I haven’t had much time to blog lately. The past few months have been swallowed up by the day job and house-hunting. But I did find time last Saturday to accept the kind invitation of the People for Portland Road/South Norwood Arts Festival, who asked me to unveil a blue plaque commemorating the site of the old Norwood (‘Jolly Sailor’) atmospheric railway pumping station.
This was one of three such pumping stations built to operate the air-powered railway line that briefly ran from Forest Hill (later New Cross) to West Croydon from 1845 to 1847. It was a key ancestor to the pneumatic railways later trialled by Thomas Webster Rammell, which form the subject of my novel Strange Air. Having spent so long researching the history of the air-powered railways for that book – and indeed having set some of my opening chapters on the Croydon line – it was a great privilege to reveal the plaque. All being well, it will provide a long-lasting reminder of the inspiring railway that once ran through the heart of what feels like a newly-invigorated South London suburb.
As ever, I’m not blogging as much as I’d like at present. The day job is exceptionally busy, and I’m spending any spare time preparing the plan for a third novel – while continuing to promote the first and second.
As I explained at my self-publishing talk at Upper Norwood Library on 25th January (thanks again to the amazing library staff for inviting me), my current tactic for the latter involves disciplining myself to blog a little less – instead spending time reaching out to others who have shared interests, and potentially bigger platforms than my WordPress and Twitter audiences.
It’s an approach which I explain in more detail in a chat I recently had with a local Crystal Palace editor called Danielle Wrate – and which has just been published on her excellent website.
(1) A review on local website Inside Croydon
(2) The podcast of my appearance on Croydon Radio’s Arts Show, with Janet Smith
(3) A little thinkpiece I wrote for Bromley News Shopper about the proposed reconstruction of Crystal Palace Park by the Chinese investor Mr Ni Zhaoxing and his ZhongRong Group.
(4) A post I wrote for the wonderful local blog Dulwich OnView about how the roots of Strange Air – though telling the tale of Crystal Palace Park and Thomas Webster Rammell’s pneumatic railways – in fact lie in the deserted Crescent Wood and Paxton Tunnels, in and around Sydenham Hill
Finally, I’m delighted to say that the book is also now available via the Crystal Palace Foundation – the result of delicate negotiations, which absolutely does not mean that Foundation endorses my novel’s supposition that a bunch of aggrieved Victorian skeletons lurk beneath Crystal Palace Park, trapped in an abandoned Victorian railway carriage . . .
The last week has been predictably crazy in the run-up to Christmas – making this a rather belated post to say a great big thank you to all who came along to Upper Norwood Library last Saturday (14th December) to hear me talk about Strange Air.
I was really touched by the size of the turnout, as well as the enthusiasm of all who attended – both those who had read the book already, and those who were looking forward to getting stuck in over Christmas. After so many years of solitude spent researching, planning and writing the book – all based on the hope that others might be interested in Thomas Webster Rammell and the history of Crystal Palace Park – it was immensely gratifying to discover to have my hunch confirmed at last. Biggest thanks of all go to Rita, Carol and the rest of the team at Upper Norwood Library for being so immensely welcoming and setting up the whole event.
All being well, I’ll be appearing again at the library early in the new year to talk in more detail about the process of self-publishing, and exactly what’s involved for a go-it-alone author like me.
In 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.
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
(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
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.
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.
I’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’.