Pencils In Space

As a child, when the first Star Wars film came out, I was hooked. I wanted one of those cars that floated above the desert. I wanted an underground house like the one Luke Skywalker’s family lived in.

princess leia with a gun

I wanted a lightsaber.

For Christmas I got the novel. The grownup version, not the abridged one for kids; the one with George Lucas listed as the author, not Alan Dean Foster.

Similarly, I had a Star Wars book of the future. It may still be on a bookshelf somewhere, a relic of another age.

By 2001, the book promised, we’d have floating space stations like something out of 2001:A Space Odyssey. The new Space Shuttle would bring about a new era of space exploration, an end to the Cold War, a future where everything was possible and a new life, off-world, could be ours.

We even had snacks shaped like space stations.

That imagination flushed through culture like the Egyptomania craze in the 1920s fuelled by Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Some of its influence still lingers, not least in the stories we tell ourselves.


This year, August has been a month of cautious visitors.

One, stealing a couple of days away from his caring responsibilities for the first time since before the pandemic, arrived exhausted from a long car journey, alone. We talked of gardening, and beer, and the joy of hearing orchestral music in a proper auditorium.

Others, two couples, came separately. In both cases we talked about recent bereavements, and the pandemic, and space exploration.

Building a station on the Moon, and a colony on Mars.

Disregarding the complexities of these aspirations, once the visitors were gone I got to wondering, as I pruned the summer raspberries:

Why don’t we build solutions for the planet we already have?

Like the old-time sailors prepared for a long Trade Winds voyage, I can see historical trends building up for the next stages of space exploration. In the Western world, we’ve spent the last half-millennium chasing the “empty” places on our maps.

Never mind there were people living there already, people who called the place home, tending fragile ecosystems so strange to us they seemed like wild Edens. The engines of the west, steam and diesel and now electric, demand fuel and roads to run on.

Feet – padded feet, bare feet, webbed feet – cross mountains and swamps with equal agility.

The big flat feet of kangaroos, and Dark Emus, paddle the shallow soil of Australia’s grasslands, the shallow roots of the native grasses vulnerable to upheaval.

Sheep, so vital to 16th-century Britain that the Woolsack sits under our Lord Chancellor in Parliament, have little picky feet to perch on rocky mountainsides and hills, feet that poke holes in shallow soil. When sheep eat, they rip the grasses up instead of cropping – no problem when the rain-thirsty grass is kept wet and your dirt is deep like in Wales or Patagonia, with roots adapted to the conditions.

In Australia? Hmm.

Onwards, the engines of the West thunder. Gobbling up landscapes, pushing aside nations, bringing new diseases to vulnerable peoples.

Expansion, at all – any – cost. The world has run on these rails for so long now, it’s hard for us to come up with suitable alternatives. Especially when the people we hear from are steeped in the current setup, so deeply their view of progress can’t see over the lip of the cup, except straight up to the stars.

We can’t all move to the Moon, or Mars. Many of us don’t want to. Why should we, when we have a perfect planet right here beneath our feet?


We all seem to love a big spaceship story.

Maybe it just attracts comment, because it’s so clearly Last Century’s Dream.

If we’re doomed to live on a wet Earth where the only habitable areas are at the polar extremes, and ⅞ths of the population has to die so the remainder can survive, in a hundred years more or less – where’s the solution? Where are the ideas?

That proportion of the human population who believe in relocation to another planet aren’t the ones with the solutions. They are, however, the ones with all the headlines.

Humanity has gained many technological advances from the space race, not least the understanding that money might bring you a pen that defies gravity but it’s easier to use a pencil.

So where are the pencils in the 21st century? Where’s the simple solutions that will enable the billion survivors to endure?


If we want to find new ways to deal with the future, do we look to the past, or to the side?

Hurtling along the road marked Progress, we’ve sidelined the societies and civilisations that live – lived – in closer harmony with nature.

You might picture hunter-gatherers in loincloths in the southern wilds of the Kalahari when the words “harmony with nature” appear. Are we programmed, by a society that depends on an appetite for technology, to be frightened by a life that appears to have none?

cave painting of human figures and animal figures by san bushmen
Rock art in the Kalahari

But closer harmony with nature can be managed. We do have the technology. We’ve had it before, for centuries.

