Details from the Front

I’m sleeping between two Springfield rifles. Each would be as long as I am were the bayonets fixed, but that’s not a good idea in a civil war dog tent, so called because when the soldiers first saw them they said they were only big enough for a dog. There’s two of us in here. 

We’re above 3,000ft on Droop Mountain. There was a battle here in November 1863, a small one by Civil War standards, that cleared the last Confederates out of the newly born state of West Virginia. In point of fact, the Southern soldiers who died are thirty paces away in a burial-pit surrounded by a split-rail fence. We’re in the Union camp. There’s a dozen or so other re-enactor tents spread about an autumn glade, all but our neighbour Alan’s are bigger than ours. He’s in a ‘pup’ tent. ‘Go figure,’ as they say around here. The larger Confederate camp is a mile away.


My ‘pard’, Jeff, is the other side of a Springfield. He’s zoozing away, living up to his claim to be able to sleep anywhere at the drop of a hat. I’m not doing so well. Jeff is my host for the week and we’ve driven the five hours from his home in Ohio. With typical American generosity, he’s prepared all the gear and food we need, drilled me in the Manual of Arms and let me share his dog tent.


Here’s the thing: I usually sleep in the buff, but that’s not going to wash here. It’s just above freezing outside. What’s more, outside comes inside as there’s no tent-flat where our feet rest. My clothes and layers are a mix of authenticity and modern-day practicality. The more authentic I can be the more believable detail I can harvest for my writing, but we’ve made some concessions. My wool socks would look reasonably authentic but for the ‘Cat’ logo. My pants (trousers to an Englishman) are woollen and civil war fashion: light blue and with braces that are presently off the shoulder or else the buttons would pop when I manoeuvre inside the tent, so Jeff tells me. I prove him right the next day. I have on a slipover thick cotton shirt that buttons at the neck. I think it looks kind of fetching in a Heathcliff sort of way. Underneath, in view of a likely frost, I have a modern-day collarless t-shirt. I’m wearing a woollen hat that reads ‘Old Men Rule’ which I was given for my 50th birthday. It’s dark outside but I’m wearing glasses; I don’t want to lose them or roll onto them in the night. I’m under a sleeping bag and then a wool-blanket that looks in period. One of the Minuzo thermal golf mittens I smuggled in has been pressed into service as a buffer between my right hip and West Virginia.


I’m warm but uncomfortable. The couple of hours sleep I’ll get tonight are already behind me but I’m content enough listening to the rain in the trees outside and thinking about my experience thus far. Like my sleeping arrangements, some of what I’ve learned is relevant to the past, some to the present.


For one thing the soldiers camped here a hundred and fifty-five years ago didn’t have a Portajohn. Neither was there a warm ranger hut a minute away with donuts and coffee for breakfast. Jeff has showed me how to make coffee the old-fashioned way. I ground the beans in a skillet last night with the flat stump of a sawn log. We set them to stew in a pot overnight (a bit like overnight oats) and will boil it by the fire in the morning. I’ve also learned how to wear my ‘traps’ for when we march and fight. The cartridge-box is strapped over the left shoulder and the box tucked behind you. The thick leather belt goes over the cartridge-box strap and the attached cap box slides just to the right of the buckle to be out of the way when I’m carrying my rifle. The bayonet in its sheath hangs on the left hip. A haversack, containing my provisions, goes across the right shoulder and, lastly, a full canteen over the same shoulder but with the strap tied so it sits a little higher. All of this will matter when I’m trying to load a cartridge and place a cap when fighting my way over fallen trees in the forest tomorrow. I’ll need to be able to open the boxes one handed and not have the traps get in the way.


