I imagine that everybody who reads this blog has realised by now that I write historical fiction. What I think some people still don’t know is that I have a sideline in Urban Fantasy.
I enjoy writing Urban Fantasy. It takes more research than I had expected. Sometimes I need to consult 16th century French volumes about werewolves. Other times I’m checking maps of the Palace of Westminster or the type of weaponry favoured by Special Forces. It’s still massively easier than all the historical research that underlies the Burke series. The field trips, too, are much simpler. A visit to Brompton cemetery is much less demanding than a trip to Portugal, although Portugal was a more romantic place to have a holiday.
What exactly is Urban Fantasy? Basically, it’s fantasy stories, featuring such old-time favourites as vampires and werewolves, but set in realistic contemporary settings.
A vampire hero
I’m just finishing the third of my Galbraith & Pole books. These all feature a Metropolitan Police detective, Chief Inspector Galbraith, who has ended up partnering Chief Inspector Pole from the mysterious Section S. While Galbraith is very human, Pole is a vampire. To start with, Galbraith is uncomfortable working with the Undead, but gradually they become good friends. I like to think of the books as police procedurals with added bite.
Why a vampire? The idea came to me on a visit to Buenos Aires, a city distinguished by amazing cemeteries in which the dead rest in little houses that form busy streets. Buenos Aires is, of course, also famous for tango. Tango in South America is mainly a nocturnal activity and I found it easy to imagine the dead leaving their mausolea to dance. Tango songs often feature death and lost love, so I thought they would appeal to vampires.
My beloved explained gently to me that English readers might struggle with a story set in a country and culture they didn’t know. Could I move my vampires to London, for example? So I came up with a vampire sub-culture based around Brompton Cemetery.
The idea of Urban Fantasy is to have your fantastical creatures firmly based in the real world. Could I make a credible 21st century vampire?
Creating vampires that could live among us involved I certain amount of tweaking of the vampire legend. Obviously my vampires can’t go out in daylight, although high factor sunscreen can extend their operating hours a little. They wouldn’t be vampires if they didn’t drink blood, but they really don’t need that much blood and the vampire subculture does have humans who get a kick out of making donations – or, at a pinch, there is animal blood. Like traditional vampire, it takes piercing the heart to kill them, although a stake is not necessary: a bullet will do the job just as well.
Chief Inspector Pole explains that many of the other attributes people ascribe to vampires are just myths. He enjoys garlic and it’s perfectly possible to take his photo.
Pole dislikes the term ‘vampire’, which he thinks has negative connotations. Instead, he prefers to speak of ‘the Others’, as opposed to the Mortals they live amongst. They are able to hide in plain sight because of a long-standing arrangement whereby they make their services available to the Crown in exchange for a blind eye being turned to their existence.
Pole used to be called Paole. Perhaps he is related to the historical vampire Arnold Paole, who lived in Serbia in the early 18th century and whose vampiric activities were the subject of an official report by the Austrian authorities. Who knows?
Do I believe in vampires? Let’s put it this way: in the tango clubs of London I meet people who seem to have been dancing for decades but who never show signs of aging. And I’ve never seen them out by daylight.
Monsters in the Mist
I’m just finishing the third Galbraith & Pole story, which finds them out of London, hunting a mysterious killer in rural mid-Wales. Both Galbraith and Pole are creatures of the city and entirely out of their comfort zone on open moorland with nothing to disturb the silence but sheep. There is something out on the hills, though: something that has killed once and may well kill again.
Our heroes’ search for the secret behind the monsters takes them to Porton Down, where scientists are pushing genetic research into dangerous areas. It ends in a bloody climax at a secret military base hidden at the end of a service road on the M4.
Porton Down is a real place as is the secret military base. In this crazy 21st century world, is it really the vampires that are the hardest thing to believe?
The Galbraith & Pole series
The first Galbraith & Pole book, Something Wicked, sees Pole working with Galbraith to track down rogue vampires who have killed a member of the House of Lords. There’s a lot of tango. (I told you that vampires like tango.)
