Quack Medicine

For almost our entire time on Earth, humans have been prey to illness. Our responses over that long period have mostly been limited to quack medicines and folk remedies, occasionally containing grains of truth that actually helped.

Picture yourself a hundred years ago, in 1922 – rather like this dapper couple masked against Spanish Flu.

I make no apology for using this image twice in six months, given its rather stylish albeit totally useless masks…

You know what causes disease – it’s no longer the miasmas of the Reformation period, nor the vapours of the 19th century, or the noxious waters of the Georgians.

It’s bacteria. Viruses. Plagues.

If you have a dececnt microscope, you can see them. Scientists have studied them. We know how they spread, and have demonstrated in real terms how to stop this spread – John Snow and the Broad Street Pump handle back in 1854.

And yet, for all that we can see what ails us, a hundred years ago it made bugger all difference.

Our medicines had been augmented by vaccination against some of the most obvious bacteria – smallpox the most egregious example. Public health measures – clean water supplies – helped limit the impact of cholera and typhus, although they managed to make off with Tchaikovsky and Prince Albert before it was done.

We could mitigate against the worst of them. But what could we actually do against them?

In a biography of Francis Walsingham I read a few years ago, I was struck by the description of how his later years were plagued by recurring infections (cause debatable) which caused him great pains and debilitation.

At the time, the treatments were almost as unpleasant as the cause. Now, you’ll get a course of antibiotics and 99% of the time you’ll be right as rain in a week.

Back in 1590s, not possible. Years of pain that surged and subsided and flared up again without warning, like a constant, nagging toothache that has no cure.

A hundred years ago, in a time of motor-cars and cinema and jazz bands, intercontinental travel and universal suffrage, we were just as helpless against those illnesses as we had been for the previous hundred thousand years.

Some of us recall parents/grandparents who were born before the widespread production of penicillin – who lived their formative years in the shadow of incurable disease, with no antibiotics or antivirals.

Not until the 1940s with the arrival of penicillin did the world begin to shake itself free of common bacterial diseases. When I wrote SHADOWBOX – set in 1832 – this was one of the things I had to remember, and I wrote about this in more detail here: No Sleep Til Medtime.

Before then, our response was Patent Medicines. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company and similar snake-oil peddlers; sanitariums and spa baths for those who could afford them, powders and hand-rolled pills made of sugar and baking soda and not much else.

Vintage aspirin tin from IvyJoan collection

Well-meaning quacks, as well as those with ulterior motives. Rival treatments whose proponents took to advertising and outrageous claims on paper in order to boost their own wares.

The drug Addiline … claimed to be a cure for consumption (tuberculosis) … in 1920. It was found to contain a large proportion of kerosene, a smaller amount of turpentine, and nothing else, except a small amount of aromatic oil.

– patent medicines claimed to cure everything (etc.), Albany County Historical Society

When you had no way of treating the illness with any certainty, why not believe in gods and spirits and witchcraft to heal you? They had as much chance as herbal pills and liniment.

Recently transcribed on the Davy Notebooks Project from two hundred years ago, some notes written from the depths of an illness that left Davy bed-bound on and off while travelling through Italy. Seeded amongst the notes on electric eels and geology are short entries on days when his health was poor. Later entries – letters, for example – apologise for this.

And so, to our current situation. Read the wrong threads on social media and you end up thinking we’re all doomed, and those of us who haven’t yet had COVID are freakish outliers with no friends, living the life of a hermit on a remote rocky islet eating gull’s eggs and kelp.

Turns out that if you look at the figures with an educated eye, in the UK (at time of writing) about ten million of us haven’t had COVID in any of the preceding waves. Many of us are trying hard to keep it that way.

Still, there’s a wheen of other diseases showing their hand in the 21st Century that we thought we’d eradicated or diminished, in the developed world – monkeypox, polio, cholera. Many people RIGHT NOW also live like that, in a world where so many cures and effective treatments are available.

Don’t we have the sense we were born with? History tells us how this story ends.

We can tell new stories, or keep repeating the old one. What’s it to be?

Pandemic Poem Two Years In

Can’t believe it’s been two years since I wrote The First Ten Thousand Dead.

And what do we have to show for it? A couple of hundred thousand dead, two million with Long Covid. Others with new co-morbidities they didn’t have before, still more with hidden damage that may only appear in the longer term, like post-viral syndromes we already know.

I’ll ask again the question I posed at the end of the poem:

How many hundred thousand will it take?

I drafted another post shortly after last year’s anniversary, but hadn’t thought to edit it. I suppose I was hoping we wouldn’t be in this situation. Well, hope ain’t making its mark.

This isn’t the post I wanted to write this week, either. I’ve been reading Charles C. Mann’s 1491: The History of The Americas Before Colombus (link goes to a related article in The Atlantic), and the first few chapters talks about how much of the New World’s established population was destroyed by smallpox, measles, influenza pandemics even before Europeans reached their cities.

Some estimates are frankly scary. Nobody in the 16th-18th Centuries had a modern understanding of germ theory, modern hospitals (even in the developing world), or stupendous modern medicine. We’re a long way from COVID burning through 95% of the world’s people.

But the various pandemics in the pre-modern world seemed to progress along a similar timeframe: three years. It took three years for smallpox to rage through the Peruvian Empire, effectively disrupting it seven years before Pizarro arrived with his horses. Three years for influenza to ravage Mexico’s Triple Alliance after Cortez ambled inland from the coast.

