Behind the books

First of all I’d like to warn you on two accounts; what follows has a slight ‘spoiler’ element to it, nothing disastrous but nonetheless… and secondly that the grammar/punctuation of the following owes more to mobile text than it does to book text. So, that being said…

When it comes to literary criticism people often fall broadly into one of two camps; those that base their opinions and judgement solely on the book itself, and those that seek to garner as much information as possible about the author, their experiences and the origins of the tale before they feel they are in a position to evaluate the book.

If, like me, you fall firmly into the former of these two groups then what follows will be largely academic to you and of little interest, but if you’re a supporter of the second school and just can’t rest until you’ve found out more, seen a photo of the author and know their favourite colours then by all means read on – not that you’ll see a photo mind.

The first version of this Arthurian tale appeared as a four-page essay in one of those old primary school exercise books. Four pages, blimey, if ever a tale grew in the telling - as a friend pointed out down The Salisbury one evening; ‘now that really was a tight version.’ The class must have been set a ‘free-style’ essay for homework and I was probably struggling for a topic to write about. I remember my big brother, Mark, throwing ideas at me (among other things, no doubt) and David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs was on the turntable, which dates it all to about 1974 and means I must have been around 8 or 9 years old. So I suppose my early interest in the legend of Arthur fighting off the Saxons must have mixed with Bowie’s Future Legend to produce something along the lines of ‘why don’t I write a story about a post-nuclear holocaust world where Arthur returns to save Britain from its enemies?’

Why not indeed? So I did. Back in 1974 I suppose 8 year olds were aware that it might all go horribly wrong if nuclear weapons started to get thrown around – perhaps it even seemed possible. One unexpected and unforeseen consequence of a nuclear war, according to my four-page essay, was that the world stopped spinning on its axis (more on this later). I’m not sure I actually believed that would be the case but it did raise some interesting options for a story. Perhaps I had a better understanding of literary licence than I did of nuclear holocausts.

When I say ‘the world stopped spinning on its axis’ that’s not 100% accurate; the world was locked into what might, and might not, be called a Geosynchronous Orbit around the sun, much as the Moon is around the Earth. In other words, the same part of the planet always faced the sun – so actually the Earth would complete one rotation per cycle around the sun. It might be called Geostationary. Who knows? And frankly, sitting at the dining table listening to Future Legend, I didn’t care – it was the story that counted. An attitude I obviously took into later life, but more on that later.

So, Arthur was to lead the surviving mutants of Britain – which was positioned in the twilight part of the world – against the mutant Adren, who were invading from the dark side of the planet (these original mutant Adren were later to be represented by the Irrades of the ruined city - 75% of France’s power is nuclear generated. A mistake as it turns out), while the Cithol got mixed up in it all as the pristine survivors from the domed city. ‘Domed cities’ were clearly the place to be if you wanted to survive a nuclear war, even an 8 year old knew that. Amazing it all fitted into four pages, perhaps it was six but either way, as Dave said down The Salisbury, it must have been a ‘really tight version’.

I returned to the story about five or six years later when me and my younger brother, Rick, fuelled by a heady mixture of home brewed ale, Tull and Zep, used to sit down of an evening and avoid doing our homework by writing a chapter each then swapping them and reading what each other had written. I think the structure of the story might have been a bit confused (and little wonder) but it was bloody exciting stuff and way ahead of its time. And it beat doing homework by a country mile. Happily we soon discovered that you could drink beer in pubs as well, and, astonishingly, it didn’t have to come with half a glass of sediment, so I don’t think the story came to a conclusion, although I’m not sure about that – the ‘home-brew years’ are understandably confused.

I’ve no idea where those early stories are now, probably in a shed somewhere back home. Perhaps the dog ate them, right after he’d finished scoffing our homework. Maybe the parents have shifted through the debris of our childhoods and unearthed them and are patiently waiting to put them on eBay. Wouldn’t surprise me. And good luck to them.

Twenty years would pass before I took up the story again. It was around the turn of the Millennium and I fortunately found myself to be in a position to do exactly whatever I wanted to do. Having pretty well exhausted the desire to travel I realised that what I really wanted to do now was write that book about Arthur. It took a further couple of years to work up the courage to quit my ‘alright job’ and ‘alright salary’, leave London and head for Loch Tay, take night-shift work for a minimum wage and use my free time to write. Some thought this was a brave, and possibly stupid, move. The ‘brave’ bit is debatable but I can’t argue with the ‘stupid’. As a wise fellow once said, it’s a dangerous thing walking out your front door – you never know where it’ll take you.

Like others before me, I never planned to write a trilogy but it soon became obvious that the story demanded at least 330,000 words (a thousand or more average sized pages) and having already left the front door well behind I just had to follow the path really. It took three years to write the three books and a further eighteen months to edit, rewrite, edit and rewrite them again.

A lot of people helped in this process – Anna and Tish with all their ‘big sister’ support, Bren and Mark for the encouragement over often stupefying amounts of Fuller’s or Brakspear’s, Rick with some serious editorial support, Paul Biggs and Jenny Grewal with comments and feedback, and a particular ‘beyond the call’ goes to Steve Forrow, an old school friend, who, to a greater or lesser extent, has followed the progress of these books for, well, decades and who must have re-read the first chapter alone thirty times – and, unbelievably, isn’t sick of it. Although he was once heard to remark (and in so doing echo the sentiments expressed by Hugo Dyson at the Inklings outing when Tolkien introduced another elf) ‘Oh no, not another @%^*%@! unpronounceable Celtic name’.

