What makes a Versailles a good historical drama?

As I mentioned in a recent blog, I have been watching the current BBC series Versailles.  In general it has not been received well by the critics.  I think they have been a little hard on it.

They say it is too confusing.  I agree that there are lots of characters and many of them look alike.  That is probably inevitable when portraying a court where everyone wanted to be in fashion.  There are lots of characters, but the Court of Louis XIV was a busy place.  One thing I find laughable in The Musketeers is that there seem to be only about a dozen people at the Court of Louis XIII.  Of course the budget for the series is probably to blame for that.  So Versailles tries to show it as it probably was, confusing as that may be.

Another criticism is that the series is full of sex and violence.  I thought it was well known that the 1660’s were years of immorality among the nobility and royalty in both England and France.  The tone was set by the two kings, Charles II and Louis XIV who both had lots of mistresses and probably plenty of casual affaires as well.  They were both pretty open about it too.

Violence has been around for a long time.  The splendour of the Court of Versailles was a distraction from the dirty work that went on to keep the monarch in power.  Louis had seen civil war and rebellion in his childhood and was determined to prevent it happening again.  He succeeded pretty well, but at a cost.

The real reason I like the series is that it gives a rounded picture of the King.  It is too easy to portray Louis as either a hero, The Sun King, or a villain.  After all he was Britain’s enemy for much of his reign.  In reality, he was, like most of us, a complex character.  He had serious faults but several redeeming features.  This series makes a decent attempt at exploring some of these complexities and contradictions.  That is more interesting but more challenging for both the actor and the viewer than a one-dimensional version.

I hope I can make the characters in my books real, rather than just Good Guys and Bad Guys.

Are you learning your lessons?

It has been said that if we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past, we will keep on repeating them.   I fear that may be true.  I remember a debate in Parliament about Northern Ireland, when David Steele, a Scot, said, 2the trouble with the Irish is that they never forget and the trouble with the English is that they never remember.”  A warning we all need to heed.

So as we remember the dead of the Battle of the Somme, we might think about the lessons we failed to learn back then and ask ourselves if we have learnt them yet.  I found some interesting observations on that in a little book “Be Victorious!” by John Harvey Murray.  It is not really about warfare but about applying the lessons to our daily lives.  For more go to


What else happened at the Somme?

There has been a lot to remind us that this is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.  Or the First Battle of the Somme to be precise.  There were two during the First World War.  This thought reminded me that there have been several other battles fought very near that site.  Waterloo, Crecy and several battles in the Seventeenth Century, including some of those depicted in the TV series Versailles, of which I will be writing soon.

I feel for the people of that area who have so often found themselves caught up in these Europe-wide, or even worldwide, conflicts.  People whose homes, farms, villages and lives were destroyed merely because their homes were in that unfortunate location.

Spare a thought for these civilians as well as for the soldiers when you remember the Somme.

Is History being reversed?

Many people used to think that there was an inevitability about the gradual unification of Europe as there was thought to be about that of the UK, although if that logic held, the Irish Republic would be moving towards union with Britain!

Does the decision to leave the EU mark a reversal of the trend?  Does Scottish independence now look inevitable?


I am sceptical of the determinist view of history.  Of course there are social and economic forces at work which strongly influence how we make decisions, but in the end we make our own minds up.  I think things could go either way.

History is full of examples of wars and conflicts between England and Scotland, and of those between England or Britain and France.  However, there are also lots of examples of Anglo-French collaboration.  Life is seldom as simple as some people would like.

I hope to bring out some of the complexities of these relationships in my writing.  Oscar Wilde once said “the truth is never pure and rarely simple”.  I hope you will find that view of life makes for more interesting reading than “the Good Guys” versus “the Bad Guys” approach.

A thought for friends north of the Border.  You may be right in thinking that Scotland would be better off in the EU than out, but a Scotland independent of England and not in the EU would find it very hard to succeed in the modern World.  Let us hope Scotland’s leaders recognise this and make sure it does not happen.

