Why We Need Camelot

Arthurian lore is stitched deeply into my new book, Pendragon, published in just a few short days.  This is a story-telling tradition that may well go back one thousand five hundred years.  Perhaps even longer, if – as some think – Arthur was not a real, historical figure but based on a mythic hero arising out of tales of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld of gods and magical beings.

Arthur matches the promise embedded in T H White’s title, The Once and Future King, by returning time and again in fireside tales, books, films, radio dramas, comics, and in every one slightly reinvented to speak to the concerns of the time in which the story is being told.  That’s because Arthur’s true importance is as a symbol, rather than as an historical figure.

And it’s a consideration of this element which lies at the heart of my telling: why do we need the myth of King Arthur so much that we keep bringing him back in new forms?

Pendragon is set one hundred years before Arthur was supposed to have lived and looks at how the man, the legend, both entwined, might have arisen out of historical events.  It’s decidedly and defiantly different from the Arthurian fiction you may be used to – no re-telling of oft-told tales.  All the familiar elements are there, but we come at them from oblique angles in the hope that the reader might see them in a new light.  In that way it’s a meditation on the meaning of King Arthur, as much as being about Arthur himself.

Or as the review from Parmenion Books says:

Pendragon…. the name just screams Arthur, Genevieve, Lancelot and all that goes with it. Well take that preconception and throw it out the window. Not since Bernard Cornwall took on the Arthur myth has any writer provided such a new and innovative view of the Arthurian story.

This constant reinvention of Arthur is a turbulent process, but the anchors remain the same to hold the idea fast – Excalibur, Camelot, the Round Table and the rest.  And they too are symbols, more powerful than their mundane appearance suggests.

Folklore speaks to why we keep calling Arthur back into our world.  He is the hero who sleeps beneath the hill with his loyal band of followers, waiting to be summoned in the hour of England’s – or the world’s – greatest need.  The saviour.  The ideal.  The non-religious symbol of something greater than ourselves that speaks to the highest callings – of service, of sacrifice, of the values, the striving for goodness, that bind us all together.

There are times when we need Camelot more than ever.

This is one of them, I think.

The UK has never been more divided.  The US too.  Divided socially, politically, geographically, financially, divided in how we see ourselves, in our purpose.  It’s important to look to greater principles to find those ties that bind, if divisions are ever to be overcome.

And lest we forget, symbols are more powerful than words, more powerful indeed than the men and women who purport to lead us.  Countries which marshall their national symbols thrive.  Those which don’t, struggle.  The USA, a country built on symbols, now almost wholly communicates with them.  From images of an eagle, or stars and stripes, or the gunslinger standing alone in desolate landscape, we understand very complex, multi-faceted ideas about the philosophy of that nation.  And that communication is more powerful than anything when the USA is selling itself across the world.

King Arthur is also a symbol of Britain.  He sells a layered but powerful idea of who we are as a nation.  As we edge out into an uncertain world, we need that too.

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Pendragon – The First Review: ‘Highly Recommended’

If you were on the fence about picking up my forthcoming novel, Pendragon, the first review is now in…

Pendragon…. the name just screams Arthur, Genevieve, Lancelot and all that goes with it. Well take that preconception and throw it out the window. Not since Bernard Cornwall took on the Arthur myth has any writer provided such a new and innovative view of the Arthurian story.

 

A Guide To The Pubs of Britain #1 – Hagen & Hyde

In the introduction to this irregular series, I wrote about the importance of pubs for creatives as conducive environments for thinking and dreaming, disconnected from the real world.  And so I thought it only right that I begin this meandering tour of Britain’s finest pubs for writers and artists on my doorstep, at Hagen & Hyde in Balham, South London, the place where I wrote a significant chunk of my forthcoming novel, Pendragon.

I’ve never understood why some writers go to an office to put down words, or always sit in the same corner of the back room.  If you’ve given up on the nine to five, if you’ve gone for the freedom that the writing life entails, why not work anywhere and everywhere?  Why not work here?

Hagen & Hyde has just the right amount of studied quirkiness to spark the imagination.  A 1930s radio, a shelf of old shoes, a sewing machine, and, importantly, bookshelves with actual books on them.  That’s a sign.  The main bar is nice and airy – high ceilings, long bar, with an industrial aesthetic of oak walls, brick floors and iron girders.  Pretend you’re doing actual work, like they used to do in the old days.