The second book, Eat the Poor, asks, if your MP was a werewolf, would anybody notice.
Both books are available on Amazon as paperbacks or on Kindle.
Monsters in the Mist will be looking for beta readers in the next week or two. I’m hoping it will be ready in time for Halloween. That seems appropriate.
It’s Thursday and I have to turn my mind to tomorrow’s blog post. My mind, though, is resolutely refusing to turn itself to anything remotely useful.
We haven’t had a summer holiday this year – just a few long weekends in England. The last week has seen some of the nicest weather we have had since June, so we’ve been taking advantage of it to do things outside. We’ve been walking in Richmond Park, dancing tango in the open air and skating through the streets of London. Yesterday I even took my bike on a quick run along the Thames for the first time in months. It’s been lovely, but it’s left me tired and unenthusiastic about putting together another post about something excitingly historical.
I’m not even working on a historical novel at the moment. I’m doing edits on the latest Galbraith & Pole book. If you haven’t met Galbraith & Pole yet, do have a look at the first two.
These are as far as I can get from my historical writing (although there’s a historical back story in Something Wicked). Chief Inspector Pole is a vampire, but rather different from most vampires you will have met either in fiction or, quite possibly given the sort of creature he is, in real life. He enjoys garlic and avoids human blood and is quaintly old-fashioned rather than terrifying. And, like me, he loves to dance tango.
As you may have noticed, I don’t take my vampires too seriously (one reviewer regretted the absence of significant quantities of gore) but they are fun reads and huge fun to write and, even if I had to brush up my 16th century French for some background reading, they are easier to research than most historical novels.
Anyway, potentially long blog post cut short: I’m not writing anything historical this week so you’ll have to make do with photos of some of the tango events I’ve been at over the last few days. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about tango, so it’s about time.
OK, maybe one historical reference. Here, thanks to the wonders of AI, I can combine both my interests with a picture of Napoleon dancing tango.
I was at a party this weekend given by a tango friend. Some of the people there had vast experience of lots of different dance forms, so the conversation turned to dance history. I was talking to somebody who was very into 18th and 19th century dance and he was telling me how the waltz arrived in England. He mentioned the importance of Lady Jersey who was the queen of Georgian Society in the early 19th century.
I’m fascinated by the history of the waltz. It intersects my interest in the Napoleonic era because it was widely popularised by the social activities surrounding the Congress of Vienna. (See my blog post: Partying at the Congress of Vienna.) I decided to spend a little while online to see what I could find out about Lady Jersey and the waltz.
The most useful material I found was a paper by Cheryl A. Wilson, “The Arrival of the Waltz in England, 1812”. This, as suggested in the title, puts the arrival of the waltz a little earlier than the Congress of Vienna. The waltz had started life as a folk dance in Eastern Europe, but by the 19th century it was a sophisticated ballroom dance, albeit one that was not practised in England. This changed when it was introduced into Almack’s Assembly Rooms. Almack’s was the most exclusive social club in London. Almack’s is where Lady Jersey came in. She was one of the patronesses of Almack’s and a leader of the ton, the group of socially well-connected men and women who formed the pinnacle of Society in the Regency. So influential was Lady Jersey that she was often referred to as “Queen Sarah”.
The fact that Queen Sarah had supported the introduction of the waltz meant it was here to stay, but at first it was regarded with suspicion by many people. It was the first ‘close dance’ to be popularised in England. Prior to the waltz, most social dancing involved a line of men facing a line of women with their only contact being to hold hands during some of the intricate patterns of the dance. The intimate hold of the waltz was seen as full of moral hazard. Byron (ironically, given his reputation) wrote:
Waltz—Waltz—alone both legs and arms demands, Liberal of feet—and lavish of her hands; Hands which may freely range in public sight, Where ne’er before—but—pray ‘put out the light.’ Methinks the glare of yonder chandelier Shines much too far—or I am much too near; And true, though strange—Waltz whispers this remark; ‘My slippery steps are safest in the dark!’
