A long silence ends. In retrospect, all the hopes of last year were fulfilled. ‘Truants’ is ready for a final edit – the work of the autumn. Christa and Kevin Byrne in their remote and tiny Scalasaig bookshop on the Hebridean island of Colonsay still found an audience for my readings and everyone on the island, it seemed, bought a copy. Even the owners of the hotel on the mainland, where we stayed waiting for the wind to drop, bought two copies. Scotland is very book-minded it seems, and generous.
The Derby Book Festival was excellent. Liz Fothergill and Andrew Slack filled a theatre for my presentation and contrary to popular, market-driven belief, the necessity of location, context and description are still essential for a full reading experience.
I launched ‘Of Love and Gravity’ at Waterstones in September. Dan Donson was clearly struggling and has since left Waterstones on long term sick leave. I wish him well and thank him for his enthusiasm and support over the years. I will miss him.
The ‘Orcadian Trilogy’ is published. I went to Kirkwall on Saturday June 15th to launch the book. The Orcadian Bookshop is small so the event was held in the Orkney Library and Archive. Huw Williams presented a well-received interview on Radio Orkney, Sarah Sutherland put a piece in the Orcadian Newspaper, online and in print and Karen Walker at the Orkney Library provided a comfortable room full of listeners for my reading. I can’t thank them enough for their warm and enthusiastic welcome. Karen even bought all my other titles for the library and I saw that two were already out on loan.
So to the trilogy. ‘Orcadian Armada’ is a literary fiction that is historically based. The novel gives life to the mythological existence of a group of Spanish seamen, cast ashore amongst the dangerous waters of the islands of Orkney. Legend has it that this tiny group inter-married with the inhabitants of Westray, the second most northerly of the islands; took local names, adopted local customs but could not relinquish their Spanish character. Their children, obliged by mysterious condition to intermarry exclusively with their own kind, overlaid the timidity of the Northern folk with Spanish verve and began a life of daring – challenging the oppression of the Scottish earls, Robert and Patrick – trading, even smuggling throughout the northern seas. They came to be known as the Westray Dons.
Historical evidence is sufficiently sparse to encourage the writer of fiction. I have tried to give an authentic historical context to this period, unusually, presenting the Armada from the Spanish point of view. Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and others are not the heroes of English renown but murderers and passive onlookers of dire atrocities.
My hero, Don Alfredo, is a young Spanish lord, full of idealism and false images of hope concerning his homeland and its empire abroad. He will pine for lost landscapes and lost concepts of honour. He will attempt to weave his way home whilst his companions and only mentor, Agustín – a bishop of Rome – will settle in these bleak northern lands.
Local customs and ways of living give the world of late 16th century Europe not only authenticity but also an imaginative reality that is celebratory despite the hardships. The end of the Armada was the end of an era. It was not unlike our present time when so many values, particular regarding wealth and conquest, are similarly in question.
The ‘Spanish Barque’ takes Alfredo away from Orkney to the Scottish mainland. He enters Edinburgh with its scheming Kings and courtiers at a time of spies and mistrust. The complex politics of the time are explored then we quickly start on a new adventure. Alfredo finds himself on a galley with its enslaved rowers. His captain is no more than a pirate and Alfredo witnesses a series of outrageous attacks on defenceless English seamen.
The ‘Old Elizabeth and Black Patie’ sees Alfredo back on Westray. Now the Dons thrive. They will venture into the deep sea, haaf-fishing, catching giant halibut and feeding all their families and more. He ventures to medieval Bergen and learns of other Hanseatic towns. Finally, the Dons take on Earl Patrick himself in a final battle in Kirkwall.
My old school friend, Mike Sheriden, very kindly offered his first impressions having read the whole book in a matter of days.
First Reactions to The ‘Orcadian Trilogy’
I more than enjoyed this tightly written magnum opus; I profited greatly. I found it informative, convincingly well-researched, imaginatively bringing history to life.
The amount of research which has gone in to this writing must have been colossal, and the magnitude of the act of sustaining such a fast-moving narrative covering so vast a canvas and with such an assured grasp of personae and historical detail is only to be imagined.
Within this canvas are architectonic layers of reference, among which are the agonic reality and metaphor of the sea, the device of a puppet-show upon Amadis of Gaul, and Alfredo’s complex and perhaps not finally altogether satisfactory family life. This latter both raises the dimension of interpersonal intimacy and marks the change to the more realistic sensibilities of the new age.
Among the themes that illustrate change, and probably the most salient, is the marking of an end of an era and the beginning of another. We read of the end of chivalry, a certain conception of integrity and duty, a certain conception of love, of Spanish exceptionalism, the unchallenged narrative of colonialism.
All are undermined by a burgeoning perspectivisation, an economic and political faltering, a spiritual crisis, pointed in the first instance by the failure of the Armada, perishing or washing up, wrecked by enemies both human and marine, upon the shores of islands in the inhospitable seas of the north.
The underlying reality beneath the grand narrative is cruel oppression: the unimaginably cruel, at times, oppression of women and woman, of galley slaves, of prisoners, of the poor, of religious opponents, of the colonised. The list is not exhaustive but must be set against the open friendship offered to the Dons by the autochthones of Westray.
And so, as the Hanseatic league loses its stranglehold upon trade in northern Europe and the impossibility of the resurrection of a bankrupt Spain becomes, again both metaphorically and physically, evident, the new age of mercantilism is nascent, an age to which Alfredo the protagonist, in abandoning his nostalgia for an impossible past, must adapt himself and his small, new, very new, community in the Orkneys.
I have no doubt that my subsequent readings of this work will yield treasures aplenty.
Mention must be made of the fine maps and drawings; a gift from Sue Lewis-Blake.