From Chalk to Wine, from Exeunt Romani to BrExit

or : Blah, blah, Brexit. Let’s get some historical perspective

My family and the foodbank are consuming the contents of the Brexit store, so lovingly laid down by me this winter and spring (and I’ve been ashamed to realise how much jam we …ahem. How much jam I guzzle). I’ve also been collecting histories on the subject of Brexit, and think it’s time to break into that store and share it out, too.

Exeunt Romani… aut Exeunt Brittani?

I’ve shared this on Facebook before, an op-ed by Tom Holland about the withdrawal of Rome from Britannia, or of Britannia from the Roman Empire, in the fifth century A.D. Since it was published, Ann Widdecombe has been elected to the European Parliament for the Brexit Party and there repeated the now-familiar identification of the European Union as an empire. More provocatively, she identified Britain with a slave class (it’s worth noting that Roman Britain and…ahem… the British Empire also had slaves):

“[T]here is a pattern consistent throughout history of oppressed people turning on the oppressors, slaves against their owners, the peasantry against the feudal barons, and colonies, Mr Verhofstadt, against their empires. And that is why Britain is leaving. And it doesn’t matter which language you use: we are going, and we are glad to be going.”

Putting the Right Hon. Miss Widdecombe’s bitter rhetoric aside and returning to the Unherd article, I must be becoming resigned to Brexit, because I felt solidarity with the metropolitan elite of sixteen centuries ago, but when they were described – in a nod to modern cosmopolitan fare of houmous and pickled roast aubergines – as being “marinaded in classical culture”, that actually made me chuckle. Well, that’s self-deprecation, and that’s quite British, isn’t it?

However, there’s a laugh coming right back at Tom Holland, because the headline – Britain’s first Brexit was the hardest – isn’t true. That wasn’t the first Brexit at all.

What a Carve-Up

Although Empire and nationalism may seem irresistible forces (see here imperialists of a later century carving up Africa), they’re nothing to the power of geology.

Some 200,000 to 450,000 years ago, the British Isles (plus that always-after-thought Ireland) were calved off the continent of Europe like an iceberg succumbing to global warming, which is an appropriate metaphor, as it seems to have been a mega-flood of glacial meltwater – possibly from a pro-glacial lake in the southern North Sea – which carved out the English Channel.

O, so symbolically, the last line of defence against the floodwaters was the Weald-Artois chalk dam – which, breached, revealed the iconic White Cliffs of Dover. The scientists concluded by suggesting:

“that progressive recession of the chalk escarpment during lake overspill leading to eventual breaching of the dam provides a holistic model to explain the opening of the Strait (of Dover).”

That Weald-Artois chalk ridge has another modern use, of course, and that is in creating some of the favourable conditions for wine production in southeastern England. If I am cut off from the Italian Pinot Grigio that I favour, I’ll be paying a lot more for Kentish and Sussex wine… but at least there will be some. (Yes, I know that fresh food imports will be in shorter supply and will certainly be more expensive under a no-deal Brexit, but by definition individuals cannot move democratic politics alone. We can only shore up the bulwark against floods, like the fictional little boy holding off a flood with his finger in the dike – though this article also underlines both that that story is nonsense and that an  individual defence is futile….)

Yet even geology can be overcome, especially when it’s lying down and lying still. The last item in my Brexit collection is the opposite of an exit. The Channel Tunnel was opened in May 1994, having been dug through the aforementioned Weald-Artois chalk ridge (in fact, marine geophysical investigations for the Channel Tunnel project form part of the body of knowledge about the English Channel).

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Winners of my “Ghosts of the War” writing competition

Here are the winners of my “Ghosts of the War” writing competition, organised to mark the centenary of the 1918 Armistice. The cash prizes were sponsored by the Scribophile Writing Contest Prize Fund. My co-judge was the writer Ambrose Hall (whom you may wish to follow on Twitter: he has his own 1920s horror novel in the editing stages).