We’re into year three of SARS-nCOV-2, and it isn’t showing any sign of stopping.

In this third summer of COVID, those of us still keeping ourselves confined – for our own health or that of those we live with – how about we get this summer to go out and party?

The rest of the population can stay at home moping at the window. You can have next summer instead. How about that for a deal?

I’m not about to go full Glastonbury. No weekend in a tent encampment like some well-to-do Calais. No crowd-surfing or moshing at Download for me. I’m over the urge for coffee indoors, or a meal in a fancy restaurant.

But I’m still hankering for last year’s Dune on a full-sized cinema screen. There would be a beer festival somewhere, I’m sure, that could tempt me and mine to spend the afternoon getting quietly sloshed. And a bookshop, elegant and quiet and filled with printed wonders, amongst which to browse for an hour or two.

Is that too much to ask?

Oh, I know I could go out. I’ve been to the cake shop, masked like Zorro (actually no, not like Zorro). I take a walk now and again around the neighbourhood. I just don’t like the thought of being ill. Strange how this has become something to get all defensive about, isn’t it?

We need the anger of the War Poets for this pandemic.

We need Siegfried Sassoon, raging at the lies; Wilfred Owen, politely seething for those who die alone and forgotten; we need Robert Graves, wise and bohemian and eager to live when the fight is won.

But most of all, we need the rage.

The Flame of a Safety Lamp

For some time now, intermittently, along with hundreds of other volunteers, I have been helping to transcribe the notebooks of Sir Humphry Davy over on Zooniverse.

The project is one of many, some more interesting than others, some short, some enduring. I was drawn to the subject mainly due to the research I carried out when writing SHADOWBOX.

Humphry Davy is one of those Victorian fellas you learn about in school – but you don’t learn nearly enough. All I recalled decades later was the miner’s lamp.

Davy invented a safety lamp for use in deep coal mines where frequent pockets of flammable gas would ignite, burying the miners. Davy’s lamp used an innovative wire gauze to shield the heat of the flame from the main body of the gas pocket while burning a different colour from usual to alert the miners to the presence of “firedamp” gas (not linked AT ALL with the current – USA – TikTok trend that “gas” – gasoline i.e. petrol – has no smell, which isn’t true, just that the people involved have COVID and don’t immediately realise).

If we remembered Davy for the safety lamp and nothing more, that would be good enough. Thousands of miners kept safe over the years, before the invention of electric lighting and electronic sniffers and other safety measures.


In common with many other geniuses of the early 19th century, Humphry Davy was more than an inventor. Through transcribing his diaries, notebooks, lecture notes and other sundry scribblings, a remarkable mind is revealed.

Davy’s scientific accomplishments include: conducting pioneering research into the physiological effects of nitrous oxide (often called ‘laughing gas’); isolating seven chemical elements (magnesium, calcium, potassium, sodium, strontium, barium, and boron) and establishing the elemental status of chlorine and iodine; inventing a miners’ safety lamp; developing the electrochemical protection of the copper sheeting of Royal Navy vessels; conserving the Herculaneum papyri; and writing an influential text on agricultural chemistry. Davy was also a poet, moving in the same literary circles as Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and William Wordsworth.

Davy Notebooks Project

His observations on geology were part of a snowballing understanding of the antiquity of the planet, tied up with the safety of miners underground and the industrial extraction of coal, and limestone, and iron ore, and other useful stuff.

Davy is constantly interested in the relationship between scientific knowledge and the problems of human consciousness, imagination, and perception.

Dr Adelene Buckland on davy, lyell and geology

His travel notes across Europe are a snapshot of places we know well – now, but not so much at the time he was writing; his observations may have been a bit wide of the mark but what else do we have of those places back then, in English, with a scientist’s eye?

Davy was a serious influence on other enquiring minds of his time – Michael Faraday, Charles Lyell, Roderick Murchison, and many others, as a mentor, a collaborator, or a rival.

And this is where my interest began.

The work of those scientists provides a solid foundation to the fictional Cuckoo Club of my novels: its origins, principles, and ultimately its entire purpose. The next novel – the third, middle book – has already begun to shape itself into something that looks like a story I can plan, work out and write.

This, dear reader, is a thing of great joy and delight to this writer who has been stuck in a non-writing doldrum for some years. Oh, all right, I’ve written and published nonfiction, and blog posts, and short stories and poetry. But a novel has been beyond my capabilities for some years now.

Why did I stop writing?

I’ve answered that already. In detail. Many times – and many more times in my unpublished notes than I talk about it on here.

There’s the “sabbatical” year when I didn’t blog (2016) in the expectation that I might get round to at least finishing the fourth Petticoat Katie novel (nope). The next couple of years I was busy offline – a house move, a new day job, a new garden.

I began to think I’d never write again.

My creativity – like the flame of Davy’s safety lamp – burned low and out of colour during those years.

Since the lockdown at the start of the pandemic I started to focus inward some more like a stereotypical leftie – did more yoga, made more sourdough, grew more veggies and took up knitting (*nah, no knitting).

Slowly, the practise of publishing a post on here every week has drawn my writing muscles back into some sort of shape.

I’ve started looking for stories.

I’ve read more, pondered more, figured out more.

I’ve seen more stories in everyday life than I noticed before.

I appreciate where the stories come from, and where they lead, and what they tell me about my fellow humans.

I’ve seen stories handled badly. Stories I wanted to move in one direction were forced to move in another, or skimmed over what I thought were the important parts to provide cheap entertainment or titivation. There was some disrespect for the characters, and sometimes a load of downright unbelievable stuff (Kvothe, I’m looking at you here).

