COLOSSUS – what if Alexander the Great had not died young?

“What if Alexander the Great had not died so young?”

My publisher, Anthony Cheetham, started with that throwaway line over dinner in London one night a few years ago. The idea stuck.

So today COLOSSUS is being published in hardback in New York.

Described by my agent as the love child of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and WARHORSE it’s an historical epic of what might have been.

Even as alternative history I had to thoroughly research Alexander the Great’s battle plans, character – he was a psychopath – and of course, my wonderful protagonist, Colossus, the elephant.

Did you know that elephants grieve, much like humans do? Did you know that Alexander had appointed a ‘captain of the elephants’ just before he died, the first western commander to do so? Did you know that when he died he had drawn up battle plans to attack Carthage?

COLOSSUS is out now. You can check it out here.

THERE’S A SAMPLE BELOW!!Colossus_Cover_02‘Kill him! Kill the monster now!’

Colossus has sent everyone scattering. He has ripped the stake out of the ground and the heavy iron chain now trails his hind leg as light as a flower garland, bouncing this way and that. He has pulled down a small building at the edge of the enclosure by ramming it with its head and shoulder. A mahavat lies stricken on the ground nearby.

Someone has scared him. He is screaming with rage.

He picks up another of the mahavats with his trunk and swats him like a fly. The man rolls across the ground like tumbleweed and thuds into a mud brick wall. Colossus finds a straw cart and stamps on it leaving behind just splinters.

The captain of the elephants has lost his fine turban and his swagger. He is panicked and his face is covered with dust and sweat. The captain is deciding where to place his spear but it is not easy to kill a fully grown elephant. It takes an army and a forest of darts. Even without armour there are not many places a man can strike with a spear and even offend an elephant much, let alone kill him. He must  somehow get underneath the beast, avoid his tusk and feet and strike upwards. To do that the beast’s attention must be distracted and Colossus is not of a mind to take his cold red eyes off the captain of the elephants for even a moment.

The fool tries to run around him but whichever way he turns, Colossus turns too. It is clear now that he is the target for the animal’s fury. Gajendra supposes he has been beating him with the ankus again. How many times has he told him not to do that?

Colossus tramples down several tents and knocks over another cart. It is pandemonium. The other elephants are agitated now and if someone doesn’t do something they will stampede. Gajendra doesn’t like the captain and will happily see him squashed like a beetle, but someone must help him, for the sake of the entire regiment.

So Gajendra steps out in front of Colossus.

The world stops. He can hear only two things now: his own blood pounding in his ears and his Uncle Ravi shouting at him to come away. He hears galloping horses on the road, sees a hawk soaring high overhead.

He cannot let them slaughter Colossus. The beast just needs someone who knows how to handle him, that’s all.

If someone put that bull hook up the captain’s ample fundament instead everything would be all right.

He stands in front of the big bull and Colossus bellows, trunk raised, ears flared. The tusks are terrifying. He once saw a man gutted and near torn in half by one of those. He still remembers the inhuman cry as the bull tried to shake him off.

Never mind the tusks, just watch what he does. The tusks are the least of your worries. He can just stamp on you if he wants, leave behind just a red stain and a few stringy fibres like betel nut.

Colossus swings his front foot, a sure sign he is going to charge. He starts at a gait, trunk curled. The ground shakes under his feet. The captain of the elephants screams and tries to run but he trips in his haste and falls flat on his face in the dirt.

Hold your ground now. Go down on one knee like Ravi showed you. Don’t let him see you’re afraid even though you’re near pissing yourself. Remember what he said. ‘On one knee and point to the ground.’

Hida, Hida!’ Lie down!

The effect is dramatic. His ears crack out and he unrolls his trunk. He shakes his huge head, showering Gajendra in a cloud of sand, and backs off a few paces.

Impressive. He has only once before seen an elephant break off an attack at full speed. On that occasion it was Ravi who was standing in front of the elephant.

Hida!

Colossus is slow about it, but he does it, settling into the dust.

The captain runs forward with his spear. Gajendra sees what is intended, and throws himself at the captain, taking him in the midriff, knocking the wind out of him and sending him sprawling on the ground. The spear bounces across the dirt. Colossus gets back to his feet, picks it up with his trunk and tosses it casually over his massive shoulder. He does not see where it lands.

Greece, perhaps.

