Once a Pilgrim

I first heard about James Deegan‘s first novel Once a Pilgrim from a commentator at Tim Worstall’s blog, who knew the author and confirmed he was bona fide ex-SAS and not some walt who told chicks down the bar that it was he, not the four thousand others, who was on the balcony in 1980. When I was a teenager I’d read Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero and Chris Ryan’s The One That Got Away which launched a whole rash of books written by ex-SAS servicemen, and afterwards I read a few more of the same genre. Eventually I got a bit bored of them and grew up a bit, and now when I see a novel about some SAS hero I don’t give it a second glance. But given the recommendation of Tim Worstall’s commenter and the confidence that Deegan was genuinely ex-SAS, I decided to give it a go.

It’s a good book. It starts with an SAS veteran by the name of John Carr winding up his military service in Iraq before retiring to take a job in London on the security team of a Russian oligarch. I’m not sure what the purpose of the Iraq scenes were, other than perhaps to show the guy is a badass who is no stranger to blood and violence, for we never return there. Instead the story shifts to Belfast during the Troubles, and from there the story really begins. The plot is fairly straightforward and concerns an incident which happened in Belfast in the 1980s which catches up with Carr in the modern day. We have gunmen, fast cars, dodgy Russians, murders, fistfights, swanky flats and plenty of booze all coming together in a thoroughly enjoyable fast-paced yarn.

One aspect which stands out, and which is the book’s strongest point, is the level of tactical detail Deegan goes into: which weapons Carr uses, how he walks, where he stands, how he approaches certain situations and in some areas it’s almost like a guide to how an SAS soldier goes about his business. The fact you know this is being written by someone who knows what he’s on about makes it a pleasure to read; there’s nothing worse than reading a military book, or watching a TV programme on the same subject, with the main characters engaged in bum tactics. The fact that this never gets bogged down in unnecessary detail and tedious technical descriptions is testament to the skills of the author, or perhaps the editor. So if you’re into military stuff, particularly operational details, you’ll like this book.

One minor quibble is you’d probably need a half-decent understanding of Northern Ireland politics and a history of the Troubles to not get lost: there are a lot of acronyms which aren’t explained, and I was fortunate enough to know them.

The weakest point of the book is probably the main character, John Carr. The problem is that he’s too perfect, and I wonder if Deegan hasn’t engaged in some authorial fantasy. If an ex-SAS NCO is writing a book and the lead character is an ex-SAS NCO who’s physically immense, hard as nails, loaded with cash, living in a swanky pad in London, cocky, funny, hard-drinking, and loved by everyone except a handful of baddies you start to wonder if the character isn’t just how the author wishes he was. It’s very tempting to do this as a novice author, and it quickly becomes obvious: Stieg Larsson’s books suffered badly from this.

The most annoying part is every woman Carr meets want to sleep with him. His first conquest is the young daughter of his former officer, which was rather too cliched. From there a neighbour who lives with her boyfriend asks him out in the stairwell; a pretty girl at the gym shows an obvious interest; a lawyer abandons all professional ethics and admits she sleeps with her clients, and he ought to call her sometime; and he picks up a high-flying American executive in a hotel bar within seconds of sitting down, her friend abandoning her immediately to this stranger so she can get laid. None of this requires any effort on his part, it’s all the women’s doing. Now I don’t care how fit and handsome a 40 year old man is, women don’t behave like this, not at that frequency anyway. And if he was some shitlord alpha male who traps like ten men, his marriage would have ended badly due to infidelity, not because they ever-so-pleasantly just drifted apart. I found it rather tedious and I’m surprised the editor didn’t cut it out; I can only assume people who consume these type of books want the hero to walk around pulling women like James Bond. In fairness, they probably know the market better than me.

Deegan is in the process of writing another book and John Carr is likely to feature in a whole series. I think the lead character can be improved by binning his dallies with women and giving him a few character flaws, making his actions less predictable and the reader to wonder if he doesn’t have a dark side we’ve yet to learn about.