So when I began to see the handwriting of Humphry Davy scribbling field notes about the geology of France two hundred years ago, and chafed at the mistreatment of Mary Anning’s life story on film, and the war across Ukraine’s stunningly beautiful countryside began to appear on the TV, something stirred beneath the rock my creative mind had sheltered under.

The Davy notebooks project is a small part of it.

Leave The Diary Page Blank

What if we redefined the meaning of a rich, rewarding life?

Women are often (and repeatedly) told that in order to be fulfilled, we need a husband and children. Men are told they need a job, a career, to support a wife and children.

Many people have defied these stereotypes and lives their lives to the full without any of those trappings.

And yet, in the 21st century, we’re still told that there’s a way to happiness and life satisfaction, and those who don’t follow this way are doomed to misery and loneliness.

Is this true?

Has anyone asked those who choose the alternative path?

Or just glanced at the path less-trodden and thought, “not for me, ta” and raced off with the throng to merriment and abandon?

It’s becoming clearer that some of us have chosen the silent path; others, the narrow. We don’t all need to go into a monastery or convent, although some of us still see the attraction – the monks in Retreat: Meditations from a monastery seem to be satisfied with their choice.

Two years into Great Covid and the pandemic is sifting us, slowly, apart. Those who mingle and succumb to infection. Those who isolate before the need, hoping to keep illness at bay.

Those who have no choice.

Statistics right now suggest that about a third of the UK population has had COVID – which means two-thirds of us, well into majority territory, are unaffected. Given that some of those infections are people who have had the illness more than once, although the case count didn’t always take their measure, the number of people so far avoiding the plague rises.

The cases being counted now are only those with government-provided tests; the actual number of cases must be higher, as those who buy tests elsewhere can’t report their positive status into the official figures. Only the ZOE COVID app and the ONS infection rate monitor have any notion of the real measure, and neither of those report into the daily figures.

It’s almost as if we’re being hoodwinked. Eh?

My neighbourhood frequently has higher-than-average case numbers. Large Victorian villas house care homes for the elderly which concentrate the disease amongst the vulnerable. Likewise the other side of town where houses are smaller and closer together, occupied by key workers in healthcare or logistics.

Those of us who have avoided the plague so far are numerous, then. So how come there’s a rising trend on social media and amongst our politicians to label us as anti-social losers? As if we’re not trying hard enough, even if it’s just to get back into an office to justify commercial rent rises and satisfy a domineering boss who needs an audience of targets and victims.

I hear the voices raised of the noisy, the hyper-social, those who crave social interaction more needily than the rest of us. It’s a siren call, I’m sure. I’ve written about the effect that lockdown has had on me, when Christmas comes around and a spiced latte seems irresistible, or when the brightest of summer’s days beckons me towards an afternoon in the beer garden of a canalside pub in the company of friends.

My wake-up call came before the pandemic. I chose to leave work and spend more time with my spouse, which also means more time for writing, gardening, and pondering.

I know that in another place, another phase of my life, I’d not be as serene about the restrictions life has for those of us still shielding. I’m grateful that I had the wherewithal to make plans for a rainy day, in advance. Likewise, grateful that timing of events brought about the changes before they were forced by COVID.

And I start to think, two years on, about the course of the pandemic so far, and how this has given many people the kick-start to observe their lives, to see how it can change, to catch their breath before it’s too late and realise the path they’re on is simply one that was convenient at the start, and maybe isn’t quite so handy now.

Some of my friends have chosen to walk away from their careers and start afresh.

Some have chosen to do likewise and do nothing but decompress, with one eye on the jobs market and the other half-shut in a mid-afternoon sofa snooze.

Others have continued their work, commute and all, and their social evenings in crowds and pubs and other convivial pursuits.

The choice to live unfettered by the constraints of the pandemic isn’t all hedonistic abandon, though. Friends who have chosen to re-circulate after two years of shielding continue to mask up, take tests, and consider the needs of those who are still vulnerable or anxious or just plain wary. [You know who you are: thank you.] Proof that there doesn’t have to be unsociable behaviour despite the stories that sell newspapers or generate clickbait.

Over the last three years (I did mention that my life changes came before the pandemic) I’ve realised that while I enjoy the company of others, I also enjoy solitude. My hobbies have always been solo: reading, writing, taking long walks around the neighbourhood, handicrafts.

[For me, the best part of life in student halls wasn’t sharing a kitchen with people who stole my cheese, or always having someone to chat with even if it was only the porter; it was having a door with a lock on to keep other people out.]

What can I say? I like my space.

And I come back to the point at the start of the essay. Who’s to say the Brontës were miserable, writing their tales on the bleak moorland, sharing stories between siblings?

Who’s to say those who choose solitary pursuits are sad, lonely creatures with no friends?

We don’t all need a thousand friends on Facebook. Some of us have one or two carefully curated friendships that last for years, or move from friend to friend as circumstances demand in much the same way as some folk switch lovers.

So: imagine life in a different lane. Let go of the hurry, let go the lash of achievement. Take the pressure off and just leave the planet alone for a moment, to drift, imagine the stars above the city lights, hear the sounds of your own heartbeat for once.

We don’t all want the same success. Our goals may be noteworthy or humble, our achievements remarkable or routine.

Some days, for some of us, making it from dawn to dusk unscathed is worth celebrating.

Live life closer to nature and see the struggle through the eyes of small creatures, seedlings, the weather.