The latest excavations of Angkor in Cambodia show that – at its apogee – the city was not some massive standalone temple complex surrounded by dense jungle like it is now. The city spread across hundreds of square miles of jungle, its houses and streets threading through forest gardens and irrigated ponds, living in close harmony with nature for centuries until climate change brought about its downfall.

Likewise the desert pueblo cities of the Anasazi (“Ancestral Pueblo”) people in what is now the USA. Thriving communities, dependent on a water source that disappeared from easy reach before the invention of the electric pump. Their descendants live in 19 sovereign nations within the borders of modern New Mexico. Why did they move into the pueblos from the canyon floor? Why did they abandon those pueblos, so easily defended, in less than a hundred years?

Some parts of the planet we can’t repair. We’ve damaged so much of the ecosystem, the life flows, that some of them can’t regenerate without thousands of years of evolution filling the gap we’ve created by overfishing, over-hunting, or just plain extermination.

Like with surviving coronavirus, we don’t have thousands of years. We’ve just got Now.

But because looking into the future on a planet as bruised as this one, so perfect for us and so damaged, seems terrifying.

Is terrifying. Killer heatwaves. Killer floods. Killer plagues. Coming to the West, on fading Trade Winds, to shake our grip on this world’s imagination.

So we look to the stars, to the Moon and to Mars, believing if only we tried hard enough we’d all live forever. In a galaxy far, far away.


This week’s links:

Archaeology of human evolution continues to surprise, as does theory of human language. The Dawn of Language: How We Came to Talk by Sverker Johansson (book review on The Guardian, with links) discusses the driving force behind the evolution of language (hint: it’s the wimminz)

Explore the city of Angkor Wat on Virtual Angkor, especially good on a VR headset apparently. To see how the place looks today, the official website is Visit Angkor.

You want music? More music? This time, Verdi’s awesome Dies Irae, here performed by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. (Click on the link if the video doesn’t load for you). This piece is Verdi’s interpretation of the Day of Judgement in Christian mythology, when the dead rise to face the judgement of God at the end of the world. Makes my hair stand on end.

Published in: on September 5, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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Next book or not?

I’ll have to write the middle book of Louis Beauregard, because I need to show you how the entitled young frogspawn (“I’d have to smack this man if I were to meet him in real life” – Goodreads reviewer) turned into the wise old warrior.

I always intended to write at least three of these.

THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN shows Louis as an elderly man, facing his death with the same courage he’d lived his entire life constructing.

SHADOWBOX is Louis as a much younger man, an over-entitled blond with an appetite for life so large he discards friends and lovers like used tissues, accumulating debts financial and human in his rakish progress across Europe while he escapes from a murder he was compelled to commit.

In between? What happens in between, to change the man’s behaviour without affecting his character?

I had a touch at this with All Roads Lead To The River. Louis is no longer young, roaming Egypt as a last resort with the latest group of friends to which he’s hitched his wagon.

But even in that short story, his character is closer to the elderly man than the youngster.

So, other than general ageing and maturing, what happens to him between 1832 and 1852 to turn him from his youthful exuberance towards a stronger, calmer personality?

What makes him into the man who gathers the Cuckoo Club around him like an offshoot of the East India Company with an unhealthy dash of the Freemasons?

And the fictional Cuckoo Club itself – with Louis at the helm – turns from a gentlemen’s club of little standing, a group of hobbyists obsessed with what we’d now consider conspiracy theory, into a titan of the British Empire’s ruling classes.

How. Does. That. Happen?

There’s a foreshadowing of how this might progress in the later chapters of SHADOWBOX.

Louis encounters a man who I now see can become a fearsome mentor – a man whose past includes time in the Grande Armée during the retreat from Moscow, an assassin, a bodyguard, and a man whose impeccable appearance hides a sophisticated and ruthless survivor.

Leo Tolstoy, 1848 - young man seated, facing the camera
Leo Tolstoy, 1848. Not the man with whom Louis will run off to Moscow, but the similarity is uncanny.

How would you like a story that takes in those characters, across the cities and landscape of Eastern Europe, across the Black Sea to Constantinople and thence the Nile?

Ooo, I’m even beginning to convince myself…

Which leaves me now with another question, one I’m approaching with my eyes half-shut and my face turned away like you would opening a shook-up can of skoosh:

One more book; or three?

Maybe I’ll have to do some research.