Finally, congratulations to Wales.  At least some Britons are doing well in Europe!



Why do I care if the UK breaks up? Who do I think I am?

Now we are hearing new demands for another referendum on Scottish independence and discontent in Ulster at the result of the EU vote.  It opens up old wounds and we are finding our different identities coming to the fore.  This may go back a long way.  It may also be the result of certain misunderstandings about our past.

How can the past ever change?  Of course it can not.  But our understanding of it can.  When I was at school I was made to specialise fairly early, so I never learnt very much science. I always knew anyway that a lot of what I had learnt would probably be superseded by progress. I am not thinking of the invention of the wheel, by the way, but you get the point.

Moving Goalposts.  I went on to study economics. It was a well-worn joke in those days, and doubtless even more worn by now, that every year they set the same exam questions: to keep us on our toes, they just changed the answers. I have to say that there is some truth in that. It is obvious that George Osborne learnt a different set of answers from those I was taught!

Where are our certainties?  I did think I was fairly safe with history. All right, there have always been lots of new theories. I remember having to learn the Old View and the New View about almost everything, so I could show the examiners I had really studied the subject. But facts are facts. Are they not? So I was really amazed recently to discover that some of the most well-known facts about ourselves – the British – are being challenged.

What did I think I knew?  I was taught that prehistoric Britain was subject to a series of invasions, coming in waves from the near continent. The Old Stone Age people were wiped out, or driven out to the extremities of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, by the New Stone Age people, who were in turn replaced by the Bronze Age People, also called the Iberians, who were of course replaced by the Celts, who brought in the Iron Age. Then the pattern was broken by the Romans who came, saw, conquered, and finally departed, leaving us with a lot of roads, buildings, laws and Latin words, without really colonising Britain. Then back to the previous model, as the Angles and Saxons invaded and wiped out the Celts who survived in the extreme North and West, like the remnants of their predecessors. Thus the Angles and Saxons merged into the English, explaining why there are different languages and cultures in these islands.

Is that the basis of your identity?  This understanding is probably beneath a lot of the feelings of separation and even hostility between the different peoples of these islands.  It may partly explain Scottish and Welsh Nationalism.  I will not open up the Irish Question, but I am sure you will see it is connected.

So what has changed?  I could  hardly express my shock and horror when I read “The Origins of the British” by Stephen Oppenheimer. It is heavy going in parts, but fascinating. He uses DNA studies as well as linguistics and archaeology. He also re-examines some ancient documents, including the works of Julius Caesar and Bede, and finds things others seem to have overlooked. His amazing but well argued and well supported conclusion s are, to simplify somewhat, as follows:

  1. After the Ice Age Britain was colonised by people coming from Spain and Portugal along the Atlantic Coast, settling on the West Coast of what is now Britain and that of Ireland.
  2. Later waves came by a similar route, including the Celts at the start of the Neolithic period.
  3. Meanwhile, there were several waves of migrations from the Continent arriving up the East Coast and some along the South Coast. These were Germanic and especially Scandinavian.
  4. So the Angles and Saxons only added to an existing Germanic population that had been in what is now England from the Iron Age.
  5. There is no reason to believe in a series of genocides or acts of ethnic cleansing.
  6. There has been a lot of mixing of genes ever since so that most Britons today have a lot of Celtic genes even if they think they are totally English.
  7. And vice versa.

All my supposed certainties are in tatters. But it is good to know that the Welsh are not the survivors of an act of genocide committed by the English.

What about the last thousand years?  It is obvious that there has been interaction between the different peoples of these islands all down the ages, in war and peace, in trade in culture, through marriage, by accident and by design.  So I believe our separate identities have been greatly exaggerated and our common Britishness undervalued.

So what?  I am certainly not saying that we should forget our separate regional cultures and heritages.  They are certainly important and are to be celebrated.  I do, however, think we need to remember what we have in common, including what is often painful to remember, and believe in ourselves as one British nation.

