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.
Even though I have been silent, I have been busy. In terms of brand new work I am about half way through a novel called The Truants. This is a novel based on travels in the Baltic region of the old East Germany, much more evocatively named Pomerania. The centrepiece of the piece is the island of Rügen. The source material for the book is as various as the characters: H G Wells, Amber Reeves, Elizabeth von Arnim, Casper David Friedrich, Goethe, Coleridge and others. It is a challenging book and I’m enjoying trying to understand it.
In terms of the major task of seeing all my novels published, I have revisited an early work Cling. In many ways, this book represented a break-through novel for me. It attracted serious interest from a major literary agency, went the rounds of the publishers, was highly praised by some very distinguished readers but not quite right, it seemed, but no one ever said why. With the help of my publisher and other canny readers, I welcomed the opportunity to revisit and completely rearrange the book. Apart from its structure, I have been able to tweak the prose and use the experience of two decades of writing, during which another half a million words have passed onto the page. The result of this endeavour is Of Love and Gravity.
The response to the new work has been very positive. I hope it will prove a fascinating and absorbing read. The book is set on the tiny Hebridean islands of Colonsay and Oronsay. To my great delight we will be starting the book off there. Christa and Kevin Byrne run a tiny bookshop on Colonsay. It is also the home of the House of Lochar publishing company that has some eighty titles to its name. I will be reading from Of Love and Gravity at the Scalasaig bookshop on Saturday, May 12th at 2pm. The island is remote but full. I took the last room in the hotel and that was booked last year so I can only invite you in spirit – which is likely to be a bottle of Jura distilled on the neighbouring island – a place featured in the novel and where George Orwell wrote 1984. He was well liked on Colonsay and is remembered in regular tots of his island’s whisky.
To my great delight I will be reading at the Derby Book Festival. Liz Fothergill and Andrew Flack have been so supportive of my work and invited me to offer a themed event rather than focus just on Of Love and Gravity. The title is: Being There – a sense of place in the writings of G J Martin. I will choose extracts from several books. The event takes place on Tuesday, June 5th at 2pm in the Quad. You can find the details in the Derby Book Festival programme.
Dan Donson remains a good friend and champion of my work so we hope to have a launch of Of Love and Gravity at Waterstones in Nottingham on Tuesday September 18th at 6pm. The date will to be confirmed later.
My friend since school days, Michael Sheriden, has been a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of my scribblings for many years. He has recently written this piece as a response to / review of ‘A Sane Asylum’. It is so interesting [and flattering] that I thought to share it.
Book Review GJM Sheridan 17/07/2017
A Sane Asylum
The following is not, perhaps, so much a review of A Sane Asylum as an informal response.
I enjoyed this novel and I think it is important.
I enjoyed its pace, its intelligence, the engaging accuracy of its well-researched and lively descriptions and characterisations, the skilful and happy melding of the personal and the epochal, its utter lack of heroic sentimentality, its bleak realism, its interest in the human and in human-heartedness.
Its importance, for me, resides in the revelation of the political realities of a region far removed from, but not irrelevant to, the Anglo-centricity of little England.
Its impact has been educational, in that it provokes questions and reveals lacunae, resolutely refusing the soft option of a stated resolution. It is a call to an emotionally mature and informed engagement with a history to which we can offer a small, but hopefully effective, contribution.
But this is to anticipate.
In the aftermath of the catastrophic First Gulf War the author G. J. Martin undertook an odyssey to Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the most dangerous places on earth.
This catastrophe arose as the disastrous effect of at least one notable previous betrayal, that of the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916, which so outraged Colonel T.E.Lawrence that he resigned his commission.
The Arab world was arbitrarily divided up between two colonial powers, Britain and France, with consequences which have redounded to the present day, and which A Sane Asylum exemplifies and anticipates.
The novel is an imaginative reconstruction of that odyssey through the narrative of an investigative journalist, Joe Addison.