The Waltz: Byron
The waltz might well have deserved at least some of its reputation. It was not unknown for corners of the ballroom to be left in shadow and a tightly laced woman whirled rapidly into a turn might feel (or could reasonably feign feeling) dizzy enough to fall into her partner’s arms. There were even scandalous suggestions of osculatory activity in the shadows.
After the Congress of Vienna where it was clear that the crowned heads of Europe and their courts were happy to indulge, waltzing became more respectable. Most dance historians pinpoint its inclusion in the 1816 Regent’s Fête at Carlton House as the moment when the waltz became truly integrated into London society. While the waltz was gracing fashionable ballrooms, the folk version continued to be popular as a dance amongst the working poor of Central and Eastern Europe. As Argentina opened up to European immigration, many of those who emigrated to South America took their waltz music with them. This, of course, is where, as a passionate tango enthusiast, my interest in the waltz comes in. By the mid-1800s the waltz of Europe had morphed in Argentina into a specifically South American variant – the Vals Criollo. As tango developed later in the century, tango musicians incorporated the Vals Criollo into their repertoire and by 1910, some composers wrote tango compositions in 3/4 time, giving birth to the Tango Vals. The Tango Vals is a faster-paced version of the Viennese waltz, with a lot of turns and quick changes of direction that leave the dancers breathless. This is the waltz I love. And here I am dancing a very restrained tango vals with my beloved at our Ruby Wedding.
James Burke and the Waltz
Burke only gets to dance the waltz once in the books. It’s 1815 and he is in Brussels at the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball on the eve of Waterloo.
They edged their way through the crowd and found space on the dance floor. To Lily’s delight, they were playing a cotillion. Burke suspected that she had their hostess to thank for that. The Duchess of Richmond was quite old-fashioned in her tastes and had probably insisted on some more traditional English dances. The cotillion was soon over, though, and it was back to quadrilles. Burke remembered the quadrilles that had played the first time he had met Lily. He could hardly believe he had not that much cared for her then. Now she seemed the most important thing in his life.
Another cotillion and then, as if to make up for such unfashionable music, the band started a waltz. Burke, like every other man in the place, had practiced the steps so that if he ever found a girl daring enough to dance it, he would not be found wanting. He was gratified to discover that Lily had obviously practiced it as well. The two of them whirled around the room until the music stopped, their cheeks red with excitement, and half dizzy from turning so enthusiastically.
My blog is called History and Books and Dance and Stuff so a historical fiction book about tango ticks pretty well all the boxes. And The Gods of Tango has quite a lot of Stuff too. In fact it’s a vast, sprawling work about tango and Buenos Aires and Italy and sexuality and those old tango perennials, love and death.
I can’t begin to discuss the plot, partly because there are twists and turns and I don’t want to spoil it for you and partly because the 384 packed pages defy synopsification. (Is that a word? It should be.)
What you need to know is that the story starts in 1913 with Leda arriving in Buenos Aires, leaving a narrow life in a village just outside Naples in search of opportunity in the New World. In the first of many shocks in the book, all her plans are thrown into disarray before she has even left the boat and she finds herself struggling to survive in a city that seems to teeter forever on the edge of madness.
It’s a story packed with characters, all so perfectly drawn that you never get lost, but one of the biggest, most important, characters is Buenos Aires itself and particularly San Telmo, a part of the city I feel particularly at home in. The danger, excitement and opportunity of the city is perfectly captured. It is overcrowded and filthy (even more so in 1913 than now). Yet, as today, it holds you. Leda knows that Buenos Aires destroys its children, yet she cannot bring herself to leave. A peaceful life in a small Italian village is no longer something she can settle for.
Leda falls in love with tango. The music, she thinks, can save her. And it does, though it means she must sacrifice everything. (No spoilers, but ‘everything’ isn’t too much of a stretch here.) She carves out a life in the violent world of tango. She is there as tango moves from the bars and the brothels to the dance halls and eventually the grand clubs and cabarets, even achieving an international respectability. But for Leda, it is always about the music of the people, starting with the rhythms brought from Africa with slavery. (The Gods of Tango is unusual in featuring a black bandoneon player whose grandfather was probably a slave. Argentina used to have a substantial black population but no one talks about that now.)
