit of effort. If a person is gay it is because God made them gay, and not to express the love that they have been given is a sin against the Creator Himself; the Church should repent of that sin. The existence of the legal institution of marriage does not guarantee the Christian virtues of fidelity, or commitment, or love, but it does greatly assist and support these virtues, and the Church should rejoice in its extension.

So this week we can be proud to be British. All credit to David Cameron, who bravely expended a lot of political capital on this issue for not much return. When Nick Clegg said if he achieved nothing else, gay marriage would make going into coalition worthwhile, he wasn’t far wrong. Britain is a better place for gay marriage, and it’s not going back. Sometimes things get better.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


I’ve never felt comfortable around the military.There was a cadet corps at my school in South London and, every Monday afternoon, the playgrounds would be filled with boys I’d spent the morning swopping football cards and shoving into the tuck shop queue with suddenly transformed into uniformed personnel, marching and drilling. If they were lucky, they got to get their hands on some weapons in the armoury concealed in the underground car park. I was having none of it. I was a conchie. I did ‘Community Service’ instead, visiting a lonely old man, and felt smugly virtuous about it in a self-righteous 70s leftie sort of way. (A friend of mine wangled an even better skive. His old man died, he didn’t tell anyone and just went home early on Mondays.) Next to being sent to boarding school, my greatest terror growing up was that I would be conscripted into the Army. The only war that overlapped with my being of military age was the Falklands, and I remember hoping that, if the whole thing escalated, my Spanish A-Level might secure me a safe desk job in Intelligence. In truth, the only people with anything to gain from my conscription would have been the enemy: averse to confrontation and competition, bored and uneasy with more than one heterosexual man at a time, and hopelessly unmechanical, I’m pretty much designed not to be a soldier.

But there is a whole world, out there, the world of the military, quite distinctive from the civilian world. Never has this world been brought home to me more powerfully and more truthfully than last week at Richmond Theatre when I saw The Two Worlds of Charlie F.

Though the play bears the name of Owen Sheers, the lyrical Welsh poet and novelist, he is only the curator of the words and memories of the men and women who made the play with him. The first image of the play is of a man with a stump of a leg leaning on his crutches, talking to us. Only this isn’t a clever piece of artifice by the make up department. This is a real stump on a real man, who was blown up in Afghanistan. He’s telling his own story. Later he’s joined by two other men who have had both legs blown off. The company is a blend of professional actors and army veterans. Sometimes the joins show, but that only strengthens the manifest authenticity of the performances. There is not a story as such, more a series of scenes illustrating different aspects of army life: why and how they joined up, the rigours of basic training, the importance of letters from home, what seeing action is like, the moment they were wounded, the mental as well as the physical scars, and finally, and most importantly, how hospital becomes another version of basic training, preparing them for the toughest mission of all; re-entering civilian life as a disabled person. There is none of the ‘Help for Heroes’ sentimentalisation of the military here: they swear, use porn a lot and take an almost sexual pleasure in killing. The war can take a sometimes fatal toll on their relationships; one man speaks of waking from a nightmare to punch his girlfriend in the face. And yet they are loyal, and loving, and above all human. As Charlie F. says in his last speech: ‘There aren’t two worlds; there is only one, and you’d better believe it.’

The Two Worlds of Charlie F. makes soldiers part of our world, our one world.It’s left London now and is touring the country; but it’s worth a journey to catch it.