The White Rajah

The White Rajah

Last week Tales of Empire was available free on Amazon. I hope you got a copy. If you didn’t, it will set you back a whole 99p this week.

I’m never sure about whether free promotions really boost sales of books, but in this case book sales aren’t the important thing. After all, at 99p the four authors whose stories make up Tales of Empire are never going to become rich. (If we are ever all in the same place, our profits might buy the coffees.) The whole reason for producing Tales of Empire was introduce new writers in the hope that you will go on to read their books.

My contribution, The Tiger Hunt, is a spin-off story from the world of The White Rajah and I hope that it will make you want to learn more about James Brooke and his life as the White Rajah.

He was a fascinating man: a merchant-adventurer who bought a ship, ostensibly to trade in the South China Seas but really in the hope of extending British influence in an area dominated by the Dutch. He extended British influence even more than he had planned, involving himself so thoroughly in the politics of the local Malay rulers that he ended up ruling his own country: Sarawak in Borneo.

It’s a tale of adventure with battles and plots and midnight raids, but it’s also a more serious story about colonialism and how, even when seeking to do the best for the natives he thought of as “his people” the sudden intervention of Europeans from an alien culture had some unhappy unintended consequences.

James Brooke did an enormous amount of good in Sarawak and even today some people look back on the time of the White Rajahs as a Golden Age. But when his rule was threatened he could be utterly ruthless.

Evil white colonialist or a good man who spent most of his life (and practically all of his fortune) building a peaceful and prosperous society where there had been little but poverty and war?

I’m biased: I think Brooke was a hero, albeit a flawed one. However, I have tried to be even-handed in the telling of his story. The story is told from the point of view of Brooke’s interpreter, John Williamson, who is also the narrator of The Tiger Hunt He is caught up in the events but still sees them as, to an extent, an outsider. He is so shocked by the massacre that he leaves Brooke and Sarawak, convinced that what had happened was wrong.

I hope that you might read the book and make your own decision. It’s available on Kindle for just £3.99. Click  HERE for the Amazon site. You can also buy it in paperback.

Hill forts (updated)

Last year I posted a piece about hill forts which was inspired by Ailish Sinclair’s rather wonderful book, Sisters at the Edge of the World. The story featured a vitrified hill fort. That’s a hill fort where stonework has turned to glass, probably because of intense heat. Vitrification is definitely a real thing: the vitrification of sand under campfires may well be how glass was initially discovered. And it has certainly happened in Scotland. Ailish Sinclair has blogged about Cullykhan, near Aberdeen: a hill fort on a coastal promontory where vitrified stone has been discovered.

I was confused, because the hill forts I’ve seen look like earthen parapets with no sign of any stone. Photos of Cullykhan show no sign of walls nowadays, but excavation discloses stone walls inside the earth barriers, almost as if the stone served as a starting point for the earth walls.

Did the Scots build their hill forts differently from the English or are English forts also based on stone walls?

Hill forts are generally something of a mystery. Were they military strongpoints where Iron Age tribes retreated in times of war? Or were they defences around permanent settlements? Certainly some did feature in battles with the Romans when they invaded these islands and many are well situated for defence on natural high points with clear views. This is less obviously the case with others. Similarly, some show evidence that they were permanent settlements, while others seem to have been used only in times of unrest.

My post looked at some of the hill forts I’ve visited and I’m updating it now to include Uffington Castle, which I went to see in March.

Uffington Castle

Uffington Castle is an Iron Age hill fort that sits just above the famous White Horse In Oxfordshire.

The White Horse (NASA)

Although it’s generally referred to as an Iron Age fort, there was probably at least some sort of structure on this site from the Bronze Age, around 700 or 800 years BCE. This means that Uffington Castle and the White Horse may well date back to the same period. It’s a particularly large example of a hill fort, measuring around 220 metres by 160 metres. When I visited, I thought it was a very regular shape but those who have surveyed it describe it as D shaped. It certainly looks more like what I think of as a fort than do many of the others described below. Here’s a photo of one corner, looking just like the corner of fortifications for the next couple of thousand years.