***

After all the trumpeting and screaming the silence that follows is eerie. A shadow falls across Gajendra’s face, and he hears the jangle of trappings, realizes that a horse and its  rider have stepped up to him. The rider has his back to the sun and Gajendra must shield his eyes to look at him.

‘Well, that was smartly done,’ the newcomer says. He sits on a huge white Arab stallion. The captain of the elephants scrambles back to his feet and almost immediately puts his head back into the dirt, this time without the assistance of one of his own elephants.

The rider steps his horse forward and turns to the officer beside him. ‘I can make an oriental kneel, but this one makes an enraged elephant grovel. Which of us is greater, do you think?’

The rider slides from the saddle and stands, legs apart, surveying the scene. Gajendra finally realizes who it is and gasps and falls to his knees behind the captain.

‘Oh, don’t bother with all that now,’ Alexander says and grabs him by the tunic and pulls him back to his feet.

Gajendra is surprised to find that the great Alexander is shorter than he is. Squat, golden and broad, his legs are bowed from spending his entire life in the saddle of a horse. And yet he feels as if he is standing next to a giant.

He had heard legends of his general long before he was conscripted into Alexander’s army. It is like standing next to the sun; how the energy burns off him.

Alexander nudges the captain of the elephants with his foot. ‘What’s your name?’ He has a high-pitched voice, this lord of war, it grates on the nerves.

‘Oxathres, my lord,’ the captain says, without raising his face from the dirt.

‘You might as well lick his boots while you’re down there,’ Alexander’s lieutenant says and then guffaws when Oxathres actually does it. Apparently, it was just a joke.

‘You’re a fool, Oxathres. What are you?’

‘A fool, my lord.’

Alexander winds up and kicks him hard in the ribs and then turns to Gajendra and asks him his name.

‘“Gajendra”,’ Alexander repeats, when he hears it. ‘It sounds a little like my own name. Gajendra the Great!’ he says and his lieutenants laugh, which is why he keeps them with him, Gajendra supposes.

He nudges the captain of the elephants with his boot a second time as if it is something in his path that he is unsure about. ‘You’re in charge here, am I right? How did this come about?’

The captain says, ‘Beg pardon, my general, but the beast is mad. It should be killed immediately.’ He wipes the sweat off his face and smiles up at his general in an ugly way, something like a grimace. ‘The animal is a menace and will not be properly trained.’

Alexander starts to laugh. He throws back his head and roars. Even Oxathres starts to laugh, not yet party to his own joke. Now the lieutenants on their horses laugh as well; even one of the horses seems to snicker. Then Alexander draws back his boot and kicks Oxathres in the ribs again. It is a terrifying sight because Alexander is still laughing as he does it.

‘Who made you captain of these beasts?’ Kick. ‘Was it me?’ Kick. ‘I shall have to put myself on a charge for incompetence. What was I thinking? I must have been drunk!’ Kick, kick, kick.

The captain of the elephants starts to cry. The fault is not his, he grunts in between having his ribs tickled. The beast is unnatural. It will not submit to direction. Forgive me, I am Alexander’s most faithful soldier. I would follow you to the ends of the earth.

‘Only to the ends of the earth?’ Alexander says. ‘But I’ve been there. I need somewhere to march that is more of a challenge!’

He suddenly loses interest in his captain of the elephants. He seems as easily distracted as a child.

‘Well, look at this,’ he says and walks up to Colossus and stands in front of him with his hands on his hips. Gajendra watches Colossus carefully; the imperceptible flick of the pink tip of its trunk, the slow blink of his eye. No sudden movements please, my lord, he thinks, or you will follow the captain’s spear over that wall.

‘What is his name?’

Fateh Gaj – it means Victory Elephant. But your soldiers have called him by a different name.’

‘And what is that?’

‘Colossus, my lord.’

Alexander laughs. ‘Yes. Colossus. It suits him.’

Gajendra approaches, so that he can intervene should Colossus take exception to his general’s behaviour. Colossus reaches out with his trunk and touches Gajendra’s head and face with his trunk. He makes a deep rumbling in his stomach as he does this.

‘He is the biggest beast I have ever seen; even at Gaugamela I never saw the like,’ Alexander says. ‘How did you tame him?’

‘I spoke to him.’

Alexander walks around the grey mountain of leathery flesh. Colossus has tufts of greyish hair all over him and ears as big as a man. Alexander folds his arms and frowns.