He has a four-fold purpose to his odyssey, personal validation, journalistic investigation, a desire to assist a burgeoning democracy, and a response to a request to find a missing person.
Addison is not cast in the heroic mould.
He is well characterised as something of a minor failure in his own eyes. He carries with him the baggage of personal and professional, banal, but hurtful, failures and guilt.
He has a quick intelligence. He is an acute observer. He is quick to see the possibility of an informative similarity or a comparison, and as quick to leave allusion on the coffee table. This is an annoying dispositional weakness, exacerbated perhaps by the physical and psychological stress he finds himself under, and which he does not try to mask in his writing up of his exploits.
To be specific; it is not clear what he thinks is gained by a references to Bentham, Foucault, and the tale of the picaro in Lazarillo de Tormes.
Such is Addison.
His quest is set against the backdrop of a callous world, not confined to the Middle East, of systemic dissimulation, deceit, despotism, danger, anxiety chronic and acute, suspicion, cruelty, ubiquitous surveillance, unknowability and undecidability.
In energetic and economical prose the novel begins with Addison looking through a window, darkly perceiving a reality, the truth of which is soon vouchsafed to him. It is an account of a home-grown exploitative and fraudulent betrayal of vulnerable and aged refugees by a Christian charity, the YMCA.
The quest, initially said to be journalistic in intention, soon comes to centre upon what began as an accession to a minor request to find out about, and perhaps find, a missing and notable person, one Dr.Qadir, who is intimately engaged in the shifting realities of the Middle East.
The narrative moves us skilfully away from these shores into a nightmare of political, historical, societal and cultural dystopia, and no little personal danger to Addison himself, returning at last to Blighty to recount a final bureaucratic and legalistic disappointment.
The title itself is revealed as aspirational and provocative.
Where is the sanity and where the asylum?
And here is where I find the novel most stimulatingly provocative.
Questions, in no particular order, cascade in the problematic of outcomes.
Will Amnesty International, whose very rationale is to furnish health and protection, a sane asylum perhaps, be able to prevent the undoing of Addison’s and Qadir’s attempts to reunite the latter’s family and allow him to continue his work for the newly democratic Kurdistan in safety, in Europe?
Why is the lawyer acting for Qadir a part-timer?
Who would speak for Qadir and his like if there were none to offer to work gratis?
What procedures and structures are in place?
What is the process of appeal?
What will happen to Qadir?
Do we believe any assurances we might be given?
Has Addison achieved anything personally, politically, professionally?
Is there hope for democracy in Kurdistan?
Is democracy possible in Kurdistan?
Historically, how has democracy arisen out of dystopia?
Is democracy always the answer?
Is democracy the answer here?
How long does democracy take?
What types of democracy are there, what type is ours?
How democratic is it?
What is the situation now in Kurdistan?
And elsewhere in the Middle East?
Is there to be a convincing resolution of anything, at any level, ever?
Would an explicit resolution be more convincing, more arresting, than a marking of the Sisyphean taking up again of hope, now, in the teeth of the seeming ineluctability of banal failure?
As intimated above, to its credit the novel refuses to allow us the shallow comfort of a received resolution.
It does not pander to us, nor patronise us.
It presents facts within perspectives and leaves discourse and dialogue open to enquiring adult minds.
It does not absolve us from the responsibility bound up in our humanity.
It will nudge us towards it.
Outrage is an uncomfortable and good thing.
That is, if we have a sense of responsibility, and any humanity at all.
Many have not.
And to have brought us to this place is, I think, a real achievement.
We will be launching my latest novel ‘A Sane Asylum’ at Waterstones Nottingham on June 15th starting at 6.30 pm. I will be in conversation with Eve Makis. ‘The Spice Box Letters’, her award-winning novel, explores the effects of the Armenian genocide. The fictional paths of both writers cross in Eastern Turkey. We will be discussing a journey I made to Iraqi Kurdistan just after the First Gulf War in 1992. I went at the invitation of a colleague and under the notional protection of the new leader of Kurdistan. They were delayed. I went in alone.