Read all about it!  You will be likely to find characters in my books from all over these islands, each playing his or her part in my fictional stories just as their real-life counterparts did in our true island story.

I could be biased, because I am conscious of English, Scottish and Irish ancestry as well as having lived in Wales for much of my life.  I never said I was impartial.


Does Brexit mean a break with the past or a return to our roots?

Many people argue that we as an island do not belong “in” Europe.  We have always stood off at a distance and got involved in Europe only when we had to.  This vote expresses our true nature as the Island Race to which we can now return.

Others say the World is getting smaller and that leaving the EU makes us an irrelevant little country with no real influence and at the mercy of events caused by decisions made elsewhere.

I hope both are wrong.  I think that, paradoxically, as an island we have always been more outward-looking than many nations.  Coastal peoples usually are.  From the days when we were linked to the Continent as a result of our kings’ holdings of titles and lands such as Normandy and Gascony, to the days when we had the Empire.

Even the legends of King Arthur involve overseas travel.

As a child, I used to live in Southport where there were a lot of retired people.  Some were former colonial administrators, others were ex-soldiers, but many more had been seafarers or had had business interests overseas.  I heard a lot about Africa, India and lots of other parts of the World.  In many countries it would have been unusual to hear of life beyond your own town or village.  All that before the EU or the Internet.

Does this affect my writing?  Yes!  You will often find characters in my books who are foreigners, or who go abroad at some stage in the story.  It just seems natural to me.

One of the negative effects of our EU membership has been the decline of some of our great port cities, such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol.  This is because our trade across the Atlantic and beyond has dwindled as that with the Continent has increased.  Hence the growth of some of our eastern ports.  However, all is not lost.  I have visited the International Festival of Business in Liverpool.  It is obvious that many people think that city and region have a future.  Perhaps leaving the EU will be the spur to the expansion of trade with everywhere else.

To me, the worst thing we can do now is to pull up the drawbridge and become Little Englanders.  My hope is that the opposite will happen: that we will build up our contacts with the rest of the World as well as negotiating a satisfactory arrangement with the EU.

People often claim History is on our side.  I hope so.  Let us not forget that Geography is on our side too!


What is the relevance of Beowolf to our religious beliefs?

I have to confess I have never read Beowolf nor watched the recent TV version, but I have heard of it as an important milestone in English literature.  One thing that has often been said is that it was fiction.  Not only were the monsters and magic unbelievable, but the setting was mythical too.  Anglo-Saxon kings, let alone warriors, were not so wealthy as to have lots of gold and silver on their armour and weapons.  Not many precious stones either.  The whole country was much poorer than the impression given in the saga.

That seemed reasonable.  Until they discovered the Staffordshire Hoard.  It consisted of vast quantities of gold, silver and jewelled objects of all kinds: helmets, swords, saddle-fittings, belt-buckles and much more.  This was from the period when Beowolf was written.  So it was more accurate than we thought, at least in certain respects.

So what?

When people tell us with apparent certainty that the Bible is nothing but a collection of myths, they should speak with less certainty.  In fact, archaeology has sometimes confirmed statements in the Bible that critics have dismissed.  King Solomon’s stables did exist.  So he did establish a cavalry, contrary to God’s Will, as it would lead to the oppression of the people.  A lot of ivory was found at the site of a palace in Samaria, where kings had been condemned by prophets for living in ‘Ivory Palaces’  while the people lived in poverty.

Beowolf is another reminder to be careful before dismissing something as mythical just because we do not yet have evidence to prove it.

I will try to be true to history where I can be, but I am writing novels, not textbooks.  I hope they will encourage some of you to study further to get the whole story.

Can Too Many Words Spoil Communication?

“No adjectives!” cried Geoffrey, the author, “No effing adjectives?  Who says?”