‘You’re not telling me this beast can talk?’

‘No, but he can understand.’

‘And what’s that language you use?’

‘It’s the language of elephants, my lord.’ He cannot explain to him that it is the language Uncle Ravi spoke as a child.

Alexander gives him a pained look. ‘And why does this special language make a difference?’

‘He is trained to obey certain commands and that is the only language he understands.’

‘Does that imbecile…’ he indicates Oxathres with a dismissive nod of the head, ‘… does he know that?’

‘I have tried to tell him, but he pays no attention to me.’

‘Are you Indian? You don’t look Indian. You look Greek.’

‘My mother was Persian.’

‘What was your father doing with a Persian? Besides making you?’

‘The Rajah gave her to him. As a gift, for his exploits in battle. He said he was the best mahavat in his whole army. But then he was wounded and he could not be a soldier any more. He turned to farming.’

‘The son of a hero!’

‘I suppose.’

‘So you are telling me that you are the only one who knows how to control this animal?’

‘It would so appear.’

‘So if you are the only one here who knows how to control the beast, why has it done all this?’ He looks around the enclosure. Two men lie motionless in the dirt, two small buildings are partially destroyed and three carts are now only of use for firewood.

‘I believe the captain of the elephants took to him witha bull hook. He doesn’t like bull hooks.’

‘Where were you?’

‘I was mucking out the straw.’

‘But isn’t this your elephant?’

‘He won’t give me an elephant. He says I’m too young.’

Alexander sighs, theatrically puffing out his cheeks. He walks over to Oxathres, who is still curled up on the ground, clutching his ribs. This has not been a good day for him and it is about to get worse. Alexander grabs him by the hair and cuffs him smartly about the ears. ‘You’re stupid. Say it now. Come on. You’ll feel better once it’s said.’

‘I’m stupid,’ the captain of the elephant sobs.

‘Why are you stupid?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’re stupid because you don’t know how to use your resources to their best effect.’ He picks him up by the collar and drops him back into the dust. He kicks him again, much harder than before. ‘From now on, this boy here… what was your name again?’

‘Gajendra, lord.’

‘Gajendra is this animal’s mahavat. Now I want no more trouble.’ He nods to his lieutenant. ‘Give the boy five of those new coins I had minted yesterday.’

Even the lieutenant seems surprised. ‘So much?’

‘Just do it.’

The lieutenant gestures him to approach. Gajendra gapes; it is as much money as he might make in a year.

Alexander turns around and takes a last look at Colossus, who is still kneeling, playfully blowing at the dust with his trunk, mild as a kitten. Alexander shakes his head.

Then he looks at Gajendra and grimaces with distaste. ‘You’re covered in elephant snot,’ he says.

Gajendra looks down at his tunic. He is indeed covered in slime, half a pint of it from where Colossus has expressed his affection.

‘We have known each other a long time. He is fond of me.’

‘I should not like anything to be that fond of me,’ Alexander says, and then gets on his horse and rides away, his lieutenants in tow.

The captain of the elephants gets to his feet. His ear is bleeding. He tries to straighten up but his ribs will not let him. He looks at Colossus and then at Gajendra. He points a finger at him. ‘You’re dead, boy,’ he says and staggers away.

Gajendra looks over his shoulder at his elephant. All the madness has gone out of him. He flaps his ears and tastes the air with his trunk. Now that Oxathres has gone, he seems perfectly at ease.

‘Now look what you’ve done,’ Gajendra says to him. He taps the ankus behind his tail and Colossus does as he asks, and trails him across the enclosure, leaving the waterboys to clear up.

alexander the great, elephants, babylon AMAZON buy3._V192207739_

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GENGHIS COMPANY – HOW THE WEST LOOTED ASIA

This is a story about how a vast multi-national corporation used a western nation’s military muscle to economically rape the country it had ‘liberated’.

East India Company, India, corporation

‘We come in peace … for now.’

Halliburton? Sirco?

No, though you’re warm.

We’re talking the great granddaddy of them all – ladies and gentlemen, I give you the British East India Company.

On 24 September, 1599, 80 merchants met at the Founders Hall in London to petition Queen Elizabeth I.

