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.

 

Pendragon – The Cover

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Here’s a first look a the initial draft of the cover of Pendragon – A Novel Of The Dark Age which is published on July 13.  After the long-running Hereward series, this is a new story, delving even further back in history.

The blurb:

Here is the beginning of a legend. Long before Camelot rose, a hundred years before the myth of King Arthur was half-formed, at the start of the Red Century, the world was slipping into a Dark Age…

It is AD 367. In a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, three scouts of the Roman army are found murdered. For Lucanus, known as the Wolf and leader of elite unit called the Arcani, this chilling ritual killing is a sign of a greater threat.
But to the Wolf the far north is a foreign land, a place where daemons and witches and the old gods live on. Only when the child of a friend is snatched will he venture alone into this treacherous world – a territory ruled over by a barbarian horde – in order to bring the boy back home. What he finds there beyond the wall will echo down the years.
A secret game with hidden factions is unfolding in the shadows: cabals from the edge of Empire to the eternal city of Rome itself, from the great pagan monument of Stonehenge to the warrior kingdoms of Gaul will go to any length to find and possess what is believed to be a source of great power, signified by the mark of the Dragon.
A soldier and a thief, a cut-throat, courtesan and a druid, even the Emperor Valentinian himself – each of these has a part to play in the beginnings of this legend…the rise of the House of Pendragon.

Pre-order it now from your favourite bookshop or sign up for a copy here.

Secret London: The Royal Opera House

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Step away from the tourist attractions and London has plenty of secrets waiting to be explored.  I spend a lot of time walking around various corners of the country, prowling into places I probably shouldn’t be, and recently I had a nose around behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden which offered up its fair share of surprises.

It’s got a long, storied history – the current building dates from 1858 (two previous opera houses were destroyed by fire) – and it’s regularly reinvented itself.  Builders have been knocking holes in things for the last few years, but now it’s just about ready for the 21st century.

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The design is still fantastic, though, right?

With the focus understandably being on what’s taking place on the stage, most people don’t realise there’s a hidden city – or at least village – behind the scenery.  More than a thousand people working around the clock, in shifts: the opera house is always open.

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The vast acreage behind the stage is a series of interlocking squares which can be moved mechanically around into any formation, like one of those puzzle games you used to get in Christmas crackers.  It’s got the biggest lift in Europe, the size of an articulated lorry, used for moving cages of scenery and props up and down three storeys, once they’ve been transported from the off-site storage facility.  All of the scenery and props are kept.

Apart from an astonishing costume department, smaller theatres, screening rooms, the rehearsal studio for the ballet and many more, there’s an actual armoury, with a resident armourer.  These are lethal weapons – axes, swords, not the least – so they’re all kept under lock and key, with restricted entry.

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And what would an opera house be without a phantom?  Although it’s not been widely publicised, my guide revealed there’s a section of the old building where the staff won’t work alone at night.  Strange sights, strange sounds, cold spots and a presence.  Ghosts are stories that hang around forever.

You can take a look at the winter programme here.

  • My next book – Pendragon: A Novel of the Dark Age – can be preordered now, either from your local bookstore, or via Amazon here.  It’s a historical mystery – how the legend of King Arthur was formed, the bloodline that led to the myth through a hundred years of war and carnage.

The Mythic History of England

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The Tower of London has a real pull for anyone who loves history.  It spans the life of England in all its forms, from pre-history, through Roman Britain to the modern age, a great story – or ten – for every era.

I spent a day there recently, ambling around under an Autumn sun.  It was the first time I’d been since I was a boy, but the memories of that early visit came rushing back, I think because those stories had sent roots deep into my unconscious.  This is how stories work, and why, in ancient times, they were used to teach important knowledge, the truths coded into every line.

That’s something I’m very interested in at the moment: the parallel history of the world, one based on abstracts and intangibles, where stories, myths, legend, folklore, are created by people and then ripple out and affect everything around us as if they were real.

Sometimes facts are the least important thing when it comes to understanding the world at large, and history.  It’s what people believe that shapes their actions, and as we can see in the headlines nearly every day, people believe a lot of strange things.

The Tower of London is a great venue for considering this alternative approach to history.

Legend has it – and also the first description of the Tower by Fitz-Stephen who died in 1191 – that the “mortar is tempered with the blood of beasts.”  The stories that rolled out suggested this was a magical defence, blood as a spell of protection, and a fitting way of telling the people that their land would be kept safe by this castle which became the symbol of England’s strong defence.

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And, of course, there’s the famous legend that the kingdom and the tower will fall if the six ravens ever leave the fortress.  Charles II was the monarch who insisted they be protected, for that very reason.  That’s another legend that reaffirms a belief in the indomitable nature of the English.

The myth of England is a powerful force that provides a foundation for patriotism and ties people together in the need for common struggle.  We’ve been building on it for years, and that isn’t going to stop just because we are, allegedly, wiser and less superstitious.