Just now I’m fighting my way out of the tent to go pee. I need to get my leather boots on because it’s wet out in the dark but it’s tough from a sitting position while trying not to wake Jeff. My calf muscle cramps and I struggle upright with my boot half on. I’ve also learned that three middle-aged guys can keep a shared fire going all night even in the rain. For young guys it might go out, but as we three get up regularly for calls of nature we can tend to it. So our fire is burning bright. I walk a little away from the tents to find a pee-tree (the Portajohn is too far and unlit anyway). I try not to look left to the burial pit or right to the embalmers tent. Ralph the embalmer is already set up for the visitors who will watch us re-enact tomorrow. That means he has his plastic cadaver laid out on his table.



I pee quickly, throw a log on the fire and climb back in between the Springfields. We’re going to fight in the morning. I’m not expecting to sleep. I am expecting donuts.




Not Being Welsh

Almost all of the time, I’m not Welsh, but on December 2nd, I was Welsh for the entire day.

I was Welsh walking the spaniels early with my sister-in-law by the sea. I was Welsh on the train with my brother and nephew from Llanelli to Cardiff amongst assorted Welsh fans dressed as leeks, daffodils and dragons. I was Welsh when I had the three feathers stencilled sparkling red on my cheek. I drank Welsh beer before, during and after the game against South Africa. I was Welsh when I sang Calon Lan, Delilah and Land of My Fathers (even though it isn’t). And I was really, really Welsh when we ran in three tries in the first half. The following morning I was English again, but with a Welsh hangover.


I moved to Wales from Buckinghamshire when I was eight, but to a household my mother was determined to keep English despite it being eighty miles the wrong side of the border. She succeeded enough that I was never able to see myself as from Wales, as of that valley. I’ve now lived in Sussex for thirty years but don’t feel fully rooted here either. Thanks, Mum. I forgive you. I can see that the need to keep your five kids all English was rooted in your own attachment to your English home, and probably the shock that your previously career minded husband (Dad) had dragged you to live on a small-holding on the edge of a Welsh mining town. But it’s a sadness for me to this day: not really belonging to anywhere.


So the joy of being Welsh for a day, no holds barred and all in, was wonderful. It’s pretty extreme when you think of it: the utter elation when your colour-coded team takes the odd shaped ball over the white line. I shouted to the heavens, beer was spilt. I slapped the back of the very large South African sat next to me. The need for affinity, to be tribal, is hard-wired into us.


I’ve studied the US Civil War for over twenty years. One of the hardest things to get my head around has been the loyalty of soldiers to their states, especially in the South. Most would have seen themselves fighting for their home state before the new Confederacy but I found that so hard to understand, especially in the western states which were so new. It’s important for a writer. How can you show someone’s motivation if you don’t understand it?


Patrick Cleburne was one of the most successful generals fighting for the Confederacy. His home was in Arkansas which was given statehood in 1836. Cleburne didn’t rock up until 1850 though, having emigrated from Ireland the previous year. Just eleven years later, when the war broke out, he was sufficiently enamoured of his young state to want to fight for it. It’s hard to credit. He was killed in the Battle of Franklin in 1864. He’s just the headline example. Many, many thousands of men died on both sides under the flag of their state.


From this remove, it’s hard to reconcile it with the America we see today: strongly nationalist, overtly so under the new ‘America First’ brand of Donald Trump. But long before Trump, when I was growing up in Wales, the America presented to me (mostly through WWII movies it has to be said) was certainly united; it was right there in the name. To a great extent that nationalism, that love of America, was reborn, rebranded almost, by the Civil War; certainly for white America. You have to reach back through those terrible four years to search for the affinities that were there before.


I find myself wondering if my need to don an old red sweatshirt and shout myself delirious with 65,000 other red, rabid rugby fans, is the same fundamental need that propelled men in young states to charge to their deaths across open fields into the killing sting of muskets and the violence of cannon. If so, is it so good for us? Is it simply just the desire to not be an outsider, the same need I felt at eight and finally gave into at fifty-two?


Impending Doom

My wife and I were recently in Italy. It was a last minute thing, taking advantage of the fact that our daughter was away with her school. So at short notice I found myself standing on the worn streets of Pompeii, somewhere I’d always wanted to go without believing I ever would. Like most people, I was amazed at the scale of the place; it’s a sizeable town. It seems that the Roman Empire wasn’t made up after all.

