Covers as art

Covers as art

I do hope you’re not getting bored about book covers. My essay last week didn’t get nearly the attention that was given to Anna Legat’s views on cover design back in May but maybe it was me rather than the subject matter. Let’s hope so, because this week with have Gilli Allan with her take on covers.

Book Covers are an Art in Themselves – A subjective view

There is only one book I recall buying because of its cover. I was twenty and browsing in Menzies, on the Strand in London. Black with a pale gaunt face looking out, the cover remains a strong visual memory. (Inexplicably I can find no trace of it online!) Intrigued, and entirely at a loss which name – Titus Groan or Mervyn Peake – was the title and which the author, I picked it up from the shelf. I’m not a fan of fantasy, but Mervyn Peake’s masterpiece, the Gormenghast trilogy, became an obsession and remains one of the stand-out literary experiences of my life.

Covers can be misleading, though. As a young woman I can easily recall my outrage when a novel adorned with a pretty blonde in a crinoline, turned out to be a Regency tale of a dark-haired heroine.  Or worse, when the hero proved to be a bearded redhead, but the handsome chap on the cover had been dark and clean shaven.  It was just WRONG!

Now I never choose a book because of its cover.  Which isn’t to say I don’t judge. There are covers I like and covers I definitely don’t. Those that make me pause and look twice are covers whose message is unclear. Anything enigmatic or atmospheric, or quirkily symbolic, or dominated by particularly magnetic colours, is far more likely to catch my eye. Will that be sufficient to make me buy?  No.  I have reached an age when I only read what I know I will like!

Am I lazy? Prejudiced? Intellectually unadventurous?  Blinkered?  Maybe all those things.   I pick my reading from a list of authors I already admire, or from reviews on Arts programmes and newspapers, from word of mouth and from award-winners in favourite genres.  I don’t even read blurbs because I prefer to be surprised!  I certainly pay no attention to the covers.

My all-consuming hobby as a teenager was writing, but I would not show my soppy ramblings to anyone other than the two friends I insisted listened to my stories. Art was my best subject at school, and though English came second in enjoyment, my returned homework rarely received more than a B and the quantity of red scribbled corrections convinced me I was no good.

I stopped writing when I went to art school. It was only after a career of more than ten years as an illustrator in advertising that I decided to try writing again. This was not in response to a sudden creative flowering. After becoming a mother, I didn’t want to return to the hassle and stress of work! Writing proved to be an occupation I could easily fit around being a stay-at-home-mum. The biggest bonus of that decision was the joy I discovered in revisiting my “soppy” hobby.

My first two novels swiftly found a publisher. The pre-digital Love Stories – characterized at the time as “The thinking woman’s Mills & Boon” – was a new enterprise, only too willing to take me up on my grandiose offer to provide the cover artwork. Though I knew precisely nothing about the discipline, I was undaunted. I came up with an illustrative water-colour image for both the covers of Just Before Dawn and Desires and Dreams.

From that high-point my expectations of a glittering career began a slide into a long and humbling period of lesson-learning.  Whether or not my covers bear any responsibility for my poor sales is unknowable, but Love Stories did not prosper and when they went out of business, I failed to find another publisher.

Perhaps I should have taught myself book cover design in those in-between years, but commercial art and design had moved away from the tools I was familiar with to computers. It was only when the digital revolution came for books as well as art, that I decided to self-publish the three novels I’d written in the interim. With a lot of trial and error, I managed to produce cover designs I was happy reflected the content of the books.  But the demands of constant marketing and promotion was a burden. When the opportunity arose to join the small publisher, Accent Press, I happily sold myself. 

For the first time I confronted the reality of my covers being out of my control.   I leave it to you to guess whether I was pleased with the covers I was given. TORN – about a woman living in a small end-of-terrace cottage on the side of a wooded hill. FLY or FALL – about a woman living a suburban life in a suburban town.  LIFE CLASS – designed using a stock image I found – is the only one of my Accent Press covers that I actually feel reflects the story.

On deciding to self-publish my next book, I was again faced with the “cover” dilemma. Unable to find suitable stock images, I came up with a graphic design which was symbolic of the themes of my book. (It’s the picture at the top of this piece.) Though based on archaeology, Buried Treasure is a story about much more than digging up valuable objects. But I was never entirely satisfied and after publication almost immediately set about the task of redesigning its cover so that I could have a mini relaunch when the book went into paperback.  I eventually managed to create a cover I was thrilled with but everyone in the business awarded it a thumbs-down. It looked less like a book about relationships (with a hint of mystery), and more like a thriller, apparently!