Not everything is a cause for commotion.

Not every hour or every word needs recording.

On days when nothing happens, leave the diary page blank.

Dingbat - an open book and an eggtimer


Anyone else feel underwhelmed by the long weekend?

In this household, it’s been business as usual. Helps that we don’t have work or education to dictate our timetable, so bank holidays tend to pass by with little attention.

Likewise jubilee celebrations.

Sure, the TV is full of pictures. You can switch it off, or stream stuff online, and never knowingly encounter a royal-related programme if you try hard enough. I’m sure many people do.

One street over – the street that was festooned with lockdown mannequins a couple of years back – is threaded over with Union Flag bunting and the mannequins have morphed into eerie guardsmen or street urchins straight out of Hue And Cry.

Freaky. There won’t be a street party outside this house, on a busy main road. I’d rather not party anyway, given the continuing presence of COVID amongst the population. Last year’s potential garden party will be regrettably avoided again this year, as only one of us has had a fourth booster and the virus isn’t going away.

Collective memory is peculiar when it comes to history. You’d think there would be more variety, if people put their minds to it, but no. More often we do the minimum to keep up appearances, not be left out, feeling the pressure to be like others and not stand out in a crowd.

Of course, there’s always crowds on occasions like this. Seeing pictures of London’s celebrants on TV news (booing the PM, ISTR) just made me think that crowds are for those who like to be in a crowd. Behavioural scientists must be having a field day.

Mostly, though, I look for the stories and try to understand the characters. What makes people behave like this, and how can I use that understanding when I create characters in my stories? Is it simply about having an excuse to dress up in silly plastic hats and feel you’re part of something larger? One of those once-in-a-lifetime events that isn’t necessary or inherently dangerous, a day or two that provides cheap entertainment before the return of the daily grind, like a wedding or a barbecue without the clearing up after.

It’s not as if the country doesn’t need diversion. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, still facing a cost-of-living crisis, still watching from afar a war on the other side of Europe. Add to this the rising urgency of climate change and a sense that we’re all doomed.

If we’re spared, it’s going to be interesting to see how history recounts these days. Here’s hoping we’re all around to pass judgement. In the meantime those of us who write can try to leave our mark on the times, even if it’s just a post or two that tells the future versions of us what we were thinking.

Because memory is malleable, and what often seems like a solid fact turns out to be somehow false, or not intact, and we have to rely on the testament of others to fill in the gaps.

Looking back is easier when you’ve made notes.

I don’t remember much about the Golden Jubilee. Perhaps I was in Belgium, drinking beer.

What do I remember of the Silver Jubilee? Socks*. And punks. And staring at the TV showing street parties in England, wondering what it must be like to live amongst so many people, because I grew up in the countryside where people were scarce.

See how little I recall? I have no notes of either event, no diary. I was too young to care about such things in 1977; too carefree to bother in 2002. I wish I’d kept up my diaries in the years when it seemed less important. But that’s a subject for another post, at another time.

*Socks. Red-white-and-blue stripy socks with some monogram or other, a jubilee memento in knitted polyester. I wore them in the spirit of the punks that also made the news in 1977, and the cast of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee.

Get the salt, Mad.

Petticoat Katie: Hell’s Most Fastidious Princes

I was going to write something entirely different this week, but on reviewing my files I thought it was time to share with you:

Mr Dee & Vinegar Tom – Mrs Perceval’s vicious, loathesome Siamese.

– Maiden FLight

Trigger Warning: CATS. Don’t fill up my comments thread with cat pictures, or cat stories, or anything else pertaining to cats. I’m not interested. Really. I’m sure your little darlings are every bit as cute as you think they are. Likewise, no cat haters please. They’re just animals. From another planet. And I have written two of these alien creatures into the Petticoat Katie novels.

I know, I know, you haven’t met Mrs Perceval yet. When I’m finished with the Petticoat Katie posts I’ll add a link, wiki-style. Here’s a brief summary for the time being:

During the first few days of owning Sloth Enterprises, Petticoat Katie realised she needed help to run the newly-acquired Penny-Dreadful business. Enter Mrs Perceval (more on her later), accountant and cat-owner.

Petticoat Katie rang the doorbell, twice.
Inside, tiny hard feet scampered along the hall floorboards, and when Katie peered through the letterbox she was not surprised to see two Siamese cats on the bottom stair, motionless as Egyptian gods.

Petticoat Katie didn’t start out as an animal lover until she was gifted the monkeys of Ditto Sloth. Okay, there was that business with Scipio Jones (you haven’t met him yet) and The Christmas Chupacabras, but the usual domestic animals just weren’t her thing.

“You never took such an interest in my cats before, luvvie.”
“No,” said Katie, honestly. “I was only making conversation. You know I loathe cats.”
Which was not quite true, as she only loathed Mrs Perceval’s cats. But you can’t go around telling people you hate their cats and like everyone else’s, or they get funny ideas and end up calling off their friendship with you.

In my childhood we had outdoor cats, often more of them than expected. One of my occasional chores was taming the kittens so we could give them away. Small bundles of soft fur and angry slashings. I still bear physical scars. Deep, deep scars.

The cats scampered into the room and leapt onto the sofa, pulling its once-plush coverlet with their claws, mashing invisible grapes with their front paws and purring.

Disclaimer: I am not the cat person I used to be. But I have fun writing about these cats.

Four blue eyes slit with evil regarded her as she entered the parlour and cut her way through a fog of incense smoke that hung in layers across the room.