 Of course you can’t help but notice Vesuvius, rising over the bay of Naples like a giant health warning, but then, historical fiction writers aside, we are a species of the present. Rich volcanic soil, close to the sea; what could possibly go wrong? We found our way to the Garden of the Fugitives, looked at the casts of the victims: men, women, children, dogs. I switched my electronic guide to listen to Pliny the Younger describe the horror of the eruption for maximum voyeuristic effect.


Approaching midday we’d reached the far end of the site where there’s an arena that used to seat 20,000. Incredible. As we stood on the ground where the gladiators fought there was a low rumble and the wind freshened. A black monster of a cloud crept around the side of Vesuvius and came straight for us. As the rain started, we found what shelter we could and counted the seconds between lighting strikes and thunder. At noon the church bells sounded in modern Pompeii as if to say it was time to run again.  My tourist imagination glimpsed AD79; the deafening eruption, the near darkness, the pumice stone raining down until it was metres deep. Some escaped: those that ran early and fought their way through the crush to one of the Pompeii’s seven city gates and then fled by sea or land. Many more died, clinging to the false security of home or gods. Some were found curled next to their money. I don’t know what warnings there were. Perhaps tell-tale quakes and or a trickle of smoke foreshadowing what was to come. It got me thinking on how poor humans are at dealing with impending doom.


The US Civil War was a long time coming. For decades before, tensions built as America expanded into the West and argued over whether slavery should follow the frontier and be adopted in the new states as they entered the Union. There were many attempts at solutions to head off conflict, most of them morally abhorrent schemes to coral the idea of freedom by geography or law. None ultimately worked since the contradiction on freedom was written into the constitution itself and vested interest wasn’t about to budge. Like the people of Pompeii they clung to their wealth. After the John Brown raid in Virginia, his clumsy and violent attempt to incite a slave revolt, few people believed war could be avoided. The ground was rumbling and smoke was in the air. War followed eighteen months later. 650,000 died.


It’s easy to patronise the past, to assume we’d have fled our homes at Pompeii, that we’d have told everybody to just calm down as the skin was tightened on the war drums in 1860’s America. Yet I’ve read enough to know that there were some smart people trying to avoid civil war; that the political classes of that time were better versed in philosophy and the rule of law than the soundbite politicians of today. It didn’t help. Maybe we have averted or escaped disaster in the past; history doesn’t shout over much about things that were quietly sorted out.


When we came home from Italy it was to hear that carbon in the atmosphere has spiked and reached a new high, as if the wildfires across the world and record storms hadn’t told us that already. News of catastrophe vied with political scandal and the release of the latest iPhone. Head for the gates people, if you can find them. 


Beneath the Bronze


The American Civil War statue debate seems to have dropped below the news threshold, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Unless there’s a full blown confrontation, guns and placards on show, madmen reversing cars over people, then it’s not worthy of our collective time.

I shouldn’t really call it a debate: it’s more a shouting match. Being part of the unheard mass of people in the middle who take a historical interest in the Civil War, you are thoughtful about putting your head above the parapet, liable as you are to be shouted down by both sides. From friends in the US, or through Civil War blogs, I hear of less sensational cases that don’t make the news outside of their county, let alone country; a re-enactor pepper-sprayed in South Carolina, statues removed in the dead of night by the authorities in Baltimore.  Weirdest of all, protestors turning up to jeer an Ohio re-enactment regiment, one that had a noble history of fighting for abolition. Hard to figure that one out; presumably they were protesting history in general.


That there are some statues that need to be moved seems indisputable to me. It’s all about context. A statue outside city hall or the law courts projects its values and history inside by association. The wording on a plaque may be inappropriate or downright offensive to some. That matters. New statues alongside the old can be used to change the context; redress the balance, show the other sides to the story. But in some cases they need to find a better home for our times.


