free stories, Levellers, new books, South West campaign

A Wilderness of Sin free to download 17th May

To commemorate the execution of the three Leveller Martyrs on this day  in 1649, A Wilderness of Sin is free to download to your Kindle on this day only.

A Wilderness of Sin free download

They’re Rosie Babbitt’s lads. And if he doesn’t speak for their fair treatment, no other bugger will….

Levellers, new books, ponderations, present, Russell, South West campaign, writing

A Wilderness of Sin – part 3, except when it’s not: on writing series-es

A Wilderness of Sin
Late last year, I had a long conversation with a dear friend about this book – about promoting it, and what to do with it, and what was going on with the plot, and all that kind of doings. And my friend – let’s call him Sergeant Cullis, because in my head Cullis has always been very much based on that friend – he was very keen, he gave me lots of ideas at a time when I was somewhat knee-deep in plot device. 
“Wilderness” is Cullis’s book, gentle reader, and he died a month ago. He did know that at least one of the Uncivil Wars series was dedicated to him, he was very pleased because he’d never had his name on a book before. (How little it takes to make someone happy. What did that little bit of recognition cost me, and what a great deal it meant to him. There’s a lesson.)

Anyway, I wanted to have it done before he died, and I didn’t quite manage it.

Now I know in my head what was going on in those intervening years, between the end of “Command the Raven” at the end of 1643, and “Wilderness…” in June 1645. I know that there was a battle at Marston Moor in 1644, and that there had been some months previous of careering about the North of England not being very diplomatic with the lady of Lathom House, which turned into a rather horrible something at Bolton. I know that the New Model Army was formally created in 1645 and that things suddenly became very different for a somewhat rag-tag army who were suddenly ruled, regimented, and disciplined. And that there was a battle at Naseby after which everything changed, which was shocking and brutal even by the Articles of War of the time, and which even I, Fairfax-o-phile that I am, can’t get my head round. I know the new Army was already starting to get definitely hacked off with its leaders and their broken promises, and that Rosie Babbitt, who’s been on the itchy side of insurrectionist since the first, is taking his usual pragmatic stance of to hell with the politics and look after the people. None of this is in any way a spoiler…. as the fictional Cullis has said before, Rosie Babbitt could start a fight in an empty room when the mood’s on him, and the factual history is documented.

But it made me think about series-es (serii?) and what they are and how they work. My first intent was to begin at the beginning and work chronologically through the wars. Start in 1642, go on to 1643…. back to 1642 to write a novella about Edgehill…. start 1644, get sidetracked, go on to June 1645 with the intention of going right through to the Royalist surrender at Cornwall in March 1646, realise that’s just too much for the one book, stop at winter quarters 1645 and give everybody a chance for a breather…. go back to the Thirty Years’ War for a bit of light relief…

(and then start writing a biography of Thomas Rainsborough, but that’s by the by.)

I do not have a lateral mind. I’m writing “Babylon” – the North of England, 1644 book – at the moment and the history is lurking there in the background, like a dinosaur skeleton, while the story is bouncing about all over the place. Lucey’s got a moral dilemma which will be long resolved by “Wilderness” but which is a very real problem to him in 1644. Russell in 1643, when he first appears, is a prissy minor officer with an attitude problem. By 1644 he’s gone off the rails altogether – and, if you’re wondering, I’m sure that Russell, and to a lesser degree Babbitt, would be diagnosed with PTSD if they were around today – and by 1645 he’s back, hanging on to sanity by the skin of his teeth.  I’ve got two half-mad, damaged, shaky lapsed Puritans with mental health issues. Rosie Babbitt’s holding, but fragile. Thankful Russell hasn’t found anything to hold to yet. Rosie by 1645 is – to continue with the mending metaphor, his good lady being the mending-est lady in Essex – pieced together, but the glue’s still wet: Russell’s still in bits. To go back to an earlier time, Rosie has to be broken again, and I have to un-do all the work that went into making him as sane as he gets. And I have to remember that the Rosie Babbitt of 1645, who is quite robust, all things considered, is not the Rosie of 18 months previous: will react differently, is less inclined towards moderation, is still erratic and self-destructive and perfectly likely to go off half-cocked and take his troop with him.

Lucey took his boots off as a boy at Edgehill, and put them back on as a man. (Despite still being known as Lucey. Sorry, brat.) I’ve got to remember that the maturity he has by 1645 – the purpose, the sense of direction, the slight improvement in the poetry – he does not have by Marston Moor. He’s still going to be a muddle-headed romantic for a good couple of years yet. I don’t want Luce to be hurt, because he’s such a lollopy darling, like a labrador puppy, and yet he’s had such a charmed life, he is in so many ways such an innocent, despite knocking about with Rosie: you just know that at some point the wheels must come off and reality is going to come rushing in to Pettitt-land. And what that will make him, he has not yet become. He has not yet had to tie a knot on his vows, and make them new again.