The cats act as if they owned the house and Mrs Perceval is just a servant. This seems common to (domestic) cats the world over.

The Siamese cats strolled onto the hearth rug and posed, calling to each other, their odd blue eyes staring into the gap between this universe and the next.

The cats just popped up when Petticoat Katie rang the doorbell way back in the early chapters of Maiden Flight. They became too good an opportunity to give up. Petticoat Katie might become lazy and boring if all her life was monkeys and unsuitable men.

Katie cast her eyes about the room looking for Hell’s most fastidious princes, otherwise known as Mrs Perceval’s twin Siamese cats.

There used to be two of these, but, you know…

She could almost hear them, mewing, a noise like someone playing a violin in a pair of squeaky shoes.

Katie had the notion that somewhere behind those inhuman blue eyes, alien minds were at work, plotting her downfall.
Every time she visited.

One of my aunts had a Siamese cat which seemed more delicate than our own cats – who spent most of their time outside, leaving dead furry gifts on the doorstep when they’d been hunting in the woods behind the house. Her cat looked at you as if to say “you want dead gifts, fetch ’em yourself”. Too precious to prey.

The Petticoat Katie stories don’t feature the cats that much. It’s just… they’re fun to write. Not part of any plot, not essential when they appear, and only once do they give us an insight into a minor character.

The Siamese cats did not hiss at her, but she took the opportunity to hiss at them, which she accompanied with a narrow-eyed glare.

That reminds me – I’ll write about the minor characters sometime. And how they appear – mostly in the short stories, as if it’s a form of world-building.

The Naming of Cats

At the sound of their names the cats wailed, twin banshees in a famine.

Mr Dee is a reference to John Dee, scientist and astrologer and secret agent, close associate of spymaster of England’s first Queen Elizabeth. A fascinating fellow, subject of a modern opera and much written about in occult terms. For background reading I’d recommend Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage (which I discovered in the bookshelves of a hotel lounge somewhere abroad, and didn’t return – bad of me; not as bad of me as that Amazon link, eh?).

John Dee in the opera by Damon Albarn; note the Plague Doctor mask

Vinegar Tom was the name of a familiar owned by one of the women tried for witchcraft by England’s Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. You can see the animal in this woodcut from 1647, the frontispiece to Hopkins’ treatise on The Discovery of Witches.

The original Vinegar Tom. Clearly not a Siamese.
I think “the head of an ox” gives it away somewhat…

The most obvious name for an occultist’s cat is Pyewacket, also one of the woodcut familiars, although in the original Witchfinder’s account Pyewacket is described as an “imp” (and therefore not a cat). But this name is already taken, by the Siamese cat in the film Bell, Book and Candle starring Kim Novak as a modern-day (okay, 1958) witch. And I wouldn’t want to confuse my readers, would I?

So even though my creations aren’t imps, or a witch’s familiar, they do still have an impact on those who visit.

Mr Stirrup rose to help Mrs Perceval with the tea-tray and when he returned to the settee, her Siamese cats eyed him from the hearth-rug.
“I’m a little nervous,” he admitted, and withdrew a large handkerchief from his jacket pocket to dab at his nose.
“So would I be,” said Katie. “You’re sitting on their favourite cushion.”

Si and Am, the original vicious Siamese cats from the Disney film Lady And The Tramp (1955)

A Walk In The Middle Ages

Looking north from the ridge above the town, I see the distant hills as a dark line under clouds. One squared-off part of that silhouette outlines a plantation of trees, too distant to make certain. I look across the landscape in between and walk myself back into the middle ages.

Not sure what part, mind you. Early, or late? Close to the Dark Ages, when vikings raided the villages between here and the hills, sailing their wide-bottomed boats up the last navigable stretch of the river? Or closer to the Renaissance, when the world was more controlled and the landscape “full” of people?

This makes a difference.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Hirschjagd des Kurfürsten Friedrich des Weisen (KHM Wien)

Early in the middle ages, the distant hills would be sighted across a patchwork of fields and water meadows, coppices and woodland. The many rivers spilling off the moorlands converge on this flat plain, their waters often spreading over the land before flowing ever northward to the sea.

On late spring days like this, the haze I see in the early morning would have been thicker. That view, the fields and little rivers almost like Tolkien spoke of the Shire, threaded with hawthorns white with blossom in hedgerows stitching the farms together. Where the Roman road cuts across like a dark band of shimmering traffic, its overhanging trees might catch the sun with the greenery of fresh oak. Insects, not yet splat-tested, hum.

In the early middle ages, small settlements in the woods along the ridge I’m standing on. Square buildings, thatched, with spirals of woodsmoke rising through the centre of each roof. Wooden palisades around each village to keep out wild boar and wolves that still hungered through the forests, and stall Danish raiders from the waterways. Long-horned cattle low to the river, splashing and drinking and wandering between the trees like miracles.

Longhorns at Knepp Wildland

And the water meadows filled with birds, not just the Canada geese and goslings of our day but various ducks and ducklings, swans and cygnets, dunnocks, dippers, doves. Swifts and swallows are yet to arrive. Falcons not here either, the keening of buzzards the only thin cries in the high still air.

Rooks, too. More numerous than the single nest in the ash behind the neighbouring houses, huge rookeries with more than a dozen families in the same tree, a community of shadows flitting amongst the lattice of leaves.

What of the people that fill the land between me and the distant hills?