I’m still saddened to see them go. Statues tell more than one story if you look hard enough. Not all history is digital – yet. I once visited a Confederate prison cemetery on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. Rebel officers were held there for many years during the war and a bronzed southern soldier keeps watch over the two-hundred or so graves. He’s positioned to look south, across the lake to the mainland and his far away home. He’s an easy statue to like, carrying some casual and romantic aspect I’ve have come to associate with Southern soldiers. The incongruity of a Confederate statue this deep into Yankeedom was interesting in itself. The information board in the cemetery car park told me the statue was erected in 1910, forty-five years after the war by the Cincinnati chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. I was surprised that Cincinnati, a Union city, had a chapter back then. It encouraged me to look into it more, to understand how widespread organisations like the DOC were at that time. Part of the plinth was donated by the Grand Lodge of Mississippi and as I walked the graveyard there were masonic symbols on many graves.  So the statue taught me little about the Southern cause in the Civil War, but led me to understand much more about early 20th century social attitudes and interest groups in the long shadow of the war. Monuments often tell us far more about the people who funded them than the figures they aspire to immortalise.


Some might say it’s not even my history, an Englishmen with no dog in the fight. Maybe so, but go carefully, America. Move the statues that need moving, square up the history so all the suffering is on show. The present outranks the past; on that there should be no debate. But we should tread gently on history, lest we lose sight of the paths that lead to today.



The battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, just across the state line from Chattanooga, was principally fought on the 19th and 20th of September, 1863. I could barely say the word Chickamauga five years ago; now it’s a place to which I feel strongly attached. I wrote about it in my masters’ dissertation and it is the main set piece battle in my novel, Whirligig. I frequently query my connection, how an interest in the Civil War and then in writing conspired to bring me to that place. But beyond that, I often ask myself why I had that interest in the first place?

Depending on which account you read, it’s estimated that around 28,000 men were killed or injured at Chickamauga. It was a huge battle and the Union’s loss checked their advance until the following spring. It was the very first battlefield to be established as a national park and was dedicated as early as 1895. Since then, the Park Service has laboured to re-establish the site as it was in September 1863. The small number of scratch farms caught up in the fighting have been rebuilt, the lines of the trees and the fields are the same as they were, even the flora is as close as they can make it. Everything has been done with the thought that we need to have things as they were. Individually and collectively it seems that we have a need to preserve the past.


The practice at Chickamauga, as it was on many of the major battlefields in the decades after the war ended, was for regiments from both North and South to gather as re-joined countrymen on the anniversary of the battle to remember fallen friends. They raised funds for statues and markers, placed them at places they charged or defended. Over time, Chickamauga became pinned to those two horrific days by the monuments, like some specimen in a museum.


It’s really two things that combine to allow us to reach back and imagine – no doubt poorly – what must have been endured: the preserved place itself, and words; words from the men who fought and from historians since. My guiding tome was Peter Cozzens’, ‘This Terrible Sound’. When I pitched up in 2013, I knew the battle through the great care with which he had understood and recounted it.  And with the place preserved as it is, I was able to step into the woods at the exact spot where my adopted regiment, the 125th Ohio, went into battle on the first day, walk along the line of their charge on the second, and sit to contemplate on Snodgrass Hill where they had been part of the Union’s final stubborn stand.


An aunt of mine passed away last month. Mrs Joyce Sayer. She had worked at Bletchley Park, Bedfordshire, during WWII decoding Nazi radio signals. She became a hut leader before she was twenty and kept this to herself for fifty years until it was no longer an official secret. Mixed in with my sadness at losing her I discerned my regret at not having counted as she did. She made a difference when it mattered. Perhaps that is a clue to my fascination with America’s great Civil War, a time America’s future, when the very definition of freedom, was on the line.


