Royal Colonnade and its residents reclaimed

Book number 7 – Royal Colonnade: a Terrace in Changing Times is now in print.

This is the biography of a Georgian terrace of four houses in Great George Street, Bristol, and all the folk who lived in them since it was built in 1828. It majors on number 12, the home of Testimony Films and my long-time collaborator, Steve Humphries. After 30 years there, Steve is selling up and relocating the company to his house in Olveston in the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire. It’s a sad time for him as the house is beautiful and very close to his heart, but he now has the consolation of a book that records not only his long occupation there, but the lives of many successive owners and tenants.

“… One of the most engaging histories of Bristol that I have read…”

George Ferguson, former City Mayor

For the moment, this will be privately circulated to a small number of people and local institutions at no cost. In the medium term Steve and I will investigate whether there’s a commercial market for it with a local publisher. House histories are popular – in print and on TV – but I don’t think anyone’s done a whole terrace before.

It was written quickly during the winter Covid lockdown of 2021, based on research by professional house historian Caroline Gurney and with the help of a shelf-ful of histories of Bristol and net searches. It was a joy to write because of the people and events I met along the way.

Unsurprisingly (to me anyway), the residents of Royal Colonnade over nearly two centuries almost always have fascinating stories. There’s the Victorian newly-weds whose union lasts barely a year; the respectable widower who marries an actress who then deserts him to live in sin with a society MP; the shop-girls who save their neighbour from death by fire, the defrocked vicar, the… and so it goes on. Ordinary people with extraordinary stories.

For as long as these stories remain to be uncovered, I will love to reclaim them for posterity.

My Reasons to be Cheerful in a Time of Covid

It’s January 24th 2021 and the Covid news in the UK is dreadful. It’s also snowing! But I have three (at least) reasons to be cheerful.

FIRST: This afternoon my partner Bevan has his first vaccination shot at the Town Hall. We may have to wait another three months for the second, but at least it’s happening and is something – at last – that the govt. seems to be getting right. Not before 100,000 deaths though.

SECOND: The paperback version of my biog of Elaine Madden I Heard My Country Calling, is finally coming out next week (27th) after only six years! I haven’t seen it yet, but my agent says it’s looking good. It will be great to see Elaine in print again, even if this is the worst possible time to have a book out with bookshops and libraries shut. But there’s always Amazon. I’d include a pic of the new cover if I could remember how to add an image… Details: £12.99 Published by the History Press.

THIRD: I’m writing again – Hooray! Can’t believe how much I’ve missed it, and winter lockdown is the perfect time to hunker down with the laptop. It’s the biography of a beautiful house in the centre of Bristol and the people who’ve lived there since 1828. Like every book I’ve ever written, it’s an amazing learning experience: everything from the Bristol Riots of 1831 to Victorian bedroom etiquette. The ‘outside’ history is fascinating enough but the stories of the people ‘inside’ really capture the imagination – they are real to me.

For the moment the book will have a limited, private circulation, but if we can interest a publisher it might get a wider readership. Let’s hope David Olusoga hasn’t completely sewn up the market in house histories…

So here it is!

In completely the wrong place. I must (re)learn how to do this…

A rather longer intermission than I’d hoped…

Long time, no blog.  With two projects completed in pretty quick succession, I’d sort of got in the habit of concentrated writing. No bad thing – but 18 months without a book on the stocks has left me twiddling my thumbs and succumbing to a lot of Emergency Holidays.

Rather than being completely dilatory I am writing the life story of an elderly friend in his 90s. His WW2 service was in India and Indonesia – a theatre I knew next to little about, so it was a good opportunity to learn something. Learning interesting new things is one of the principal joys of non-fiction writing and perhaps what I miss most about not having a project on the go.

A British patrol against insurgents in Java

So I am learning a bit about the British Indian Army, Jemadars and Subedar Majors, the insurgents who wanted to kick the Dutch out of what was then the Dutch East Indies, and the horrors that surrounded the partition of India at the end of the British Raj.