In its heyday, the bank probably incorporated a timber palisade and may well have been faced with stones. The whole thing was surrounded by a V shaped ditch with another, outer, bank beyond it.

The ditch

It was a solid defensive structure. Excavations identify a gatehouse at the main entrance with banks extending around it to provide additional defence.

There is evidence that people lived up there. The site may have been abandoned and resettled a few hundred years later around the third century CE. It doesn’t ever seem to have been a particularly large settlement, though, so it may have been lived in mostly at times of war. Maybe that’s why it seems to have been abandoned during the Roman era, when this area had significant Romano-British settlement and benefited from the famous ‘Pax Romana’.

The British Camp

The first hill fort to make an impression on me was years ago on a visit to the Malverns. The British Camp (that’s its name) is supposed to be the largest in the country and is certainly well positioned for defence. It’s difficult to catch the scale of it in a photo, with concentric earthworks surrounding 44 acres. Here’s a view from one of the earthworks near the centre.

The British Camp dates from around 3,500 years ago but it was rapidly expanded around 400 BC. It seems to have been the site of a permanent settlement with about 4,000 inhabitants at its height.

Dinas Dinlle

This hill fort, Dinas Dinlle, in north-west Wales, is, like Cullykhan, on the coast. Part of it has been eroded by the sea. As at Cullykhan, there is evidence of stony material under some of the ramparts, but many of the features of the fort seem to have occurred naturally. Perhaps Iron Age settlers were attracted by the natural features and then steepened the slopes and built up the banks.

The inner bank at Dinas Dinnle

About a third of Dinas Dinnle has been lost to the sea

We do know something about life there because recent excavations (after our visit) have revealed a monumental stone-built roundhouse, some 13 metres in diameter with stone walls almost 2.5 metres thick. The roundhouse can’t be dated precisely but the presence of Roman pottery nearby suggests around 2,000 years ago.

Ringsbury Camp

Nearer to home is Ringsbury Camp, just north of Swindon. Our son lives in Purton and the camp is an easy walk from his house. Surrounded by woodland, it does not look particularly impressive, but is sited on a natural rise and would have made a strong defensive position.

The inner banks at Ringsbury
The rising ground to the west of the fort

Ringsbury did incorporate stone into its walls. The banks are made from limestone rubble, not that any of it is visible today. The stone is not local to the area, but had been transported from further afield.

Historians think that Ringsbury did not house a permanent settlement, but was a defensive position in times of unrest.

Bristol

Once you start noticing hill forts, they seem to be everywhere. On our recent trip to Bristol we were able to explore two. There used to be three in the area around the Clifton Bridge, but one has been lost with the development of the area around the western end of the bridge. One of the others is almost invisible amongst the trees on the edge of a local public park (Clifton Down). The third, Stokeleigh Camp on National Trust land above the bridge, is easy to pass by without noticing but, once spotted, is an impressive size.

Ditch at Stokeleigh Camp
Rampart at Stokeleigh Camp

Stokeleigh Camp was originally settled during the late-pre Roman period when the soil was cleared and the ground levelled. Habitation continued without a substantial break until the middle of the 1st century AD.

Conclusion

So there we are: based on the limited number of sites I’ve seen, some hill forts used stone in their construction while others did not. Some were the site of permanent settlements which may have included substantial buildings, while others seem to have been essentially defensive structures, used only in emergencies. They may be sited on high ground or on the coast or by a river, possibly guarding a ford (as in Bristol).

We seem to know very little about hill forts. As they were built in pre-Roman times they are literally prehistoric, with no written records of how they were built or used. There seems to have been a flurry of research recently, but many of the sites have not been properly excavated. Perhaps we have accepted the Roman notion that the hill forts were built by barbarians whose lives and customs were of no importance. Whatever the reason, they remain largely a mystery but they are worth looking out for.