This town, so solidly laid on the crossroads of river and road and ridgeway track, a small place of little note. An early monastery farmed the river’s islands, and taxed its ferry crossings. The early middle ages saw a shaky sort of work – some quarrying for useful stone, some charcoal burning.

And what of later? When the landscape grew more furrowed, fed more people, hid wolves no more and yet held travellers on the Roman road wary of outlaws in the forest?

Would I, on my modern hillside, have been able to see the distant hills with the square of trees outstanding?

painting of a medieval hunting scene in woodland
Hunt in the forest by Paolo Uccello

I find it hard to paint myself into the later middle ages. Lords and priests and royalty bickered over control of the lands under their name; history intrudes on what could be a gentle thought-experiment.

What we know through documents and laws and tales of war takes precedence over what we find underfoot. The places we live keep being used, each century building over the remains of the past, and any archaeology we might find useful stays beneath our floorboards, unexplored.

So, when I look north, I blanket the river valley with oaks and ash and willow; the factories and A-roads disappear, true Roman lines remaining, pale swards of thatch betraying houses down amongst the trees. Wisps of woodsmoke rise, the still air of late spring ringing with the sounds of axes and cattle.

Close to nature, lush, and hurtling down the track to climate change.

Within a hundred years or so, the later Middle Ages birth the Reformation and the start of modern life. We start to burn the forests, build in brick, and bring up coal from deep below the hills, to forge more iron and fight battles where the rivers meet the road, imagine great machines of domination, stride across the world as if we owned it.

When I look into the past and see the middle ages peering back at me, knowing what will become of us, I still prefer to walk the chilly marshes of the Mesolithic.

Why did I stop writing?

Why did I stop writing the Cuckoo Club novels?

I was fed up of privileged fools who expect other people to pick up after them.

When I wrote Shadowbox, I became more interested in the lives of Godfrey Woolverham and his cohort than of Louis Beauregard, the hero of the story and of The Last Rhinemaiden.

Sure, Louis is great fun – the Festival Boyfriend of 1832 – and he will take you places you didn’t know existed, share adventures and revels and wild living. But there’s always someone else to pick up the pieces afterwards.

He snaps his fingers, and his friends and servants leap to attend. He trashes places in drunken humour or frustration, and there’s always money to cover the costs of repair and someone else to do the actual work. He lives in ignorance of how the majority of people live.

There’s a lot of this about, in certain circles. Without the friction of want, their view of the world is skewed. My characters are monsters when they’re unfettered, like Louis, to blunder about towns and cities breathing air through a scented pomander.

And I’m sick of them.

I want to write about characters who don’t have that element of privilege, without making stories into political sketches or preachy parables.

I know there’s a place for adventure, and the fantasy of not having to worry about money and work and picking up after others. How about making that part of the story, for characters who want that too? Instead of bland, cut-out toffs who spread their fat hands over everything so they can take without thinking what the rest of us have to budget for?

So I don’t know if I’ll ever return to the world of the Cuckoo Club and its gentlemen adventurers. What have they to say that I’m already sick of hearing?

When these are the only stories we hear, we forget there are millions of others. The subalterns of the Great War wrote great poetry and it was published because they were nice young men from promising backgrounds – the Everyman book of First World War poetry lists men who were educated at private schools, and went to Oxbridge, well-connected to the literary scene and everything else in control of society. Few are ordinary working men; fewer, women.

Even when working-class heroes are recruited for adventures, they seem to have the attitudes of those who write from positions of privilege. Perhaps the authors don’t realise that some of us don’t have servants?

Ordinary people have to look after their children, not pack them off to boarding school to be looked after by others.

Ordinary people have elderly parents who need care, and can’t afford to pay other people to nurse them.

Those of us now with elderly parents who need care have the choice of encouraging them into care home deathtraps or taking care of them ourselves – which option not many families have, with fewer siblings to share the workload and higher costs across life in general, not including childcare. And some of our elders live longer so their needs are more complex, and they live with those needs longer until much weaker than in the past – unless, fortunately, they live in relative health and independence.

There’s a reason most Dickens novels end in “suddenly the money appeared and they all lived happily ever after”. People lived in perilous proximity to poverty. Utter, unimaginable, Third World level poverty. How did Micawber’s wife and family get by when he was being useless in Debtor’s Prison?

Money appears and makes everything all right. Because most of the readers were perilously close to this.

Mrs Gaskell outlines in Cranford why people can’t get out of their situation by working – sometimes there’s frailty, sometimes the trades involve more training and apprenticeship than is available to an older person in order to get to mastery, and sometimes the older person needs or wants a higher level of comfort than the young apprentice will put up with because they might be living with parents or sleeping on the shop floor but they’re generally single and childless – and woe betide any who have children, even one – respectable people will lose their jobs over that, not just servant girls, but governesses and similar.

But people did encounter those hardships. People overcame them, in many ways.

Or not – Fanny Robin in Far From The Madding Crowd, Jancis Beguildy in Precious Bane– or the destitution wrought upon Tess Of The D’Urbervilles for the sake of having to change her shoes on a muddy road.

Far From The Madding Crowd (1967) - Julie Christie and Alan Bates
Julie Christie and Alan Bates fail to engage in Far From The Madding Crowd (1967)

You might be thinking by now that I don’t have to put all this on the page when I’m writing fiction. But I need to know this background for my characters, otherwise they become pale and weedy, or monstrous, and I need to understand what motivates them and what they fear.

Because Louis Beauregard doesn’t fear anything short of assassination. He’s even overstepped the mark into becoming a killer himself, and while he doesn’t relish it, he finds killing his enemies more tiresome than fun.

