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Library talk

Upper Norwood Joint LibraryIn what has unintentionally turned into something of a pre-Christmas promotional gentle trot marathon, I’m just putting the finishing touches to a talk I’ll be giving at Upper Norwood Joint Library next Saturday (14th Dec) from 2.30pm.

I’ll be discussing the the process of writing Strange Air, and taking questions on any of the subjects that arise – whether the history of Crystal Palace Park, Thomas Webster Rammell and the pneumatic railway experiments of the mid-19th century, or the research and writing process itself. The library is a wonderful (and in many ways unique) hive of local activity, and I’m really touched that they’ve asked me along. Entry is free but spaces are limited, so the library is advising people to arrive promptly for the talk.

Last week I had a great time appearing on Janet Smith’s Arts Show on Croydon Radio, discussing much the same. The podcast is available now.

‘Peculiar and wonderful’: an Autumn update

Photo by David Cook for the Croydon Advertiser

It’s been a long time since I posted anything here – an inadvertent hiatus caused by having to move house (damn my returning landlord!), an overflow of activity at work and, chiefly, promotional efforts associated with my new book, Strange Air.

The latter have been going terrifically well, and the Kindle edition has been flying off the electronic shelves, with a fair few paperbacks following in its wake. The whole enterprise has been massively helped by the news that Chinese developers ZhongRong Holdings are proposing to re-build the Crystal Palace in its original form and location – an out-of-the-blue endeavour which, as those who’ve read it will know, couldn’t be any more relevant to my novel. The rights and wrongs of their proposals have provoked passionate debate in Crystal Palace, and I have personally reacted with a complex mix of enthusiasm, intrigue and dread.

On the one hand, what could be better than having the Palace back at the heart of the suburb which sprang up around it, and gave the area its unique grandeur? The park needs some kind of regeneration, and with the actual site of the Palace largely unused at present, it’s difficult to mount a convincing argument about loss of green space – especially since the development is intended to bankroll existing plans to redevelop the rest of the park.

But on the other hand, what on earth are the developers (and Boris) thinking? Although superficially appealing, the idea of going back to old glories could easily be considered anathema to the core Palace principle. While admittedly crammed full of replicas of ancient artefacts, the original building was nonetheless a forward-looking enterprise: inspired by imperial exploration, and intent on expanding its visitors’ minds by bringing the fruits of those excursions back home. In short, the place was progressive, so why regress by rebuilding it?

And then there are the knotty practical arguments – how can a space that big not be essentially and intensively commercial? – regarding which we need to ask if the greater economic pay-off is worth the disruption caused to what is currently a proudly independent suburb?

Clearly, the sensible thing to do is wait until the detail of the proposals emerges, whereupon the consultation process can begin in earnest. But therein lies the biggest fear: that with the mayoral and municipal winds in their sails, the developers will be ushered through due process without the right questions being asked at the right time.

Who can say? For now, at least, the best way to experience the Crystal Palace as it was remains – he says with a marketer’s smile – to read my book. Below are a few links to articles and reviews that have appeared over the last couple of months, collected here as much to aid my memory as anything else.

(1) Lovely review from the Londonist, in which the editor Matt Brown remarks: ‘What a peculiar and wonderful novel Strange Air is . . . a true page-turner, whose ultimate outcome is as unpredictable as a blindfolded interchange at Earl’s Court.’

(2) A piece I wrote about the gestation of the novel for Inside Croydon

(3) A couple of local newspaper articles about the book, from the Croydon Guardian and the Croydon Advertiser

(4) A beautiful piece from local blogger James Balston about the magic of Crystal Palace Park, containing his fantastically atmospheric photography and a few kind words about the book

(5) A nice mention in Guardian blogger Dave Hill’s ruminations on the Chinese plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace

(6) An enthusiastic review from the website Fictional Cities, a charming site devoted to fiction about London, Florence and Venice

(7) A slightly lukewarm – and spoilertastic! – review from London blogger IanVisits

Blow me down

It’s a funny old world. A month and a half ago, my new novel was published – fusing the histories of the Crystal Palace and the pneumatic railway. A historical fantasy, rooted in detailed research of both subjects, the book revels in the wonders of both the Palace, its park, and the irresistible idea of blowing or (effectively) sucking trains through tunnels. Without giving too much away, part of my authorial intent was to revive those marvels in the minds of modern readers, and spark them into imagining what the world would be like if the two phenomena were part of our everyday lives in the 21st century.

How extraordinary, then, that within six weeks of publication, the two things have come to uncanny prominence in the public eye – from quite unexpected sources.

First, it was revealed that a Chinese billionaire harbours dreams of rebuilding the Crystal Palace in Norwood. And now, an American billionaire, PayPal founder Elon Musk, has unveiled a fantastic vision of a ‘Hyperloop’ transport link between Los Angeles and San Francisco – using magnetism and, you’ve guessed it, pneumatic power to propel pods from one city to the other at supersonic speeds.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the kind of fiction I write – fantastical extrapolations of real-life obsessions – but similar sorts of things happened with my first book, So Long, Shakespeare.

Either way, I can’t complain. As the novels find their way in the world, it can only do me good if real life is kind enough to catch up with what they contain. Who knows? Perhaps I should even start thinking about my third novel as an exercise in wish-fulfilment, and pack it full of things I really want to come to pass.

