Does anyone writing historical fiction today hit as hard as David Gilman?
For me few come close to the blood and thunder that he concocts in his tales of the Hundred Years War. His words strike like a bodkin point straight to the torso, the clangour of battle and the suspense of intrigue immersive and visceral, and all wrapped up in some of the most evocative prose that you will ever discover.
Through the campaign leading to Crecy in 1346 in Master of War, we follow the apprentice stonemason turned archer, Thomas Blackstone, a man building a reputation as part of the victorious army of King Edward III. Blackstone storms past Poitiers in Defiant Unto Death and into Tuscany as a mercenary knight in Gate of the Dead, leaving readers gripped by the glory, appalled by brutality of the age, and above all hungry for more.
In his latest, Viper’s Blood, Gilman pits the dejected Blackstone against his most potent adversaries yet as the wars of the fourteenth century catapult him between Paris and Milan.
Gilman has truly proved that he is the Master of War.
It is hardly surprising given the award-winning author’s life before books. Raised in Liverpool and Wales, he soon found himself in the brutal environment of the South African interior before an exciting existence in the fire service, the army, as a photographer and screenwriter. In this piece we find out more about David’s life as drawn to the surface by lines taken from some of literature’s most famous authors.
“A rogue does not laugh in the same way that an honest man does; a hypocrite does not shed the tears of a man of good faith"
This quote reminds me of an incident that occurred when I was serving in Fire and Rescue as a young teenager (in the 60s) in South Africa.
When not attending fires we ran the ambulance service on a 24/7 basis. Apartheid law dictated a difference between non-white and white ambulances. They were both exactly the same except that ‘Whites Only’ ambulance had a sheet over the vinyl covered mattress and the ‘Non-Whites’ didn’t. It was a matter of who was needed where as to which ambulance you manned during your shift. We were also strictly prohibited by law to pick up anyone of a difference race in relation to the ambulance we were in.
One day I was returning to HQ at the end of our shift when we turned a corner and drove into the carnage of a major car crash. We did what we could for those who were still alive, most were dead. A white woman lay on the side of the road. I vividly remember her wounds and as quickly as I attended to her it was obvious she needed to be taken to hospital urgently. But we were driving a ‘black’ ambulance and had to radio through to HQ for permission to take her. Request was denied, being told to wait for a ‘Whites Only’ ambulance. I cradled the woman and asked her if she had any objection being taken in a ‘black’ ambulance. Of course she didn’t. We ignored our orders and got her to hospital.
At that time there was a notorious racist South African cop who ran the Vice Squad. It turned out to be his wife we had saved. Peel away the mask of hypocrisy and there’s the human condition laid bare.
“Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else”
I often feel as though I have been ‘on the run’ for quite some time. There have been some awards along the way for my writing but blagging my way in what I like to refer as ‘the real world’ feels more like getting something that was, in truth, nothing more than anyone else would have received with a bit of effort. Most of what I refer to goes a long way back when we were less hidebound by rules and regs. By necessity I had talked my way into plenty of jobs and then, thankfully, succeeded in them. I passed exams and was offered promotions – but I then cut and run because I was about to be discovered as a fraud because I was under age and shouldn’t have been in the job in the first place.
Good days. Interesting times.
“I would always rather be happy than dignified”
Dignity has its place but I have never let it get in the way of having fun.
I have been nominated a couple of times for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Award for my children’s books and the year when Meg Rosoff won I was invited as a guest – not quite a warm-up act – to be interviewed on stage. I was asked about my early years (see the South African comments) and explained that on one of many occasions when desperate for a job I lied about my age and blagged myself into the traffic cops. Every night at rush hour I would don the white gloves, switch off the traffic lights and step out into the chaos and sort it out. (Nothing like being a control freak and handling all that traffic – very satisfying).
One such traffic intersection was huge, very intimidating, and was called The Shadows. This was a reference to the continuous side steps one had to make, left and right, as more than a dozen lanes of traffic needed to be controlled. Of course the nickname was based on The Shadows who played with Cliff Richard in the 60s and who had a distinctive set of movements to their routine. Anyway, much to the surprise – perhaps it was shock looking at their faces - of the great and good in the audience, I gave an impromptu performance complete with arm movements as I controlled the imaginary streams of traffic . Dignity definitely didn’t come into it. But it got a laugh.
“Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”
Tahiti. Backpacking across the southern hemisphere from Australia on my way back home to join the British Army. My wife and I were given a lift by a handsome man who looked like an older Errol Flynn. I spoke no French he spoke no English. But we struck it off and he drove through the night at terrifying speed in a small French car that had no headlights. He drank a lot. Really scary. We slept in a cane-rat infested abandoned bungalow on the beach, then invited onto his small cabin cruiser, a very small cabin cruiser. Despite the stifling heat he would cook roast lamb (rare) and ply us with wine and brandy. It turned out he was the island’s chief magistrate sent over from France. He offered me a job and permanent status on the island as a photographer because I had spent some years as a professional photographer. I refused – (that cognac must have been potent) – I was already too old to join the army and just had to give it a shot.