References

Cullykhan – Canmore (National Record of the Historic Environment): https://canmore.org.uk/site/19942/cullykhan

History of British Camp: https://www.malvernbeacon.com/malvern-hills/british-camp

Buried secrets revealed at Dinas Dinlle coastal fort (2019): Current Archeology https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/news/buried-secrets-revealed-at-dinas-dinlle-coastal-fort.htm

Ringsbury Camp (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringsbury_Camp

Stokeleigh Camp (Historic England Research Records): https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=198375&resourceID=19191

Uffington Castle (Historic England Research Records): https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=225401&resourceID=19191

Photos are all my own, except for the satellite image credited to NASA.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

That’s about it for 2023. I’m shutting down now until the New Year.

Here’s an appropriately Christmassy picture, courtesy of whoever in knitting pillar box hats round here. There are a couple of good ones locally but I picked this:

I’m not writing a proper blog post today because I wrote a Christmas short story earlier in the week, so I’m just directing you to that. It’s here on this blog: a-free-short-story-for-christmas. It’s a Galbraith & Pole story, which may come as a shock to those of you who only know my historical novels. Galbraith is an old-school Metropolitan Police detective and Pole is a vampire. It puts a new twist on police procedurals. If you’ve never read one of my fantasy stories before, do give it a try. You never know: you might enjoy it.

Anyway, I’m off. Cards sent, presents bought, tree ready. Christmas starts now. Have a good one!

A free short story for Christmas

I’m not a big short-story writer but once I got the idea for this one, I couldn’t let it go. It features Galbraith and Pole and is set soon after they first met in Something Wicked. You can enjoy it even if you haven’t read Something Wicked but I’m giving the book away free today and tomorrow (Wednesday) if you want to.

It’s in the early days of Galbraith and Pole’s friendship, as they are feeling their way. For Galbraith, the idea of friendship with a vampire is something he is not entirely comfortable with but Christmas brings them closer together.

It’s an unashamedly schmaltzy story because it’s Christmas. And it’s got tango in because Pole (like me) loves the dance and the music.

I hope you enjoy it.

Merry Christmas.

THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE

The pawn shop had one of those old fashioned bells that rang when a customer opened the door. The owner shuffled out of the back.

“Can I help you?” He spoke automatically before he recognised his customer. “Oh, Mr Galbraith. What brings you in here?”

“Afternoon, Sam. I didn’t expect you to be overjoyed to see me, but you could sound a bit more welcoming than that. It’s nearly Christmas.”

“You make me nervous, Mr Galbraith. I won’t tell a lie. I’ve been straight since – well, since you last ran me in, but you turn up and I wonder what a Chief Inspector is doing bothering the likes of me.”

Galbraith wandered over to the nearest of the display cases. It was the usual stuff: watches, some cheap jewellery, a few high-end mobile phones. “Maybe I’m just doing a bit of shopping, Sam.”

Sam said nothing.

“Fair enough.” Galbraith turned his attention to a pile of old vinyl records sat on the table. “I was just wondering if you’d heard anything about computers. A few seem to have gone missing from warehouses lately.”

“Not my thing, computers. Difficult to put a price on. Somebody shows up with a smart laptop in its box and all and then it turns out that they’ve changed the processor thingy. Looks fine, switches on and everything, but it’s a piece of junk. Been caught that way a couple of times. You can’t trust anybody these days. Too many crooks about.”

“Any particular crooks in mind, Sam?” He was looking through the records. The covers spoke of the bands of his youth: Oasis, Stone Roses, Blur, the Chemical Brothers.

Sam sniffed. Galbraith was a big man, generally easy going but able to exude an indefinable air of menace when he wanted. It was a useful ability in a police officer.

“Might have heard something,” Sam said. “Word is that the Bingham brothers have been offering a few laptops around.”

“Have they indeed?” Galbraith worked his way to the bottom of the pile where a few 78s sat incongruously alongside the shiny covers of the late 20th century. One of them seemed to be Spanish. ‘Yo no sé qué me han hecho tus ojos.’ Galbraith slipped it out of its paper sleeve. ‘Odeon Bs As’ it said on the label.