This week’s links, more of a note to myself:

A Dance To The Music Of Time – long, complicated story of family across generations, adapted by Channel 4 from a series of 12 novels by Anthony Powell. I guess this is the “stately home” version of all those family sagas set in pit villages or pioneer communities, none of which is to my taste. Are the stories just filled with toffs being horrid to one another? (in which case I’ll stick to Aldous Huxley).

The Duellists. In SHADOWBOX, but more so in the hidden parts of his storyline, Louis Beauregard does a lot of duelling. By the time of The Last Rhinemaiden he’s mostly delegated this to others, but he still has to fight for his elderly life on occasion. Bonus link – the film also features Robert Stephens, who played Aragorn in the BBC R4 Lord Of The Rings – now available on Fourble!

(Ooh – while looking for The Duellists, I stumbled upon Barry Lyndon (film) by Stanley Kubrick, which looks delicious…)

Les Miserables. The book by Victor Hugo, not the musical (link to Project Gutenberg version). Hugo wrote the story shortly after the events described in the book, and actually took part in the revolution so vividly described. Not sure I’d like to be so close to such historical upheavals, but then again maybe we don’t always have a choice in these matters.

And maybe we’re going through them right now.

The good old days are a trap

A dangerous place, when memories turn into nostalgia. You forget what was wrong or bad about a place, or a time, and wish away your future.

I write historical fiction. I also write about events in my past, sometimes decades ago, when the world was different and we were all much younger (or – eek! – didn’t yet exist).

It’s a trap.

I’ve written in glowing terms about the time I travelled through Germany with my fellow students. A fleeting moment, paused in time, sparkling with youth and promise.

I didn’t write about the scorpions in our accommodation on a hill above the local slaughterhouse, or the cold showers, or the stifling, cramped three days’ drive across Europe in a minibus that never smelled the same afterwards. I didn’t write about the hardship that came later, when I needed the cash I could have made by working that summer.

Painting - Alma-Tadema, Unconscious Rivals (1893). Two women in classical robes under an arched ceiling

How we see ourselves?

Looking back through old photographs for something to illustrate another post, I saw younger versions of my friends and family smiling at me at weddings and garden parties.

Some of those friends I haven’t seen for more than 18 months, thanks to coronavirus. Some of them I’ll never see again, passed away in the intervening years.

Some of them I’m glad to see the back of, if I’m honest.

Growing up, I’d hear my parents talking about life before I was born. Everything was cheaper, in a different currency; there was a lot less variety of “everything” too. Smogs were bad; unimaginable to me as a child of the woods and fields.

My parents spoke of their youth, of their childhood, and although there was nostalgia for some aspects, there was always a level of realism that I didn’t fully respect. Now I’m older than they were back then, I can see how nostalgia works.

We have more memories than when we were teenagers, or in our twenties. More water has flown under the bridge, more of those bridges have been burned. The gloomy sense that we have more Past than Future also hangs over us.

That’s another thing coronavirus has gifted many of us – an indication of our own fragility.

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies”

And so to age, and ageing, and the end of days. An exploitable sense of the world going to hell in a handcart, which has been with us since before time began and seems only to have accelerated as the world spins faster.

Dangerous, looking back.

We see the sunlit uplands, and not the dark satanic mills crammed into the valleys below.

How we actually are?

You’re told you’ve never had it so good, and yet you’re unhappy and fearful of change beyond your control.

Words change meaning.

Behaviour which we took to be harmless becomes a source of conflict, or uproar, or stigma.

People we’ve never taken notice of start to make a fuss over stuff which impacts their lives, which we never gave a second thought. The same folk appear in places we believe belonged to us, claiming their space, asking us to make amends.

And you wish time went back to the Good Old Days.

It’s a trap.

Writing historical fiction – even speculative fiction – even steampunk – you can’t make those mistakes again without running the risk of being misunderstood. Whole tracts of literary analysis have been compiled on the prejudices of the past. University courses run on the absence of representation.

University campuses reorganised and renamed.

Even when I was studying prehistory, we learned that interpretation of the past changes as new ideas bring focus or a different viewpoint.

The feminist archaeologists of the 1970s literally turned artefacts on their head to show a different aspect of what had been accepted as a fact.

two stylised carvings said to be female figurines

Go figure.

Marxist archaeologists sought to reinterpret the past and reclaim history from old-school Classics scholars besotted with kings and empires.