Overall Once a Pilgrim is a good, solid story with a decent lead character and, if you’re into SAS-style action books, you will certainly enjoy it and might even find it’s one of the best in the genre. As a debut effort it’s impressive, and I’m sure Deegan can apply more of his life experience to good effect in subsequent books. I score if 4 out of 5.

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Pigeonholed by Diversity

I’m late to this, but never mind. Here’s Penguin Random House:

Our industry does not currently reflect the society we live in. We believe that making publishing more inclusive is both a cultural and commercial imperative.

We have made a number of positive changes over the past few years, including removing the need for a university degree from all our jobs, introducing paid work experience, and finding and nurturing new writers through our WriteNow programme.

To better understand how our actions are making a difference in the long term we need to better understand the diversity of the authors we publish and the people we hire, and how this changes over time.

That’s why we want both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025. This means we want our new authors and colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.

Enough people have pointed out the stupidity of this, not least Lionel Shriver, as the BBC reports:

Ms Shriver said: “Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books.

“Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision.”

In the article she suggested that a manuscript “written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven” would be published “whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling”.

What I haven’t seen anyone make, though, is the point the Turkish author Elif Şafak raised in a talk she did:

When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

If Penguin books are going to start publishing minority authors, you can be sure the books will be about minorities; what we’re not going to see is a transgender’s work get published unless the story itself is about transgender issues. As if by way of confirmation, the BBC article tells us:

Candice Carty-Williams is a writer who has also worked at Penguin Random House for almost two years.

She supports the company’s attempts to make both its staff and authors more reflective of the UK population.

Carty-Williams – a black woman living in London who used to work for The Guardian and thinks her white counterparts have it easier than her – has just had her debut novel Queenie snapped up. So what’s it about? Well:

Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers.

How surprising. It’s also worth noting that Carty-Williams is currently a Senior Marketing Executive at Vintage Books and before that spent over two years doing the same job at HarperCollins. Funny how publishers always seem to get their books published, isn’t it? A bit like how New York Times journalists always get their works on the New York Times bestseller list.

Anyway, as Elif Şafak said:

Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian … And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports. Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary.

The real insult isn’t that Penguin thinks positive discrimination in favour of minorities will mean they publish better content, but that minorities are only allowed to write about themselves.

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Window on a Burning Man – Part 2 of 7

Part 2 of Window on a Burning Man is now online here.

This part includes a filthy sex scene which I was told I had to include because women insist on at least one in a book of this nature. At least one male reader has told me he skipped over it, so far no female reader has told me the same. When I wrote it, I felt like how I imagine pornographers must feel after shooting a scene.

There is also a short discussion on when a man can expect to have sex with someone he’s met online. Is it on the first night? Or must he wait until they’re married? Read it and find out.

There’s also a twist at the end, which I think makes the book in many ways. If it were a film, this would be a pivotal scene. The timing would need to be exquisite, though.

In terms of sales, I’m now up to 84 after 2 weeks and I’m shifting one or two copies per day (90% ebooks, 10% paperbacks). I’m hoping by now this represents people who have come across it independently of this blog, either on Amazon, Facebook, or through word of mouth, and this steady trickle will continue well into the future. Obviously I’m then hoping somebody influential will stumble across it and bring it to a much wider audience, delivering me the fame and fortune I so richly deserve. The Amazon reviews are steadily growing too, which is good. Some are critical, and in all honesty I can’t take issue with what they’re saying. Some are highly flattering, most likely from family members and people who feature in the book itself. I’d best not order a yacht based on their feedback. Over time, I’ll get a better idea how it is being received by the general public.

The best thing I can do now is to keep plugging away and write something else. Once I’ve unclogged my schedule of various things over the next couple of weeks, I will get cracking.

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Bookshops in Nigeria

From the BBC:

Thousands of people across social media have been posting about Nigeria’s literary heritage after a journalist asked acclaimed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie if there were any bookshops in her country.

