Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Shakespeare Land

On Valentine's Day I was given the choice of where to go for a bit of fresh air. We're not short of choice round here, but I plumped for Stratford-upon-Avon.

Stratford's got some great shops. And some nice places for tea/coffee/beer. Or you can just wander round soaking up that Shakespearean vibe; maybe even visit his grave, walk past his old house (demolished in 1759) or see where he was probably born.

Stratford's just 15 minutes away from us. I've been going there since I was literally a baby. And my wife was born there. She still has relatives in the town. My brother, meanwhile, ran an art gallery in the centre of Stratford for a year or two. So, in many ways, the place feels like home.

Well, the Valentine's Day trip was a success - a couple of good books, for instance - and a night or two later I was treated to an early birthday meal when the Divine Kim (my wife) took me to The Garrick Inn, which has been serving food and drink since before Shakespeare bought his house just up the road from there. The Garrick is next door to Harvard House - the facades of both are wooden and wobbly and knobbly. And, I have to say, my meal was fantastic.

I can forget how lucky I am living so close to Shakespeare's town. I know it so well - although sometimes I wonder which century I know best: Stratford in the sixteenth, seventeenth, twentieth or twenty-first centuries? (as for the last of all those, just don't mention the redevelopment of the Bancroft Gardens - most unpopular!)

But where we live is in the midst of a much wider Shakespeare territory. Some of my favourite spots are in the areas where the Shakespeare family originated, and which later turned out to be hotbeds of religious and political resistance to those two awful monarchs, Elizabeth and James. And, in the opposite direction from Stratford is the ancient city of Worcester.

Kim and I visited Worcester County Records Office last Friday to track down a will. It's an important document, because it reveals the existence of a woman whom historians have argued for many years simply did not exist. Shakespeare's 'first' wife.

So that's one thing I can be thankful for. Writing a book (or two) about Shakespeare, I couldn't be in a much more favourable position. I can almost see the panicked gunpowder plotters riding by.

Monday, 15 February 2010


A year ago, my old computer got a Trojan or Spybot or whatever you call the things. The timing was a nightmare. My first book, Commanding Youth (the one about Arthur), was in the top ten on Authonomy. If I failed to get it into the top five for February, i.e. because my computer wasn't working, I'd have to spend another month reading, flirting, plugging, begging and going Authonomad.

But then, two publishers had already asked to see the proposal for Commanding Youth, so being in the Authonomy top five (which guarantees you an editor's critique from HarperCollins) seemed slightly irrelevant. I made it into the top five at the beginning of March ... and then took my book off Authonomy. The nice part of me said it was to give another writer a chance. The nasty part said, I can't bear to spend another minute on Authonomy.

So what's Authonomy? It's a website. HarperCollins publishers couldn't really be bothered to wade through their 'slush-pile' of unsolicited manuscripts so they created Authonomy. Writers upload some of their unpublished book(s) on Authonomy. Other writers read a bit, or a lot, and give them feedback. You can support a book by pretending to pop it up on your virtual bookshelf. Add some complicated algorithms, some rather large egos, plenty of gamesmanship and some 6,000 authors from all corners of the globe, and that's about it: Authonomy (

Now, Authonomy was great for me. A lot of the feedback you get is neither here nor there (some people just want you to read and back theirs), but a great deal was extremely useful. Editors cost money, but on Authonomy you could rack up a couple of hundred comments, some of them detailed, and figure out what you needed to do with your manuscript next. There was help, advice and sympathy online at any time.

I completely rewrote my opening chapters for Commanding Youth while I was on there, and put the first three chapters of Will's Treason (my Shakespeare project) up there last summer - the latter to find out if what I'd written was working. It was, and that gave me the confidence to go back to publishers and to get a new agent.

But that's the thing - I think I've outgrown Authonomy, now. I'm still doing rewrites, but I can't see myself uploading those onto the site because of the sheer amount of time, energy and commitment required to make sure that enough people read it so that I'll know what its strengths and weaknesses are.

And there are just far, far too many books on Authonomy. Too many people scrabbling to reach that coveted Ed's Desk (the monthly top five). Authonomy's been going for a year and a half now, or thereabouts. HarperCollins have just announced the publication of the fourth book to be picked up from Authonomy.

There are some FABULOUS writers on Authonomy, and some EXCELLENT books. I seldom read fiction because I tend to hate it. 99.99% of Authonomy is fiction, much of it YA ('Young Adult') sci-fi/fantasy and chick-lit, none of which I would usually go anywhere near. But I read loads and loads of great stuff on the site.

None of the four books acquired by HC publishers (so far) made it into the site's top five, which suggests that, unless a so-so critique from a HarperCollins editor is your main goal in life, you should forget trying to get to the top of the rankings. I saw too many weirdos preening themselves on Authonomy, and the risk with a popularity contest is that the best books will not make the Ed's Desk (almost inevitable, considering that getting into the top five is a full-time job in its own right).