The current fuss over the National Trust re-telling the stories of stately homes through a lens of slavery and cultural theft is only part of the process of disengaging from a Golden Age, seeing it more completely.

It’s painful. There’s a whole world of hardship and unfairness to unravel, cruel and criminal and unrelenting.

Do we risk the same when we create fiction? Are my characters forcing their views on the reader, even when those views aren’t mine? Have I structured my city, my society, my alternative universe, along the same exploitative and prejudiced lines of the one we’ve inherited in real life?

If so, what are my characters going to do about it?

It’s not enough to say “things were different then” and shrug, turn away, pass over the problem.

This is FICTION, dammit! Let’s make it better than life.


This week’s links:

The Black Country Living History Museum – grimy, gritty and underground. Tales of ordinary folk? Try: Hush Now.

The National Trust’s report into colonialism and historic slavery All that wealth has to come from somewhere…

The Good Old Days on Nostalgia Central – BBC TV series, not available on iPlayer for some reason. I was always more interested in the audience’s costumes than the acts themselves…

Published in: on April 11, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on The good old days are a trap  
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TLR 12 – Sunset

Shall I not lift her from this land of beasts
Up to my throne, and side by side with me?
What happiness to reign a lonely king,
Vext—O ye stars that shudder over me,
O earth that soundest hollow under me,
Vext with waste dreams? for saving I be joined
To her that is the fairest under heaven,
I seem as nothing in the mighty world,
And cannot will my will, nor work my work
Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm
Victor and lord. But were I joined with her,
Then might we live together as one life,
And reigning with one will in everything
Have power on this dark land to lighten it,
And power on this dead world to make it live.’

Tennyson, Idylls of the King
Love leading the Pilgrim (1909) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
Love leading the Pilgrim (1909) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

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Published in: on March 20, 2021 at 5:00 pm  Comments Off on TLR 12 – Sunset  
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TLR 11 – The Russian Occidental

Did I promise you a story? With heroes and villains, and things that go bump in the night?

What would our story be without a villain, a man – or something more? – who hunts our heroine through the streets of Victorian London in an amber-lined carriage?

I wanted the antagonist in The Last Rhinemaiden to have an air of sophistication, a veneer of civilisation over a robust, animalistic savagery. He lunches at The Russian Occidental, another of those private members clubs I mentioned in a previous post.

The Russian barely paused for breath. “Have you ever been to Siberia?” The rhetorical question was not meant for Alf to answer. Sylvester de Winter barely paused to acknowledge Alf’s shaken head denial.

“It’s vast, boy,” he intoned. “Vast. So cold, so huge, so unknown. Its ancient forests and rivers, and so few people – just reindeer herders and Ugriks. And the ice,” he wheezed, “Ice like we never see in Europe. Six feet down in summer and the earth itself is frozen, still solid. Huge calderas, big cracks in the soil like the entrance to some frozen hell. And the mammoths! They dig mammoths out from the ice, their bellies still full of grass! The meat still so fresh you can eat it, even after so many years!”

Alf toyed with the remaining beef stroganoff on his plate, a faint distaste developing in his mouth.

Sylvester de Winter leaned closer across the table. His breath was so still it barely seemed to stir the air between them. Alf forked the last of the peas into his mouth and sat back in his chair.

“They say there are still living ones out there somewhere,” Sylvester de Winter went on, his eyes distant. “Perhaps roaming the steppe or the tundra, hiding from humans because they can. And if they have mamut – and they do, even if only the frozen ones, what else –” his voice broke – “What else might be there, under the ice? What ancient creatures may still stalk the forest, frightening the peasants like the monsters they are?”

I’ll leave readers to determine whether Sylvester de Winter – a made-up name if ever there was one – succeeds.

And whether Louis Beauregard can save The Last Rhinemaiden.


“She can only go so far from the river until She weakens. There will come a time when She can’t escape the city – when we’ve built over all the fields even out beyond Islington. Where will She go then? Will London lose Her?”

"Philae" oil painting by Veillon, a woman sitting on a riverbank at sunrise with temples and palm trees in the distance

You can buy The Last Rhinemaiden on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo and Lulu.

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Published in: on March 20, 2021 at 4:00 pm  Comments Off on TLR 11 – The Russian Occidental  
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TLR 10 – Books That Built The Cuckoo Club

I read a lot of nonfiction. Probably more than I read fiction, although as I grow older I don’t seem to read as fast as I used to.

