Newsletter July 2010

So, summer is here, and all of a sudden I have a new book and an exciting special competition for readers and writers!

First, though, I have to give my thanks to Quintin Jardine, the excellent author of the Skinner, Blackstone and Primavera series. His latest great book, A Rush Of Blood has been dedicated to me. A huge honour, and I'm really delighted and grateful!

Teaser: building work in progress

What's that? Read on. I'll explain in a minute.

For pretty much most of the year, I have been writing solidly. The time really has flown by, partly because with a new publisher there's a lot to relearn, but also because I'm in the middle of book 30, which is proving to be more challenging than I'd expected. But of course being a writer doesn't mean I have the luxury of sitting down and lazily scribbling all the time. No, I have to go out and earn a living, too.

The fun thing about being an author is the odd opportunity to get out and about and meet people, and I've been having a chance to do some great events.

Teaser: empty beer bottles

What's that picture? I'll tell you in a mo.

Last year I was invited to Killerton House, which is the National Trust's HQ here in Devon, to give a talk about writing. It went well, so this year they asked me to go and talk again. It was a "literary lunch", they said, and I agreed happily. After all, authors need to make sure of their next meals. So I forgot all about it and carried on with other works, only to be called later and asked if I could talk for the afternoon as well. Apparently they'd sold out so quickly, they had to book up a "literary tea" as well, to cater for the audiences. All to the good, I reckon. I had a great time with the various people there, and it went so well I've already had to book my diary for 2011 at Killerton again.

I've been wandering idly around a few festivals, too, which has been great fun. There are a huge number of them up and down the country, and all have their own atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed Dawlish this year, and St Albans with Medieval Murderers, where Waterstone's hosted an event in the Cathedral for us. Karen Maitland and Susanne Gregory were marvellous as always, and we had a brilliant evening.

Medieval Murderers are still going strong, many years after a chat in a pub in the East of England, and it's always a delight to do gigs with my friends. The sharper-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I'm not writing in the latest MM anthologies, though. There's a number of reasons for this - none of them because of falling out with the others! - but the main thing is, with the pressure of work that I have just now, it isn't practical to carry on. To write a good, strong novella, I find, takes as long as a novel, and with two books a year to write, there wasn't time to work on MM projects as well as my own. Still, give me time. Perhaps some year I will be able to collaborate on books with the Murderers once more.

Caerphilly Castle

It's also been a contentious year in some ways. I appear to have developed a skill for dropping myself into trouble at the least provocation. So, when Bernard Knight and I were asked to a Medieval Murderers gig in Caerphilly Castle, we took it eagerly.

Bernard is a delightful gentleman to work with, he really is. Generous, polite, and so filled with history, his love of Wales, and especially his knowledge of Coroners and Exeter, that he is a wonderful speaker. But soon after we agreed to the event, we were asked if we had both been checked with the Criminal Records Bureau.

For those who aren't in the UK, the CRB register was designed to protect children. The idea was that all adults who may have any involvement with children would have to be registered to demonstrate they weren't paedophiles. So, people who work with children have to be checked. Teachers for example, or Scout leaders. Checks only relate to the one location, so a teacher with CRB checks still has to pay again to be a Scout leader. Or to assist in another school. Every instance in each location means the adult must be checked. And must pay for the privilege.

In the UK this has led to a huge number of organisations closing because they cannot afford to pay the fees for the checks for all their staff. They cannot get volunteers. Many, like me, refuse to help with events because of the cost of the checks. It is a huge sledgehammer to crack this nut, and it doesn't work any way. Ian Huntley, for example, who murdered two ten year olds, would not have been picked up by the CRB. He got to know his victims through his girlfriend, who had been CRB checked because of her work at a school.

There are always unintended consequences. For example, we had snow this year. Immediately, all the schools were forced to close. Yes: forced.

In the past, school teachers who couldn't commute would go to the nearest school they could walk to, and help out. Any kids would be able to go to the nearest school, and their parents would be able to go to work. Makes sense, doesn't it?

It's illegal now. Those teachers, who are, let's remember, CRB checked for teaching in their own schools, are not allowed into another school. So our local school with two hundred pupils was shut. Not because it wasn't a viable school, but because the headmistress and three or four teachers who live in the village don't work in our school. They weren't checked, so were not allowed in.

If I had a magic wand, I think I'd annul every law put on the statute books over the last century.

Teaser: a dome of newspaper

That picture? A mad author's toy. Concentrate.

But that is by-the-by. Bernard and I were being asked whether we had been CRB checked. The answer was, 'No'. And before they bothered answering, we discussed it and both refused to agree to being checked.

I object to the idea that authors of adult material, giving a talk to adults in a medieval castle, should require any checks. The Council backed down, and we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon in the castle with a hundred or more readers.

However, the culture of checking everything is rampant in the UK now. All children - let me repeat that: all children - now have data about them held on a central database. For some years all children in the UK have been finger-printed. Explanations are rife: it's to validate which child is allowed a free school meal, or it's to confirm which child is accessing library books. I don't believe or trust the government.