And if there’s one thing Louis Beauregard and his ilk want out of life, it’s endless fun. Because they’ve never had to work for anything in their lives, and they sure as hell don’t see any reason why that should change.

Great hulking challenges like coronavirus need great hulking responses, not hand-wavey wishful thinking. They need people who have learned how to make masks by hand; locksmiths and seamstresses and delivery drivers. More of us have been saved by nurses than by toffs.

And this is why I stopped writing for so long. I have to work out if I can come up with characters like Thaniel Steepleton in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street; like Brendan Doyle in The Drawing Of The Dark; like Mulaghesh in City of Miracles. They have to be surrounded by like people – helpful characters who know how to fix a dripping tap, build a fire with damp wood, or soothe a teething baby.

So I needed to take a break from writing what I had on my to-do list, and review why it made me uncomfortable.


And I think I might have found a way forward, to write the third novel without so much focus on the privileged blokes that suffuse the other two.

The solution is to follow a thread I began in Shadowbox, down a railway line to Lyme Regis and a small group of women who pick fossils off the beach for a living. From there, I see a parallel road to St Petersburg unfolding for my male protagonist that will utterly change his life.

Because: There Be Monsters.

A Tale of Two Cities

Underlying the bones of a city is the basic geography of the land.

After the earliest settlements, built to protect and control the basic resources of food and water, what makes us choose one spot over another to build our cities? How can we tell what produces one type of city, and what another?

Let’s take two of the great cities of Spain: Granada, and Cordoba.

Cordoba has Roman bones. An ancient Roman bridge crosses the Guadalquivir at the edge of the old city centre, a shallow spread-out place on the river that reaches across half of southern Spain to the Atlantic. The surrounding landscape has evidence of prehistoric occupation; not surprising. It’s a sweet spot.

The Umayyid city of Cordoba spread out across the plains surrounding the river, gorged on lushness. It became the largest city in the Western world, at the time, with streetlights in every alley of its square mile.

A fat city, a place of secure wealth, at the heart of an empire. This city fears no invaders. This place welcomes, safe in the knowledge that other places have been built around it, far distant, keeping its borders secure and its wealth opulent.

Walk the streets of the modern city and let the tracks of the old place lead your feet along paths trod by Visigoths, Moors and holy Catholic warriors. Sit on the terrace of the Parador at dusk, sipping a Campari soda like some extra in a James Bond film, and watch the city fill the valley with lights, edge to edge.

Rich. Generous. Defenceless.

Granada, on the other hand, straddles its tiny rivers quite easily. The oldest parts of the city are dominated by the fantastic fortress of the Alhambra, overlooking the plains to the west and the mountain passes to the north. It’s a fantastic, near-impregnable place, domineering in its position. The last stronghold of the Moors in mainland Spain.

Tumbling down the hillside opposite the Alhambra is the Albaicín, where the old city’s Jewish population thrived for centuries. Threading on foot along cobbled streets, between stiff-walled houses with tiny windows, the quarter seems deserted until the tourists arrive.

a cobbled street lined with shops

You can often catch a glimpse of lush and shady interior courtyards filled with greenery, and a fountain in every home. At night, high lantern-like streetlights hung from the walls cast sharp shadows, and music scatters over the rooftops.

Look in the right direction, on the city’s marble pavements and above the modern flats, you’ll see the peaks of the Sierra Nevada bulking out the sky.

If you arrive by train, from the West, the journey’s end is signalled by crossing the vega – broad fields filled with ferny asparagus that wafts like wheat in summer. By car, the road seems endless until in one breathtaking moment the mountains appear, far higher than anything we’re used to in Britain.

Driving through the mountain pass to the north you see streaks of purple in the rocks, the Badlands to the east of the mountains like some strange SF landscape straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Both cities are magnificent, and well worth a visit. In the context of building a city from scratch, what does the history tell us?

Which city was built by kings, and which by merchants?

A merchant city is open, to allow trade to flow in and out. Great market places need flat land. Pack animals need fodder, and visitors bring goods which require secure storage before onward distribution or dissemination (we’ve all played Pharaoh, right?).

On the other hand, a city built by kings requires a different sort of largesse – dominance. A great iron foot stamping its authority over the surroundings, and any visitors: this is ours, now bugger off.

Gates which can be easily defended. Storage rooms to withstand a siege. And a high point, to see the armies of your enemies from far off, and prepare the boiling oil.

We see the pattern in other places, and it tells us what each city was made for. It also shows the security of the civilisation which built the city or cities. Cordoba, its wide spreading viewpoints, sees the hills around it and the plains. Granada, perched on a hill backed by mountains, hunkers down and awaits siege.

There are other considerations too, not just basic geography and purpose but also climate. Cordoba simmers in summer, on flat plains where even the breeze is fierce and brings dust from the country into the city’s airless, narrow streets.

Granada is still hot enough for palm trees in the many-fountained gardens of the Generalife, but its palaces are cooled by breezes from the Sierra Nevada and the water in those fountains is meltwater from the winter snows.

Lorca compared Granada and Seville, further downstream from Cordoba, in his poem “Baladillas de los tres ríos”; the comparison stands against Cordoba equally well:

The Guadalquivir river
Flows between orange and olive.
Two rivers of Granada
Come down from snow to wheat field.