I was working as a Writer in Residence in a private school in Surrey when a fellow teacher, an army reservist newly returned from war, dropped his service revolver in my lap and asked me to keep it safe for fear he might use it. On himself. I had no idea what horrors his tormented eyes had witnessed but once I had glimpsed some of what he had seen, once I began to understand the urgency of his need, I readily helped his cause with my only weapon – words.
He told of the Kurdish exodus into the mountains between Iraq and Turkey, the fleeing refugees hounded by Saddam Hussein’s helicopter gunships. The ‘Safe Haven’ had halted the killing but now, in their lack of wisdom, the UK and US protection was to be removed. A resigned commission, television, radio, newspaper even Readers Digest, created a kind of fame and promoted his cause
Originally I was writing a factual piece, reporting back to the BBC World Service. ‘Going In’ went to be published but was set aside as Iraq had fallen out of the news. A number of years later I was encouraged by a news-aware agent to turn the work into a fiction. The plight of the Kurds and this disturbed region is very much in the news now. I hope this novel will offer some understanding of the complex politics of the region as played out in the lives of ordinary people as well as their leaders. It is not simply a political adventure but looks at the ideas of asylum, of refuge, of madness itself.
The world that ‘A Sane Asylum’ portrays is viewed at street level in the bustling cities or in the mountains, amongst the people and their private places. Joe, the
narrator, goes to a wedding, visits a Women’s Group, and talks to his
cook and housemates as well the country’s new leaders in their fledgling
Parliament. He is a reluctant hero. Cynical, realistic, too experienced to hope, he nevertheless goes in search of a missing Kurdish minister at the behest of an anxious wife and her beautiful daughter, acknowledging that what he has agreed to do is impossible. But then, he was hoping to find a sane asylum for himself as he comes to terms with the loss of his mother, wife – his sanity. The quotation that begins the novel, Ezra Pound’s assertion ‘I will not go mad to please you’ is also Joe’s. Ezra ended up in an asylum, Joe in a cell.
The reader experiences the beauty of the vast open spaces, the yellow
mountains and borderless deserts that constitute this Bible land. The
day-to-day struggle to exist is set against the high politics of the
American and British governments. This story is mostly true; the places, the politicians and major players are all real. You could still smell the aftermath of war, with a burnt out tank around most corners, every bridge and telephone mast flattened,
a whole country reduced to ruin.
‘The Boy Who Made God Smile’
We launched ‘The Boy Who Made God Smile’ in the Sillitoe Room at Waterstones’ Nottingham store on Friday, October 14th at 7 pm. Henderson Mullin of Writing East Midlands interviewed me. I hope to show some of the exchange on YouTube so those who could not make it can at least get a flavour of the event. Dan Donson, the Events Manager at Waterstones has been tireless in his efforts to promote the new book.
On Wednesday, October 19th, I was in conversation with Alan Clifford on his Radio Nottingham afternoon show. We chatted for half an hour [from 2 pm] and I enjoyed the meeting enormously. Alan has invited me back in the New Year to report on progress.
Mike Smith has written a piece about ‘Patchwork’ and ‘The Boy Who Made God Smile’ in the November edition of Derbyshire Life.
‘The Boy Who Made God Smile’ is ready. We have already issued a limited edition hardback with gold wibalin and a swatch of silk in the end papers. It contains drawings I made when in India. They have sold out. On Friday, October 14th at 7pm. we launch the paperback at Waterstones’ flagship store in Nottingham. Henderson Mullin, the CEO of Writing East Midlands, will interview me. I will also offer some readings from the book.
Mike Smith will be reviewing Patchwork in the October edition of Derbyshire Life. (The whisper is that he liked it.)