The books I used to build the Cuckoo Club accumulated over time. Some of them were pure research, but others were interesting in their own right before I started to write the series, and some of that interesting stuff warped its way into the fabric of both The Last Rhinemaiden and Shadowbox.

So, out of interest, here’s a sample from that weird bookshelf. No particular order (just to irritate the librarians amongst you).

City of Dreadful Delight by Judith R Walkowitz
Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent
The White Goddess by Robert Graves
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
The Ring Master by David Gurr
Victoria by Dorothy Marshall
Folk Heroes of Britain by Charles Knightly
The Golden Bough by James Frazer (who also appears as a passing minor character in the Club)
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green (a contemporary of Tolkein, no less)
Jewellery Making Manual by Sylvia Wicks (for the technique of drawing wire)
The Secret of Prisoner 1167 by James Tully
Jack The Ripper by Colin Wilson
Queen Victoria’s Gene by D M Potts
Purple Secret by Martin Warren, David Hunt and John Rohl
Votan by John James
On The Origin Of Stories by Brian Boyd


Illustration by Waltrich - a bookshelf with a variety of books

Bookshelf of a dedicated researcher


You can buy The Last Rhinemaiden on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo and Lulu.

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Published in: on March 20, 2021 at 3:00 pm  Comments Off on TLR 10 – Books That Built The Cuckoo Club  
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TLR 9 – Too Many Enemies


One of the perils of writing historic fiction:

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ – L P Hartley, The Go-Between (see more at The History Girls)

Even the most recent past is a minefield of tropes and memes we find unsettling in the 2020s. The Victorian era has many vicious elements I’d prefer to avoid.

There’s also the problem of invented worlds, and mythologies, and conspiracies. You have to get it right, or the wrong sort of people try to hijack your simple fantasy novel and turn it into a major creed.

My aim was always to mimic the works of Tim Powers, especially The Anubis Gates.

“If Einstein did something in Germany on the same day that Charlie Chaplin broke his toe in Hollywood, I think, ‘Aha! Not a coincidence.’” – Tim Powers, How to Construct the Ultimate Conspiracy

So maybe it’s time to step into that weird section of the library and weed out what I found intriguing, before the bookshelves start to attract the wrong sort of attention…

Illustration - Le Bibliophile by Felix Valloton, 1911. a black and white illustration of a figure holding a lamp by a bookcase


You can buy The Last Rhinemaiden on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo and Lulu.

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Published in: on March 20, 2021 at 2:00 pm  Comments Off on TLR 9 – Too Many Enemies  
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TLR 8 – Where The Streets Have New Names

A version of this post was originally posted as The Maps I Used In 1888. Still one of my most popular posts, for some reason.


Writing “The Last Rhinemaiden” sent me researching the historical facts that underpin the fantasy, but I needed to add where the events in the story take place.

At one point two of the characters walk from the East End of London to the South Bank of the Thames. I could have let them take the journey as I’ve described it in that last sentence and many readers would be none-the-wiser. The detail doesn’t add to the suspense of the scene and it isn’t important in the overall outcome.

So why did I bother?

Fabric.

My initial draft is like a plain warp-and-weft. It’s a canvas, in need of paint. In need of details so the picture comes to life.

You need details. And readers like details. Without details, most stories would be nothing more than boy meets girl, or a series of fights between opponents until one of them wins, or a long journey there and back again.

The canvas has to be filled in with details.

I’m a visual reader, and a visual writer. I see pictures when I read books, and my writing describes the scene as it plays out in my imagination. I need to see the sunrise over the river, feel a stiff wind with the promise of sleet, hear running footsteps on sandstone flags.

So do you, readers.

My two characters stop for a smoke in the shadow of a church on East Cheap, proceed to Cannon Street and cross London Bridge to the South Bank, where they scurry along Montagu Street to Bankside.

Don’t you think that makes for a more interesting journey?

I was quite surprised when The Last Rhinemaiden started to take those two characters down onto the south side of the Thames to the railway bridge. While I plotted their progress with the help of a map, they followed a route I’d once taken myself.

It helped that I could picture where they end up by the river, because I stood on that spot not far from the Globe Theatre and watched the sleet of a January lunchtime fall on the mudlarks working the shoreline beneath the Embankment.

I know instinctively how high the railway bridge is above me, how far and how clearly the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is visible from the riverbank, how the tang of salt air rises from the tidal ranges exposed at low tide.