Authonomy gives a writer something to do with his or her manuscript. The feedback will have much to tell the writer about their title, pitch and chapters. If the writer is prepared to listen, do some revision, listen again, edit, try again, and so on, and so on, their manuscript is likely to get better. If they're not prepared to listen, then they're not a real writer.

Thanks to Authonomy, I got my two projects up to a reasonably good standard. The problem I now have is that I have to go beyond that. And I'm not sure that Authonomy will be much help any more.

Basically, you can write, or you can be on Authonomy. It's a rare bird that can do both.

Monday, 8 February 2010


I had a meeting with my new agent last Thursday.

We'll not dwell here on how I came to be stopped by the police in London, and we'll pause only briefly to note that I missed bumping into Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon by something less than twenty-four hours.

The meeting went well. A great chat. Most encouraging.

But some of the time, at least, was spent weighing up the relative values of historical fiction and non-fiction.

See, historical fiction is going great guns at the moment, apparently. While a certain chain of bookstores seems to have decided that homo sapiens is incapable of reading - or, at least, buying - 'serious' books (to that bookstore I can only say: 'Don't make the same mistake as television! We're not all sheep!')

Now, with both of my major projects I have, at times, considered whether fiction might not be the way forward. But then I've stopped considering and carried on trying to tell the story of what (I believe) actually happened.

Had I been writing them as fiction, I would have wanted to present descriptions of people when no genuine descriptions or portraits of them exist. I would have wanted to describe the meals they ate, what they wore, what the weather was like ...

In short, I'd have made stuff up. And once you start doing that, you might as well make up the whole thing.

But then, I'm biased. I rarely read fiction. Too often, I've picked up a novel, read the first page, and then given up - which is why Authonomy was such a shock to my system (more of that anon). I find non-fiction infinitely more comforting. Reality, to me, has always been more interesting than, well, somebody else's imaginary world.

I put it down to my Welsh blood. We're a race of preachers and teachers (and poets and perverts), and we believe passionately in learning. I began researching my main subjects - the historical Arthur and the life and times of Will Shakespeare - because I wanted to know who these people were. And I've found out some fascinating things about them.

Would I really want to bury all that in a work that somebody could easily dismiss as 'just fiction'? I don't want the Dan Brown get-out clause: I'd rather have written 'The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail' (although I think the authors of the latter got it wrong).

So, for me, the real issue is: can non-fiction be as gripping, as engrossing, and as entertaining as fiction? Not just for an autodidact like me, but for your average reader?

Can we not prove that 'truth is always strange - stranger than any fiction'?

Still, the good news is that my long chat with my agent dispelled any nagging worries about e-books, self-publishing and all the current malarkey that so concerns the writer of today.

Got some more work to do on the projects. That should keep my mind off things for a while.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Caer Sidi - Arthur's Grave