One night we zoomed off to swim beneath the stars between the mainland and small atoll at Venus Point. Deep black sea, a panoply of stars, magnificent – and using sign language and the occasional word in English he explained that a boy had been taken by a shark there only days before during a night swim. I never knew I could swim that fast. And sobered up even quicker.
“You and I, it’s as though we have been taught to kiss in heaven and sent down to earth together, to see if we know what we were taught”
Lessons in love – the journey of a lifetime.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”
Durban, South Africa, 1963-69. Virulent apartheid. A bunch of South African cops (Vice Squad) entrapping dozens of people because of the ‘Immorality Act’, which meant no racial intermarriage, no sex between the races and a government anti-terrorism policy of 90 Days detention without trial for just about anything they cared to accuse you of. Political angst at its worst. A full out war on communism. But what an amazing place to be flung into as a youngster.
I was a kid, fifteen years old, wrenched out of a good UK school to help support my younger siblings while my mother took on any job she could get. We moved into my grandmother’s tenement boarding house. No bathrooms, outside loo and the inevitable steam of cabbage. I slept in the attic, sharing it with a gangly Geordie – John Longstaff – who became my surrogate father and friend for our stay there. I started the 3.a.m. shift at a local dairy in an open shed loading milk crates. In winter. After several months we joined my father in Durban and I was not about to go back to school. I wangled a couple of jobs in an out of the way town, and then went into the hinterland where I drove a 1940s Ford ferrying Zulu construction workers. With the interior of the car crammed, and a half dozen Zulus on each running board clinging on for dear life it made for some interesting manoeuvres. There was always one downhill bend I never quite managed without a surge of panic. The ‘crash’ gearbox (anyone remember double-de-clutch?) and the rigid steering needed muscle power to fight gravity. Thankfully, I was stronger than my years but even that barely got us around that bend.
On reflection Durban felt, in my imagination, what Shanghai must have been like in its heyday. Merchant ships from around the world, underground mixed race jazz clubs, shebeens (illegal township drinking parlours) and ‘The Point’, which was the red light district that stretched out into the harbour area. Knife and fist fights at infamous bars like The Smuggler’s Inn and the Iron Door and a well-known brothel near Alice Street where I once had to hide. The whole place is cleaned up now, all gone, swept away in a gentrified antiseptic tourist destination.
It was life writ large. One night as I made my way home an American car pulled up (most were American cars in those days. Big and sassy. Lots of chrome. Plenty of attitude. Mine was a ’59 Chevy Biscayne. Armour plated because it had belonged to a gangster. It came to a violent end with me behind the wheel, but that’s another story.) The car that pulled up was tight with Africans, all drinking. They invited me to go out into the township with them where they were holding a jazz contest. They wanted me to be the judge. Blind belief in divine protection or a young man’s foolish concept of indestructability made me climb in. A white kid swept along by the joy of township jazz. When I had made my deliberations and declared the winner a few hours before dawn, they drove me home.
Crazy times that made me grow up. Delivering babies in the back of an ambulance, British doctors visited the mayhem of the emergency rooms, so violent were the assaults. For a young man it was a major learning curve observing so much of diverse human nature, of extreme violence and discrimination, of young love and of being tested by life-threatening danger.
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”
I confess to being a frugal soul when it comes to consumerism. I think it goes back to being an immediate post-war child and the experience of rationing that was still in place for quite a few years. That and the years of living rough as I tried to find work and then later establishing myself as a writer. I cherish things that are built to last and really don’t belong in the mass consumer age. Shopkeepers declare a severe drop in earnings when they see me coming. I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of something just for the sake of replacing it. But I urge every couple who live together to spend the money and have your own bathroom. It’s essential.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”
Dreams so close you can touch them. How often have we missed the boat – seen great ships slip their moorings and drift away with all our treasures aboard? That sense of desolation and loss can be profound. But nothing is guaranteed. Who said life is fair? And so we beat on believing in tomorrow and never giving up on the dream. Stronger, and we hope, wiser.
“Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world”
Adventure. Like many young men that’s all I ever sought. And wherever that particular swirling tide took me I was happy to go and be tested. Journeys of self-reliance and challenge were foremost. I can’t blame Moby Dick but during my feral youth I dreamt of sailing the great oceans and at a time before my consciousness was sufficiently raised, I took myself down to the whaling ships in the southern ocean to sign on. Thankfully, circumstances prevented me from doing so.
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories”
Anonymity is to be treasured. I love the idea of being a writer, of not being recognized. I experience that great sense of slipping through the gaps when I take myself off to the wilds of the countryside. That’s where I feel most connected and content.
“It sounds plausible enough tonight, but wait until tomorrow. Wait for the common sense of the morning”
There are times in the dark hours when I awake with a brilliant idea. It is so brilliant I can barely comprehend how wonderful it is. The same thing happened to me when I was in hospital after an operation and the pain during the night transcended me to a different place. I wrote until I could write no more. I still have notebooks full of scribbled brilliance.
Come the dawn I have never read such incoherent tosh in all my life. What happened to the realms of creative unconscious? Perhaps all the knocks on the head over the years short circuited the synapses.