First Prize ($100): Coming Back Home, by Amy Ward-Smith

In the middle of these stories about ghosts of people, of histories and of ideals, this particular “ghost” represents an unfamiliar, little-heard voice. He doesn’t conform to a single line of The Last Post; his flat-voiced fortitude isn’t shell-shock from the Great War, but derives from a longer war; the Great War was his chance at life, but this aftermath is the same as death – losing family, losing the taste for his “oysters and pippies”, becoming all but invisible.

Second Prize ($75): Blackberry Days, by J.F. Murphy

This is a moment held too long: the end of a summer, a woman denying that a choice has been made, and a very sick man. Collecting blackberries and apples on a hot day with Matt, Rosie distracts herself with details, of a collar, of hair. However, other details do the talking for her, revealing that it’s over: the apples all around them are windfalls – fallen, bruised, free for the taking – and the over-ripe blackerries leave stains of unacknowleged, unconsummated sensual guilt.

Third Prize ($50): Test Day, by Jesse Bryant

It’s hard to know what the “ghost” is here: whether it’s “the inescapable darkness” or the “myths (which) protected people from the truth in the past.” After all, these boys – barely into their teens in December 1918 (the date of the story) – would live through the 1920s and 1930s and see new myths arise, as grand ideologies, and would go to war against the darkness. Perhaps, alternative histories are not killed off, but simply alternate, like the picture “Mr Razem” draws for them: “circles within circles that seemed to recede into the board; a trick of perspective. […] Just variations on a theme, endlessly repeating themselves, on and on.”

Hon. Mention: Just a Couple of… You-Know-Whats, by Tim Wagstaffe

Here are some more perverse ghosts, who start to live and change not just after death, but only because they realise they are dead, and it’s very fine to see this “couple of you-know-whats” surviving their lost, cut-off past, to enjoy the new. The new possibilities see gaslight give way to electricity, carriages stored in a barn in favour of motorcars, old women marginalised by working young women with short skirts. There’s so much of the twentieth century Zeitgeist here: even Cubism makes an appearance, an attempt to capture movement and the cinematic moving image on canvas.

If you entered the competition and are a subscriber to my newsletter, you’re welcome to contact me, flagging up which story was yours, and I will be pleased to provide substantive feedback, completely off the record. If you’re not yet a subscriber to my newsletter, please click on this paragraph.

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What do flappers have to do with steampunk?

I”m taking a short diversion from the nineteenth century into the early twentieth. To follow my reasons, why not sign up to my (intermittent) newsletter?  My privacy policy (compliant with GDPR legislation) may be found on the navigation bar above, or at


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Rafflecopter Christmas Giveaway, by the Steampunk Fairy Tales collective

Many thanks to over 2,000 readers who entered the giveaway. The lucky winner of a $50 Amazon gift certificate, and copies of all three volumes of Steampunk Fairy Tales, was Anne-Marie G.  Congratulations!

If you didn’t win, please do remember that the e-book edition of Steampunk Fairy Tales (Volume I) is still free, through Amazon and various other retailers. Volume II and Volume III are also discounted or free (do check different retailers!).

The covers pictured are the work of Louis at Indigo Forest Designs.

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“Ghosts and the Machine” contest results

Hallowe’en has passed, and the Northern Hemisphere nights are growing darker. I recently announced the results of a competition, “Ghosts and the Machine,” with the help of my co-judge Ambrose Hall, and with sponsorship from the Scribophile Writing Contest Prize Fund.

Do look out for these stories in the future!

