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.
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’.
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.
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.