Cover Shot

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a widely ignored cliché, as many book buyers do just that. In general the advice is (1) ensure the book looks like the kind of book it is supposed to be and (2) in the modern age make sure it works as a website thumbnail.

IMG_0072My publishers have over the years have for the most part consulted me on my covers, even if it was an ‘does this have your approval’ on a final choice. My first York pottery book was a heap of fun. We’d found several hundred pieces of unused glossy orange samian ware in a pile on the site, so I suggested we simply photograph a heap of pots.

I had three suggestions for the cover of Glint of Light on Broken Glass. The cover designer at Matador seized on one – an abandoned pair of spectacles on a beach. A stock photograph was found that adapted nicely as a cover, with a great use of fonts. But there was one problem; the glasses were clearly modern – 1960’s at the earliest. The glasses in question tumbled from George’s face in 1906 so would have been of the round, Edwardian style with wire frames.

It so happened that the Museum had a pair of replica Edwardian glasses in its ‘handling collection’ (objects that schoolchildren can touch without fear the object will be broken or lost forever). I was due to attend an overnight Archaeologists’ Christmas Party on Lihou Island, so took the glasses along.IMG_8413.JPG

IMG_8448It was mid afternoon, chilly, with the sun dodging in and out of cloud. I took 40 photographs of the glasses whilst there was still daylight. Guernsey sand is very yellow, so the gold-rimmed frames simply vanished against it. I left the beach and started to climb amongst the rocks. I photographed them sitting on rocks, trapped between rocks, lying in rock-pools, lying in little streamlets with water flowing over them.

When the sun came out, the water sparkled and so did the lenses. IMG_8465With some fiddling I could catch the bright clouds in one lens – the Glint in the Eye that George notices. No need for photoshopping or clever composure. Lihou’s rocks offered a variety of textures and colours, limpets and weed, shallow puddles, wet and dry patches.


IMG_8456After an hour I had enough shots – the sun was falling and it was time to return to the party. I sent a shortlisted selection to the designer and the final choice was to desaturate the colours. The image chosen has the glasses upside-down with the arms conspiring to form a heart. On cue the sun is reflecting in the right lens. Perfect.




We All Write Period Fiction

For the first half of my career, I was an ‘artefact researcher’. It is natural therefore that my archaeological thrillers contain plenty of objects. Objects can be dated, as can particular social habits and organisations, so we can quickly spot a piece of period fiction without being told it was set in the past. Fairly soon afterwards we start homing in on the date. A single fact the hero carries a revolver provides a terminus post quem, as archaeologists say – the date after which the story must be set. The clattering of his secretary’s typewriter provides a terminus ante quem – less reliably a date before the novel is likely to be set. The association of the two suggests middle-twentieth century.

I read Peter Robinson’s Caedmon’s Song recently and within a few pages got the uncanny feeling it was set in the past. Checking the publication date of 1990 provided the answer – it was simply a 26-year old book. The author even discusses this in his afternote to the paperback edition. ‘Contemporary’ novels do not remain contemporary for very long. Charles Dickens and Jane Austen were once contemporary novelists

My first novel Darkness Rises was set nominally in 1989, the year of the Green Party revival, although my agent advised me to omit specific contemporary events to prevent the book dating. I wrote it during 1992, inspired by my own experiences in the late eighties. So, my hero Jeffrey Flint uses a fax machine for the first time. His sidekick Tyrone is experimenting with computer databases, but Flint is far from convinced. My old hippie hero does not drive, has no phone at home and when there is a stake-out later in the book, has to borrow some walkie-talkies (which fail to work). My archaeologists use the (then) cutting-edge techniques of pollen analysis, land-snail counting and DNA fingerprinting. A lead suspect has not heard of any of these new techniques “They sound tedious,” he sneers.

By Byron’s Shadow, the ‘present’ has advanced to the mid-nineties, with flashbacks to the early eighties. Vikki the reporter now has a mobile phone, which Flint deplores. When faking documents, he has to use mapping pens and Letraset (remember Letraset?). The plot hinges around an archaeological survey, for which I intended to employ a device called a resistivity meter. This was becoming old hat by draft 2, as my own excavation unit in York had begun early experiments with ground-piercing radar. This then became the novel tool introduced by a helpful American academic: the radar was on a sledge, linked to a bulky computer. As I wrote and re-wrote, this technology moved from being theoretical to practical. It is now standard – you can see it on Time Team most weeks, but the modern machine is man-portable with global positioning and the bulky computer is now a laptop, soon to become a tablet.