If you are interested in the history of tango (you’ve probably realised I am), then The Gods of Tango is worth reading just for its description of how and why the music developed through the Golden Age. But the book is much, much more than that. I’ve never read a book by a woman which understands so well the reality of being a man. And when she deals with different aspects of sexuality, she writes better than anyone else I have read, or ever expect to read.
De Robertis has won prizes and fellowships and is definitely a ‘literary author’, a label I am generally suspicious of. But this is someone who has earned their reputation through extraordinary hard work as well as an exceptional ability to write. Leda’s life in Italy was researched in Italy. De Robertis reached Italian emigration to Argentina and Afro-Argentinian history (an area which, as I’ve mentioned, is generally overlooked). She studied the violin as well as tango history and learned to dance. She has explored Buenos Aires today and developed a deep understanding of its history. And she writes fantastic prose. (I just said that, but I’m saying it again.)
I’m getting carried away. All I can say is that this is an astonishing book.
This Saturday (3 December) I’ll be at the Friends of Brompton Cemetery Christmas Fair to sell copies of Something Wicked. It makes perfect sense because Brompton Cemetery is at the heart of the story.
Something Wicked is a police procedural with a difference: one of the policemen is a vampire. And although he doesn’t live in Brompton Cemetery (he prefers the comfort of an apartment near Sloane Square), Brompton Cemetery is the centre of a community that takes care to keep itself out of the limelight — or out of any light at all, come to that. The book is firmly tongue-in-cheek and, according to one early review, it is “frequently funny and clever”, which is not to say that it does not have its share of blood and horror. But these vampires are not the traditional creatures of darkness, hunting through the night to drain the blood of virgins. Instead, like regular people (or ‘Mortals’ as they think of us), they come in all shapes and sizes, from the perpetual student (“Jacob’s at least 110 years old. Still, they say you’re never too old to learn”) to the senior partner in a top law firm. Urbane and sophisticated (at least for the most part) they just want to be left alone, taking the odd sip of blood where it can do no harm. When things go wrong and a peer of the realm turns up drained and dead, the vampires send their own investigator to work alongside the Metropolitan Police to close the case before things get out of hand.
I had huge fun writing this story, taking all the standard vampire tropes and tweaking them to make a credible London subculture. Brompton Cemetery features heavily because after a visit it is difficult not to believe that there are creatures inhabiting some of the amazing sepulchres there. Tango also figures prominently. Partly this is because authors are always encouraged to ‘write what you know’ and I am passionate about the dance, but also because I have always associated tango – its social rituals and nocturnal lifestyle – with the Undead. My vampires love tango and humans who join in their dances can consider themselves privileged.
“Tango is, I think, a point at which your world and ours converge. The music speaks of great beauty and unbearable sorrow; of love and of death.”
Because I usually write historical novels, I tried to provide some historical context for my vampires, so we have visits to the world of Anglo-Saxon Britain, an interview with Charles II and a final solution to what actually happened to Princess Anastasia during the Russian Revolution.
So there you are: police procedural, vampire fantasy, an essay on tango and some history thrown in. What more could you ask for?
I’m just back from three weeks dancing tango in Buenos Aires and, to be honest, I’m in no fit state to write a blog post today. (We got home at lunchtime yesterday having left at lunchtime on Wednesday.) So, for those who think that it’s insane to make that sort of journey just for a dance, I’m reposting an attempt at an explanation from two years ago.
The social dance for unsocial people
Somebody said that they had a friend who was put off learning to dance because they weren’t very confident in social situations. Tango is the perfect dance for them! If they are anything like me (and many others who struggle with large groups) they will find social situations difficult because there is so much going on. (Extraverts can skip this bit.) You have to cope with all these unwritten social rules, know how to say the right things to the right people, have a supply of acceptable small talk and be able to laugh at unfunny jokes. Tango gatherings are so much easier. There are rules, but they are simple and easily learned. Conversation can be avoided by suggesting that it would be nice to get on the floor (it’s not just acceptable not to talk while dancing, but often considered best practice) so there is no need for small talk or the ability to laugh at anybody’s jokes. For introverts, tango is ideal.