What they wanted was a charter authorizing a radical new type of business: a company that could issue tradeable shares on the open market to any number of investors.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

For over a century the British East India company quietly traded in silks and spices in the Orient. Their business was concentrated in Mughal India, a vast empire which then stretched from Kabul to Madras.

In those days India accounted for around a quarter of all global manufacturing.

But in 1739 Nadir Shah and 150,000 Persian cavalry invaded the Punjab and defeated a Mughal army one and a half million strong and took home the emperor’s Treasury.

Mughal India went into terminal decline. The empire broke up into tiny, competing states.

At the time, the Company was operating from the home of its governor, Sir Thomas Smythe, with a staff of six.

'It's not personal - it's just business.'
‘It’s not personal – it’s just business.’

With the full support of the British Parliament the Company looked to exploit the situation. They started training their own army and put the domino theory into action, defeating the now divided states one at a time.

The Company’s ascendant was astounding. The last Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, surrendered in 1765.

The so-called “Treaty of Allahabad” required him to hand over all his tax revenues to the new governor of Bengal and the Company’s man in India – a strange and unstable sociopath called Robert Clive.

It was the first corporate coup in history – a vast subcontinent was now ruled from a boardroom in Leadenhall Street.

But good government was not a corporate priority, only profit. Clive and his fellow administrators ransacked the country’s wealth, while flooding its markets with British products.Unspeakable atrocities were visited on those who resisted.

East India Company, India, corporation

Clive of India – seen here wishing he could run for Congress

Clive returned to Britain the richest self-made man in Europe.

He and other Company men used their massive and newly acquired wealth to start buying parliamentary seats – they soon became known as ‘the Rotten Boroughs’ – to ensure that the Parliament backed the Company with state power whenever it was needed, particularly when the French tried to get in the Company’s way.

In fact, protecting the Company from outside competition became enshrined in national foreign policy – after all, many in the Parliament owned substantial Company stock.

But it worked, for a while. The Company soon reversed the balance of trade, which had essentially gone from west to east since Roman times.

The Company extended its operations, ferrying opium to China, and fought the Opium Wars to seize an offshore base at Hong Kong to safeguard its monopoly in narcotics.

I had to break this to you, but it’s better you heard it first from a friend. About half of London’s great marble edifices were built with drug money.

East India Company, India, corporation

headquarters of the East India Company in Leadenhall Street

By 1803, when the Company captured the Mughal capital of Delhi, it had a private security force of around a quarter of a million men  – double the size of the British army! – and more firepower than any nation state in Asia.

It was like Google owning a fleet of nuclear submarines.

But when the crash came, it was massive.

A famine in Bengal led to massive shortfalls in expected land revenues and left the Company with an eye-watering shortfall in their accounts. When the news got out thirty European banks collapsed and trade came to a standstill.

East India Company, India, corporation

‘Good news – we’re here to bring you democracy. Just sign this.’

So guess what they did? They asked the government to bail them out.

In fact, the Company’s losses were so huge they could have brought down the whole nation. Unlike Lehman Brothers, the Company was just too big to fail.

So in 1773, the world’s first multinational corporation was rescued by history’s first government bailout.

The Company continued its operations under stricter regulation but without seriously mending its ways. In fact 15 years later Clive’s successor, Robert Hastings, only narrowly escaped impeachment.

During the proceedings Britain’s greatest orator at that time, Edmund Burke, railed against the ability of a ruthless corporation to buy politicians and destroy good governance.

Thank God those days are gone, right?

It was the Mutiny of 1857 that finished the Company. The Parliament finally realized they must bring to an end the EIC’s corporate greed and incompetence, or they would lose India.

When it was all over Lord Canning announced that the Company’s Indian possessions would be nationalized.

Britain winning the war on drugs - by creating a monopoly

Britain winning the war on drugs – by creating a monopoly

When people think of British colonialism in India, they conjure images of railways, tea and cricket.

But Britain’s colonial heritage was something far more sinister, something which now represents the greatest threat to contemporary democracy – the joint-stock company.

No nation has yet found a way to protect itself from corporate excess.

As with the East India Company, joint stock companies still retain the actual power, with parliaments and congresses as their puppets. A toxic cocktail of power, money and unaccountability masquerades as democratic principle.

In fact, the interests of shareholders have become more important than those of the nations that host them.

East India Company, India, corporationThe East India Company is the ultimate model for Shell and the Halliburton Corporation – except they do not need their own armies, because they use the government’s.