Flint has reluctantly bought a van by Shadesmoor. Tyrone now has a mobile phone and flaunts his new laptop computer. The old ‘dumpy’ surveying device has been replaced by the laser-guided EDM and inevitable computer link. The University has dumped its old typewriters so Flint learns to use a PC, but the fact that the University sells off redundant machines provides a major red herring. In a few years, people might ask “what’s a typewriter?”

Artefacts abound in Lady in the Lake, from ancient swords to a decommissioned bren gun and a decrepit Citroen 2CV. The book begins with our hero watching the movie Excalibur on video. How long now before VCR machines are extinct, and readers of my backlist are puzzled by the reference? The ‘new’ technology included video discs, which are already obsolete. Archaeology moved into the mainstream during the 1990’s, and the book reflects the new commercialisation with A/V presentations and press conferences. Academic conferences are still using slide projectors and overhead projector screens however, which Powerpoint has long since condemned to the spoil-heap of history. There is a foretaste of the wave of popular history programmes that started with Time Team and now infest satellite TV, but I did not foresee the incredible 3D graphic reconstructions of ancient sites and objects now possible.

With my fifth novel and a new millennium, Flint’s 1970’s value set was increasingly out of place, so the lead role was taken by Maddy Crowe, lady illustrator and ancient fashion expert. She lives with her mobile phone, lugs around a laptop with graphics package and drives a trendy small SUV. All this high-tech gear leads the writer into new territory. Whereas Flint had to hunt down his witnesses in person (sometimes on his pushbike) Maddy simply sends an email or dials them up on her mobile. Where Flint needed to conduct laborious research in libraries, Maddy can quickly trawl the internet. Her fake documents can be knocked up in a couple of minutes on a PC. If Flint had a mobile, or the internet, half the peril of his earlier adventures would have been dissipated in moments.

Almost everyone indeed has a mobile in When the Dust Settles. This invention could rob the thriller of peril. Being stalked? Ring the cops. Lost your sidekick in the fog? Ring his mobile. Trapped in the burning building? Same. The writer must bend over backwards to get rid of those plot-spoiling phones by convenient signal black-spots, dead batteries, sly thefts or diehard old hippies who refuse to own one. Moving on to today (2016), the police are incredibly sophisticated, pushing the lone cop cracking a murder into the realm of fantasy without a good deal of special pleading.

Maddy’s ‘hairdresser’s 4×4’ may become as sure a marker for the ‘noughties’ as the Mini was for the ‘sixties’. Her mobile phone is already outdated by iphones, bluetooth technology and Borg-like ear attachments. Even the hardware used so prominently by Lisbeth Salander in the recent Girl… series is already dated. Flint’s beard, uncannily, is back in fashion. Ultimately, perhaps we are all writing period fiction.


You can’t edit your own book

Recently I read a book by an academic colleague. It was interesting and ground-breaking but needed a good edit, and I told the author so. The author was surprised. The facts were right, a spell-checker had been used and there were no obtrusive typos. What the book lacked was that final polish which would expand its value beyond just a worthy addition to the library.

Academics are often writing for themselves, or for a small audience who they fear will stick the daggers in. A lot of non-fiction is likewise written for the author’s pleasure, with a hope there is a readership out there. This is particularly true of self-published or small press books. I frequently have conversations with aspiring non-fic writers who don’t see the value of a third party editor. Time and again I see a new book which dearly cried out for an edit – in some cases a ‘heavy edit’ which takes the author’s raw text and turns it into something engaging and readable. Hopefully, also error-free, as the rush into print is the biggest error of the first time author.

In my last post I discussed my approach to drafting – that’s the self-editing process where I produce a text to my own satisfaction.  The facts are right (as far as I can establish), the grammar is right (to the limits of my education) and my style is firmly imprinted on the book.