Little Ballad of Three Rivers on POetry & PLaces

And what of Scotland’s cities? The two opposing forces of Glasgow and Edinburgh display a similar outline to Cordoba and Granada. Edinburgh, city of kings, sacked often and built to repel invaders. Glasgow had a basic castle at the time of Mary Queen of Scots but it was never as heavily fortified – it can’t be. A city on a wide river, with only mounded drumlins to count as hills, Glasgow was built for trade.

Two types of city. Two sorts of society within their boundaries, two ways to interpret how they arose and what they were for.

In building my own cities, deep within the heart of my next novels, what places will I make?

Music: try this delicious cover version of The Doors’ Spanish Caravan by the Select Cvartet. Superb!

The theme of Spanish Caravan is lifted directly from Asturias, written by Isaac Albéniz, played here by Ana Vidovic (YouTube link). Don’t say I’m not good to you.

Where is the Hippie Trail now?

Looking online for suggestions on what to do with the windfall timber I salvaged from the storms of late winter, I found an article that piqued my interest, historical fictioneer that I am:

On the hippie trail.

The article’s an extract from Going To Seed, the memoirs of Simon Fairlie, editor of The Land magazine (amongst other life experiences), published by Chelsea Green. Another extract pops up on Resilience.org.

The book is an easy read, Fairlie an entertaining writer. He describes the landscape of his youth in terms that are familiar to those of us growing up when his generation were (young) adults. The Fifties were better than the Seventies; the Sixties wayyy better than the Eighties. Can’t disagree, in hindsight, even though I was born just in time to see the Moon landing and don’t remember.

Taj Mahal

What caught my attention in the first article was his description of travelling the Hippie Trail to India (from the UK). Most striking was the notion that one of his travelling companions had been born in India, to parents who worked for the British administration before independence. This got me to thinking:

There must have been a lot of children from similar backgrounds in the Fifties and Sixties whose parents had served abroad, in parts of the British Empire that have since become independent; India was the largest of these, certainly by 1948.

Ties in with a book I read earlier this year, Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland. In that, he points out that when the Windrush generation arrived in Britain in the 1950s they came from places which were British: before those island nations took their independence, the only status was Empire (or Commonwealth) citizen.

As the Caribbean [islands were], at the time, part of the British commonwealth, those who arrived were automatically British subjects & free to permanently live & work in the UK.


This blew my mind a bit, I must admit.

So much of British life since 1970 has been shaded by the end of Empire, it’s hard to know where to begin, more so for those of us who have never lived anywhere else or known any remnant of that former life. Nostalgia doesn’t cut it – most of us don’t have memories of gin-raddled evenings on a verandah with the memsahibs, or the six-week ocean voyage there and back.

But here and there, throughout my life, I’ve come across others whose attachment to places abroad was more than just tourism.

Stationed in Hong Kong with the British Army. Gone to school in Gibraltar or Cyprus while their father was in the Royal Navy, or in Germany with the RAF. Some had owned businesses abroad, like the man who owned an agate-cutting factory in Kenya, or the woman who’d run a nightclub in Beirut.

So I find it fascinating to imagine that the children of the Sixties who took the Hippie Trail were maybe not setting out on a wild crazy adventure so much as making their way to the home of their childhood, or that of their older siblings. Maybe to the places their parents spoke of at dinner parties or when the TV went off in the evening, with an air of sadness like life had been better then.

Travelling as a form of reclamation (as well as in some cases avoiding military service abroad), or even going to see what all the fuss was about.

Fascination isn’t enough to make the memories widespread, however. My father sent letters home from far-off places and brought back duty-free cigarettes, but that all stopped before I was born. We had the remnants around the house for years but there wasn’t nostalgia for a previous life. Those voyages had been fleeting, unstructured, no more than time spent in filthy jobs that were chosen for the money and made bearable by the hope of what future that money would fund.

What often seems exotic isn’t really; there isn’t anywhere in the world that a bored local teenager doesn’t think is a dump, and can’t wait to get away from.

The world of my childhood was peopled with those who travelled the Hippie Trail and brought back souvenirs to decorate their homes, or gift to parents. The stately homes of the UK are stuffed to the gills with trophies and nick-nacks and curios from afar. Our gardens and wild spaces teem with foreign plants, not all as rampant as Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam, nor as fragrant as Persian roses.

I’m not much of a traveller – certainly not these days: still wary of COVID – and my travels have been limited to Western Europe, usually by train. Sedate. Dining car optional, food from the station shops, in some cases not even a couchette in the sleeping-car. And train floors were always covered in cigarette-ends when I was younger.

The life I look back on now, my 1980s brimming with existential threats and a plague we had barely begun to understand, isn’t worth the energy. It’s mind-boggling to think that there’s more years between now and then than there was between then and the Second World War. It’s even more strange to find myself looking at 2022 with a familiar side-eye – same existential threats, different plague.

Neither my parents nor I had a childhood of boarding-school and a year or so spent on the Hippie Trail that John Fairlie describes in his book. But our cultural landscape is riddled with this imagery like land-mines of memories, ready to engulf those who step too close, even if we never had the experience upon which the memory is based.

I know my childhood was very different from most of my contemporaries – a rural life, not urban, more like the landscape of Going To Seed in many ways. But in other ways, my friends and I share the same past, and hate that it’s been resurrected in recent days like some unquiet ghost seeking a wall to bring down, or build.

So there’s a line to draw in historical fiction – even speculative historical fiction – even the very silly steampunk of a fake 1908 within which I set the Petticoat Katies.

Whether the world actually was better in the past, we can’t get it back. We’re not the same people; we didn’t all have the same life.