Reading time: 10 minutes
A few months back I wangled a platform on the Cornwall Writers website, a “community of writers living in or inspired by Cornwall”. At the time I was looking for ways of promoting myself and, as this site is mainly for up-and-coming authors and writers I thought it would be a good thing for yours truly to be present there too. Check out the homepage, and you can see me, nestled in beside Winston Graham and Rosamund Pilcher, desperately hoping some of their fame and talent will rub off on me.
Of course, neither Graham nor Pilcher sought permission or had to fling themselves through several metaphorical hoops to warrant inclusion on the site. Indeed we’ll never know what they think of their inclusion; the site’s owner has arbitrarily entered their details in the hope of lending the whole affair some status and authenticity. That’s what I think anyway.
I include here some of my more important and relevant responses to the site’s “Author Interview“. The rather more twee questions I haven’t bothered with here and, at the time, only answered them under duress. For any of you looking for my motivations as a writer, especially of fiction, read on.
One deceptively simple lesson I learnt from the Cornwall Writers website is this: build your own website. Then it’s yours, and yours alone.
What are your favourite books?
My favourite novel at the moment is “HHhH” by Laurent Binet, about the assassination of the Nazi SS Chief Heydrich by Czech agents of the SOE in 1942. It’s a fascinating and ultimately harrowing tale, but it’s the questions Binet raises about the process of actually writing historical fiction that I find thought-provoking. Binet’s argument is that, to attempt to fictionally reconstruct an historical event (eg. to invent characters, dialogue, thoughts etc) is a pointless exercise that waters down the impact that particular event might have had. Throughout his book he constantly criticises other novels about Heydrich’s death to make his point. As a writer of historical fiction myself, Binet’s criticism of his own genre made me analyse what I was constructing with my own story about the Camborne Riots: should I invent characters? How can I empathise with people who lived nearly 150 years ago? Why not just write the actual facts, as Binet did with Heydrich? Binet, though, has an advantage over me. In writing about the assassination of Heydrich, all the principle characters in his story are well known and documented. In writing about the Camborne Riots, no names or identities of the most important protagonists – the rioters themselves – have come to light. So what else could I do but make some up? Just because none were ever caught, does that mean they shouldn’t be written about in some small way? Writing a story about the Camborne Riots of 1873 without the rioters would be like writing the story of Heydrich’s death without…without, well, Heydrich himself!
Another recent top read of mine is “Gallows Pole” by Benjamin Myers. This is another historical novel, telling the tale of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a ruthless band of 18th century counterfeiters from the Yorkshire Dales. Like my novel, Myers only had the bare newspaper articles and a few stray documents on which to hang his tale, and although some of the language is overwrought with gravitas, he’s managed to create an entirely plausible world in which the story takes place. Myers, of course, lives in Cragg Vale and is intimate with the area and its surrounds. Coming from Camborne and knowing something of the character and culture of the town put me at an advantage when coming to write a story so unique to the area. I could visualise the events so clearly when reading the articles on the riots because, quite simply, I’d grown up on the same streets as which they’d taken place.
What’s your favourite genre?
My favourite genre is obviously historical fiction, but that’s not to say I have issues with the form. A publisher rejected my manuscript on the grounds that my novel lacked a big historical character – in other words, it lacked a selling point. So, police brutality, mob vengeance, street violence and wanton vandalism aren’t good selling points?! I considered writing WG Grace into the cricket match that opens my story, or having Prime Minister Gladstone take the train to Camborne to view the devastation for himself, but then realised that this was an utterly fatuous exercise. A good story should stand alone, and not be propped up by cheap effects. Granted, it seems any novel featuring Hitler (or one of Henry VIII’s wives, say) will be successful, but so should stories that feature the forgotten, the maligned, and the exploited – like the Cragg Vale Coiners. Or the Camborne rioters. Especially a story about how the forgotten, maligned and exploited people get one over on their oppressors – like my novel! Just because an historical novel features a luminary from the past – “Champion”, by Stephen Deutsch, includes the German boxer Max Schmeling, for example – doesn’t necessarily make it a great read.
Why do you write?