This mound lies on the west side of an island off the coast of Britain. Somewhat disregarded now, it was at once one of the most sacred sites in Europe - perhaps even the world.
It shows up on the map as Sithean Mor - the Great Spirit-Mound - or Cnoc nam Aingeal, the 'Hill of the Angels'. The latter is a Christian designation and is slightly inaccurate. Properly, Cnoc nam Aingeal would translate as Hill of the Angel (singular) or Hill of the Light or Fire.
The historian E. Mairi MacArthur noted of the mound that, 'on the great quarterly festival of May Day, Latha Bealltuinn, fires were said to be kindled on its summit and the cattle driven through in an act of purification.' This was typical Beltane behaviour, and would suggest that long before the mound acquired a Christianised designation it was the scene of pagan rituals. On the eve of St Michael's feast day, the islanders ran their horses thrice round the mound in a sunwise direction.
In the 1770s, an Irish bishop informed a Welsh traveller that a cairn surmounted the grassy knoll, surrounded by a circle of stones. Local tradition also recorded that there were twelve of these stones, forming a Druidic temple, and that a human body was buried beneath each of the stones. The stones, however, have long since vanished.
The island on which the mound stands was long ago associated with the yew - a tree held sacred because of its great longevity (even today, most churchyards in Britain feature a yew or two). An early name for the Great Spirit-Mound would seem to have been the Cairn of Yews (Carnyw) or possibly the Corner or Retreat of Yews (Cernyw). And herein lies the solution to one of the mysteries surrounding the most famous inhabitant of the Great Spirit-Mound - Arthur.
Since the twelfth century it has been commonplace for writers to place Arthur, the fabled Once and Future King, in Cornwall, in the extreme south west of Britain. The identification of Cornwall as Arthur's legendary stamping-ground rests entirely on a mistranslation of the word Cernyw.
In Welsh, Cornwall is Cernow, so writers from Geoffrey of Monmouth happily translated 'Corner of Yews' as Cornwall. As a result, for hundreds of years scholars have been looking for Arthur at the wrong end of Britain.
A medieval list of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain (almost certainly grave goods) includes Llen Arthyr yng Nghernyw, to which the note was added:
'The mantle of Arthur in Cornwall; whoever wore it was invisible, though he could see everybody.'
Again, though, Cernyw did not mean Cornwall. This particular 'invisibility cloak' was worn by Arthur at the Cairn of Yews.
The sixth-century bard Taliesin would appear to have been present when Arthur was buried in the Great Spirit-Mound. He referred to it by a series of names, but most prominent of these was Caer Sidi or 'Fortress of the Sidhe'. The Sidhe were those ancestral spirits who eventually evolved into the fairies of Irish and Scottish lore. Hence, the name of the mound: Sithean Mor (pronounced: shee-un more), the Big Mound of the Sidhe.
Certain people claim to have heard 'sweet music' emanating from the mound - and no wonder, for, as Lady Gregory observed in Gods and Fighting Men, 'a house of peace is the hill of the Sidhe of Emhain'. There were two Emhains - one, Emhain Macha, was the seat of the kings of Ulster; the other, Emhain Abhlach, was the 'Yew-Plain of Apples', later to be known as Avalon.
The Christian story of the mound concerns that Irish saint, Columcille or Columba. Towards the end of his long life - i.e., at about the same time as the historical Arthur fell in battle in Perthshire - Columba told his monks one morning that he was crossing to the far side of the island and none of them was to follow him.
One monk disobeyed and spied on Columba from a nearby hill. As described by Columba's hagiographer, Adomnan, a hundred or so years later, the rogue monk witnessed a 'marvellous apparition':
For holy angels, the citizens of the heavenly kingdom, were flying down with amazing speed, dressed in white robes, and began to gather around the holy man as he prayed. After they had conversed a little with St Columba, the heavenly crowd - as though they could feel that they were being spied on - quickly returned to the heights of heaven.
This was not the saint's only encounter with angels who behaved in a rather unangelic way, but the legend sufficed to account for the mound's change of name, from Great Spirit-Mound or Hill of the [Beltane] Fires to the Angels' Knoll.
An entirely separate account has the monks present when Columba held a 'colloquy' with a 'youth at Carn Eolairg', at the end of which the gnomic youth mysteriously vanished (rather as if he was wearing Arthur's cloak of invisibility). Carn Eolairg woud signify a cairn on a plain of yews - much the same as Carnyw or Cernyw.
St Columba died in 597, so the date of his strange meeting with angels 'dressed in white robes' on the Great Spirit-Mound can be pinpointed with some confidence to around 595, the year in which Arthur died. Mortally wounded, Arthur was carried from the far-off battlefield and transported to the Yewy Isle for treatment at the hands of his half-sister, Muirgein, who led a sisterhood of priestesses. In all likelihood, Arthur died en route, and his body was buried in the hills of Brolass in the Isle of Mull, beside Sidhean Allt Mhic-Artair - the Spirit Stream of the Sons of Arthur. It was his head, the Celtic seat of the soul, which was carried on for burial on the sacred isle.
And so, to visit the grave of Arthur, one has only to go to the very end of the road, on the western side of the Isle of Apples, and stand by the Great Spirit-Mound, where for centuries the Beltane fires were lit and a Druidic temple was formed by a circle of stones.
Why this place was named after Afallach, the apple-god, will be explained in another post.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010


This is a new beginning (well - it is the festival of Imbolc, after all).

I used to write drama scripts for television, but I'm better now (or TV's worse). In the summer of 2006 I went to my favourite thinking place to figure out what I wanted to do next.

The decision? To write those books.

You see, a few years before I had stumbled across some very interesting information about Arthur - the real 'King Arthur', who he was and when and where he lived. I'd been digging and digging inbetween times, and now I felt it was time to put the book together.

And then there was Shakespeare. I'd spent twenty-odd years working on him (growing up near Stratford-upon-Avon helped). As a result, I'd got stuff you don't find in most biographies.

So there it was: the Arthur book, the Shakespeare book - and after that, who knows?

Which brings me to the start of 2010. There's been a lot going on. And that's what this blog will be about:

- the journey of my precious books towards publication (and beyond?)
- the difficulties of breaking into publishing (or even self-publishing)
- things I've discovered (including sneak previews and new information)
- general chat, etc.

There's bound to be some stuff about myself (although I'm a shy, retiring sort of person, really) and things I've been reading/watching/hearing/thinking about.

But mostly it'll be about an experienced writer working in a new field (or newish, for him), researching fascinating and much-misunderstood subjects, bringing new material to light and hoping to break into the bestseller lists.

Your feedback will always be welcome.