Back to the drawing board.  Only this time it wasn’t my drawing board.  I decided to accept the advice I was being given from all sides.  Just because I am not much influenced by cover design when I make a choice to buy, I can’t deny the evidence that a majority are. Good cover design is not just the ability to assemble a pleasing image alongside the necessary information. It is a skill that has more to do with advertising, with identifying a brand and selling a product, than it does with “Art”.  Though I did work in advertising, I was more of a workhorse than a visualizer or salesman. My ability to identify my buyer and hone my message to appeal to him or her is zero.  By handing the project over to a professional, Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics, I hope this time, I have got it right. 

GILLI ALLAN

Living in Gloucestershire with her husband Geoff, Gilli is still a keen artist. She draws and paints and has now moved into book illustration.

All of her recent books Torn, Life Class, Fly or Fall, and Buried Treasure have gained ‘Chill with a Book’ awards.

Following in the family tradition, her son, historian Thomas Williams, is now also a writer.

You can contact Gilli at:

http://gilliallan.blogspot.com/

https://www.facebook.com/gilli.allan.1

https://twitter.com/gilliallan

BURIED TREASURE

Jane thinks he sees her as shallow and ill-educated. Theo thinks she sees him as a snob, stuffy and out of touch.
Within the ancient precincts of the university the first encounter between the conference planner and the academic is accidental and unpromising. Just as well there’s no reason for them ever to meet again. But behind the armour they’ve each constructed from old scars, they’ve more in common than divides them. Both have an archaeological puzzle they are driven to solve. As their stories intertwine, their quest to uncover the past unearths more than expected.

You can buy Buried Treasure at mybook.to/BURIEDTREASURE

Find Gilli’s other books TORN, LIFE CLASS and FLY or FALL at author.to/GILLIALLAN

Sir Home Riggs Popham in fact and fiction

Sir Home Riggs Popham in fact and fiction

As promised last week, I bring you more on Sir Home Riggs Popham, the man who took it upon himself to take an army to South America in 1806 on the grounds that there was a city worth invading and he had some spare men to invade it with. (It’s the incident that Burke in the Land of Silver revolves around.)

Popham’s exploits are so implausible that I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so here is proper historian (and historical novelist) Lynn Bryant to tell you more about the man. Take it away, Lynn. That’s ‘Weigh anchor and cast off’ in Popham’s world.

The mad but glorious world of Home Riggs Popham

During a recent interview on a Napoleonic history blog, I was asked if I had come across any real historical character that I would never write in fiction, because he would be too unbelievable. I didn’t have to stop to think about this one – Sir Home Popham, who features as the antagonist in both books in my Manxman series, was a real person, which is just as well because I would never have had the nerve to make him up.

Popham was a naval officer, a controversial figure during his own time, who is best remembered for the system of naval signalling that he designed in around 1800, which was eventually adopted as the Admiralty standard in 1812. There was a lot more to Popham, however, than a naval officer with a scientific bent. During his forty two years in the navy, he was a prisoner of the French, was accused of being a smuggler, was promoted at the request of the army, gained and then lost the favour of Tsar Paul of Russia, was investigated for fraud, became an MP, and was court martialled for an apparently unauthorised invasion of South America. That is not an exhaustive list of Popham’s activities.

Nelson’s famous message at Trafalgar used Popham’s flag code

So how did a younger son of an unremarkable family come to play such a significant role in political and international spheres in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century? I suspect the key to Popham’s success lies in his usefulness. Popham was highly intelligent and a talented organiser, with a genius for logistics and this placed him in an excellent position to find favour not only with the navy, but with the army. During his career, he acquired a reputation for being the man to call on during joint operations and was frequently consulted in the planning of campaigns.

In 1794 Popham was appointed agent for transports at Ostend for the Flanders campaign. It was a job to which he was ideally suited and Popham made the most of it, winning the patronage of the Duke of York, who eventually wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty requesting his promotion to post-captain. 1798 found him in Ostend during the invasion threat, and the following year he was sent to St Petersburg where he successfully persuaded Tsar Paul to provide troops for a proposed landing in the Netherlands. Later that year, Popham was once again in charge of an evacuation during the Helder campaign and while the expedition was unsuccessful, Popham came out of it with his reputation further enhanced. He was elected to Parliament in 1804 and sat for various constituencies until 1812.