  • First prize: Dead Confederate Soldiers, by D. Aaron This was an immediate stand-out entry, and we’re very pleased to give it first prize. The voice is distinctive and colourful, and we were fascinated by how technology (not only the photography which is the main focus, but also “that cursed message wire,” the telegraph) creates and confirms irrational belief. This superstitious world-view pervades the tale, bringing out sinister metaphors that even modern folk can feel, like the doomsday flash and clap of a photograph being taken.
  • Second prize: Buttons, by Ryan Bell This story is atmospheric and extremely polished, with so much going on beyond and underneath the perception of the narrator, Celeste. We felt that the very nebulousness of the rules binding her was a fine evocation of claustrophobia, of being gaslighted. It’s tricky to say much more about the story without spoilers, so suffice it to conclude that there are liars and hostages and an appealing innocent at the centre of it all.
  • Third prize: Intermittent Dying, by Anne Louise Pepper You’ve all heard of the “pathetic fallacy,” in which stormy weather symbolises spiritual/ emotional/ supernatural turbulence, but the weather which opens this story isn’t a clichéd “dark and stormy night”; it’s part of a series of voodoo-like transfers, in which the narrator’s possible guilt (or is it the ghost?) gets into everything: visual imagery, machines, the elements….
  • Honorable mention: Waste Heat, by John Hamilton Such deft world-building here, in a confident anti-hero’s voice. There’s a whole, original universe beyond this one, and even the ghost of Colonel Arnhouse is still exploring it…

Steampunk Fairy Tales promotion
Following the publication of Steampunk Fairy Tales III, which includes my story Ignoble Hospitality, the Steampunk Fairy Tales collective is sponsoring a Rafflecopter giveaway of signed paperback copies. For details of how to enter the raffle, please keep in touch by:


Cover image is by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

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One hundred years since “Red October” : still a rich period setting

Alternative historians and writers love those grand superstitions of fate and history and inevitability, but want to thwart them all the same, and so we throng the crossroads of perceived historical turning-points, like the October Revolution, one hundred years ago today (November 7 is October 25 in the Julian calendar).*

Perhaps part of the freshness, and the reason we keep returning to this moment in time, is the sheer wealth of possibility. Even to those living it, it was as though any momentum of History – and of inevitability – was suspended, and there was everything to fight for.

Russia’s autocracy had weathered a prolonged period of rebellion and reaction from 1905, and seemingly had regained its position. Even after the Romanovs were deposed in Feburary 1917, the attempted Kornilov coup in August (Old Style) failed. Yet the French Revolution – and succeeding decades of repeated Restorations, Napoleonic revivals, recurring Republics – haunted the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. No-one could be sure which history they would be granted, and hereditary monarchies are particularly susceptible to decapitation, which is not so easy to overcome! For every Alexander II of Russia – who was assassinated but then was succeeded by an heir – there is a Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland, Louis XVI of France, or Nicholas II of Russia, all executed as part of a revolution.

Meanwhile, outside of Russia in 1917, the Great War was breaking up a Great Powers system which had defeated and succeded Napoleon, and which had fostered nineteenth century European colonialism. What a shock it had been for them all, to meet other imperial powers in combat! The drawn-out, industrialised carnage and resulting social unrest seem to have been worrying enough to cause George V of Britain to forget the regicide of the French Revolution. His class duty and family duty surely should have been to his fellow monarch and close relative Nicholas… and yet he did not wish to antagonise socialist elements in Britain by harbouring a former autocrat with a history of repression. Thus George V refused to offer sanctuary to the Romanov Imperial Family after they were deposed in 1917; the Romanovs remained prisoners, and were executed in 1918.

This Great-Man and Grand-Sweep-of-History theorising doesn’t even take into account the other individuals whose fates took different turns after 1917: the players of the old régime, the Provisional Governent, the Bolsheviks who wouldn’t make it through the 1930s, those who would gain from the coming future but who were still nobodies in this moment, those would always be nobodies…

Aside from people as characters, the very setting of real-life St Petersburg/ Petrograd in the early 1900s already resembles a mashup which could have come out of steampunk, dieselpunk or decopunk. Witness the real-life coëxistence of authority and anarchy, of horse-drawn vehicles and automobiles, of electric lighting and oil lamps, of mediaeval superstition and an intelligentsia keen to experiment with the most modern forms. New and old worlds were being written and merged, from Aleksandr Blok’s Christian-and-Revolutionary poem Twelve (1918), to Mikhail Bulgakov’s more traditional-form A Young Doctor’s Notebook (written in the 1920s but based on his experiences in 1916-18), which almost seems to reassert a literary, cultural continuity with writing from that other doctor, Anton Chekhov.