Journalist Caroline Broue asked Adichie if people read her books in Nigeria. Adichie replied, “They do, shockingly.”

Broue then asked: “Are there any bookshops in Nigeria?”

The author of Americanah and Purple Hibiscus replied: “I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question.

I’m not sure why it should reflect poorly on French people that a solitary journalist asked if there were bookshops in a country where the traffic lights barely work and you can’t drink the tapwater.

I confess, I don’t recall seeing any bookshops in Nigeria, but I daresay they exist. The closest I got to one was a book stall in the corner of the waiting area of Port Harcourt airport, which was stocked in its entirety with religious books, self-help manuals, and combinations of the two. Titles like God and Your Business and Success Through Worship were typical, and something the expats noticed was if you saw someone reading a book it was a good bet that it was the bible.

Some wished to remind people of Nigeria’s literary heritage, by citing writers and poets such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ben Orki.

I don’t see why French people should know these authors any more than a Nigerian should know of Johnny Hallyday. Perhaps a journalist should have known better, but then…well, she’s a journalist, isn’t she?

But the question ‘are there bookshops in Nigeria’ was not about that. It was about giving legitimacy to a deliberate, entitled, tiresome, sweeping, base ignorance about Africa. And I do not have the patience for that.

One solution is to stay well clear of ignorant foreigners, particularly those invited to ask questions at cultural evenings hosted by the French government. I don’t suppose anyone forced her to attend.

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Earth to Earth

When I was a child my parents, in lieu of a television, used to listen to Radio 4, especially at meal times. My mother hailed from Sidmouth and so took interest in a radio series that concerned a remote farming family in mid-Devon who one day blew their own heads off with a shotgun. Chez Newman was a barrel of laughs, I can tell you. I remembered the series, which was called Earth to Earth, and the book of the same name that someone gave my mother shortly afterwards. For no particular reason I tracked it down on Amazon and bought a secondhand copy (it’s now out of print).

The Luxton family had been farming in Devon for around 600 years, and by the 19th century the various branches pretty much owned everything within a day’s ride of Winkleigh, the village around which the events took place. The author of the book, John Cornwell, noted that marrying between cousins was common among the Luxtons simply because the family was so large it was pretty much impossible to cast one’s net beyond their geographical spread in the days when people’s worlds were very much smaller than they are today. Things looked good for Robert George Luxton, born in 1818: he inherited six farms and plenty of assets in the form of stock, dwellings, furniture, and paintings and was the undisputed head of the local aristocracy. Being a rich chap, he indulged in foxhunting, gambling, womanising, and drinking along with his pal the Fifth Earl of Portsmouth, who was even richer and built himself an extravagant mansion in 1854 to which he would invite hundreds of his friends to engage in hunting and pissing it up.

At the same time, Robert George embarked on a large program of upgrades to his farms, investing heavily in new machinery, rebuilding barns, acquiring better breeds of livestock, and adopting more intensive farming techniques requiring large outlays on seeds and fertilisers. A lot of this was financed through loans, which the banks were only too pleased to extend at seven percent interest. His sons and daughters were given expensive educations and preferred to play sport or idle rather than work the land, and soon he began to lose control of his workforce. But what happened next was worse:

The catastrophe, when it came, was more widespread and appalling and permanent than any could have guessed. The background to the agricultural depression of the latter half of the nineteenth century was the influx of cheap food from the United States, Russia, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Steam navigation and the relentlessly spreading tentacles of the railways in every part of the world brought speedier, cheaper transport. The Americans had pioneered the mechanization of crop farming on an unparalleled scale to open up and exploit the vast and fertile prairies. Inevitably the food markets of the world were transformed. It was an era of aggressive free trade and British farming was brought to the edge of collapse. Throughout the 1870s North American grain pushed prices down to levels unknown since before the year 1700. The populations of the manufacturing towns were being fed on Argentine beef, Australian mutton and bread made with American wheat. In the 1880s the cost of a loaf fell to half its previous price. Denmark counteracted the changing market forces by rapidly switching to dairy produce. The Danish farmer fed cheap imported grain to dairy cattle and pigs, and exported high-quality standardized bacon to England.