And how many times can the Devil fart in Thankful Russell’s face? I want to make things better for Hapless…. and yet I know I can’t. It’s my book, and if I wanted to wave a magic wand and make him whole and happy of course I could, but that’s his journey, really. He has never been a happy boy and I can either just magic him inner peace, which would be satisfying and completely unbelievable, or he’s just going to have to fight for it like every other bugger does. 

I don’t want to make the series into Another Historical Fiction Series Of My Acquaintance, a series of connected standalone incidents where our hero comes through unscathed from end to end and comes out like the Perils of Pauline, smelling of roses. (I think we have established that Rosie smells of horse, sweat and black powder, so we need waste no more time on snuffing his armpits. Seriously. It makes Het very nervous.) My lads start in 1642 at a place, politically, personally, and geographically. They’re not all going to make it to 1649, and those that do, will not be the same lads as they started out. They change. (Grow? Only round the middle – Captain Venning.) I don’t want them to have any Damascene moments – they’re real lads, they might start out with good intentions, but they cock up, they forget. Change is imposed upon them and they resist.  They set their teeth and hang on, day to day – not got time, or, by 1645, the will, for any grandiose vision. And so back and forth, back and forth, like the stars’ tennis balls in Webster, struck and bandied which way please them – and they don’t know where they’re headed, although I do, but I can only steer, I can’t compel. Not with that lot. Rebels to the core. I know that – you can see in 1645 the cracks starting to appear as this lot decide to stop toeing the party line, and to start asking pointy questions. But they might have been a bit disorganised before that – but not political, and not subversive. Not then. Not till later. 

But then, as Rosie points out to Hapless Russell after the lieutenant’s first real battle, you can’t do it. Can’t go round crying for the moon. You are where you are, lad. You can’t go back. Or rather, in my case, you can go back, but you can’t un-know what you know, and you just have to hope it doesn’t show in the meantime to them as doesn’t know it yet. And that, I reckon, is the skill of it – like poker. Which is not my game. 
But. Wilderness. It’s Tiny’s book, and wherever he is, I hope he likes it. He was a cracking Redcoat – but I reckon he makes a pretty good Ironside, too.


Babbitt, history, Levellers, Lucey, new books, politics, ponderations, present, writing

In Praise of the Plain Russet-Coated Captain (or, Why Historical Fiction Needs Anti-Heroes)

 I was reading a review of a Bernard Cornwell novel this morning and once again I am inspired to set fingers to keyboard (around the cat, who is demanding cuddles with menaces)