Here, then, is some celebratory reading and viewing for this centenary, a mixture of fact and fiction, to remind us all that nothing is inevitable, and that we can find a narrative for anything, so it doesn’t do to believe in fate!

The BBC has put on a fantastic season to mark the centenary of Russian revolutionariness in 1917.  If you are a UK license payer, you can see the television dramatisation: Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution. BBC Radio Four has programmed a whole season, themed Russia in Five Babushka Dolls, with drama, documentary and entertainment.

A “What If” from the New Statesman, showing how righting a wrong can still have undesired consequences

The publisher has compiled a list of fairy tale adaptations with Russian roots, a number arising out of “1917” and its consequences. Recent novels on a Russian and early Soviet theme include the fantasy/ alt history Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo, and Catherynne M. Valente’s reworked fairy tale Deathless.

This is from beyond 1917, but if you’re interested in the Russian Revolution, you’ll probably enjoy it anyway! I recently saw Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin at the cinema, which was a marvellous take on Stalin’s succession crisis despite (because of?) certain departures from the historical record. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s history On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics offers a corrective complement, if you want one.

*As historical moments go, revolutionariness in Russia is one of the big What Ifs? This isn’t just cultural imperialism, either. Over the twentieth century, the political priorities of this European geopolitical nexus spread across the world (and into the Cosmos!).

Cover image:  from British Library on Flickr: “Image taken from page 6 of ‘The Empire of the Tsars and the Russians … translated from the third French edition with annotations by Z. A. Ragozin'”  (No known copyright restrictions.)

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Bring Back the Lorgnette!

I have reached that Certain Age of the optic paradox: holding small print away from me in order to peer at it closely. This happens particularly with medicines and toiletries, and I have a cupboardful of those, thanks to travels in Central Europe, where tiny labels in the local language are often stuck onto the German packaging. If the label smudges as well, I’m reminded of St Petersburg in 1995: my Russian landlady would occasionally arrive home from the kiosks or the market, and would ask me to translate what she had bought and what it was used for, as she had no idea. But for me, she might have washed her hair in conditioner and conditioned it with Veet…

Labels are an even more serious matter for those with allergies, and for alcoholics who can be “triggered” by tiny amounts of alcohol, for example when it is used as a solvent in homeopathy or medicine.

Small print – which we cannot “zoom” in on because not everything is digital – encodes essential information about risk. Small print is already here in legal documents and product manuals, and it’s not utterly far-fetched to imagine we’ll be importing packaged goods and medicines from some very different partners in the future (thank you, #Brexit…).

This is why I propose bringing back the lorgnette. These hand-held spectacles – sometimes suspended from a chain, in the fashion of a châtelaine or a watch-chain – are practical for keeping reading lenses to hand without the ugly tangle of a neck-chain, or without bending the frames and ear-pieces of a traditional pair of reading glasses by pushing them upon your head or hooking them over your neckline. As we’ve established, small print is small print, and a normal pair of reading glasses may not be powerful enough. Let us not even consider the impractical, uncomfortable option of pince-nez!

Finally, the lorgnette makes possible the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century frisson of the good, hard stare. Dowager ladies in period novels were particularly good at making the weight of their gaze felt through a lorgnette. In our own time, witness the importance of investigative reporting and social media activism. Witness the impact of the phrase “I see you” in @ISeeYouStories. I use “I can see you” with misbehaving children, and it works.