It could be argued that many western countries have in fact been successfully privatized.

But when these megalithic companies fall, their hosts fall with them.

The subprime bubble of 2007 demonstrated the hazards. US and European banks lost more than $1 trillion dollars; what Edmund Burke feared would happen to England in fact happened to Iceland two hundred years later.

We have learned absolutely nothing from history. We never do.

Why? Why don’t we learn?

The reason can best be summed up with a Hindustani slang word, once rarely heard outside northern India, but which suddenly gained common currency all over England in the late eighteenth century, during the rise of the East India company.

The word?

‘Loot’.

This month Deanna, Laurel and Mary won copies of the first book in my William Shakespeare Detective Agency series – and I also gave away Kindle copies to a dozen others.

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East India, Batavia, shipwreck

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FAILURE, SUCCESS AND THE WRITING LIFE

I found some great quotes about writing recently on a great little blog called Bang2Write.

Here are some of them – and my own thoughts on how they apply to the writing life.

ON STARTING OUT

“You don’t start out writing good stuff … you start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” – Octavia E. Butler

source: Nikolas Coukouma

source: Nikolas Coukouma

And isn’t it true?

I wrote my first work of absolute genius when I was eighteen.

I cringe now when I think of how I actually sent that stuff to literary agents.

But then it’s a curious business.

Because while we’re thinking we’re insanely brilliant we also believe deep in our hearts that we’re not.

“The worst enemy to creativity is self doubt.” – Sylvia Plath

ON WRITING WELL

“Write the kind of story you would like to read. People give you all sorts of advice about writing but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.” – Meg Cabot.

That’s good advice, and so is this:

“Write what should not be forgotten.” – Isabel Allende

ON DIGGING DEEPER

They say that nothing bad can ever happen to a writer – because everything is research. I have found this to be true, though I have sometimes wished it wasn’t.

“Write about the emotions you fear the most.” – Laurie Halse Anderson.

To be this naked in what we write is one of the hardest things to do – and also the most worthwhile.

Zadie Smith had this to say about it:

“You are never stronger than when you land on the other side of despair.”

First, of course, you have to get through the despair.

ON FOLLOWING YOUR HEART

“Everybody said: ‘Follow your heart. I did. It got broken.”

source: nrkbeta

source: nrkbeta

I’ll bet London to a brick you can’t guess who said that. (I’ll tell you at the end.)

But I find it profound – by following my heart, in business and in love, I got mine broken too.

It wasn’t meant to be like that. But then, if it had turned out like a Hollywood movie I would have learned nothing.

ON FEAR OF FAILURE

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” – Paolo Coelho.

I have a very good friend who’s an enormously talented writer – but no one will ever know it, because she won’t put her work out there. She has been very successful at so many other pursuits until now – but I believe she is terrified at failing at the one thing she dreams of succeeding at.

Yet even failure is essential if we’re to grow.

“Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” – Thomas Edison.

And in the end we fail or succeed by differing amounts. I relate best to what Lucy said to Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoon.

‘You learn more when you lose, Charlie Brown!’ And he says: ‘Well then, I must be the smartest person in the world!’

Is it important anyway? Perhaps all that really matters is what we learn about life and about ourselves along the way.

Oh and the quote about following your heart?

Agatha Christie!

This month Deanna, Laurel and Mary won copies of the first book in my William Shakespeare Detective Agency series – and I also gave away Kindle copies to a dozen others.

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10 CIVILIZATIONS YOU NEVER HEARD OF

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THE MOST DANGEROUS AIRPORT IN THE WORLD

Once, it was the most dangerous airport in the world.

Hong Kong, Kai Tak, dangerousI was reminded of it yesterday, while researching the third book in my Madeleine Fox crime series.

The novel is set in the nineties, just before the British gave up control of the colony.

Maddy leaves London to transfer to a serious crimes squad in the Royal Hong Kong police force.

In those days Hong Kong was serviced by the now legendary Kai Tak airport.

The airport features in the plot of the new story.

Just landing there required pilots to navigate the most extraordinary flight path in commercial aviation at that time.

It was  white knuckle ride like no other.

It started with a descent heading northeast, passing over Lantau island and the Hong Kong harbor, and then over the district of Western Kowloon.