It’s not the same, of course, as it was in 1888. For that, I needed maps.

In the end I used three separate maps – the 1848 Crutchley Pocket Map or Plan of London, the 1899 Bacon Pocket Plan or Map of London, and an 1888 Jack The Ripper map which I’d bought during a shopping spree at Murder One bookshop on Charing Cross Road (London).

I had to cross-reference the maps to understand the landscape in 1888 where the Jack map was lacking. The changes are fascinating. Here’s two shots of the same place on both maps, for comparison. The earlier map is on the left.

Rosemary Lane becomes Royal Mint Street, even though the Royal Mint buildings were there in the early map. And see how the odd rectangle of Goodman’s Fields has been filled in with buildings by 1899?

In the difference between the two maps we see the explosion of industrialisation and its effects on London as a cityscape.

Green spaces are filled with housing as the population swells. Tower Bridge rears out of the mud – but not until 1892, so that now-familiar part of the skyline is empty in 1888. Railway stations, railway lines, carve themselves into the city.

On the early map, before the railways were constructed, there is no station, no bridge, no railway lines snaking out towards Kent. On the later map, there it is: Cannon Street Station, bridging the river with a frontage on Cannon Street itself. The railway termini brush out parts of the landscape and become landmarks in their own right.

On the modern map of London, you can still plot the outlines of the city under the flesh of the modern layout. It’s fascinating how much it has changed.

However, the most fascinating thing is how little has changed. And the most significant part of that is the river.


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Published in: on March 20, 2021 at 1:00 pm  Comments Off on TLR 8 – Where The Streets Have New Names  
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TLR 7 – Testing The Waters

This post is an extract from my 2012 novel The Last Rhinemaiden. Illustrations don’t appear in the novel, though.


tide-predicting machine of ten linked cogs and levers

The walls were lined with instruments of measurement, some in cases, others free-standing. Louis strode gently to a wall-mounted barometer and tapped the glass gently. It swung, a tiny amount. He noted the change in a log book.

More than yesterday, he thought.

In the centre of the room was a great bronze cauldron hung on thick iron chains from a wooden beam in the ceiling – the Water Compass. Louis stepped round it – always read the Water Compass last, he reminded himself – and moved around the room as if following a set path.

An instrument like a thermometer was set into the wall opposite the barometer. A glass tube filled with water instead of mercury or alcohol stood in a channel cut into the stonework, pale sandstone blocks on both sides marked with gradations of scale in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Louis had been to the Nile – and no further – fifty years after Napoleon. Amidst the desert sands, the river had gleamed with a natural beauty far wilder than the Thames, a beastly strength and power born in the African Highlands and rough with centuries of the desert.

In the footsteps of Giovanni Belzoni, in similar disguise, Louis had crept into the depths of the Great Pyramid to wonder at the wealth of a nation built in stone, and realised that perhaps he, alone in all the world, understood the volume of denial in that monstrous monument. Within its dry cool darkness he had felt at peace for the first time since he’d become Consort.

At that point he realised he had to return to London, but he took the Nilometer with him. It took him three months to bring it back from its original position beside the Nile at Dendera.

His heartbeat skipped and quickened when he saw the reading – it was way up, almost forcing the top off the glass tube. Louis caught his breath. Only once before had the Nilometer reacted in such a way since he’d set it up here in the basement: on the morning Crown Prinz Wilhelm was born. Louis felt a sense of unease growing in his fingertips.

He turned to the Water Compass at last.

The bowl of the cauldron was two-thirds full of water from the whirlpool off Skagerrak which had been gathered, at great personal danger, by Edward Forbes in 1833, on his way home from explorations of the east coast of Norway.

The Water Compass swung gently in the earth’s gravitational field. The water on the inside rose and fell against a series of lines inscribed on the inner curve of the bowl, marking the effect of the moon on the tides. On the floor slabs beneath were inscribed the points of the compass. Salt crusted the edges of the water inside, marking the high points of its movement with the actions of the moon and the sun.

But recently he’d observed the water curled up on the lip of the cauldron against all laws of gravity, and the great hanging bowl did not swing freely on its chains but instead was strung taut out towards the east-north-east. Louis checked the angle with a plumb-bob. It confirmed what he already knew. Even the tidal surge of 1887 had failed to make such an impact.