Find a good teacher
There is the little business of learning how to do it, which can take a while. Women can pick it up easily, because most women choose to follow rather than lead and, at least when you are starting out, following is quicker to pick up. For men, learning can be hard work but with a good teacher you should see visible progress quite quickly. Finding a good teacher can be tricky. There are lots of teachers (even I teach occasionally) and some are noticeably better than others. My own teachers have included Alexandra Wood and Emma Lucia Reyes (draw your own conclusions). Try a few introductory classes (a lot of teachers offer your first group lesson free) or ask around among dancers you know, either in real life or on social media.
How it’s good for you
What are the benefits? Well, even the most grumpily asocial character benefits from human contact. Psychologists report that hugging is good for your physical and emotional well-being. (See, for example, this article in Psychology Today.) Tango is a dance built around the embrace – it’s essentially walking while hugging your partner.
There are lots of reports that tango is associated with improvements in mental and physical health. In particular, tango is often linked to lower levels of dementia in old age. In Argentina, several hospitals offer tango lessons to people suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It doesn’t cure these diseases but it can relieve the symptoms. There’s an excellent (and moving) radio programme about using tango to help people with Parkinson’s on the BBC Radio website.
Tango improves posture. A good teacher will start by working on your posture and I have seen dramatic improvements in the way people carry themselves, which stretch well beyond the dance floor.
The sort of exercise that tango provides – low impact steady exercise over a long period with just short breaks between dances – is ideal for improving cardio-respiratory health. Anyone who thinks dance is for softies should watch a dance off between professional dancers and pro sportspeople as I did once. The dancers were still moving long after the sports professionals had given up. (The only ones to come close were skiers, which justifies my choice of sporting activity.)
It opens up a whole new world
I remember complaining that at school I was forced to study the geography of South America which, I said, was surely the area of the world that I was least likely to ever visit. Since I started tango I have made eight trips to Buenos Aires as well as dancing in Iceland, France, Portugal, Romania, and Turkey. I’ve even tried to learn Spanish (to the despair of Spanish-speaking friends who can’t believe anyone could be so bad at picking it up). Even without mastering the language, though, I’ve discovered the joys of Argentine art, literature, and film and TV, all of which are impressive. And, of course, I discovered James Burke whose first adventure, Burke in the Land of Silver is closely based on the real-life adventurer and his exploits in South America.
Even anti-social people make new friends
I have met lovely people from all over the world through tango. It starts as a way to have a few dances once or twice a month and ends up as the opportunity to dance once or twice (or more) a week with an ever-growing group of friends who you may well end up going on holiday with or more. A few people I know have married their dance partners though, contrary to what a lot of people think, I really can’t recommend it as a way to find love. But maybe that’s just me (though it certainly helps keep the flame alive in my relationship).
In the end…
Perhaps, of course, you are a socially confident, terrifyingly healthy, well-travelled, cultured individual already. In which case you could just take it up because the music is fantastic and the dances are fun.
The last few years have been difficult for everyone. Lots of people have responded by introducing something new into their lives. Perhaps it’s time for you to try tango.
A Word from Our Sponsor
If you are reading this blog, you probably know that I write historical fiction. What a lot of people don’t seem to realise is that I dabble in Urban Fantasy as well.
Something Wicked is a police procedural with vampires. Vampires who dance tango. Well, tango and long nights and passion all go together, so what’s there for a vampire not to like?
It’s fair to say that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Ah, the tango.” They had passed out into the square by now and Pole cast his glance upward at the sky. Galbraith thought it looked as though he was gazing up towards the moon, but it was a cloudy night and above them was only the glow of the lights of London. “Tango is, I think, a point at which your world and ours converge. The music speaks of great beauty and unbearable sorrow; of love and of death. Humans and Others both find it touches them. And the dance hall provides a neutral territory – a safe place to meet.”