Many British crop farmers converted their farms to grass­land, hoping to redeem their fortunes by investing in milk production. As a result there were huge milk surpluses and plummeting prices meant they failed to cover their invest­ments. Their attempts to break into the cheese markets were frustrated as they watched American cheese drop to twopence a pound. No British farmer could produce good cheese for less than fourpence a pound.

Compounding the misery of British farmers was the appalling weather I described in this post. The upshot was that many farms went bankrupt, sending thousands of farmers and agricultural workers to all four corners of the globe to seek better fortunes – including many who bore the Luxton name. Robert George was forced to sell land and other assets to pay his debts, before breaking his neck in a hunting accident in 1902 aged 84 and penniless. His pal, the Earl of Portsmouth, killed himself in 1906.

Observing all this, and taking careful notes, was a cousin of Robert George’s by the name of Lawrence Luxton of West Chapple farm. Although the two had grown up together, he was highly critical of Robert George’s extravagant ways, himself eschewing modernisation and spending almost nothing. When the crash happened, Lawrence Luxton was determined to survive with his farm intact. Believing the real danger to a farm lay in outside forces such as markets and money-lenders, and understanding that a farm can be almost entirely self-sufficient, Lawrence Luxton simply shut the farm gate and rode out the storm. Their main contact with the outside world was to barter produce in exchange for items they couldn’t make themselves, such as clothes and boots. What is astonishing is that the family carried on like this for two more generations.

A hundred years later, in the 1970s, West Chapple farm was owned and occupied by the last remaining members of the once-enormous Luxton clan: brothers Robbie and Alan, and their sister Frances, Lawrence Luxton’s grandchildren. Their father, Robert John, had been raised by Lawrence to run the farm and view the outside world much as he did, and Robert John in turn passed this outlook onto his own offspring. As such, the Luxton’s farming practices remained unchanged from those of a hundred years before: everything was done by hand, there was almost no machinery, they used draft horses in place of tractors, and there was no mains water or electricity (at least, according to Cornwell’s book: this is disputed). By all accounts they were excellent farmers, producing good animals and taking tremendous care of their land, and they didn’t spend a penny more than was absolutely necessary. When WWII arrived, and brought with it thousands of American and Canadian soldiers, the world opened up a little for Alan, the youngest of the three siblings. He joined the Young Farmers club and, after long days in the fields, would scrub down, head into Winkleigh, and go drinking in the pub.

When the war ended Alan tried to persuade his elder brother to modernise the farm but Robbie, wedded completely to his father and grandfather’s methods, refused. He allowed the lane leading to the farm to grow over, claiming he wanted it for grazing, and erected gates at either end. Anyone driving by on the public road would just see a meadow on the other side and never guess there was a farm in the valley beyond, hidden completely from view. The family fortunes changed dramatically when Alan met a local woman and became engaged. He approached Robbie and said he wanted to sell his share of West Chapple so he could buy a small property of his own and raise a family, but again Robbie refused: he couldn’t afford to buy Alan out of his share, and to split the farm up was unthinkable. Furious rows ensued and even physical violence, with Frances – who was older than them both – caught in the middle but sympathising with Alan. Eventually, unable to win his brother over, Alan called off his engagement and returned to the farm. He then suffered a complete mental breakdown, locking himself in his room and hurling abuse at everything and nothing, roaming the farmyard dressed only in sacks and incapable of doing any real farm work. He was to remain that way until his death years later.