“That’s very helpful, Sam.” He was careful not to sound as if it was particularly useful, though he reckoned it was just the lead he had been looking for. He felt, in the circumstances, it would be only polite to buy something. He held up the disc. “What do you want for this?”

Sam sniffed. “Call it fifty quid,” he said.

“Call it twenty.”

“If I sell it you for that, will you bugger off and leave me alone?”

Galbraith took £50 from his wallet. “And miss the pleasure of your company,” he said.

The bell tinged behind him as he left.

* * *

It was the first Christmas after he had met Chief Inspector Pole. He had wondered if it would be appropriate to offer his new colleague a Christmas present. Did vampires even celebrate Christmas?

He decided that finding the record was a sign that a gift would be well received. An old record from Buenos Aires was likely to appeal to Pole, with his fascination with tango. Galbraith decided to wrap it up and take it with him the next evening when he was due to visit Pole and enjoy the Other’s taste in whisky.

Pole’s apartment was, as ever, a quiet retreat from the world. There was no sign that they were barely a fortnight off Christmas: no tree, no cards. Galbraith wondered if his garishly wrapped gift – all cartoon Santas and reindeer – had been misjudged, but Pole seemed delighted with the idea.

“I don’t think anybody has ever give me a Christmas gift before. I’m not entirely sure of the etiquette. Do I open it now or wait until the 25th?”

In the absence of any sign that Christmas Day was to be marked in any way in Pole’s home, Galbraith saw no reason for not opening the gift immediately.

Pole smiled, apparently delighted with the idea of opening his present. First, though, he set it carefully on the desk in the corner of the room, opened a drawer and took out what seemed to Galbraith a wicked looking dagger. Noticing his glance, Pole explained. “It’s an Italian stiletto. I took it from an assassin who was quite anxious not to see James II flee the country. I use it as a paper knife. It’s too pretty to throw away.”

It was pretty, though the narrow blade meant it was far from an ideal paper knife. Still, Galbraith thought, it was better that Pole use it for opening parcels than that he decided to stab people with it. There was obviously a story behind Pole’s acquisition of the blade but Galbraith refused to give him the satisfaction of asking about it.

Pole put the wrapping paper neatly aside and examined the record.

“Where on earth did you find this? It’s an original Gardel recording from 1931.”

He poured Galbraith another whisky and, telling him to wait, he hurried from the room, returning with an old wind-up record player complete with a huge horn to amplify the music. “No electronics to get in the way of the sound,” he proudly informed Galbraith.

It had never occurred to Galbraith that Pole might actually play the record but, after he had wound the machine up and lovingly wiped over the surface of the disc, they sat and listened to the crackly sound of the voice of the legendary Carlos Gardel.

“Can’t you feel him, reaching out to us across a hundred years?”

It was a tango tune in waltz time. “Canaro dedicated it to his lover, Ada Falcón. He writes about her eyes and the love he sees in them.”

Galbraith enjoyed listening to Pole talk about tango, although he had to admit that he did not share the true aficionado’s enthusiasm for these scratchy old recordings. He was just happy to see how much pleasure his gift had given to his friend.

They listened to the record several more times and drank a few more glasses of Scotch before Galbraith set off home, his friend’s thanks still ringing in his ears.

* * *

It was a while before Pole was in touch again. He rang Galbraith in his office at Kensington police station – the way he usually chose to get in touch.

“I just wanted to thank you again for the record. I was very touched.”

Galbraith made the usual polite noises of an Englishman uncertain how to respond to effusive gratitude.

“I’ve been trying to think of something I could offer in return.”

Galbraith made more polite noises. The words “no need” and “my pleasure” were in there somewhere but Pole simply ignored him.

“People do say that the best gifts are experiences. I thought I could offer you an experience that reflects the spirit of the season. Do you think you could call over in the evening the day after tomorrow? And bring your car? I thought we might take a run out into the country.”