“Remember thou art human”

So then its off to the agent/publisher’s editor in the case of my fiction. My most gruelling edits were however the two Roman York volumes. I received back the whole text printed out on wide ‘tractor’ paper. Down the margins were individual comments and questions by the Director, the Deputy Director, the Head of Finds, the Head of Pottery, the Chief Editor and indeed the Editor. Sigh. Archaeologists are nothing if not thorough. Even my small ‘Story of Guernsey’ history book was sent to eight colleagues to verify and comment on. These comments need to be taken on the chin –

“If I know what I am writing is rubbish, then so will the person who reads it”

As my chemistry teacher used to say. If an editor thinks your sentences are too long, or you are mis-using subordinate clauses, then so will many of the people reading it. My big sin my latest editor tells me is that I over-use hyphens. Take the hits, make the changes, and a better book results.





Asterix #5: The Fiat Gearbox

It was a divers’ joke. The object they found was a blue-grey colour, heavy, metallic. It was the size of a man’s oustretched palm, with a circular central hole and three vanes each with a screw hole. Three further supporting lugs added strength. They called it the Fiat Gearbox, or the Messerschmitt gearbox, thinking this might be a relic from the Occupation rather than a piece of the Roman ship. There was a fair amount of modern junk which had collected in the scour pits formed by Asterix, including  a ‘Sealink’ saucer, so it was not an unreasonable idea.

Then we found a second one, embedded deep in the pine tar. There is even video of a diver chipping it out. I had the job of cleaning this, painstakingly using a pin drill to cut away the clinging tar. It was clearly Roman – and far more ancient than Fiat!bilge pump j

A quick literature search showed that similar objects had been found on several Mediterranean wrecks of the Roman and Byzantine periods. Each was subtly different, but the general design was the same – a metal fixing with circular hole supported so it would attach to a wooden structure. The Lake Nemi bilge pumpobjects were bearings for a bilge pump. Finds from the sunken barges on Lake Nemi dating to the time of Nero offered the best indication of how these would work. A simple chain of cups was powered by a crank and served to scoop water overboard. The design had clearly been in use for at least three centuries by the time Asterix went down.

The presence of a bilge pump explained the ‘limber holes’ cut onto the undersurface of the floor timbers in Asterix. these would allow bilge water to flow freely along the hold of the ship. They only made sense if there was a pump – and this pump had to be located at the lowest part of the ship. Out two parts were however found up in the aft hold, too far back to be effective. Either the pump could be unshipped when not required and was stored at the back, or our two bearings were being carried as spares. One is on display at Castle Cornet and the second at Guernsey Museum. Cleaned and conserved, less burnt than the first,  the second one has a dull bronze-brown colour.

The presence of this ‘Roman’ invention on an otherwise ‘Celtic’ style ship further shows how ‘Asterix’ employed the best technology each culture could offer.












Wrecked coverFor the past few months I’ve been editing a book written by a colleague. Wrecked, Guernsey Shipwrecks, is the work of Patrick Martin. When Patrick was working at Fort Grey Shipwreck Museum he asked if he could write a book about the wrecks on display. This seemed an ideal opportunity to publish some of the large collection of photographs and other images in the Museum collection.

The book takes a look at some unusual wrecks, as well as those familiar from displays in Guernsey’s Shipwreck and Maritime Museums.

Wrecked is on sale from 9 December from the Museum shop, other boookshops and online from  Guernsey Museum Shop

Asterix the Ship #4: The Jigsaw

Asterix small timbers laid outBack in 1985, the divers departed leaving me with occasional volunteers to record the timbers. Some had been planned in position on the seabed, which was fortunate in the case of one keel timber – the largest on the ship- which vanished overnight and was never seen again. We think it was dragged out into the Russell by prop-wash.

After basic cleaning, the recording could begin. The storage tanks were drained overnight once a week, then refilled the following day, which took about 3 hours. After spraying them to keep wet, I’d step into the tank and start work. At lunchtime I’d set the fill hosepipe going, which would still allow an hour or two’s work before the water reached welly-top height and forced me to stop.

A polythene sheet was laid over the timber and I traced it with marker pens, producing drawings up to 5 metres long, with the nail holes, tool marks and damage marked in different colours. The sheets were hung up to dry, giving the place the look of a laundry. Once dry, I laid the sheets out on a table marked with two-centimeter grids. I then copied the drawing onto scaled ‘permatrace’ sheets at a scale of 1:10. As a cross-check, I next surveyed the timbers conventionally using tape measures and plumb lines and used this to correct the tracing. Margaret and I then started juggling the pieces together by matching up the nail holes, planking to floor timbers.