Or perhaps there’s no need. After all, as my first two books have shown, that’s precisely what I’ve already been doing – it is, effectively, the reason why I (and probably most other novelists) write in the first place.

A breath of fresh air

Strange AirI’m thrilled to announce the publication of my second novel – the macabre historical thriller Strange Air – in both Kindle and paperback formats.

In the mid-19th century, London is crying out for a cure to the congestion on its streets. Knowing that some kind of underground railway will provide the solution, civil engineer Thomas Webster Rammell fights to realise his dream of trains powered by air – so saving his fellow citizens from the unthinkable horrors of subterranean steam. Meanwhile, in present-day London, ex-tube driver Eric walks amid the ruins of the old Crystal Palace. It’s a sad, ghostly place, and gets stranger still when he is attacked by a vengeful skeleton, lurking in a buried Victorian railway carriage.

Inspired by two true stories, Strange Air interweaves the irresistible tale of one of the Victorians’ most fantastic inventions with the history of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham – that piece de resistance of Victorian endeavour, which graced the airy heights of south London from 1854 until its fiery destruction in 1936. An exhilarating blend of railway history and suburban fairytale, the novel reveals how close one man came to changing the history of London’s public transport – and exposes the truth behind the tragic demise of the once-mighty ‘people’s Palace’.

Coming full circle

I’m just putting the finishing touches to my new novel Strange Air – a historical ghost story set in Upper Norwood, which will be published in the coming weeks. The novel tells the true story of the Victorian Civil Engineer Thomas Webster Rammell, who was a tireless advocate of air-powered city railways as a safer, cleaner and more reliable alternative to those – like the Metropolitan – that were propelled by steam. For reasons that will become clear, Rammell’s story is intimately interwoven with the history and fate of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, making it impossible to tell one tale without also recounting the other.

One of my remaining tasks is to touch up and double-check some of the book’s historical detail, particularly regarding the interior of the Crystal Palace as it was in its heyday. This in turn has led me back onto the internet – and into Upper Norwood library – rummaging through illustrations and photographs of the second (Sydenham) Crystal Palace.

And my goodness: what a joyful way to while away the hours / procrastinate as I contemplate a pile of editorial changes. I mean, just look at this:

Or indeed this:

Beautiful and intriguing all by themselves, the pictures are even more absorbing when you consider what the park is now – an eerie patchwork of half-forgotten schemes and dreams. Admittedly, I’m no great adventurer, but I can imagine few places where the immense contrast between past and present is so great and so tantalisingly documented; where the longing to go back in time, to see it all as it was, is so acute.

As you can tell, this latest bout of research has re-kindled in me the intense, melancholy buzz that fired me to write Strange Air in the first place. I am, in the best possible sense, ending where I began. And that’s not only satisfying, but also inspiring – so much so, that I’d quite happily go round and write the whole thing again, if only my editor thought it necessary. Alas, no such drastic overhaul is required, meaning I’ll just have to crack on and write a whole new ‘Crystal Palace’ novel instead.

In the meantime, click here to be kept up-to-date about Strange Air.

It blew, it sucked – but in a good (and not at all rude) way

London's Lost Pneumatic Railways (Ian Mansfield)Over the past few days I’ve been enjoying a new Kindle ebook by London blogger Ian Mansfield. London’s Lost Pneumatic Railways – which Mansfield has also been serialising for free on his blog – is primarily an account of the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway: an ultimately doomed attempt to build an air-powered railway beneath the Thames in the mid-1860s. In telling his story, Mansfield touches on the surrounding history of these ‘atmospheric’ and ‘pneumatic’ schemes, which at least two generations of civil engineers believed offered a genuine alternative to steam-powered railways – safer, cleaner and more reliable.

This is a subject very close to my heart. A few years ago, when living in West Dulwich, my girlfriend and I wandered up to Crystal Palace, where she regaled me with the district’s most pervasive urban myth: namely, that somewhere beneath Crystal Palace Park is a buried railway carriage, full of skeletons dressed in full Victorian dress – victims, it is claimed, of a forgotten 19th century railway accident.

I was already infatuated with the sad, sleepy atmosphere of Crystal Palace Park, and this story only made me love it more. Immediately, I began researching the origins of the myth, finding that it was most closely attached to the pneumatic railway trial that occurred in the Palace grounds in 1864. This in turn led me to look into the history of the pneumatic railway project, and in particular the story of its unflinching advocate, Thomas Webster Rammell.

Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway (1864)Bit by bit, the various threads entwined themselves into a story, and I began work on my second novel: the tale of both Rammell and his pneumatic railway, and also of those poor neglected skeletons, who to this day lurk somewhere below the surface of South London’s premier post-Palatial wilderness.

I finished the novel earlier this year, and it should be published within the next couple of months. In the meantime, for anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend Ian’s new ebook. Compared to my novel, it’s a very straightforward account of the pneumatic railway story – he omits the undead skeletons and haunted park – but it’s no less fascinating for that. I know from experience how difficult it is to research this largely overlooked area of railway history, and some of the obscurities which Ian has uncovered are impressive indeed.

I’ll post more on the novel soon, when I’ll also supplement it with excerpts from my own research – much of which didn’t make it in to the final manuscript, and which will hopefully provide a useful complement to London’s Lost Pneumatic Railways.

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Winner Best Independent Bookshop UK & Ireland 2014

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