The day after tomorrow, Galbraith realised, was Christmas Eve. It seemed an odd day to be calling on his friend but, when he came to think about it, it wasn’t as if he had any other plans. Christmas, for Galbraith, was a solitary celebration and the idea of seeing Pole on Christmas Eve appealed. So, two days later, he arrived in Chelsea to find Pole already dressed in coat and hat.

“We’d best be starting. We’ve a little way to go.”

Pole directed him west. Galbraith suggested that he put their destination into the sat nav but Pole insisted instead that they rely on his road atlas.

Pole opened the large hard-backed book he had been holding under his arm. Galbraith could not remember when he had last seen an old fashioned road atlas. He was surprised they still made them and he could only hope that this one was up-to-date enough to get them to their destination.

They headed out of town along the Great West Road. After a while, it seemed clear to Galbraith that it would have been more sensible for them to take the M4 but, when he suggested this to Pole, he said that he had been using the Great West Road since the main traffic had been stagecoaches and that by now he preferred the route.

A few miles short of Reading, they left the main road and headed south. Although they were less than an hour from London, they seem to be deep in the countryside and Galbraith struggled to navigate the tiny unlit roads.

“Pull off here.”

They were in a paved yard. Galbraith could just make out a house in the darkness.

“It’s owned by a colleague,” said Pole.

“One of the Others.”

“Indeed.”

“I thought you were more town dwellers.”

“We generally are. But Simon has decided to live in the country. He says the isolation means he is less exposed to temptation.”

Galbraith said nothing. He knew that part of Pole’s job was to discourage the Others from indulging in their natural appetite for blood. Some, Pole had explained, found it easier than others.

“He’s not at home. He likes to wander the countryside at night. But he’s happy for us to be here.”

Pole led the way along a track that ran from the yard past the side of the house and into a field beyond.

In the distance was what looked like a shed just visible against the starry sky.

“It’s a stable,” said Pole. “Simon is by way of being a hobby farmer. He says he finds the animals restful.”

In the darkness, Galbraith heard the clucking of chickens beside the path.

“Odd sort of farmer who leaves his birds out at night. He must lose a lot to foxes.”

Pole chuckled. “It would be a very brave fox that took chickens on this land.” He pointed towards the stable. “Such a lovely night. Look at that star.”

There was one star, low in the sky, brighter, it seemed than the others.

“It seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Following the star towards the stable.”

Galbraith could not remember when he was last out of the city on a clear night. He was astonished by the number of stars he could see. There was a quarter moon too. Even without his friend’s night vision, Galbraith had no problem in keeping to the path.

“And here we are.”

Pole opened the door and reached inside for a light switch.

Galbraith could hardly believe what he was looking at. Inside a bull – a big bull with a ring in its nose, looking for all the world like an illustration in a children’s storybook – stood alongside a donkey. Half a dozen sheep were curled up beside them on the straw.

“As I said, he’s a hobby farmer. There’s no sense to it, but Simon enjoys the look of the place, especially at this time of year.”

It did, Galbraith admitted to himself, look amazing: a sort of recreation of the traditional first Christmas. He found himself looking around, searching for a baby in a manger.

“It’s certainly a different way to see in Christmas.”

Pole smiled. “But there is more. Do you know the legend of Christmas?”

Galbraith looked puzzled and Pole explained. “The legend says that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the ox and the ass are given the power of speech.”

Galbraith vaguely remembered the story from his childhood but surely Pole had not brought him here because he believed it.

“You shouldn’t dismiss these legends out of hand. After all, I’m sure you didn’t believe the stories of immortal creatures that feast on blood until you met them.”

Galbraith admitted that was true, but the story of the animals talking seemed even more implausible.

“Why not listen and see what happens?”

Why not? It was pleasant in the stable, warm with the body heat of the animals and peaceful in the quiet of the winter night. Galbraith stood quietly listening but, apart from the shuffling of the donkey and the occasional sleepy bleat of a sheep, he heard nothing.

After a while there was a sound, but it came from outside the stable. Somewhere in the distance, church bells were ringing in Christmas Day.