Once again, you see, I cannot do the dashing white knight on his trusty steed thing.
Sharpe. Let’s take Sharpe. (Please, someone, let’s take Sharpe.)
You know when you open a certain genre of book, or a book by a certain author, pretty much to the last semi-colon what you’re going to get. You’re going to get an infallible hero, who may be wrong-footed but never fail. He will come good in the end – he will get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the entire planet. Laughing in the face of doom, and clearing tall buildings with one bound.
And, you know, that’s kind of nice. It’s all soft and comforting and cosy. No nasty surprises.
But history is full of nasty surprises.
After the battle of Naseby, the godly Army of Parliament hunted down and massacred over a hundred Royalist camp followers for the unpardonable sin of speaking their own native Welsh language, and therefore being suspected of being either whores, witches, or dangerous Irishwomen.
After the siege of Bolton, the Royalists massacred anything between eighty and two thousand people, both soldiers and inhabitants including women, making it reputedly the worst massacre on English soil.
That’s not nice stuff. On either side. 
My Babbitt is anything but indestructible. He spends most of the books wrong-footed, miserable, irritated, wishing he was anywhere else but tagging on the back of the Army of Parliament. Periodically taking a pasting and then, being middle-aged, hurting. Not being irresistible to the fairer sex, even if he wanted to be. Missing his wife and wanting his supper, mostly, and wondering when he’s next going to get paid. Ans how he’s going to manage to run a troop till Parliament gets round to paying them.
A superhero, he is not. (He had a cape when he was seventeen, bought for the express purpose of impressing his first wife, but he never got the trick of not catching his sword hilt in its swirliness and Margriete told him he looked a tit in it, so he never really took to cape-wearing after that.)
Hollie’s a decent man, fighting a war he doesn’t want for a cause that’s shafted him fairly thoroughly, and committed to it for the sake of six troop of horse who expect him to stand their corner because he’s the only bugger stupid enough to open his big mouth in company.
Luce is a ditherer, a dreamer and a romantic. Luce is a nice boy who ought not to be let out of the house without directions. (Luce is not, bless him, officer material. But you work with what you got.)
Russell – well, Russell’s a bipolar functioning alcoholic with anger management issues, and certainly not someone you want to be on the wrong side of.
The Army of Parliament had a bad habit of not winning glorious victories. Powick Bridge – lash-up. Edgehill – no-score draw. Naseby – not the finest moment in Parliamentarian history, gentlemen. No glittering triumphs. No moral high ground.
No heroes. No villains.
Ordinary men – and women – on both sides, people of honour and principle, as well as ruffians and rogues: people fighting to defend their freedom of conscience, or just to stay alive from one week to the next. People not too dissimilar to me and you, standing up for what they thought was fair. A good cause, fought by good men, badly.
Now I ask you. Sharpe and his like – men of honour, or principle? Sexy, maybe, if you like that kind of thing. Love ’em and leave ’em, almost certainly. Daring and gallant and swashbuckling, probably.
Believable – maybe not.
Surprising, amusing, appealing, poignant, gripping – almost certainly not.
So, meh. More people read the adventures of Sharpe et al, knowing what they’re getting, than read the misadventures of one plain russet-coated captain of horse circa 1643, where believe me, they do not.
Be nice if millions of people read the Babbitt books. I’d like it. (He’d like it, the smart-mouthed Lancashire bugger. Be thrilled to bits, he would. In a sort of not-admitting it kind of way.) But…. Would I rather write books that make people laugh out loud on public transport, and three chapters later make them cry?
Where people tell me off because it can’t end like that?
(Google Burford, 1649, and work it out.)
Ah, hell, yeah, I would. Because Hollie Babbitt is real. He’s all the lads in 17th century history whose names never made it into the books, the ones that did their duty and stood their ground, that weren’t glamorous or poetic or noble or well-connected. He is what he is and God willing, the lad will remain a joy and a sweary, scruffy, appealing maverick from now until the end of the Civil Wars.

As you were, gentlemen.

Babbitt, Het, Levellers, Lucey, ponderations, present, Russell, silliness


…. I was challenged to seven, but I already admitted to one!