“It’s company policy.” replied Colin, the executive from his publishers as he handed back the annotated manuscript.

“Well, what stupid, blinkered, unimaginative, idiotic, moronic old fool came up with that one?”

“You’ve just used six adjectives, most of which were unnecessary.  They were synonyms, or nearly.  There was no need for the expletive in your previous remark, either.  You see how wasteful you are with words?”

“So is this an efficiency drive?”

“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.  To answer your question, the policy came down from the top.  The senior partner, Mr. Roget, has recently stated the policy unequivocally and categorically.  By the way he’s not old.  He’s only in his forties, although they say his mental age has always been greater than his chronological age.”

“You’ve just used two adjectives.  You said ‘mental’ and ‘chronological’ and they’re near-synonyms.   What about adverbs?”

“They’re banned too.  Most of them are unnecessary.”

“You use them.  You just said ‘unequivocally’ and ‘categorically’ which are also near-synonyms.  And ‘unnecessary’ is an adverb too.  You’re as bad as I am!  Anyway, repetition is often used for emphasis.  We all do it in speech.  Why not in print?  I’ll bet a lot of famous writers would never get published if your Mr. Roget had his way.  What about titles?  Do you allow adjectives and adverbs in them?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think we encourage them.” Said Colin as he looked nervously at the list of new titles he was holding.

“I suppose you would have published the Curiosity Shop!

“If you’re going to be like that, I suppose it ought to be just the Shop.”

“Like the Girl with the Earring, or is that the Girl with the Ring?”

“Now you’re being silly and pedantic.”

“That’s good, coming from you!  What about the Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and Hardy’s Far from the Crowd?  Would you have told Louisa May Alcott to call her books Women and Men, not to be confused with the Man by H.G. Wells?  Or Dashiel Hammett to call his book the Falcon?  Don’t you see that adjectives make a difference, sometimes an important one?”


“They’re all great writers who know when to use a word and when to leave it out.  You seem to think the more words the better!”

“Isn’t that a subjective opinion?  Some readers probably like it plain and simple, whilst others prefer a bit more colour.  If people like you and your Mr. Roget had their way in the art world, paintings would be reduced to diagrams.”

Colin looked at the cover of a book on his desk.  There was a picture of matchstick men on a minimalist background.  He said, “I can think of some modern artists who do just that, quite successfully!”

“Yes, but not everyone wants that kind of thing.  Surely we want to give the readers a choice?”

“Go through your manuscript and take out all the adjectives and adverbs that don’t add anything to the narrative or even to the descriptions.  Then I’ll see if I can persuade the firm to give it another look.”

Can the Wars of the Roses be rewritten?

I have enjoyed the recent BBC Shakespeare season, especially The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses.  There were lots of great performances, not just by Benedict Cumberbach.  However, I found it strange to be reminded of Shakespeare’s take on the history of the Fifteenth Century, having not long ago read the books by Philippa Gregory and the TV series The White Queen.

I realise why this is so.  Philippa Gregory has the benefit of modern scholarship not available to the Bard.  She is also more of a historian, as is usual among modern writers of historical fiction.

Apart from that, despite the plays being very long by modern standards (the BBC cut them back a lot) Shakespeare seems to have edited history to combine certain events as well as to leave out others.Shakespeare was first and foremost a playwright.  He was also careful not to offend Queen Elizabeth.  In those days censorship could be serious: you had a lot to lose.

I wonder how much poetic licence it is acceptable to take these days.  Feel free to let me have your opinion.


In case you are wondering how it is going, I have decided my draft novel is far too long, but I am not just going to shorten it: I am going to cut it in half.  Of course, that does not mean it will finish abruptly halfway.  It means I am cutting out large sections which will go into the sequel.  The first book will have a proper ending.  I am also talking to a potential editor who will correct all my mistakes, hopefully.  After that will come the marketing and approaching publishers.  This all takes longer than you might think.

Watch this space!