“Did you hear anything?” Pole’s voice was deep, calm, reassuring. It was what Galbraith thought of as Pole’s ‘hypnotism’ voice, though Pole always denied that he hypnotised anybody. If he was trying to hypnotise Galbraith, it wasn’t succeeding. The animals remained obstinately dumb.

“Nothing,” said Galbraith. “Perhaps the Others are more sensitive than we Mortals.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Pole. “After all, we have been honing our skills for a few hundred years.” He turned towards the door. “I’m sorry it was a wasted trip.”

“Hardly wasted,” said Galbraith. “There’s something magical about a scene like this on Christmas Eve.”

Pole glanced back over his shoulder and smiled. “Magical. Yes, I think there is.”

He opened the door and, as he did so, Galbraith could have sworn that somebody in the stable wished him a Merry Christmas. “And a happy new year.”

There was something odd about the voice. Something not quite human.

Galbraith turned away from the door and looked back again towards the animals. The donkey and the bull stood placidly. There was no sign that either of them had spoken. The sheep twitched in their sleep.

He had imagined it. That or Pole was somehow playing games with his mind again.

The bull raised its head and looked at him. Its eye was like a deep brown pool, strangely gentle in that huge head. It seemed somehow very wise.

“We’d best he on our way,” said Pole.

Galbraith did not move. He was staring at the bull. It had long, soft eyelashes and he watched as its eyelid drooped.

He could have sworn that the creature was winking at him.

Pole turned off the light and they started back towards the car. Behind him Galbraith heard a soft laugh that was almost, but not quite, human.

“Merry Christmas,” said Pole.

Something Wicked

Chief Inspector Galbraith thinks he understands murder. But when he finds himself working with a vampire, there is more at stake than catching one killer. Can the case be solved before a 500 year truce breaks down?

https://mybook.to/Something_Wicked

Culture Corner: Crazy for You

Culture Corner: Crazy for You

A quick extra post because my beloved and I had a great night out last night and I’d like to share it with you.

We got some last minute tickets for Crazy for You. Although the show was first produced on Broadway in 1992, it is essentially a reworking of classic work by the Gershwins from the 1930s. There are a few Fred and Ginger songs in there and, as we are huge fans, we were more or less guaranteed an entertaining evening. What we didn’t expect was such an exuberant and slick production which embodied the values of those Golden Age musicals. I remember the 1970s when it was famously impossible to put together a chorus that could dance with the precision you needed to make that super-slick choreography work. (Find the old film of The Boy Friend if you don’t believe me.) You certainly couldn’t say that of Crazy for You. The cast gave it 100% in perfectly timed numbers that made significant demands on the dancers. And they could sing, too, something that you can’t take for granted in a modern stage musical.

It’s not a Christmas show but it brings the undemanding cheer the season needs. It’s only got a couple more weeks to run and there seem to be tickets available, so I really recommend it.

Exploring history and dance in 2023

With the launch of Monsters in the Mist and the excitement about Napoleon out of the way, I’m looking back at all the things I haven’t written about this year. Let’s start back in January.

The Remarkably Talented Mr Weaver Presents

This was an opportunity to combine my interest in the Georgian era with an interest in dance. The performance by The Weaver Ensemble celebrated the 350th anniversary of the birth of John Weaver of Shrewsbury who came to London in 1700 where he created what is arguably the first ballet, The Loves of Mars & Venus. His genius was to realise that you could use dance to tell a story (complete with “passions and affections”) without any words.

The pieces are short, so we got two: The Loves of Mars & Venus and The Loves of Pygmalion. They were both rather fun with the actual dancing in a baroque style. We know what the dances would have looked like because they were notated at the time using “Feuillet notation”. The style lacks the elaborate athleticism that we associate with ballet these days. Even a pirouette was impossible in the dresses of the period and, of course, pointe shoes were unheard of.

Here are some photos from The Loves of Pygmalion, which give some idea of the look of the thing. This Pygmalion is a painting rather than a sculpture: hence the frame on stage. Apologies for the blurriness of the third one but I wanted to give some idea of Pygmalion’s rather splendid hat.