1) I don’t write sequentially. I have a habit of writing a vignette in my head, and then another, and then another, and then putting them together like a rather badly-strung length of pearls.
This does rather mean that I have to keep rewriting the end of my novels but calling the Uncivil Wars books character-led is a bit like saying that water can be a little bit wet at times.
2) I have no idea what Hollie Babbitt looks like. Actually that’s not true, I know what he looks like, I just don’t know who he looks like, other than himself. I have read a number of books where characters are evidently based on actors. Mine are not amongst them. In an ideal world, I would cast Christopher Eccleston c. “Jude” as Babbitt, and it’d be close, but it wouldn’t be quite right. Orlando Bloom in his Legolas moments for Luce, again not absolutely right, but as near as I can get it, and Julian Sands (when he was young and pretty) as Russell. It’s not spot-on, but it’s close.
Stephen Fry has been suggested for Drew Venning…. Right accent, wrong colouring.
On the other hand, I have no problem at all casting Tyburn!
3) I know what happens at the end of the series and I’m not telling. The actual ending has never changed. It’s already been written, and everything else is just working up to that point. Which is not to say that Hapless Russell will not get his own series, and that there isn’t a Thirty Years’ War series on the blocks. (Is that a spoiler? Only if your chronology is off-cock. Our Hollie is thirty-four at the beginning of the English Civil War and went out to the Low Countries as a big fifteen year-old with an attitude problem. That’s twenty years of learning his business, by my reckoning.)
I didn’t start the Uncivil Wars books with the intention of involving Hollie in Leveller politics. It just sort of happened that way. He started off being absolutely partisan and then it just got personal, the more he put down roots in England again. He is not, absolutely not, any kind of political statement. Someone did suggest that he was and I would like to set it down – really, absolutely, categorically – that Hollie Babbitt is not any kind of political metaphor. He is his own dear bad-tempered self and his involvement in the Leveller movement is purely an emotional response to the treatment of his own soldiers by Parliament.
4) I don’t think I write like anyone else. Possibly Simon Scarrow, whom I quite like. The thought of Rosie and Luce as the Civil War Maco and Cato – hmmm. Certainly sufficiently sweary. Possibly slightly more political, especially as the series progresses. With more poetry. I have to admit to a near-heretical loathing of “Three Musketeers” soundalikes. I struggle horribly with Alatriste, although cannot guarantee that someone very like him does not stray across the radar of a young Hollie Babbitt. Hollie (drunk on his sixteenth birthday at Breda, natch) offered to punch him repeatedly in the head. I believe he took exception to the Spanish gentleman’s facial hair. Being a redhead, he never has succeeded with the fashionable moustache thing. Rather a tragedy for him, in the elegantly goatee’d part of the seventeenth century…
Anyway. I hate all that mannered thee’s and thou’s and have at thee, varlet, stuff. The seventeenth century was the golden age of the English language, undoubtedly. Let’s not forget it was also funny, filthy, and accessible. People spoke in it. To each other. They didn’t order their ale in rhyming quatrains. (Apart from Lucey Pettitt, probably, and I imagine even he only does it when egged on by his mates, or drunk.)
5) I have always written. The first thing I ever wrote was a Sherlock Holmes story, aged about four, and all I can remember about it was that it involved a graveyard at the full moon. Unfortunately it was written in the back of the car on my way to a family holiday and I get car sick. I don’t remember the end…
Hollie and Luce, on the other hand, first appeared in a time-travel comedy romance co-written with a friend of mine, sadly lost to posterity, in which the gallant Captain Babbitt began as a stern and easily-shocked Puritan officer in the Army of Parliament who was repeatedly seduced in some very unlikely environments by a most unwomanly miss.
Luce was a very camp transvestite who desperately wanted to get into the twenty-first century because he could wear make-up to work and no one would pass remarks.
There was a full-length novel written about this foolery (and a horse called Bastard who had a habit of widdling contemptuously on people he didn’t like) but it sadly did not survive a computer crash. It was hellish funny, though.
6) I have a habit of writing longhand on public transport, which is where I do most of my background thinking. There is a pink notebook which contains some very, very intimate information on the matter of the private lives of my lads.