The breadth of Popham’s assignments is astonishing and an apparently simple job often turned into something more complex. A straightforward command of a troop ship during the Egyptian campaign led to a commission by a secret committee of the East India Company to negotiate trade treaties with the sheriff of Mecca and other Arabian states as ambassador directly responsible to the governor-general of Bengal, Lord Wellesley. In 1804 he was involved in the extraordinary work of Robert Fulton in developing naval mines. And at the end of the year, he sailed as commodore and commander-in-chief of an expedition to take the Cape of Good Hope with a force under General Sir David Baird.

It should be no surprise by now, to find that with the Cape in British hands, Popham did not stick to his official orders to remain in Table Bay to guard against a possible French attack. Instead, he decided to take his forces to attack the River Plate in South America. There is no evidence that Popham had any authorisation for this invasion, but in 1806, he landed his troops near Buenos Aires. The city fell to English forces under Beresford, but this early success did not last, and in August the Spanish took back the city, imprisoned Beresford’s men and left Popham facing recall and a court martial.

Popham’s 1807 trial ended with an inevitable guilty verdict, but surprisingly he was let off with nothing worse than a reprimand, undoubtedly due to his friends in high places. Further postings followed; Popham was Captain of the Fleet during the Copenhagen campaign in 1807, and performed the same function although without the title, during the Walcheren campaign of 1809 when he was heavily involved in the planning of what turned out to be a disaster for the British forces.

Once again, Popham managed to negotiate the ensuing Parliamentary inquiry without formal censure, and with his reputation officially intact, but there is a sense that Popham was running out of friends. Prime Minister William Pitt died in 1806 and Lord Melville, Popham’s long-time patron, died in 1811. Melville’s son took over at the Admiralty in 1812 and Popham was sent to northern Spain to co-operate with the guerrillas and conduct a naval guerrilla warfare against the French in support of Wellington. He was highly successful at this, keeping an entire French army ‘distracted’, and capturing Santander.

Popham was keen to be sent back to Spain in 1813 to continue his work, but he was not. He was promoted to rear-admiral, but he was not employed on active service again, ending his days in a miserable posting as commander-in-chief in Jamaica, where he suffered from yellow fever, lost two of his children to illness and finally suffered a stroke. He died soon after his return to England in 1820.

So what went wrong for Popham? There is no doubt that along with his many talents, Popham had a genius for making enemies. Lord St Vincent, who was First Lord from 1801 to 1804 openly loathed him, and there are endless letters and memos from Popham describing his sense of persecution. Popham was also unpopular with many of his fellow naval officers. This may have stemmed from his early promotion to post-captain at the behest of the army, and there was a furious protest from several very senior captains in 1807 when Popham was appointed Captain of the Fleet ahead of them.

Popham was a relentless self-publicist. He was undoubtedly good at what he did, but his compulsive need to announce his successes in pamphlets, news reports and endless letters to the government and the Admiralty, seems to have infuriated even his supporters. Lord Wellington was genuinely pleased with Popham’s success in northern Spain in 1812 but was less impressed to find that Popham was sending direct reports to the English press and expressed it with typical Wellington candour in a letter to Lord Bathurst. 

“It might have been as well also if Sir H Popham’s exultation upon the success of his operations in diverting the attention of the enemy from me had not been published. I mention this, because I know that the French act a good deal upon any information from our papers which they deem at all authentic.”

Wellington’s dispatches 12 Sept 1812

By the end of 1812, Popham’s career was in decline. His expertise in planning was offset by his tendency to oversell his schemes, and he was quick to abdicate responsibility when things went wrong, as in Walcheren. His reputation for financial irregularity may or may not have been deserved, but accusations dogged him throughout his career, and there was a sense of “no smoke without fire” which made him appear untrustworthy. Popham was an intelligent and inventive officer who punched above his weight in terms of influence at the heart of government foreign, military and naval policy for many years, but he could be arrogant, self-important and disastrously indiscreet. I suspect by 1813 he had simply run out of influential friends.