Hong Kong, Kai Tak, dangerous

all that is left of the checkerboard today
photo: tksteven

Pilots required an Instrument Guidance System, known as IGS 13.

A huge aviation orange and white checkerboard on a small hill in Kowloon Tsai Park was used as a visual reference point on the final approach.

At this point, just two nautical miles from touchdown, the aircraft entered the final right turn of 47° at a height of about 650 feet and exited the turn at a height of just 140 feet to line up with the runway.

Pilots called it the Hong Kong Turn.

Unofficially it was known as the Kai Tak Heart Attack.

Pilots had to be individually certified to land there. One of the reasons for this was that after sighting checkerboard hill they had to ignore the IGS.

Manuals warned that following the IGS after passing the Middle Marker would “result in the loss of terrain clearance.”

Hong Kong, Kai Tak, dangerousIn other words, they would crash into Mongkok, one of the most densely populated areas on earth.

I remember once staring out of the window of my Cathay Pacific 747 on its final approach and seeing a Cantonese man in a white vest doing his ironing in his top storey apartment.

He was watching a Cantonese soap opera on television.

I swear he winked and waved at me.

Those days are sadly no more.

Today’s there’s this wimpy landing at the new airport out at Chek Lap Kok; no white knuckle turn, no squeezing in between apartment buildings, no markers barely visible through the fog.

Jeez, I could land the damned thing.

These days the guy doing his ironing has no one to wave to. I wonder if he misses me?

Here’s a great video that gives you some idea of Kai Tak’s lost pleasures. Personally I love the Korean Air 747 that almost lands sideways on to the runway, makes a last minute adjustment and touches down on two wheels.

But you choose your own favorite.

These are the first two Maddy Fox thrillers. Three and four will be out soon!

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FEAR AND LOATHING IN NORTH WEST JAVA

 

THERE’S A WHAT IN THE BATHROOM???

Ghost_Stories_August_1928

Heading down to Java tomorrow to hang out with my youngest daughter, who just got a job there.

She says her house has skinks, gekkos and … spiders. The spiders, she says, are quite large. In fact, they throw shadows.

One of them is “so big it has a personality.”

Just love spiders with personalities …

IF THE SPIDER DOESN’T GET ME, I’LL BE GIVING AWAY BOOKS AGAIN WHEN I GET BACK.

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SHAKESPEARE IS 551: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BILL

Will Shakespeare is 551 today – to wish him a happy birthday or not to wish him a happy birthday? That is the question.

original photograph: Deirdre O'Neill

original photograph: Deirdre O’Neill

I decided yes – but that you’d get the present.

All you have to do is join my newsletter today – and you could win one of THREE print copies of the first book in my WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE DETECTIVE AGENCY series (if you live in the US or Canada),

… or a consolation prize of one of ten eBooks wherever you live.

Alas, poor Yorick – he can’t make it to the birthday party.

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HAPPY NEW 2558!

Happy New Year!

They have just celebrated the new year here in Thailand – by the Buddhist calendar it is now 2558.

It is the most important festival of the year for the Thais. Although the official New Year’s Day is the first of January, same as everywhere else, the Buddhist new year is 13 April.

No, I can’t make sense of that either.

copyright Colin Falconer

copyright Colin Falconer

It’s called the Songkran festival. It’s the longest national holiday of the year and everyone here loves it.

Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Sankranti’ which means ‘to move on or to change’. The festival originated in Burma, and is also observed in Vietnam and Laos.

But Thailand has elevated Songkran into a soaking wet art form.

Prior to the festival, Thais busy themselves cleaning their houses and taking out all the junk they’ve collected that could bring them bad luck in the upcoming year. They also carefully wash all their Buddha images and idols for luck.

copyright Colin Falconer

copyright Colin Falconer

The water pouring is meant to symbolize the washing away of sins and bad luck, and should have fragrant herbs added if celebrated in the traditional manner.

Sonkran is a time to give alms to monks and to visit temples.

But mostly it’s a time to grab a bucket of water and tip it on some passer-by’s head or shoot your water gun at a tuk-tuk driver.

The young westerners love it; they roam the streets in gangs soaking down anything that moves. This year Chiang Mai was party central, backpackers prowling the streets in full combat gear – shorts and goggles.

It was Blackhawk Down with super soakers.

All good clean fun, really clean. Well, sort of.