It is surprisingly powerful to be seen looking. Bearing witness is an important religious and civic duty, and by raising a lorgnette, we call attention to what we’re looking at. For all the disadvantages associated with small print, the information is there, by law and regulation, and we want to keep making sure it’s there…

320px-Lorgnette1BedfordMuseum-Simon Speed

Picture: A lorgnette on display in Bedford Museum. Source: Simon Speed (Bedford Museum, Bedford)

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Are we predicting the wrong war?

We are hearing many warnings about similarities between current world events and the years which led up to World War II, but in the recent diplomatic and military posturing between the United Kingdom and Spain over Gibraltar, I’ve been struck hard by echoes not of the twentieth century, but of the nineteenth.

The Rock of Gibraltar, positioned at a narrow point of the western Mediterranean Sea, is a naval prize indeed, controlling Mediterranean access quite handily across just 13 kilometres (8 miles) of water. Britain gained control of it in the 18th century, and maintained it even into the age of the European Union: the compromise was that land access from Spain should be free and easy, in line with EU freedom of movement.

Now, however, the UK has announced the expiry of its connection to the other 27 member-states of the EU – a diplomatic flexibility which reminds me of the limited duration of the DreiKaiserBund treaties of the late 19th century.

Meanwhile, recent “territorial water” encounters between British and Spanish naval vessels – just as Spain is taking a leaf out of Victorian Britain’s use of trade terms and negotiations to cement British hegemony – strongly evoke old-fashioned “gunboat diplomacy” in foreign relations.

In her book “The War That Ended the Peace,” Margaret Macmillan writes persuasively that it was the 19th century Great Powers’ addiction to brinkmanship in diplomacy which eventually led to the explosion of World War One. European powers simply became too reliant on displays of power, and others’ capitulation to those displays, MacMillan argues, until threats lost their power to ensure peace and instead sparked war.

Please understand that I don’t dispute many worrying parallels between current events and the mid-20th century’s rise of isolationism and fascism, leading to war, but given how provocative that interpretation is, it’s worth acknowledging other interpretations, in order that we might arm ourselves with the defence of an open mind and historical knowledge. Moreover, if this is to be a reprise of World War I, that implies the extremely sobering realisation that one Great War may contain the seeds of another.

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Memories for World Book Day

How does it begin, this reading life?

As for mine, a long time ago and far, far away, I was a baby, with my parents during an expat placement in West Africa.

There were two coups during the time we were there, and electricity was intermittent, but we had books. I was some fourteen months old when we left, and couldn’t actually read, but thanks to my mother’s endless patience and repetition, I was fluently reciting Biffo the Bulldozer and other classic 70s Ladybird content!

Reading isn’t the only thing I ever do for fun or interest, of course. As a child, despite the many paperbacks splayed and stacked around the house – which I would pick up and re-read fairly indiscriminately – I spent a lot of time playing with my brother and our neighbours, mostly riding our bicycles and playing in the woods (until the child murder). As an adult, I’m currently following online courses about the world energy market, geology, and art crime. The other parts of my life and leisure do complement my reading life.

However, there is something special about the ultimate introspection and concentration of reading. I thought of this again recently, when on holiday with my own family. My little girl fell in love with a book in Hungarian, and wouldn’t let go of it. It was Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (translated as Baletcipők). She has spent many hours conning it over, both the Hungarian version and the English edition we have now bought her. She’s still unable to read it, but is longing for the day when she can.

The attachment to books and reading arises very early, although it’s never too late to start, or to discover new genres. I’ve recently discovered a surprisingly eloquent genre: “coffee table books” of pictures, and can really recommend Yorkshire in Photographs, by Dave Zdanowicz.

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Changing States

Though he lived his life on the edge of riot and revolt – most literally in his friendship with some of the Decembrist revolutionaries – Pushkin has made for a fairly safe statue, and that seems a pity. He himself was very fond of the idea of St Petersburg’s imported stone melting into water, and cast bronze softening into flesh (in both “The Stone Guest” and “The Bronze Horseman”).

And so – like the city’s changeable weather and politics – he moves.

The Thaw: Pushkin will be published by The Fable in March.

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