The Dragon

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I’ve just delivered the manuscript of my next book to my editor at Penguin Random House and to my agent.  The Dragon has some similarities with my Hereward series, and a great many differences.

It’s about another of the three great heroes of England (Robin Hood is the third), in this case King Arthur.  Except it’s not.  It’s set a hundred years or so before Arthur’s legend was supposed to have sprouted, in the dying light of Roman Britain.

The book goes into some very new areas.  One thing I’ve always wanted to do with my writing was push at boundaries.  The danger with that is that readers are very comfortable where they are, thank you very much, and don’t really want to wander off into the shadowy thickets.  But I believe the job of the author is to offer something new – it is a novel after all – and to take some risks rather than to keep ploughing the same old furrow.  But that static approach is not creatively rewarding, to be honest, and I also don’t think it’s playing fair with the reader.

The Dragon is about a particular moment in time when everything changed.  I think…I hope…that it will enrich an understanding of history.  The research has certainly been intense, in a period, at the start of the Dark Age, when the historical record runs somewhere between fragmentary and scotch mist.

When I was writing my last series of books, about the English rebel Hereward who led the resistance against William the Conqueror after the Norman invasion in 1066, I began to think about how legends were formed out of the world around us. Within a hundred years of Hereward’s death, stories were circulating about how he carried a magical sword and slayed giants. Not true, yet true, because it explained what he and his endeavours meant to the people of England in living memory of his struggle. History and symbolism bound together.

This book is about the creation of the legend of King Arthur.  I’ve looked at elements of the Arthurian mythos and how they might have arisen out of the history we know. But the more important question is: why did the legend of King Arthur come about in the first place. Why did we need it? Why do we still need it?

This, then, is an historical novel about the invisible hand of history, the things that can’t be found in the sub-strata, or in the few surviving fragmentary writings. Legends, faith, religion and the need for gods and heroes in a harsh world.

It’s about the dream of King Arthur, and of Camelot, and how it might have formed from the mists by the will of men in an age of destruction and war.

(Here’s the Amazon link – no title there yet – or you can already pre-order it from your favourite bookshop.)

Out Today – Hereward The Bloody Crown

The sixth and final book in the Hereward story is published today.

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Get it from your favourite bookshop, or order it here.

Here’s the blurb:

1081. And so the bloody battle for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire begins.
Within the city of Constantinople itself, three venal factions will go to any lengths – will, it seems, kill any who might stand in their way – to seize the throne.
And outside the city’s walls, twin powers threaten a siege that will crush the once-mighty empire forever.
To the west, the voracious forces of the most feared Norman warlord are gathering. While in the east, the Turkish hordes are massing – theirs is a lust for slaughter.
And in the midst of this maelstrom of brutality and betrayal, Hereward and his English spear-brothers prepare to make what could be their final stand . . .

Out Today – Hereward The Immortals

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In Paperback.

1073 – under the merciless sun of the east, a dark force has risen – a Norman adventurer who could rival the feared King William for bloody ambition. He has conquered his land, he has built his fortress and he has amassed his army. And now he has taken Constantinople’s ruler as his prisoner…
It falls to Hereward to rescue this precious captive. For this great English warrior-in-exile and his spear-brothers, it will mean mounting a raid that could prove the most dangerous and deadliest of their lives. Assisting them in their task will be an elite and legendary band of fighters, the Immortals – so-called because they believe they cannot die in battle. But it will not be enough – for enemies hide within the jewelled heart of Byzantium: vipers who spread their poison, who want to see the English dead at any cost and who are to transform a mission that was at best dangerous into an adventure that is now suicidal. . .
With this rousing adventure full of brutal sword play, treachery, camaraderie and honour, James Wilde continues his bestselling account of the action-packed life and times of England’s great and now, thanks to his his fiction, perhaps not-so-forgotten hero – Hereward the Wake.

Get it here, or at your favourite bookshop.

The Call Of The Wild

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I am not what you would call an indoors person.

I’ve always enjoyed the outsider lifestyle on lots of levels.  And, for me, adventure has always been a key part of appreciating life and the world.

For a week, I slept in a tent in the Arctic Circle.  -20C, -30C with windchill.  Waking with snot frozen on your face was not a pleasant experience.  Nor was getting set on fire by an exploding lamp.

Most days I’m out on my mountain bike or running through the wilds, here in Mercia.  I’ve climbed mountains, walked deserts.  But it’s not just a matter of pitting myself against nature (hint: you never win), nor is it purely about solitude and the meditative act – even though it’s a proven way of boosting creativity, vital for any writer, artist or musician.

For me, it’s as much about connecting with history.  Our story is written on the land.  (My old university professor pioneered the study of aerial photographs to discover the hidden secrets humanity had left there.)  One of my favourite pastimes is walking the old ways – the drovers roads, the old straight tracks, the five thousand year old lines across the landscape.  It’s a way of learning, of connecting with who we were through direct physical contact.

I have a notion of walking a few of these ancient pathways and posting a few photographs here across the summer, if anyone is interested.