Last year two Thai transexuals were arrested for revealing their fake breasts in public. They were fined 500 baht and taken to a local shrine to seek forgiveness from the spirits.

Boys will be boys. Or girls. Whatever.

copyright Colin Falconer

copyright Colin Falconer

As Songkran is celebrated during the hottest time of the year in Thailand, getting soaked is no hardship, but you have to make sure your phone and camera are in a watertight bag before you leave your hotel.

But not everyone is happy about it: Prommin Kantiya, the director of the Accident Prevention Network, for example. “Do we want to be known as the hub of the water party with booze and a high death toll?’ he told news reporters, “or do we want to be known for having a beautiful culture that no one else has?”

He has a point about the high death toll.

Thailand already has the second-highest traffic fatality rate in the world – about ten thousand people per year die in motorcycle accidents alone.

Police statistics here show that road accidents double during the annual Songkran holiday from 27 per day during non-holiday periods to an average of 52 road deaths per day.

copyright Colin Falconer

copyright Colin Falconer

So I decided to stay away from taxis and tuk-tuks for Sonkran. I walked everywhere.

The first night I headed off to a club and the Thai concierge offered to come with me. I politely declined.

As I was walking down the street a Thai bar girl said she’d go there with me. I said thanks, but no thanks.

Then as I passed my favourite restaurant, the owner said, why don’t I come with you? I said no, really, I’ll be fine.

But when I got there, the doorman said: ‘Sorry sir, you can’t come in without a Thai.’

And that’s your Songkran joke. You have to admit, it’s pretty wet.

Happy 2558!

Isabella Lake Union

JUST 2 DAYS TO GO …

LAKE UNION are publishing my ISABELLA worldwide on 21st April and there are 2o copies to give away for US readers on GOODREADS.

Just follow the link here for a chance to win!

You will love it or you will hate it … I have never written a book that has divided opinion so much. Make up your own mind – go here to enter the competition!

There are even more giveaways if you join my mailing list!

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LOVE, INDIA, TAJ MAHALCOLIN FALCONER

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The Irrawaddy Literary Festival – a Miracle in Mandalay

A few weeks ago I had the great fortune to be invited to the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay.

copyright: Colin Falconer

copyright: Colin Falconer

Let’s be clear: this is Burma so the Festival is a highly political event. Its patron is Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, and – until just a few years ago – one of the world’s most famous political prisoners.

Margaret Simons, writing in the Guardian  called the festival a kind of miracle – and it is.

The organizers have hardly any sponsorship. They put the entire festival together from London, supported by British embassy staff in Rangoon and a handful of local writers.

They had to pay their own costs for trips back to Burma.

copyright: Colin Falconer

copyright: Colin Falconer

Yet from five thousand miles away they somehow persuaded three writers of international renown to fly halfway across the world to an impoverished country emerging from years of brutal repression and corruption.

They would share the stage with a handful of unknown authors who only a few years before had been in jail. The translations from Burmese to English and English to Burmese was dependent entirely on volunteers, as was the transportation.

Yes. A miracle.

copyright: Colin Falconer

copyright: Colin Falconer

It is all the brain child of Jane Heyn, supported by her husband, former British ambassador Andrew Heyn and close family friends Giles FitzHerbert, (one time British ambassador to Venezuela), and Rupert Arrowsmith, a cultural historian with movie star looks and immense good humour, a man never seen anywhere without his signature white linen jacket – yet he was twice ordained as a Buddhist monk.

It is the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel … with books.

The supporting cast included Ann Enright, a Booker Prize Winner from 2007, (she won the award for her novel, The Gathering). I’ve met winners of big literary awards before, and I was dreading it. They can be unbearable. Ann was elfin, unpredictable, warm and huge fun.

copyright: Colin Falconer

copyright: Colin Falconer

There was Louis de Bernieres, who wrote one of my favourite books, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as well as a book about my own part of the world, Red Dog.

If the Festival hadn’t been forced to change dates at the last minute they would have had two Booker Prize winners – Ian McEwan had agreed to come as well.

And Australia chipped in too; the University of Melbourne sent some wonderful writers and speakers, as education partners of the Festival.

How did Jane and her team manage this?

It should not have been possible.

It was not so long ago that it was almost impossible to find anything written in English here. This was a country run by generals, a nation of poverty and prisons, roadblocks and repression.