The new government is reviewing this nonsensical violation of privacy, but haven't agreed to scrap it yet. Yet the trouble is, now the data is on computers, the identities of literally every child in the country is at risk.

The risks come from hackers, from criminals, and from government staff. Only last week BBC reported the story of a Crown Prosecutor taking bribes to ensure that criminal cases did not get to court. He was caught in a police 'sting' operation (see the BBC report). Civil servants are not necessarily honourable, decent, or honest. And it only takes a couple to be corrupt to put at risk all data held by that department. Last year thirty servants were found to have accessed the Police National Computer to illegally look at files. Eight (I think) were fired or prosecuted for their corruption.

You may guess that I am against large databases. You're perfectly right. I am!

Apart from writing and events, the big achievement has been my medieval oven. YES, that's what the pictures have been about! I managed to find a book by Kiko Denzer on how to contruct this thing, and set to work. First a base, then bottles to insulate underneath, then a sand dome to shape the interior, and finally the outer layer. Great fun. A little smoky, but fun.

Oven lighted

So far we've fired it three times. The first was a pleasant little fire to dry the clay. The second time was to prove its abilities as a pizza oven. We had twenty friends and children around, and I cooked twenty one pizzas.

Now, a word of caution to those who may choose to make one. One cardinal rule is, don't roll out the dough for a pizza until the peel is ready to insert it into the oven. Leave it on the peel or table and the dough will stick, making transfer to the oven problematic. The second issue is, ignore common politeness. Speaking from experience, if you are the cook, and you provide everyone else with food, taking your own as the last to sit at the table, you are likely to discover that standing over two tons of very warm clay will dehydrate you. So you compensate by drinking a beer. And dry out some more. And drink a bit more, and dry out, and drink a bit more... Well, you can guess the result. I believe I enjoyed the evening rather too much.

Another project, however, is even more dear to my heart.

As regular Newsletter readers will know, I am an enthusiastic supporter of Conway Stewart pens. Some years ago I was able to buy a lovely Churchill in simple black resin, which has been with me and used almost daily. Then I was forced to give up my pistol shooting, and all the money I received from selling my pistols I invested in another CS pen, a solid silver Drake model, which is just lovely to use.

Last year, I was talking to Conway Stewart and suggested that it would be a good idea for them to look at a series of limited edition pens based around authors. The idea was, that the authors would collaborate on a pen. They would choose the style, the colour, the weight and so on. In return for a pen, the authors would write a short story that would only be available with the pen - and then a limited edition run of perhaps a hundred pens would be made in that model.

I didn't really expect much to come of my suggestion at the time. But now it's available. The Michael Jecks pen will be on sale from the middle of July, together with a short story. I have to admit, I am stunned by the looks and feel of it, and really looking forward to getting to work on the next book with it. And the first job for the pen will be signing all the copies of the short story to be sold with it!

The Michael Jecks pen

The Michael Jecks pen from Conway Stewart: find out more on Conway Stewart's web site

And now here's the final twist, folks. You could win a free Michael Jecks pen. Interested? Then read on!

The Oath - cover image

Most of you will hopefully have seen the cover of this book. I hope it won't sound like I'm blowing my own trumpet when I say that I am seriously delighted with this book. The last few titles have been hard work, but this one to me feels just right. I've been enormously fortunate to have been working with a marvellous, patient, and painstaking editor in Sally Partington at Simon & Schuster, and she has turned a rough story into a fast-moving thriller.

At last I've reached the end of Edward II's reign. The story begins with the dreadful period of October 1326, when Bishop Walter was murdered, and the King was forced to flee from the approaching host of his own Queen. Despenser and the King hurried all the way across the country, seeking supporters who would fight to protect them, but all in vain. In the end, desperate, they headed off into Wales.

This is the point at which I started the book. I had a vision of scruffy soldiery marching, exhausted and filthy from too many nights in the open, along a muddy road. The weather was foul, all the reports tell us. And then a soldier falls into a pot hole and badly cuts his leg.

No, I won't give you more than that. But suffice it to say that the themes are of soldiers' loyalty to each other, and the destructive forces at play within a dysfunctional family. The case came from an old yellow book discovered by Browning, and he used it for his poem The Ring and The Book. It's complex, yes, but the period was so fascinating, and the story of the family so enthralling and horrific, that you'll really enjoy it.

And if you don't - well, go to the back of the book. Because there you'll find a page that gives you details of how to win a free Michael Jecks pen from Conway Stewart. Alternatively, have a look at my photos on Flickr for a preview!. You might even find it on Conway Stewart's web site.

I think that the hint here is, go and buy a book today if you want a chance of winning a pen!

And that, for now, is about it. I have book 30 to complete, I have some blogposts to write, and then I have some pizzas to cook. This time with rather fewer beers!

All best wishes, and I hope you all have a great summer.
Mike Jecks.

Northern Dartmoor
July 2010

Dartmoor furze