Zoom to 2015 and we have a new jigsaw puzzle to solve. My colleague Kit is retracing my steps, checking each timber against the original drawings. Some were cut for transportation, others broke, most had to have their tags removed during the conservation process. The Old Post Office looks rather like one of those hangars used after an air crash, with parts of ship spread on sheets. We’re painstakingly working out which timber is which, and where the many small fragments fit.

UTP Cover

‘Upchurch’ was my first book, published by BAR in their no-frills fashion directly from my manuscript. It was a distilled-down version of my PhD thesis, typed on a 256k Amstrad. Incredibly the statistics were processed on a 124k Spectrum fed by a tape recorder and viewed via a black and white portable television.

As the BAR is now out of print the Kent Archaeological Society have put the entire text onto their website.

Find Out More

The PhD project was enormous fun. I moved to Chatham to be closer to the area Upchurch 1I was working in, and grew to know dozens of people working in archaeology in the region. Many ‘professional’ archaeologists and ‘amateurs’ assisted my work and although some are still my friends today, many have since died. Fieldwork included slopping out onto the mud of the Medway estuary and the Thames foreshore  – places that will swallow the unwary up to the waist in black goo and leave them victim to a rapidly advancing tide that can sweep in from unpredictable directions.

Space, clean air, a flat horizon – the memories are still sharp. Spotting intact Roman pots sticking out of the mud is a thrill that never escapes me. Coming home black and stinking of mud, fish and seaweed was another matter.

I spent days in the museums of the region – their lofts and cellars, hunting out the pottery that interested me. I photographed it in back yards, drew it on my drawing board, counted and weighed it. Joining the Roman Pottery Study group I learned a craft which sustained me for a decade afterwards.

Something else came from the fieldwork: inspiration for my first novel. Those Museum cellars and lofts, the megaliths on rolling downland and isolated manor houses in treacherous marshland all came into play when I came to write Darkness Rises.

Jason working in tanks 1985 (1)Easter, 1985. The Roman ship had been found on Christmas Day, 1982 by local Diver Richard Keen. The wreck was buried between the pierheads of St Peter Port harbour, and due to the lack of shipping that is the only day in the year divers are allowed to go down for scallops. Fortunately Richard had an interest in archaeology and by his next visit to the site in 1983 had recognised Roman roof tile falling out of the wreck.

The Guernsey Maritime Trust was formed, and in November 1984 the first timbers from the ship began to be raised. It was around this time when a schoolboy asked his dad “Was this Asterix’s ship?” A reporter was in earshot and the name stuck.

The front half of the ship had been raised by the time I arrived in Guernsey at Easter 1985 to take up my post. Headquarters was an old banana ripening store in Petite Fontaines, just off Victoria Road. It was a bustle of activity, with divers coming and going between the dives, artefacts arriving by van, then timbers on lorry-backs. Some timbers took 10 men to lift off the lorry and into the workshop. Here were a trio of tanks made of the same yellow plastic used for underwater lifting bags. We heaved the timbers into the tanks – which were knee-deep in cold water. At this stage they were still wrapped in polythene sheeting.

As the only non-diving member of the team, I spent the whole operation on shore. This also meant I was the only person not wet, cold and tired by the end of the day. As post-excavation person my job was to log and record the objects being raised. These came mostly in fish-boxes, far faster than I could handle in real time. It took weeks finally to unpack them all.

It was all a rapid learning experience. The dives were led by experienced underwater archaeologists from the Mary Rose Trust, working under the direction of Margaret Rule. The rest of the team were from the local Blue Dolphin Club – often working in pairs with the archaeologists. At that time we had only a vague idea of the size of the ship and the first evidence suggested a second-century date. Harbour rubbish was being brought up mixed with Roman objects that had scattered from the ship. As soon as possible, everything went into cold fresh water to stop it drying out and to start to leach out the salt.

Then suddenly the dive was over. The divers from the UK went home, the locals went back to their day jobs and I was alone in the store with 150 chunks of wood, 2,000 objects and over a ton of ‘samples’ waiting to be sorted through.

Test digs in Alderney

Undertook two quick test digs on Longis Common, Alderney. One by the Nunnery was looking to explain a depression (a 19th century road?) and a mound (a sand dune). The other sampled the previously fertile site at the Kennals where Roman deposits still lurk within a metre of the surface.

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