There is so much more that I’d like to know about Popham. There is one biography of him, A Damned Cunning Fellow: Eventful Life of Rear Admiral Sir Home Popham, by Hugh Popham, which was published in 1991, and Dr Jacqueline Reiter is currently working on a new study, and has been generous in sharing her insights as I grapple with my fictional version of Popham. Popham appears in both books in the Manxman series and makes a very brief cameo appearance in my new book, An Unmerciful Incursion which will be published on July 31st 2020. Popham is pure gold for a novelist, and I love writing him, so he will definitely return in all his glory in book four of the Manxman series, which is set during his 1812 campaign in northern Spain.

Lynn Bryant

Lynn (with me)

Lynn Bryant was born and raised in London’s East End. She studied History at University and had dreams of being a writer from a young age. Since this was clearly not something a working class girl made good could aspire to, she had a variety of careers including a librarian, NHS administrator, relationship counsellor, manager of an art gallery and running an Irish dance school before she realised that most of these were just as unlikely as being a writer and took the step of publishing her first book.

She now lives in the Isle of Man and is married to a man who understands technology, which saves her a job, and has two grown-up children and a Labrador. History is still a passion, with a particular enthusiasm for the Napoleonic era and the sixteenth century. When not writing she spoils her dog, reads anything that’s put in front of her and makes periodic and unsuccessful attempts to keep a tidy house.

Lynn Bryant is the author of the five books of the Peninsular War Saga, set in Wellington’s army, and the two books of the linked Manxman series, which follows the fortunes of a Manx navy captain.

You can find Lynn on her website at http://www.lynnbryant.co.uk/ or on social media at the following links.

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/LynnBry29527024

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/lynnbryant1803/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/historyfiction1803/?ref=bookmarks

Don’t forget …

Burke in the Land of Silver (featuring Popham) has been republished and is now available as an e-book and in paperback.

People do judge books by their covers: a guest post by Anna Legat

In our fast-paced world the conveyer belt of online bookshops zooms by at the speed of light. We writers and our books may only have one chance to catch a reader’s eye and make a good first impression. Browsing is not what it used to be. Readers don’t hang about in bookshops, sieving at their leisure through tomes of leather-bound sameness to discover the literary treasures that hide inside. They don’t pause by every volume, pull it out, blow off the cobwebs and read the first chapter to see if the story is to their liking. Those days are gone. Nowadays, our book’s debut on the literary catwalk may be no more than a flash of pixels, a click of a button, or a slip of a finger on the keyboard.

We have entered the era of fast food not only for our bodies but also for our minds. Book covers amount to the virtual sugar coating designed to whet readers’ appetites. The attraction to our book has to be generated before our potential reader contemplates reading the blurb on the back cover or on the Amazon web page. We have one shot at getting it right.

Our publishers and graphic designers rely on us to come up with ideas for the cover. We know our books intimately. If anyone can describe our books in one word – or in one image – it is us. When contriving a cover for our books we look for a symbolic expression that will best represent our book. We can’t go too far or too deep into the story. We don’t want to retell it on the cover, or even summarise it in wide strokes. A good book cover will only just hint at what is to come when the book is opened and read.

Below are three brilliant examples of conceptual book cover designs. The matchstick-house of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine hints at a burnout, at several false starts – prematurely extinguished, at an existence unfulfilled, at loneliness and emptiness. Slaughterhouse Five delivers an ingenious image of an alarm clock with missing hands and two unexploded bombs waiting to be struck – the time has come to an end and history has stopped in its tracks. The symbolism on the cover of Atwood’s The Testaments is effortless because we are already familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, and what that lampshade-shaped wimple stands for. Colour is drained away from the woman’s face – she doesn’t need a face to express her feelings, she’s not allowed to feel.

Not all covers represent books using highly conceptualised symbolism. Different genres abide by different rules. Romance frequently features idyllic watercolours with flawless silhouettes of romantic heroines and heroes that melt your heart at first sight. Horror covers do the opposite – they make your blood run cold.

Below are examples of historical fiction covers. Again, apart from the obvious symbolism of 12 Years a Slave, they bear stylised references to the eras and locations the books are set in: The Interpretation of Murder in turn-of-the-century Manhattan, New York, and The Innocent in Cold-War Berlin. The reader is given a clear message: this is your destination if you choose to journey into this story.  