Generally, I’ve always enjoyed writing, I’ve often been told I’m rather good at it. My job isn’t especially stimulating intellectually and I find writing a decent way of keeping myself fresh. More specifically, I wrote this story about the Camborne Riots of 1873 because I’ve come to believe that representations of Cornwall in the media as a tourist hot-spot marginalise areas of the county that lack traditional tourist attractions. Camborne, with few jobs, no coastline, and no sandy beach, is one of these places. If I couldn’t promote Camborne as a tourist attraction, why not promote the town for what it was once famous for, its mines? I suppose you might argue that my novel promotes Camborne as an anti-tourist attraction, but I believe Cornwall’s mining heritage is as important and as relevant as the tourism industry that props the county’s economy up today.
What inspired your story?
When growing up in Camborne, the last few mines were closing, my dad got made redundant from Compair Holmans (the manufacturer of mining equipment), and my grandad retired from working underground too. Camborne in the 1980s, it seemed to me, was closing down. I was drunk in Camborne’s Red Jackets pub (more than once) back in the 1990s and recall seeing a faux-Victorian newspaper print briefly commemorating the story of the riots tacked to one of the walls. Years later, I found a short online article about the tumult which got my interest going, and I got hold of all the contemporary newspaper articles on the subject. It was fascinating. Brawlers, boozers, corrupt policemen, imprisoned women, Methodist preachers, miners, brutal punch-ups…Camborne, at its boomtown peak, suddenly reappeared. This was Camborne, before it had closed down. It was as if, back in 1873, someone had drafted a story for me to write in the future. Why not, I said to myself, write a story about Camborne as it was, a rich, prosperous, almost lawless town, before the mines closed and tourism came along? The newspapers largely told the story from the perspective of the authorities: the rioters’ activities were generally condemned. Why not write the story from the point of view of the rioters, their lives, their concerns, their motivations? In the end I did two things. I wrote a novel, supposedly the “true” account of the riots, narrated by one of the rioters who also happened to be my great-grandfather. I also launched a website (https://camborneriot1873.com/), which is the historical side to my novel and features most of my research into the subject and analysis of the primary sources. The novel takes the suggestion of complicity, between the townspeople and rioters against the police, that was hinted at in the newspapers, and reveals that, in fact, a plot existed in the town to rid Camborne of the policemen once and for all. For a few short days, the rioters were victorious. And the entire town was involved in hiding the perpetrators’ identities.
What do you find inspiring about Cornwall?
Its history. And here I’m not talking about the various Celtic crosses, Iron Age settlements, dolmens etc, but the other relics of Cornwall’s past: the ruined engine houses, the wastelands where housing estates can’t be built on account of being too undermined, the commemorative buildings of mine dignitaries that are now blocks of flats. So you could say that the Cornish landscape inspires me: the landscape of a dead industry. Another relic that interests me is the Cornish language, and how various words have passed into common usage, even if those who use them fail to recognise them as “Cornish”. All these inspirations find their way into my novel. Cornish culture, or aspects of it, inspire me as well. The importance of sport, especially cricket and rugby, and the local rivalries they give lend to, finds its way into my story: the opening chapter features a cricket match. Cornish insularity and the Cornish people’s traditional mistrust of outsiders is also present in my writing. It’s not insignificant that Camborne’s police chief in 1873 was from the Isle of Wight – you might say that was a mark against him from the start!
How do you think Cornwall has shaped your writing?
“The Camborne Riots of 1873” is a grim tale. I’ve been told as much. Yes, it’s earthy, yes, it’s funny, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a coarse, grimy, violent slice of life from Victorian England’s underbelly. Did I mean it to be like this? Should I have written a Cornish novel with rugged heroes, windswept heaths and swooning maidens? No, I couldn’t. The Cornwall, the Camborne, that I grew up in, back in the 1980s, could be a grim, grimy place. I suppose it boils down to the old saw: write about what you know. I knew foul language, heavy drinkers, and streetfights, so it followed that this was what I would write about. Camborne’s riots were the perfect inspiration for me to write a novel – it’s the Cornwall I know.
What do you think influenced this story?
In terms of the phonetic dialect which I use throughout, Irvine Welsh and Roddy Doyle. I’ve been told that my use of dialect can challenge the reader (much like Welsh and Doyle) but, after a chapter or so, your reading mind adjusts. The series of Flashman novels proved heavily influential too: a fictional character is inserted into real-life events, and provides the reader with his own, often caustic, observations on these events. But, whereas Flashman was (apart from a shameless cad) a supposedly educated, well-to-do Victorian celebrity, my narrator is an illiterate teenager. George MacDonald Fraser’s level of historical research for his Flashman books have always impressed me and I sought to emulate his eye for authenticity in my own work.