It’s a rabbit warren, with a lower level bar where they put on bands and DJs at the weekend, a balcony, an outdoor balcony and a beer garden (which has some actual vegetation around it so you can ignore the Sainsbury’s loading bay beyond the end wall).  Always somewhere to hide.  Pretend it’s a memory castle, with a new story prompt in each drinking space.

I don’t like those big atmosphere-less pubs designed only to serve cheap beer to the masses until their legs buckle.  You know the ones I mean.  This is an independent with a neighbourhood feel.  Here you’ll encounter people of different ages, different ethnicities, different social classes.  Modern London, just as I like it.  Too many pubs in Britain are monocultures these days, and they’re dying because of it.

It’s a pub for beer-lovers, with an ever-changing selection of craft beers – today Squawk BC session IPA, Gipsy Hill Southpaw and Beaverton 8 Ball Rye – and okay food – deep fried squid, pulled pork, halloumi fritters…

On this journey, in life, in the pub, you mark your time with stories, both in the world around you, and in your head.  The old man singing to himself in the corner.  The woman carrying the armful of champagne bottles up the stairs to the balcony bar, each teetering step one wrong move from disaster.  Writing The End on the last page of my novel.

This is a good place for stories.  And a good place to start this quest.

(cross-posted)

Pendragon Proofs Now In

The road to publication follows familiar landmarks – finishing the first draft, the various edits, through the delivery of the first box of books to publication day and the subsequent round of publicity and signings.  One of the key moments is the arrival of the uncorrected proofs – softbound copies of the novel, usually replete with the odd error, that go out to reviewers and booksellers.

The proofs for Pendragon are now in.  If you fall into one of those two groups, get in touch with Penguin Random House UK publicity to order your copy.

“Before King Arthur…before Camelot…before Excalibur…the Legend begins…”

You can pre-order this reimagining of the beginnings of the Arthurian myth here, or from your favourite book store.

A Guide To The Pubs Of Britain

I like pubs,and not just for the amber stuff.  Map out any history of writing in Britain and you’ll find pubs woven into the heart of it.  Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London has entertained the likes of Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, Alfred Lord Tennyson and P G Wodehouse since the first iteration appeared on the site in 1538.  The Cheese is not alone.  Any pub tour of London is a tour of creativity.

Although writers have always looked for ways to bypass the conscious mind to get to the unconscious where all the creative heavy lifting is done – drink, drugs, shamanic drumming and dervish dancing – it’s not really about the booze.  It’s the space itself that’s important.

In the 1970s, Japanese architects turned away from the concept of a house as a machine for living.  Their new abstraction was that it could be a space of alternate reality, protected from the harshness of the outside world.  Kazuyo Sejima, for example, has designed living spaces that she sees as both introverted and extroverted, virtual and physical.

And this has always been the value of pubs to the creative.  They are liminal zones, dream-spaces, both a part of the world and set aside from it.  The unconscious adjacent to the conscious.  Stepping across the threshold, you accept a new set of liberating rules.  Hedonism is acceptable.  Quiet reflection.  Volubility, free of constraints.  A place of both solitude, where thoughts can arise and take form, and connection with other human beings from all walks of life, free of social rules.

The sensory aspects are important – the gloom, sometimes, or the points of light, the ale-smells and rumble of voices.  Drift in this circumscribed ritual space detached from the mundane world and the shackles reality imposes fall away.

There’s a reason why George Orwell felt driven to write a long essay about his imagined ideal pub, the Moon Under Water. Why Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys before him hung out at The Grapes in Limehouse.  Why Dylan Thomas left his manuscript for Under Milk Wood in The French House in Soho and why Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes all socialise in the Pillars of Hercules, also in Soho, where Dickens also used to drink.

I went to my first pub with friends from school when I was 16.  A pint of fizzy lager, a rite of passage, the feeling of transgression that all creators need.  Since then I’ve drank in pubs all over Britain, created stories, written novels, dreamed up TV shows and film scripts.  They’re vital places – not just for us creatives, but also for the communities they serve.  These days they’re under threat.  In the UK, twenty-nine pubs close every week, driven out of business by shockingly poor management by the industrial pub chains, and by social changes.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The flagship Wandsworth Council has brought in new planning rules to protect important pubs.  All councils could do that if they were so minded.