He made notes of his observations and left the room swiftly, suppressing a shiver. The Armourer signed him out and locked the door behind him.

“I’ll be in my office until lunch,” Louis said, disappointed to hear his voice lie flat against the stairwell walls. “I’ve asked for the Raven Master to call me.”


You can buy The Last Rhinemaiden on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo and Lulu.

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Published in: on March 20, 2021 at 12:00 pm  Comments Off on TLR 7 – Testing The Waters  
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TLR 6 – Members Only

Private members’ clubs and secret societies go together in fiction like boy meets girl.

In real life, I don’t think I’ve ever been near the inside of one – certainly not one of the grand old clubs in London such as the Reform Club or the Savile.

a room with ornate panelling, tables and chairs, the Savile Club in London

The Guild of Students at university doesn’t count. Nor the social clubs open only to employees of certain large organisations, of which I might have been entitled but never partook.

A relic of an age where polite society was limited to those of an aristocratic background, or by dint of wealth, many of the gentlemen’s clubs of the Victorian era still exist (have a look inside some of them – and some modern counterparts – here).

Places which provided support functions for a single man – always a man – in a place far from home, at a time when travel took days on horseback instead of hours by private jet. Laundry facilities; food and drink; a library, armchairs, browse expensive periodicals and pass the time between meals, or business meetings.

Somewhere you didn’t have to fight for a table, struggle to be served, or shout to be heard.

You could gamble, at a time when gambling was restricted, and speculate, at a time when profit was a slow process that relied on sailing-ships, sugar and rum.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how groups of like-minded people gathering together to discuss what interests them might lead to accusations of sedition. In the 19th Century, there was plenty about. Most of it came from the “lower” end of the social spectrum, unhappy with their lot and increasingly vocal.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to what was then Colonial Australia for the crime of meeting together and swearing an oath of secrecy. Their secrecy involved asking for a living wage with the threat of co-ordinated strike action against their employers, and the employers did not like that one little bit.

Conservative and Liberal Clubs in towns and cities across the UK, neo-classical columns flanking the doors in imitation of the 18th century’s stately homes, provided places for employers and shareholders to discuss their political affiliations in comfort.

By the late 19th Century, Acts of Parliament had been enacted to recognise trades unions. The labour movement in the UK argued for better working conditions for the male workforce; employers undercut their power by employing women, or immigrants, on reduced wages – wages too low for a free man’s dignity, or to support a family with any degree of comfort.

For those who want to learn more, the Dictionary of Victorian London has a whole subsection devoted to clubs of all sorts, including Working Men’s Clubs.

By 1888, free libraries such as those funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie were being built, such as the one in his home town of Dunfermline.

“The facilities included a library room, ladies’ and gentlemen’s reading rooms, a recreation room, a smoking room, and a flat for the librarian.”

These were places where ordinary men and women could gather to discuss politics, economics or philosophy. To study art, or engineering, and improve their understanding of the world. To discover and read pamphlets of all persuasions, and a place to host social clubs and societies beyond the scope of those citizens without sumptuous parlours or libraries of their own.

Somewhere to meet like-minded individuals.

To mingle with the opposite sex (or the same), with the opportunity of romance.

A place to organise sedition, if that was to your liking.

Social clubs and secret societies proliferate in fiction, too.

Dickens wrote the first fictional club in The Pickwick Papers, in 1837, so the notion was well-established by the time Sherlock Holmes visits his brother Mycroft at the Diogenes Club.

Jack London invented The Assassination Bureau in the novel of the same name, Wodehouse the Drones Club in Jeeves & Wooster.

In real life or in fiction these are places with all the comforts of home, in a shared space with others of your social circle, where you or your characters can loosen their collar a little.

They exist as a nexus of power. They provide contacts with others in positions of influence or affluence, the Old School Tie brigade of “chums”. They are the very essence of the saying, “small world”.

And I decided I ought to build one of my own.

A location where my elderly hero, Louis Beauregard, kept his magical monitoring equipment and his weaponry. A forum to discuss the threat to the Sacred King and the goddess he served; a nexus of Establishment power focused on maintaining the supernatural status quo ante; a garrison wherein to muster a company of extraordinary gentlemen.

The Cuckoo Club.


The next post in this series is here.

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Published in: on March 20, 2021 at 11:00 am  Comments Off on TLR 6 – Members Only  
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