But after Suu Kyi was released in November 2010, the Heyns invited her to the Embassy for tea – as you do – and Jayne took a deep breath and asked her if she thought a literary festival would be a good idea.

DSCN0872

Rupert Arrowsmith, Jayne Heyn, Andy Heyn copyright: Colin Falconer

She did; in fact she said she would be the patron.

So the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival was held for the first time in 2013 in Rangoon. Not long before, gatherings of more than two people were illegal.

Ten thousand people attended and crowds mobbed Suu Kyi’s car.

How did they get away with it? Jane thinks it is because no one – not the government, not the writers – really understood what a literary festival was.

After this first enormous success, the Festival has survived two more years on a shoestring budget. It was this year held at the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel, in betel-nut juice spitting distance of the old palace, where the last King of Burma once lived.

This year the Festival was not as well attended, as Suu Kyi could not attend due to illness. But it retained its unique charm.

One night I spent two hours talking to the Ambassador from Ireland, thinking he was just some bloke who’d dropped in for a beer.

Louis de Bernieres and Andrew Heyn get photo bombed copyright: Colin Falconer
Louis de Bernieres and Andrew Heyn get photo bombed
copyright: Colin Falconer

The Burmese writers themselves are still coming to terms with the new freedoms and what they might mean. Hardly any are internationally known and the attendees included writers who had been jailed for their writing right through the spectrum to those who once wrote propaganda for the government.

So each day of the Festival one faction or another of the Burmese writers threatened to walk out. It is only the patronage of Suu Kyi that keeps the rivalries and bitterness inside the Burmese literary community from tearing the Festival apart.

The result of the elections later this year are uncertain so no one knows if there will be another Festival.

It would be tragic if it were to die.

DSCN0868But they need sponsors and they need a new organizer; Jane cannot run it again from London.

At the closing ceremony Giles Fitzherbert took the microphone and defiantly assured the audience: “There will be a festival next year.”

I really hope so. This was an impossibly wonderful event that just should not have been possible.

In a country that has seen many dark days, this festival is a glimmering light.

Isabella Lake Union

LAKE UNION are publishing my ISABELLA worldwide on 21st April and there are 2o copies to give away for US readers on GOODREADS.

Just follow the link here for a chance to win!

You will love it or you will hate it … I have never written a book that has divided opinion so much. Make up your own mind – go here to enter the competition!

There are even more giveaways if you join my mailing list!

JUST CLICK HERE TO JOIN!

LOVE, INDIA, TAJ MAHALCOLIN FALCONER

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HISTORY IS THE THING OF THE FUTURE

History is a thing of the past.

The Historical Novel Society of Australasia’s inaugural convention in Sydney last month proved that.

The response to the event far outweighed expectations. History and books about it – whether fiction or non fiction – has a great future.

I was honored to be invited to give the inaugural address.

There were many fantastic authors, agents and publishers sharing their expertise and experiences. One of the organizers, Elizabeth Storrs talked about her self published first historical novel, THE WEDDING SHROUD, which was so successful it led to a three book contract with Lake Union.

click the link to see the comic!

click the link to see the comic!

I was also fascinated with Sophie Masson’s crowd funding the translation and publication of Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel Mikhail Strogoff, which hasn’t been published in English for over a century.

(Well Classics Illustrated did it as a comic. It was the story that made me want to be a writer – I was about 7 years old – long before I discovered that Jules Verne didn’t write comics!)

The convention ended with Kate Forsyth, Jess Blackadder and myself performing a sex scene from Kate’s bestselling novel BITTER GREENS

Well not performing it … we just read the words.

BITTER GREENS shows the health of Australian historical fiction writing – it won won the American Library Association (ALA) Award for Best Historical Novel.

In the process of reading the scene we think we answered the question – how do you write a sex scene?

And we had a lot of fun doing it, too.

I can’t wait till the next convention in 2017 in Melbourne – this one was such a success, two years seems much too far away.

Well done Chris Foley, Elisabeth Storrs, Wendy Jean Dunne, Diane Murray and Greg Johnston. We all look forward to the next one.

Isabella Lake Union

LAKE UNION are publishing my ISABELLA worldwide on 21st April and there are 2o copies to give away on GOODREADS.

Just follow the link here for a chance to win!

You will love it or you will hate it … I have never written a book that has divided opinion so much. Make up your own mind – go here to enter the competition!.

 

 

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