And so to the books themselves. One of the changes from the very first version concerns that Geostationary business. In these books the world really has stopped revolving on its axis. Completely. Which means there’s six months of daylight and six months of darkness. So the sun appears to rise in the West, as the Earth continues it orbit around the Sun, before setting in the East. It also means that the Moon’s orbit around the Earth takes 28 days, as indeed it always has – but now it actually looks like it’s taking 28 days, so it’ll be visible in the skies for only two weeks – weather permitting, and that’s another issue we’ll come to in a minute.

All of this raised some interesting literary possibilities, which is what I was after, and some challenging scientific problems, which I clearly wasn’t. No doubt the first question a sneering Jeremy Paxman will ask me on Newsnight (while being flanked by an eminent climatologist and an equally eminent planetologist) will be ‘Sooo, your Earth’s stopped spinning, has it? Why?’ And it’s not an entirely unreasonable question – but it’s one that doesn’t concern any of the characters in the book and I urge you to follow their lead on this. ‘But if you want us to believe in this, ah, book, surely you have an explanation for it? You do have an explanation for it, don’t you?’ But it’s really not important to the story of the book – how it all happened is of no consequence, merely that, thousands of years prior to the starting point of the book, it did. Call it suspension of disbelief. ‘I seee. Well, I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to ‘suspend my disbelief’. You don’t have an explanation, do you?’ The Earth gets hit by a passing asteroid/meteorite, World stops rotating, everything plunged into ‘brink of extinction’ mode.

At which point the eminent planetologist (which, I believe, is an entirely made-up word) snorts into his steepled fingers and claims that such a catastrophic event would destroy all life on Earth. By this stage I’d be losing my rag and would no doubt ask him just how he knew such a thing for a fact. Whereupon, with a superior smile, he’d say ‘just look what happened to the dinosaurs!’

But I just can’t help feeling that humans are, when all’s said and done, more resourceful than your average dinosaur, so I personally think we’d stand a better chance of adapting. I admit that I may be wrong about this - your average dinosaur may well be smarter. It’s even been whispered by some maverick astro-physicist-scientists, albeit in dark drunken corners, that the moon is just such an asteroid that whacked into the Earth – or perhaps the agglomerated debris of such a pounding – and, well, the planet’s still here.

‘Ah,’ the climatologist, getting far too over-excited, would interrupt, ‘life would be completely unsupportable during the six months of darkness! No one could live under those frozen conditions!’ Which must come as exceedingly disappointing news to some of the Eskimo tribes who’d thought they had been doing rather well up to now. But you can’t argue with science and no doubt I’d be forced into a corner by a crushingly boring array of supposed facts at which point I’d have to throw up my hands and admit to Mr Paxman et al ‘that it’s not actually a true story, I can’t see into the future and I made the whole story up. It’s called fiction.’

It can be a thin line between ‘plot flaw’ and ‘plot device’. Why, for example, hadn’t Tolkien’s Gandalf, being such a wizard with fireworks, not got round to inventing an ICBM – or a canon perhaps? And why didn’t he whistle up one of his eagle mates and suggest he give Frodo and that troublesome Ring a lift to Mount Doom before those Nazgul discovered Red Bull – wouldn’t it have saved everyone a lot of bother? These aren’t rhetorical questions and I’m confident that there’s some very good answers out there but the relevant answer is very simple; it would have made for a rubbish book. It’s a good job he wrote what he did (and despite one of his potential publishers claiming it was far too long to consider publishing it as it was) as it turned out to be the most popular book around.

But I digress. I think the world in which Shadow Lands is set holds up to passing scientific query. Granted, there may be those who’ll claim that without rotation there’ll be no magnetic field to shield us from excess radiation but to them I say ‘Pah!’ Besides, they’ve rather missed the point, this is a story about Arthur – not a detailed scientific paper. If, as a reader, you feel it deals with questions of science and climate then you’re perfectly free to do so and more power to your elbow, that’s what I say.

‘A story about Arthur’. So, is the legend true? Yep. That’s what I think anyway, not the medieval King Arthur and his brightly polished Knights, but the 5th Century Celtic warlord who fought the Saxons to a standstill and turned what was originally an invasion into what became a more gradual migration. However, I think it’s only fair to point out, before you Historians climb onto your various high horses and form an unholy alliance with the Scientists, that the above supposition is based entirely upon a speculative belief without even a curious glance or courteous nod towards any evidence or facts. Although there are facts and evidence to suggest that such may be the case. Of course there’s plenty of evidence and facts to suggest the opposite too. It’s not called the Dark Ages for nothing.

Such is the stuff of legends. Interesting though that arguably Britain’s first and foremost hero should be a failure, inasmuch that huge swathes of Britain eventually came under Saxon habitation. Perhaps that says a lot about us as a people and a nation and how we regard heroic failure. Perhaps it doesn’t, but it’s interesting that the legend should survive despite the Saxons taking over most of Britain, then the Vikings taking up the reigns (not necessarily a typo) from them, then the Saxons insisting they’ll have those reigns back, thank you very much, before the Normans (themselves of Viking descent) pitched in for administrative control. All very messy, but the legend of Arthur survived.

Tricky things history and science. Which is why I leave it to the historians and scientists. These books aren’t about history and they aren’t about science; it’s a story of Arthur.

If you’ve read the books then I hope you enjoyed them. If you’re going to read the books then I hope likewise. To paraphrase The Times – the English-speaking world is divided into those who have heard of the Shadow Lands novels and those who will never, ever hear of them. Pleased to see you on the dark side of that unequal divide.

Oh, and my favourite colours? That’d be claret and blue.

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