Though nothing like the scale of the task untaken for Britain’s Greatest Generation, and likely to be read by a handful of people rather than thousands, it’s just as worthwhile and reminds me that life-stories are intrinsically valuable – exceptional or ordinary, thrilling or mundane – especially to those close to the loved-ones who won’t always be with us.

I write this days away from the centenary of the 1918 Armistice with much in the news about those who fell and the impact on those who survived. So perhaps I’m more conscious than usual of the march of time and the need to record the everyday experiences of those who lived through very different and much tougher times. We owe them a debt of gratitude: recording their efforts, however apparently modest, is a worthy act of remembrance.

2019 will, I hope bring new projects. A major series for the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is being pitched to the big international streaming services. There may be an associated book.  The idea for a novel, based on an intriguing and enigmatic character from 20th century history and a house where extraordinary things went on, refuses to go away despite my best efforts to kill it through inactivity.

Something may happen, especially if I have the courage to make it!

‘Not Guilty’ launched at London’s iconic gay bookshop – TV to follow!

Gay’s the Word, the UK’s first serious gay bookshop (as featured in the brilliant 2014 film Pride), hosted the launch this week of our book Not Guilty: Queer Stories from a Century of Discrimination. 

The shop, which has been on lively Marchmont Street, WC1 since 1979, is a tiny treasure-house of fascinating stuff across the spectrum of LGBT+ subjects and writers. The staff are lovely and there’s masses of interest here for everyone, gay or straight.

IMG_9229The manager Jim could not have been more welcoming and gave the book a wonderful introductory endorsement: “of the half dozen books out for the 50th anniversary, this the one I like the best because it represents the experience of the older men who come into the shop”.

Quite a crowd braved a wet evening for Waitrose refreshments and to hear the testimony of Terry, Stephen and Ed. They all feature in the book with different but equally moving and instructive stories about the discrimination they faced in the ’70s and ’80s and how they fought back.

Terry and Stephen also appear in Steve Humphries’ documentary, now called Convicted for Love, to be shown in the UK on More 4 on Monday 10th July at 9pm.

I was specially pleased that so many of the men we interviewed were able to come to the launch, many of them with their husbands/partners. It was great to be able to welcome them and show them the book for the first time.

IMG_9223We were both on signing duty and the shop did a brisk trade. Here Steve signs the book for Stephen…

…and below I’m talking to lovely Jim from the bookshop and doing my impersonation of someone dragged through a hedge backwards. But at least I’m smiling! Behind me is old friend and well-known journalist David Hepworth, whose current book on the demise of the rock star, Uncommon People is storming up the charts.  Jealous, moi?



Not Guilty is published by Biteback (thank you Olivia for producing a quality product in double-quick time and Isabelle for publicity) at £12.99. You can get it at Gay’s the Word or – if you’re not handy for Marchmont Street – here.

That’s the second book written in the past 12 months. There will now be a short intermission while I summon the creative energy to decide what to do next. Until then…

Not Guilty

This is the title (at the moment) of my latest book and the reason for the long blogging silence. It’s an oral history based on the lives of 20 or so gay men over the past 100 years and again it’s a collaboration with Steve Humphries, who is making a Channel 4 documentary to accompany it (as I like to think of it, though it’s really the other way round).

Like the Aberfan book, it had to be written in a matter of weeks. What made this possible was the power and lucidity of the stories the book and doc are built around. Stories like Alex Purdie’s…  Alex was an out gay man in the 1930s when ‘out’ and ‘gay’ had different meanings. He got a taste for frocks and lipstick from the age of 5 and spent much of the war in both as part of an army concert party entertaining the troops in the Far East.

3.5 Entertaining the troops. No wet feathers here

His story, and the many others of ‘ordinary’ gay men in the book remind us that gay rights have been hard-won since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised sex acts between men (women who love women have never been criminalised) 50 years ago. We’ve come far, especially since the late 1990s, but with bumps along the way like AIDS and Section 28 which set the cause back years.

Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far-right in Europe are bad news for all minority groups – which make handy targets for hatred in troubled times. We take nothing for granted: hard-won rights, whether they benefit us directly or not, have to be defended.

Not Guilty: Queer Stories from a Century of Discrimination published by Biteback. Book and Channel 4 documentary out June 2017 (probably).


What’s in a name? Choosing your title

Tricky business, titles. You’re looking for something intriguing that will draw buyers in, but not so obscure as to give no clue as to what’s between the covers. The publisher of my book about adoption, Love Child, thought it might get confused with the Diana Ross song so I came up with 39 crappy alternatives. Possibly the worst was Before I Was Me – which, oh horror, they really liked.  Luckily, common sense prevailed and the vaguely intriguing but otherwise meaningless failed to supplant the perfectly descriptive original.

Ronseal titles (‘It does what it says on the tin’) are still very much in vogue for both fiction and non-fiction but sometimes this can get you into trouble. One reader took The Children Who Fought Hitler so literally he used his (one-star)  Amazon review to complain that there were no 9-year olds grappling hand-to-hand with Der Führer. As writers and publishers know, you have to take some liberties with titles to stand out among so many competing titles. Most – but obviously not all – readers understand this.

I’ve had three of my titles already chosen for me, as they were TV tie-ins. Luckily, I was pretty happy with all of them. But for the most recent I had to think up my own. This was extraordinarily difficult. I wanted something that encapsulated the bravery of my subject, secret agent Elaine Madden, and gave a flavour of the patriotic times she lived in. I just couldn’t get it until Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s first woman Prime Minister loved and hated in equal measure – came unexpectedly to the rescue…

I was watching her funeral on TV where they played the popular patriotic hymn, I Vow To Thee, My Country.  Inspired, I Googled the lyrics and found a little-known middle verse. Its first line was just what I’d been looking for: I Heard My Country Calling.  Bingo!

So, in the absence of a Ronseal solution, I’d say that other people’s words (Shakespeare is the No. 1 choice) are a handy resource for us lesser talents.  So, now the hunt is on for a working title for the next project now in its very earliest gestation…

My Left Foot

20160107_184513_resized… is currently encased in an attractive flesh-coloured plastic moonboot, secured by big strips of Velcro which stick annoyingly to the carpet and everything else.

A fractured metatarsal. It happened on a cobbled drive outside our hotel on Day 3 of the holiday, so I ended up sampling more books than planned. I kicked off with the Mollie Panter-Downes short stories, which didn’t disappoint. The Susan Hill crime thriller was pretty pedestrian but All the Light We Cannot See lived up to the hype: a sort-of love story set in WW2 St Malo. It’s long and the ‘fractured narrative’ demands concentration, but I found it involving. In fact I was crying by the final pages.

20151217_160755_resizedAnother brick-sized tome I really enjoyed was Priscilla: the Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France,  an intriguing antidote to Elaine’s heroic story. Very different women with polar opposite responses to war.  But with eerie similarities too…

After all this reading I still had 2 days of enforced sitting by the pool in prospect so I was reduced to picking up The Lake District Murder  from the hotel library – the best of a ropey old bunch, much of it in Swedish.  This was a tedious 1935 crime procedural without any character development or local colour but full of technical detail about the inside of petrol tankers. I waded to its bleedin’ obvious conclusion while waiting in my wheelchair for airside assistance at the airport.

So, quite a literary holiday on the whole.

Holiday reading

As I’m not writing at the moment, there’s a chance to catch up on reading, and the upcoming holiday means a break from the usual routine – shopwashcooktellysleep – and some lazy days ahead in which to do nothing but enjoy other people’s writing.