Crime fiction covers are the least predictable or standardised. There are only so many ways in which one can depict death. Crime fiction goes for diverse ways of intriguing the reader without betraying any of the plot. My new DI Marsh mystery, due to be published in October, features a grand old public-school edifice as its focal point. That’s because all the roads – or, as in this story, all the clues – lead to that school. Even the sky plays its part to perfection: the clouds are gathering and darkening the horizon. There lurks the present and imminent danger. The book cover is an invitation to come in and play with that danger.

When a body is found in the grounds of a prestigious Wiltshire private school, DI Gillian Marsh takes on the case. The young groundsman, Bradley Watson, has been shot dead, pierced through the heart with an arrow.

As the investigation gathers pace, DI Marsh is frustrated to find the Whalehurst staff and students united in silence. This scandal must not taint their reputation. But when Gillian discovers pictures of missing Whalehurst pupil, fifteen-year-old Rachel Snyder, on Bradley’s dead body – photos taken on the night she disappeared, and he was murdered – the link between the two is undeniable.

But what is Whalehurst refusing to reveal? And does Gillian have what it takes to bring about justice?

Buy link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conspiracy-Silence-Gillian-Marsh-Mysteries/dp/1786159767

Anna Legat

Anna Legat is a Wiltshire-based author, best known for her DI Gillian Marsh murder mystery series. A globe-trotter and Jack-of-all-trades, Anna has been an attorney, legal adviser, a silver-service waitress, a school teacher and a librarian. She read law at the University of South Africa and Warsaw University, then gained teaching qualifications in New Zealand. She has lived in far-flung places all over the world where she delighted in people-watching and collecting precious life experiences for her stories. Anna writes, reads, lives and breathes books and can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction.

To find out more: https://annalegatblog.wordpress.com/

How do writers decide what to write about?

A guest post by Jennifer Macaire

Here is a question a reader posed to Tom, who tossed it over to me, and I gladly caught it because it was exactly what I was trying to decide at that moment. The question was, “How do writers decide what to write about?” Serendipity, really, because I’ve always been a writer of daily happenings, circumstances, and daydreams.

Writing is a lonely business. I never minded, because I’ve never been uncomfortable alone with my thoughts. I’m afraid I day-dreamed most of my time in school – and I still tend to do that – I’m lost in thought as I take the train (one of the reasons I love trains!), as I walk or bike to work, and as I lie in bed waiting to fall asleep. And my mind is always making up stories. “What if?” is a favorite game I play with myself – and I can go on for hours. For my Alexander series, it started as a “What if someone went back in time to interview someone famous – let’s say Alexander the Great?” and seven books later, I ended the saga! On science blog, I came across a smilodon skull, and the fact that scientists are not sure how smilodons (sabre-toothed tigers) killed their prey. From that photo, and that idea, I wrote a book (which will be out in August 2020) set in the paleolithic, with smilodons, people from the future, and a lethal virus! 

Smilodon at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits
Dallas Krentzel [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

My books come from “What if?” games, from a photo and blog article about a skull – and one came from a dream. My YA book, “Horse Passages”, came from a very vivid dream that just wouldn’t leave me alone until I’d finished the book.  My latest book is set in the Middle Ages during the ill-fated 8th Crusade. The idea behind the book came from a visit I made to the Saint Chapel in Paris, which had been built by St. Louis to house the crown of thorns.

That got me interested in St Louis, his life and times, and I ended up thinking the 8th Crusade would make an interesting background for a story. And so “A Crown in Time” was born. The heroine, Isobel, is a woman from the future sent back to save a young man who has embarked on the Crusade and whose actions have drastically changed the course of time. As a Corrector, Isobel is sent on a one-way trip back – basically a death sentence – but she accepts, because she was already in prison and doesn’t have anything left to lose.

One writer I know gets her ideas from he headlines in the press. Another writer uses photos or paintings for inspiration, and yet another uses objects for her stories: an old watch, a ring, or a teacup, for example. I admit that when I write a historical novel it is very helpful for me to actually see objects used during the time period I’m writing about, which is why you can find me peering at displays in museums and poring over old maps. We have a nymphorium nearby and when I pass by I often stop and visit – the ancient Roman temple dedicated to a nymph has been rebuilt to what it must have looked like over two thousand years ago, and I love trying to see past the mists of time to imagine people leaving offerings to the nymph – what did they pray for? What did they leave? What were they like?