Not all of it will ever make it into the books…

Colchester, conspiracy, Fairfax, history, Levellers, politics, ponderations, Rainsborough, women

Surely some mistake, Colonel Rainsborough – Royalist propaganda or war criminal?

“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”.
Thomas Rainsborough, Putney Debates, 1647
When I first started writing the Uncivil Wars books I had a fairly clear picture of the martyred Leveller colonel Thomas Rainsborough, in my head.
The known facts of his early life are fairly scant. He was born in Wapping in 1610 – son of Vice-Admiral William Rainsborough, a captain in the Royal Navy and Ambassador to Morocco. Vice-Admiral Rainsborough was offered a baronetcy for his efforts to end white slavery – an honour which he then declined. Republicanism, then, we can infer, was in the Rainsborough genetic make-up.
Thomas, then, began his career before the civil war in the family business; he and his brother William were involved in an early naval expedition to the Puritan Providence Island colony, off the coast of Nicaragua – and, it may be suggested, a degree of mild pirating of those antipathetic towards England’s interests.
However, after an early command of the Swallow and the Lion in the embryonic Parliamentarian navy (Hull, 1643 – where he first meets Hollie Babbitt in “Command the Raven) he then transferred to the Eastern Association – Oliver Cromwell’s haunt, although bearing in mind that Old Noll was no more than a plain Colonel of Horse himself at this point – where he was himself commissioned an infantry Colonel by the Earl of Manchester. In May 1645, he became a colonel in the newly-formed New Model Army. He fought and distinguished himself at Naseby. He went with Fairfax into the West Country and distinguished himself again at the battle of Langport.
And then at the siege of Bristol, after fierce fighting as the town surrendered, Rainsborough’s troops massacred the defenders of Prior’s Hill Fort. Allegedly.
It says so on Bristol local history sites. It says so in assorted fictional accounts. What it doesn’t say is where primary source evidence on this massacre might have been found. None of the accounts I have discovered (bearing in mind I don’t live in Bristol, so my hands are somewhat tied regarding physical archives…damn it all) annotate this.
However. So. Maybe that upright seagoing Republican with the staunch Puritan friends who came back from New England to fight for Parliament alongside him, maybe he did give the orders to massacre the defenders of Prior’s Hill Fort. Also note that every account I’ve discovered uses the word “massacre”. Now that’s either very definite…or they’re all using the same source material. Interesting.
Now. Rainsborough was then elected recruiter MP for Droitwich in Worcestershire in January 1647, but was allowed to continue with his military duties. Probably just as well, because in his absence in May 1647 his troops mutinied at Portsmouth in protest at Parliament’s plans to disband the New Model without addressing the soldiers’ grievances. Petty grievances, of course, set against the weightier matters of national governance – matters like not being paid for eight weeks, or being sent to fight abroad (in the case of Rainsborough’s troop, in Jersey) without seeing any of their back pay, or the unsettled matter of punishment for “war crimes” such as stealing horses under martial direction for use in cavalry regiments. That particular war crime had ended in the hanging of several soldiers after the first Civil War. I imagine there were any number of uncomfortable troopers around with that particular sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. (There – and you thought Eliot and Ward were made up, didn’t you? Nope…that pair of light-fingered buggers are very much based on historical persons.)
Rainsborough’s troops were preparing to march on Oxford and seize the artillery based there, until the man himself came back and met with them at Abingdon and talked them out of it.
That’s twice that Rainsborough is recorded as being charismatic, and personally involved, enough to influence people who have pretty good reasons not to do what he ends up getting them to do: the officers from New England had the reasonable excuse of several thousand miles of implacable Atlantic between themselves and the troubles back home, and Rainsborough’s own troops wouldn’t have been the first to disregard their commander – look at Waller’s disobedient London-raised troops, who were reluctant to fight outside their home turf regardless of his orders.
So, then, we see Rainsborough as clearly a very charismatic, very engaging, very hands-on man, fully engaged with his own men on a direct and personal level. Evidently a very popular leader and seen as both influential and reliable – he was one of the officers that presented the Heads of the Proposals to King Charles in July 1647. Turned down flat, in the most high-handed manner imaginable, by the King. 1647 really marked the beginning of Rainsborough’s overt involvement in the Army’s political activities, and his role as a leading Leveller light. He led the advance guard of three regiments of foot and one of horse when the Army marched to occupy London, successfully seizing Southwark – where, it must be noted, he had previously inherited property, and was presumably well-known to the locals, being a Wapping boy himself, so unlikely to be seen as some kind of brutal interloper.
During October and November 1647 he was lively at the Putney Debates, siding with the Leveller radicals in calling for negotiations with the King to be broken off immediately and for a new constitution of their own terms to be implemented. (That rebuttal of the Heads of Proposals must have still rankled.) He was also arguing for manhood suffrage, which didn’t go down well with Cromwell and Ireton either. And then in November 1647, he attempted to present a copy of the Levellers’ manifesto, and was ignored by General Fairfax.
January 1648 saw a return to naval service, given command of a squadron guarding the Isle of Wight where the King was held prisoner.
But. What we have been seeing before is a humanitarian man, vociferous in his support for the common soldier…who was so absolutely unpopular with the Navy that a number of Parliamentarian warships declared for the King in the spring of 1648 rather than carry on serving with him, and Rainsborough was put ashore from his own flagship by his crew. Parliament had to re-instate the Earl of  Warwick in his place to restore the loyalty of the seamen. It destroyed Rainsborough’s authority within in the navy, and he transferred back to the Army and took command of a newly-raised London regiment at the siege of Colchester.
And this is where I really begin to struggle with Rainsborough. Because the siege of Colchester was a filthy, vicious, uncharacteristically cruel assault, wholly out of character for both Thomas Fairfax and what we have seen of Thomas Rainsborough. The siege began in June 1648 and lasted for 11 weeks – a siege in which townspeople consistently loyal to Parliament, were barricaded in with an occupying force who were not precisely sympathetic.

Again, anecdotal evidence for Fairfax’s atrocities includes the torture of a messenger boy, the desecration of Sir Charles Lucas’s family vaults during manoeuvres; the inhabitants were certainly starving, reduced to eating cats, dogs, candles and soap – civilian and military alike. Fairfax is alleged to have agreed that his troops could cut off the hands of Royalist soldiers to take rings as booty. It is certain that a starving deputation of women and children was sent to Fairfax to ask for mercy, and were refused. It is again anecdotal that a second deputation of starving townswomen presented themselves to Rainsborough and were stripped, for the amusement of his troops.

Edited: at the end of the siege, Colchester was fined the MASSIVE sum of £14,000 – reduced to £12,000. Previous to the siege the town had been one of the biggest ports in Essex. Afterwards – a rural backwater. Fairfax broke the town utterly.

So. As Hollie Babbitt might put it, not much bloody further on, are we, after all that?
On the one hand, we have Rainsborough the compassionate republican, demanding fair and equal treatment for the poorest he that is in England. On the other we have a war criminal, even by the standards of the 17th century.
But. (I like big buts, and I cannot lie.)

I like a mystery, and I likes both Fairfax and Rainsborough, and it may take me a while, but I’ll get to the bottom of this one. The Lord has smiled upon my endeavours…. Him Indoors is an Essex boy!