The big news this week is the publication of Destiny’s Tide, the first in my new trilogy set in the sixteenth century! But all things in their place, so I’ve talked about that in more detail on the ‘news’ page of this site. That being the case, here’s this week’s blog post…
I grew up in the United States of America.
Now, regular readers of this blog know that in a narrow sense, this is an enormous whopper – my physical self grew up in west Wales. But mentally and emotionally, quite a large chunk of me was always across the pond, a fact that I’ve already alluded to in this blog. My grandfather evidently went on a book-purchasing spree in the early 1930s, and most of the titles he acquired were American, ranging from encyclopedias to detective novels. As a child I devoured all of these avidly, developing a strong grasp of American geography (all those ‘name the state from its outline’ quizzes? 100%, every time) and above all of its history, especially the Civil War, which fascinated me. But the culture of early 1930s USA was also intimately familiar to me – Al Capone, Lindbergh, Joe Louis versus Primo Carnera, and so on – as was what was then still called the Wild West, thanks to the relentless diet of Western B-movies served up by my local cinemas. My complete absorption in American culture prompted my first communication with a major organisation, when, aged nine or ten, I wrote to the local independent TV company, demanding to know why they weren’t showing the Adam West ‘Batman’ series when other stations in other areas were. (This made me the hero of the day at school, to the extent that my classmates eagerly participated in a Batman play that I wrote and directed. And no, I didn’t cast myself as Batman. Hmm? Oh well, since you ask…the Riddler.) As I mentioned in the previous post, referenced above, American history from Independence to the Civil War became effectively my second specialisation at university. The Federalist Papers, John Adams’ midnight appointments, Kansas-Nebraska and the Dred Scott Case? Been there, done them.
All of this makes it even more inexplicable that, for the first sixty-two years of my life, I had never actually been to the United States.
Fortunately, over the course of ten days in the last fortnight, I finally rectified that bizarre omission from my CV.
While the trip involved some serious sightseeing in both New York and Washington, together with catching up with some old friends, the central element was the Historical Novel Society conference at the vast Gaylord resort (1,996 bedrooms!) at National Harbor, just outside DC. This was a terrific event, with several hundred participants; having been to several of the equivalent UK events, though, it was noticeable how the demographic was much more female-dominated. (The point is touched on in this post about one of the conference sessions that I didn’t attend.) It would be interesting to get some hard facts and figures on this, but I get the impression that in the UK, there’s a higher proportion of both male writers and readers of historical fiction than in the US. Still, the highlight for me was sharing a platform with Jeff Shaara, the author of Gods and Generals and other bestselling military fiction titles. Set up and moderated by the wonderful Gillian Bagwell, this proved to be a well-attended, lively and thought-provoking Q&A. I’d never met Jeff before, but we got along famously, and soon developed a real ‘double act’ rapport, with our differing perspectives (his primarily nineteenth and twentieth century, mine primarily sixteenth and seventeenth) enabling some interesting comparisons and contrasts to be drawn. I didn’t envy his back story, though – your father writes a book that wins the Pulitzer Prize, dies prematurely, and despite never having written a book in your life, you’re commissioned to write the prequel and sequel to it…that’s what I call pressure. Fortunately, Jeff proved to be a natural, and has never looked back.
Otherwise, I’ll have many abiding memories of my first trip to the USA. Rain so heavy in New York that the city doubled for the set of Bladerunner…the 9/11 memorial…the Staten Island ferry (surely the best free boat trip in the world?)…the distant sounds of rifle salutes and the Last Post as we explored Arlington Cemetery…Mount Vernon, a head of state’s residence far removed from the likes of Versailles and Windsor…the Vietnam memorial…and so many others.
Now, I could easily fill up several lengthy posts with ‘what I did on my holiday’ trivia, not to mention some of the many photos that we took. But that would be tedious, so instead, here are a few random impressions and things that this Brit abroad, at least, found a little curious about the Land of the Free…
- So you can buy beer in pharmacies, but not buy spirits in supermarkets, only in specialist liquor stores? Guys, prohibition ended a while back. Sort it out.
- How many police?? Come to that, how many police forces?
- Hersheys – where have you been all my life?
- Airport security levels in major museums…possibly a little over the top? Just saying.
- Tourists being admitted to view the reading rooms in both the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. I suspect that if they tried that at, say, the British Library or the Bodleian, the first tourists through the door would suffer Wicker Man-like fates at the hands of outraged readers. (On the plus side, both institutions hold my books, and that knowledge gives one a warm fuzzy sort of feeling.)
- After being driven on American roads, I’m never going to complain about the state of British ones again. This surely explains why there are so many high rise buildings in Manhattan, i.e. to ensure that at least a few floors protrude above the potholes.
- Finally, this. Umm, wouldn’t it have been quicker and cheaper just to saw the branch off?
A return to much more serious fare next week, when guest blogger Gijs Rommelse introduces the new book on naval ideology that he, Alan James and I have co-edited, together with the symposium based on the book being held in Vlaardingen, near Rotterdam, in September.