Frances had a few romantic liaisons but none developed into anything serious, probably because her brothers were so dependent on her staying at the farm. Once it was clear Alan’s condition wouldn’t improve, her fate on the farm was sealed. Robbie, for his part, was uninterested in women believing his sister was all he’d ever want or need. As the siblings grew older the farmwork grew more difficult. They began to think about succession but had nobody to pass the farm onto. Deeply aware they were the last remnants of a great Devon farming family, Frances took to researching their ancestry in the hope of finding a suitable heir. But as time passed and none was forthcoming, the weight of family history bore more heavily upon them. By the time Robert and Frances were in their sixties, and the erratic Alan in his mid-fifties, the farm had become too much for them and they agreed to sell it. Then they changed their minds, then they found a purchaser and agreed to a sale, but immediately regretted it. Witnesses say Frances spent her final days in a sort of delirium over the sale of the farm, repeating over and over that they should stay and die in West Chapple.

One morning, in the autumn of 1975, a grocer’s delivery man approached West Chapple and found Robbie, Frances, and Alan lying dead in the yard with massive shotgun wounds to their heads. The police quickly ruled out the involvement of a fourth person and concluded that Alan had probably committed suicide first, with Robbie following suit an hour or so later having first dispatched Frances who didn’t appear to offer any resistance.

Suicide rates among farmers still remain high everywhere, including in the UK, France, and USA. While most observers focus on economics and isolation, there is often also a great weight of family history pressing down on the shoulders of farmers whose forebears have worked the same land for sometimes hundreds of years before. As the case of the Luxton’s shows, this can exert an enormous psychological pressure on farmers faced with no choice but to sell up. If they have nobody in the family to hand over to, this pressure can become unbearable. Having grown up in a rural area and known several farmers who died early from heart attacks (although thankfully, none through suicide), I can relate to the pressures they are under even if none is exerted on me. Back when I was a kid listening to Earth to Earth on Radio 4, I thought the story immeasurably sad. Now I’ve read the book as an adult I still do, particularly the Luxton’s despair in a world which had passed them by, leaving them stranded on an island able only to look backwards. There is nothing as relentless as the passage of time, and nothing so unforgiving as the march of progress.

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Window on a Burning Man – Part 1 of 7

The serial of Window on a Burning Man has begun! You can read Part 1 for free over here. Topics covered in this part include:

1. Paris Gare du Nord

2. Online dating: making initial contact, the first date, and how to behave if your date doesn’t recognise you.

3. Facial piercings

4. Modern Art

5. Burning Man

6. A single mother-to-be begging for help on the internet

7. More on online dating, a second date, and messy divorces.

8. Taxidermy, drinking, and smooching in a bar.

Enjoy!

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Teaser

In case anyone missed it:

In the festering criminal toilet that is Paris Gare du Nord, I looked at the board for the Eurostar and noted the time. I was in the most savage of moods and not hiding it well. If I went through passport control like this, they’d chuck me in jail. I needed some air.

Stepping out of the glass-covered annex and onto the Rue de Dunkerque, I saw a man break off from a group and amble over. He fell in beside me, matching my pace, while playing with a folded banknote in the palm of a dirty brown hand.

“Taxi? Where you go?” he said.

He looked more con artist than taxi driver. You could be sure he’d not understand the word “meter” whatever language you tried, and he’d be tragically short of change, even for a ten-Euro note. He turned away when I shook my head. A young African with a pointy beard looked at me twice before addressing me in French. I ignored him by staring vacantly across the street at hotels whose windows hadn’t been cleaned since de Gaulle was in charge. Groups of tourists sat on the pavement eating sandwiches around clustered suitcases. One of them was shouting at a tough-looking Chinese woman who’d kicked her as she walked past. If it was accidental, she didn’t look too sorry about it. Two men of Slavic appearance hovered like a pair of crows, one wearing three-stripe tracksuit bottoms and the other filthy denims, speaking in low voices and looking up to no good. More men loitered, assuredly with intent, and one peeled himself away from a wall and approached me. Turning around to avoid him, I nearly collided with a scooter that was moving too fast along the sidewalk, ridden by a pale youth talking on the phone. A row of standing stone figures on the station’s facade watched matters below with swords and shields to hand. I wondered if they ought not step down occasionally and put them to use.

Go and read the rest. Then buy the book. Then leave a review. Or wait for paperback. Or wait for the serial.

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