The Parisian Quartet is complete. Beneath Napoleon’s Hat made up of Eagles without a Cliff, A Black Violet and Sylvia Beach and the Melancholy Jesus has been joined by the full-length novel Patchwork. I read short extracts from each volume and talked of the creation of this collection in the marquee behind the Old Ship Inn on Saturday, June 25th at the Lowdham Book Festival.
On Wednesday, June 15th we launched Patchwork, the final volume in the Parisian Quartet. Patchwork is a full-length novel. One of its protagonists, Stanley, buys second-hand copies of the three novellas of Beneath Napoleon’s Hat to act as a guide to the city, to see what remains of the avant-garde and its need to meet in bookshops and cafés.
On Thursday, June 2nd we launched Sylvia Beach and the Melancholy Jesus at Jane Streeter’s charming Bookcase, in Lowdham. The novella completes the collection of Parisian tales told Beneath Napoleon’s Hat.
We launched ‘A Black Violet’, Volume 2 of the Parisian Tales ‘Beneath Napoleon’s Hat’ at Scarthin Books, The Promenade, Cromford on Saturday, March 12th at 6.30 pm.
February 18th read a short piece from ‘Eagles without a Cliff’ at the Barley Mow, Bonsall as part of Colette’s literary evening led by Mark Gwynne Jones.
February 4th Amanda Penman interviewed me for an article in Artsbeat magazine.
January 25th 2016. I visited Nottingham High School and read extracts from ‘Eagles without a Cliff’ to the Sixth Form. There were girls. A strange but pleasant change.
If you look at pages 61 to 63 of February’s edition of Derbyshire Life you can read Mike Smith’s article.
December 6th I gave a short reading from ‘Eagles without a Cliff’ at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio Christmas social.
November 11th 6 o’clock in the evening we launched ‘Eagles without a Cliff’ with natural champagne and Suze cocktails in Stanton-in-Peak village hall. It was great fun and so many friends were there. We went to The Flying Childers afterwards.
November 11th 2015 Interview with Mike Smith for a feature article in Derbyshire Life.
Extract from the Series Preface
The Café Procope can claim to be one of the oldest cafés in Paris. In 1686 it began serving coffee in porcelain cups to men of fashion. Three years later, in 1689, the Comédie Française appeared opposite, hence the Procope’s current address, rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. The café became ‘theatrical’ and its customers of international renown.
The Phrygian Cap of French Revolutionary fame made its first appearance in the Procope when a bust of Voltaire was crowned with a red bonnet from the production of his play Brutus. Robespierre, Marat, Danton and Desmoulins would sport their bonnets rouges over Republican whisperings at the Procope. Benjamin Franklin probably overheard them and took their message westwards.
Upstairs, quietly, a young Napoleon Bonaparte, still a junior officer of artillery, was playing chess. Whatever he ate or drank that night he couldn’t pay for. He left his hat as security for the unpaid bill but never returned. Perhaps once he was Emperor he had little use for the hat, or was simply too embarrassed to reclaim it.
As you walk into the Procope, just to your left, secure in a glass case and surrounded by an ornate frame, is that very hat. It sports a red, white and blue rosette above a single gold chevron. Every time I visit Paris, I go to the Café Procope, doff my imaginary hat to Napoleon’s, turn immediately left and sit in the seat just inside so I can drink my coffee beneath Napoleon’s hat. I fumble in my pocket for my moleskin notebook and begin to scribble, sketch and to stare, people watching, with a slightly self-conscious manner.
It is here, beneath the hat, that I begin my stories, some far too long to be short; others not quite long enough to become novels. They are all set in cafés of the past, famous for their would-be famous writers. Two bookshops have been given the honorary status of café: Shakespeare and Company and the House of the Lover of Books.
Most of the characters we meet would be considered minor players, the forgotten or little known visitors to the cafés, yet it was they who often enabled the then equally unknown to take their first steps to fame.
Together the tales explore the plight of the aspiring, the achieving, the lonely and the inconsolable as their creative minds seek understanding and belonging in the tribal security of the café.