But Cozzens’ book is named as it is to remind us we should not, even for a moment, wish ourselves back there. The ‘terrible sound’ he refers to is the cry of the wounded soldiers who were unable to crawl away from the fires that swept the woods in the night. The sights and sounds of the day would have been equally grim. I remember I took myself to sit on the battlefield at dusk, alone with the monuments, trying to edge a little closer to the past. Ironically the great battlefield of Chickamauga has become a place of peace in a busy world, a place for reflection. People find it so hard to cope with modern life. Some of my friends have read books or taken classes in ‘mindfulness’, a means of focusing on and appreciating the moment: the present. It has its value. But I think we also need places like Chickamauga, places we can contemplate the past: ‘hindfulness.’ I certainly do. 


A Room Without a View


36 ° 6’ N, 4 ° 44’ W. This is where I was when I finished my second novel, The Copper Road. I always like to know where I am. My first degree was in geography so perhaps that’s why. I finished the book on August 28th. For me, the when is not quite so important, although I do like a good milestone.

 To save you finding a globe or a world map (what do you mean you weren’t going to?) this is just east of Gibraltar. If you don’t know where that is, then there’s no hope for you – geographically speaking. The reason I can be so precise is that channel 17 on our cruise-ship told me exactly where we were whenever I wanted to know, which was to say most of the time. I became a little obsessed with it. As soon as we returned from the bar, or the pool, or the bar, or the mini-golf, or the bar, I’d switch on the TV to see the digital slug trail that told me where the ship had been and where we were now. Somehow knowing that made me feel a notch safer. I’ve no idea why. It’s probably related to why I loathe outsourcing my whereabouts to car satnavs – I become untethered and I begin to panic. I’m all at sea. Having an inside cabin didn’t help: no view – no point of reference.


I can tell you where I was when I started The Copper Road, but I’d have to look up when exactly.  I was at Cumberland Falls, Kentucky, a beauty spot near the Daniel Boone Forest in the south of the Bluegrass State. I’d flown over from England for another research & inspiration road-trip. I parked my Cherokee outside the swish looking DuPont Lodge. I’d deliberately stepped out of my sequence of low-budget motels to stay somewhere special for a few days. This was going to be a milestone I told myself; before I left here, I had to have the basic plot outlined for the follow up to Whirligig. The young man at the check-in desk practically gasped when he accessed my booking. ‘Wow, you have room 311! That has the best view in the hotel.’


He was right. The hotel stood high on a bluff and the south facing room kept the sun all day. Below my window was nothing but the Cumberland River snaking away between picture-book hills painted with a fall forest. This was a great place. I had my A3 pad and coloured pens, I had my solitude; inspiration was bound to strike. I set to work.


My main thought in the first few hours was how nice it would be if my wife was here to share this beautiful solitude with me. Later, panic struck when I went down to join humanity in the restaurant only to find humanity had left at eight when it closed. Worse still I was told there was no bar and this was a dry county. I had to drive seventeen miles through the, now-very-dark, forest to get a pizza from a gas station.


Ultimately the solitude did pay off. Over the next couple of days there was little to do except walk in the woods and think and plot, though occasionally I was knocked out of my muse by the bear warnings. The room was safer. Strange, now, to think what I began there I would end in the middle of the Mediterranean.


The real Copper Road existed (a very small section of it still does) in Polk County, in the bottom right-hand corner of Tennessee. Of course I haven’t really finished the new book, just the first draft. Whirligig took around eight drafts, but it’s certainly a milestone. I remember Jason Goodwin, author of the wonderful Yasmin mysteries, telling me that finishing the first draft of a novel was like finishing a bridge. You could step back, take a look at what the hell it was you had built and make plans to put it right. I’m not sure that analogy really holds up; I’d like my bridge engineers to know what they are doing from day one. Maybe a book is more like a painting. You can step back and decide on some changes. Perhaps some of the people in the picture are not needed. Others may need more character. If you’re me, you may have overdone the background and have to lose some of it in subsequent drafts. And in writing terms, ‘stepping back’ generally means ‘putting down’. Getting away from your story so that when you come back to it you can see it afresh.


So that will be September for me. No Copper Road allowed no matter how much I want to crack and eye and peek. For now, I’m content to know where it started and where it ended: in a room with a view, and in a cabin without one.