Once an idea has taken hold and the story begun, it’s just a matter of writing – one word after the other. Ideas are easy to come by. The hard part is writing it all down. It’s a lonely job, often without reward, but it’s one I love with all my heart! Thank you, Tom, for giving me a chance to write about how I find my ideas – I hope this is helpful to aspiring writers! Try the “What if?” game, and see what you can come up with! But above all – have fun!

A Crown in Time

Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
(paperback copy)
ISBN: 9781786157768

(kindle)
ASIN: B07ZF4QWNP

Universal link for my kindle book: getbook.at/Crown

#ACrowninTime

Jennifer Macaire

Jennifer is an American living in Paris. She likes to read, eat chocolate, and plays a mean game of golf. She grew up in upstate New York, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. She graduated from St Peter and Paul High School in St Thomas and moved to NYC where she modelled for five years for Elite. She went to France and met her husband at the polo club. All that is true. But she mostly likes to make up stories.

Jennifer’s website: https://authorjennifermacaire.wordpress.com/

Blog: https://jennifermacaire.blogspot.com/

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TimeforAlexander/

Instagram (for those who like pretty pictures): https://www.instagram.com/jennifermacaire/

twitter: @jennifermacaire

BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/jennifer-macaire

A History of Sacrifice. Guest post by Jane Risdon

A History of Sacrifice. Guest post by Jane Risdon

Introduction (by me)

A couple of weeks ago I posted an unashamed plug for When Stars Will Shine, an anthology of Christmas stories with a military theme, which was being sold to raise money for Help for Heroes.

This week I’m posting an article by one of the writers, Jane Risdon, explaining why she feels so strongly about this charity.

Nowadays we have a smaller army and we fight fewer wars, but we fight wars nonetheless and when the government feels the need to put young men and women in harm’s way, it still sends them. Jane’s is a military family and many of her relatives have fought and suffered for their country. She writes about her family’s history with the armed services here.

Many people question the need to go to war, but while the governments we vote for send people to fight, we have a responsibility to help those who come back damaged. Help for Heroes was born out of the disastrous failure to treat the wounded of the Afghan War with honour and dignity. Sadly, there will be other wars and the need for Help for Heroes will continue.

A family history

Last year I had the opportunity to contribute a short story for an anthology which would go on sale to raise funds for Help for Heroes. I jumped at the chance. I’ve contributed towards charity anthologies in the past, roughly one every two years, when a cause is close to my heart. Help for Heroes is such a charity.

My family has served in the British armed forces for generations, mostly in the Army but not exclusively, and we have long connections with various regiments and also with the Royal Military Academy (RMA) at Sandhurst. My maternal Grandfather served there, my Father was an Instructor there and so was an uncle, and a cousin and his two sons have passed out as Officers, during the latter part of the 20th century, and their cousin has also passed out during the mid-21st century. They all went on to serve in the various conflicts we all know about and many of which are still on-going, sadly.

Sovereign’s Parade, RMA Sandhurst

My maternal Grandfather served in WW1 and was in France. He was gassed more than once and discharged eventually with ‘influenza,’ which I soon realised when researching family history, is a euphemism for being gassed. He suffered all his life from what was called, ‘spongy lung,’ and he eventually died from being gassed, in 1955. He didn’t get any help, either mentally, physically or financially, and therefore when he was laid off work at the RMA every winter for three months, he and his family struggled to survive on money they put aside every month in a small insurance policy which paid a pittance per week when he was unable to work, fighting for every breath.

My Grandmother’s first husband served in WW1 and various other conflicts including in Afghanistan, South Africa and India. He was wounded at the Somme and discharged with shrapnel injuries which eventually led to his death in 1923. Again, he did not receive any financial or psychological help. He and my Grandmother served in the RFC (Royal Flying Corps/RAF) after his discharge and prior to his death.

In 1916 one of my Grandmother’s brothers was giving his life at The Somme whilst another brother was arrested and incarcerated in HM Prison Wakefield, for his part in the Easter Uprising. I often think of this and wonder what conversation around the dinner table must have been like for the others left behind in a small village in Tipperary.

Of course, every household in the British Isles and beyond experienced their loved ones being sent off to war and they had to deal with the consequences if/when these men and women returned possibly (probably) injured, both mentally and physically.

My paternal Grandfather and his brothers went off to WW1, having lied about their ages so they could join up. All three had been through the Duke of York School in Kent which was a boarding school for children of soldiers who were orphaned or whose family couldn’t afford to keep them. I know my Grandfather was 14 when he was in the trenches in France.