But in the meantime we need to celebrate what we have.  I plan to write a regular guide here to the pubs that matter, to me, to us all.  Ones that have a weight of history and tradition, that are doing something different, haunted pubs, unique pubs, but most of all those Dionysian pagan temples to creativity.

Some of the early ones I’ll be writing about will be in London, but I’m always travelling so the aim is to cover pubs in all parts of the country.  If you have any ones you think are worth checking out, mention them in the comments and why you think they’re special.  I don’t need much arm twisting to have a pint in somewhere new.

The first entry in the Guide to British Pubs really has to be my local.  It’s the place where I wrote a big chunk of Pendragon (available now for pre-order, drinking buddies).  Watch for it here soon, and then others at an irregular pace in the weeks and months to come.  These will be the best of the best, ones worth visiting, somewhere you can conjure up your own stories. (CROSSPOSTED)

The Secret Abbey

Westminster Abbey, from the quire along the nave.

Had a private tour after hours behind the scenes at Westminster Abbey. As a fascinating insight into more than one thousand years of British history, it couldn’t be beaten.  And for me it was particularly intriguing to be allowed into areas where the public normally isn’t admitted, like the shrine of Edward the Confessor (after his appearance in Hereward), in the oldest part of the current abbey.

The tomb of Elizabeth I and her sister Mary, the tombs of a long list of English monarchs, the oldest garden in Britain, the ‘secret chapel’ of Saint Faith, and the Pyx Chamber where the Royals used to store their treasure – so much to see.  And there’s going to be even more in a year’s time when the Abbey opens the upper levels looking down on the nave for the first time.  They’ll be displaying the rarely-seen death masks of English monarchs and the body replicas that were paraded in front of the people when one of the monarchs died in Scotland and was brought south for burial.

The trip came as a pleasant break from finishing the final details of Pendragon before publication in July.  The cover is now signed off and yesterday I approved the new typeface and sent details for the map designer.  Your local bookshop will now be taking pre-orders or you can go here for a look and a ponder.

There’s a link between the trip and the forthcoming book.  Pendragon is very much about how legend arises out of history and while it tackles the potential roots of Arthurian mythos, it’s also about our need for legends, heroes, and an ideal of the country we inhabit.

Pendragon – The Final Cover

Here it is, with added strapline. Every legend has a beginning.

The last days of Roman Britain. The seeds that will grow into the legend of King Arthur one hundred years later. Myth arising from history. A canvas that reaches from Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge to Gaul and Rome at the heart of the empire. Battles, conspiracy, rival factions and a colourful cast of soldiers and courtesans, spies, Emperors, barbarians and mystics.

Out in July, you can preorder it from your favourite bookstore, or buy it here on Amazon.

Stonehenge Gives Up Its Secrets

Despite the constant rumble of traffic and air thick with diesel fumes, Stonehenge still raises a frisson when it looms up out of the rolling grassland of Salisbury Plain.  It’s hard not to hear the echoes of the deep past, and feel the stirrings that the first supplicants must have felt when they processed to the site five thousand years ago.

Five millennia – think of that.  Hard to believe we’re still finding out new things, but over the last few years we’ve had a rush of discoveries that have changed all our thinking.  We now know that Stonehenge is part of a massive ritual site – how big, archaeologists are not quite sure.  But after the discovery of an underground ‘Superhenge’ 18 months ago, excitement is running high.

I’ve visited Stonehenge many times across the years, but I was on site recently while researching my forthcoming novel Pendragon, which deals with the rise of the Arthurian legend a hundred years before the Once and Future King was supposed to have existed.  Stonehenge plays a role in the book.  There were, of course, old myths that it was a Druid temple or that it was all the work of Merlin.  But we tend to forget that the mystery of the monument would have loomed large in the minds of the Roman Britons too – its origins would have been as distant to them as the invention of the Phoenician alphabet is to us.

The latest development – part of a wider trend in modern archaeology which moves away from simply “digging things up” – suggests that the role of Stonehenge was to stimulate other senses, not just the visual.  Reports that the stones “spoke” have been around in folklore for a long time.  Thomas Hardy mentioned the circle’s strange hum and featured the megalithic ring at the end of Tess of the D’Urbevilles.  Now, utilising virtual technology, Dr Robert Till has recreated what Stonehenge might have sounded like when the circle was intact.

He’s not alone.  Others have suggested the stones may have reverberated to, say, shamanic drumming within the circle which may have helped any gathered within the ring to reach transcendental states.

There will undoubtedly be much more to come.