I love the Persephone Books list – they republish forgotten 20th century gems, many by women writers. The writing is generally so precise, so literate – and so redolent of times past, some of which I just about remember from my childhood in the 1950s.  At the moment I’m reading Noel Streatfield’s The Saplings.  She’s famous for children’s books, notably Ballet Shoes, but she writes wonderfully for adults too.

Next up for the holiday, another Persephone: a short story collection by Mollie Panter-Downes. Better known for her regular column, Letters From London, for the New York Times during WW2, she evokes the atmosphere of the Blitz-torn capital in much of her other writing so I’m really looking forward to her short stories, Good Evening, Mrs Craven.

Fiona at Pitshanger Bookshop recommended All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner  Looks interesting, and there’s even a WW2 dimension – my obsession and inspiration.  Judging by the swoony reviews (which can’t always be trusted) it promises to be a page-turner.  And, for light relief, a Susan Hill crime yarn, The Various Haunts of Men, the first in her Simon Serrailler series. It’s set in a fictional small cathedral city, so I shall imagine that it’s Chichester, a small cathedral city on England’s south coast which I know very well.

Happy Christmas!  Or to my American readers, Happy Holidays!  Keep writing – and reading – and see you next year.

‘How to write best-selling non-fiction…’

I know I can do the writing bit. It’s the ‘best-selling’ bit I’d like to do better. So I joined a Guardian Masterclass last Sunday afternoon to find out how…

I’d been on a weekend GM course before, so I knew the form. Kings Place is a mightily impressive building but it manages not to be intimidating. On the edge of the wonderful Kings Cross redevelopment, it is both cooly contemporary but also welcoming, so unlike the Step-No-Further newspaper offices of the past.

The course was led by Simon Garfield, who’s written or edited 17 non-fiction titles and whose latest, the edited diaries of an unknown Englishwoman spanning 60 years, is getting admiring reviews. Oh, to be half as creative and successful…

He was a sympathetic and helpful tutor and his unusual speech impediment made me listen to what he was saying more intently, trying to work out what combination of letters tended to trip him up. He did us (about 60 or 70 of us) the very great compliment of treating us all as professional-writers-in-waiting, though probably less than 1 in 10 had actually published anything. No matter. We were there, so we must be serious about our craft.

I’d be putting Guardian Masterclasses out of business if I repeated all his valuable tips – some of which were already painfully familiar to anyone who’d actually been through the professional publishing mill – but two small things did hit home:

  • don’t talk about your book idea or work-in-progress, because every time you do, it tends to die a little for you. How true this is, so I intend to stop immediately. Which is a bit of a bummer for the future of the ‘New Projects’ section of this website…
  • turn off the net when you’re writing. No-one will die if you don’t reply to emails for 24-hours (or even a week).  I can be disciplined once the study door is shut, but this doesn’t stop me reading every interesting-looking email as it pings in. Perhaps I could have finished those books weeks earlier without the pings? So I shall stop that, too.

So, in answer to the question about Masterclasses posed about a dozen posts ago, I’d say that yes, they are worthwhile. Everything you can pick up from published writers, agents and publishing professionals will help you reflect on and improve your craft.  And in the process you’re bound to get chatting to interesting people who share your passion for writing – and, who knows, other things too. What’s not to like?

The Agony and the Ecstacy…

There’s nothing quite like opening that Jiffy bag and seeing the first copy of your new book, hot(ish) off the press.

I Heard My Country Calling
I Heard My Country Calling

The first thing I do is check they’ve spelled my name right. Yes, I’ve pored over proofs obsessively but the second t in Elliott sometimes inexplicably goes AWOL. Jolly good, all t’s present and correct.

The cover is a strong design and says what it needs to, but the weight and feel of a book is important too. Does it feel good to handle and is the paper a decent gsi? What colour is the hard cover beneath the jacket? A nice cream with gold lettering on the spine, good choice.  How has the plate section come out – are the photos hi-res and glossy and are the captions as I recall writing them?  Like many book-browsers, I always turn to the photographs first to give me a flavour of a non-fiction book.
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