Great Uncle George in his Duke of York School uniform before he went into WW1 aged 14 ( (c) Jane Risdon 2020 )

He served in France and was posted to India where he joined the British Indian Army. He was sent to Africa in WW2 with his men – mostly Indian Sikhs – to fight Rommel, and returned to see India gain independence in 1947 when he and his family returned to England. Except my own Father, who had joined the British Army in India and was posted to Africa and various other conflicts before being sent to the RMA Sandhurst as an Instructor. From there he went to Singapore and Malaya (Malaysia) to help rout-out bandits raiding rubber plantations in Johore Bahru – where my Mother and I joined him in 1954. We lived in many countries whilst he was still serving, and one of my brothers became a ‘boy’ soldier and eventually joined the same regiment as my father and served in Bosnia, Ireland and elsewhere.

Janes’s father in Sumatra, 1947 ( (c) Jane Risdon 2020 )

A paternal Great Uncle served on submarines in WW2: one he was on sunk. He returned home a shadow of his former self following his experiences trapped inside for a long time. He was a talented artist and had hoped before the war to study in Paris. Sadly, he suffered the rest of his life with mental illness and he didn’t get the help our Forces hope to get today. He used to book himself voluntarily into a local psychiatric hospital whenever he felt himself losing control and he’d stay there until he felt well enough to leave. He was not violent, just someone who’d become agitated and withdrawn, tormented by what he’d seen and experienced.

I could go on listing relatives who served over many years, going back to the very first Army/Navy we had as a country, but I am sure every family can do this. My Great Uncle inspired me to contribute to When Stars Will Shine which is raising funds for a charity helping those suffering the physical and mental wounds which result from their service on our behalf.

When Stars Will Shine

Emma Mitchell had the idea to curate the anthology and has been instrumental in putting the whole project together along with 24 authors contributing their stories, and the services of the proof-reader and cover designer have also been given freely. All funds raised from sales of the paperback and eBook go to the charity. Emma has worked tirelessly to ensure the success of our anthology and I really want to thank her and her colleagues as well as my fellow authors for making our anthology such a fabulous read and delight to be associated with.

Do please go to Amazon to discover the book and the authors involved. There are million-selling authors and first time authors and an eleven year old girl whose poem is the opening contribution. We’ve received some fabulous reviews.

Steampunk and the realm that never was… (guest post by Jon Hartless)

Thanks to Tom for his invitation to pen a blog here today. I should start with a quick explanation of my preferred genre, Steampunk, which is often characterised as retro-futurism, or a past that never was. In short, it imagines an alternative history in which the (usually) Victorian era develops advanced technology while retaining the aesthetic of the time.

Some of you may ask why we should spend time on “alternative history”; what is the point of dwelling on a time that never was? The answer, for me at least, is political. History is largely in the hands of the privileged few. They write it, distort it, and present it as fact. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s idiosyncratic, but widely publicised, take on the Victorians is a particularly vivid example.

This is hardly a radical new view. In 1984 Orwell wrote “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” 

The advantage of alternative history is that, while the way that actual history is presented is easily subverted (for example by the airbrushing from Churchill’s life accounts of his racist views), alternative history is not so easily controlled. Under the guise of Steampunk, I can present a colourful, vibrant alternative to reality which nonetheless reflects reality in many different ways. I can talk about real (historical) people and real social situations without the reflex objections of those who absorbed their history through GCSEs distracting from the issues raised.

In short, Steampunk allows me the freedom to examine the way we are now, and in a manner which may not be possible with “realistic” fiction. In this way my two latest books, Full Throttle and Rise of the Petrol Queen, came into being, inspired by the era of 1920s motor racing, in which the wealthy and titled went racing in expensive cars while the poor didn’t, because they never had the opportunity. And I can do this without complaints that I am taking a political view on the inequality in society today. Because I’m not. I’m showing inequality in my fictional Steampunk society. Which (but don’t tell anyone) is a mirror to our society.

And that is the appeal of Steampunk for me.

Jon Hartless

Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novels, a steampunk motor racing adventure examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, started with Full Throttle in August 2017 and continued with Rise of the Petrol Queen in 2019, both published by Accent Press.

John’s Amazon author page is at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jon-Hartless/e/B002DEQ8EI