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Who killed Berta Cáceres?

Nina Lakhani's new book WHO KILLED BERTA CÁCERES? tells the story of an Indigenous environmental activist murdered in Honduras. 

Berta Cáceres was a celebrated champion of her indigenous Lenca community and fiercely opposed the construction of a dam on their land. Ultimately, her defiance put her at lethal odds with the companies and Honduran government supporting the dam's construction. On the 3rd of March 2016 she was assassinated by gunmen later linked to the construction of the dam. 

Nina Lakhani's book details her investigation into the complex power structures at play in Cáceres' murder and elaborates on the reality that so many more were responsible for Berta Cáceres' assassination than just those who pulled the trigger.

Before the book’s publication by Verso, Lakhani had been a Latin American correspondent for The Guardian, reporting on Berta Cáceres’ campaign among other regional affairs. Lakhani’s reporting often came with much personal risk. As John Perry points out in his review for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs “Nina Lakhani is a brave reporter. She had to be. Since the coup in Honduras, 83 journalists have been killed; 21 were thrown in prison during the period when Lakhani was writing her book.”

The book has been released to international acclaim. Many reviews have praised its success in detailing how systemic corruption works against indigneous communities and activists like Cáceres. In openDemocracy Julia Zulver said “Lakhani’s book meticulously unpicks a Gordian knot of corruption, impunity, and violence, to show how the struggle against the dam is deeply-rooted in historical power dynamics in Honduras.” Ben Leather in Global Witness writes that the book “…offers the inside track on a case that is not only emblematic of the struggle for rights and representation in Honduras, but of the global battle for rights and the environment in the face of corrupt governments and irresponsible business.”

As well as reviews in Ms Magazine, Eurasia Review, Counter Punch, Jacobin Magazine, and Americas Quarterly, Lakhani herself has been doing the rounds. She has since appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, The Red Nation Podcast, and in Foreign Policy magazine to talk about Berta Cácere’s life and work. The book continues to garner international acclaim for its fearless reporting on this tragic murder, and the relevance of Berta Cáceres’ life and death to on-going indigenous and environmental struggles on-going throughout the world.


Read an extract of Who Killed Berta Cáceres? in The Guardian here. For your copy of Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet head to the Verso website, where you can get 40% off for the rest of June.


 

Robert O’Connor’s Blood and Circuses


Robert O'Connor's first book Blood and Circuses charts his journeys through the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, looking at how football culture is tied up with ideas of nationhood, history, and power.

For the Artellus blog, Robert talks about how he went from rookie sports journalist in the UK to writing a book about footballing culture in remote corners of Eastern European.

Blood and Circuses is out now on Biteback Publishing, and can be purchased here.

“I knew from the earliest days of my career as a football journalist that I wanted to write about more than just the domestic game in England.

It’s not easy as a young writer (relatively speaking – I was 25 when I first turned my hand to scribbling about football) starting out in this business. The sheer breadth of competition that you’re up against is daunting. Finding a unique angle on something like the Premier League in the Sky Sports age is next to impossible.

All the biggest news stories are being covered by the heavyweight personalities at the national newspapers, and getting access to big names for interviews can be hellishly hard, even for those blessed with initiative and the fearlessness to stick your neck out (of which I had neither).

My solution was to pack a bag and fly off to Eastern Europe to look for stories that hadn’t been told. Football behind the old Iron Curtain has been quite well documented if you know where to look, so I had to look between the cracks of the cracks and go where virtually no English football journalist had been.

So in March 2016, scraping together a couple of hundred pounds from my meager income as an ad hoc freelancer, I got on a bus from Sheffield to Heathrow and flew to Pristina – the capital city of the former Yugoslav republic of Kosovo. It was the first time I had left the country alone, and I had no idea what I would do when I arrived. A couple of emails placed to the local football authorities hooked me up with a few names to interview and matches to attend, and within a week I had the foundations for what eventually became Blood & Circuses.

I’d made the transition to writing full-time only about six months earlier. I’d gone back to university at 26 to train properly as a journalist and jump through the NCTJ’s educational hoops, which gave me a bit of breathing room to start doing my first paid writing, at FourFourTwo and VICE. My first proper break came when I was offered a freelance job with the Bleacher Report doing these huge in-depth, 4,000-word investigations, which enabled me to finally quit the myriad part-time jobs I had stayed on in after my studies.

Freelance jobs came and went over the next few years. I moved back to London but eschewed pursuing staff work as I needed the freedom to be able to disappear for weeks at a time to obscure outposts in Eastern Europe. But my travels meant I was able to get my first heavyweight bylines; The Times, the BBC, The Telegraph and The Independent all carried my reporting over the next few years, and I was finally able to articulate exactly where my work as a journalist was leading me. Currently I contribute ad hoc as a freelance reporter to the iThe Times and The Sun (if any of my editors there are reading this and would like to take me on full-time, you’ve got my number).

I continued to write from wherever my travels took me up until the end of 2019, which by then included each of Europe’s separatist statelets; Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Donetsk – the principal subjects of Blood & Circuses.

I believe I got the green light that the book was going to be published whilst half asleep in a backpackers hostel in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. That night at a snow-swept Olympiskiy Stadium as I watched a drab Champions League game between Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon, the perishing cold didn’t bother me at all.”


Words by Robert O’Connor, whose first book Blood and Circuses: A Football Journey Through Europe’s Rebel Republics is out now on Biteback Publishing. Thanks to Robert for writing for our blog and the ongoing pleasure of being his literary agents.

‘What’s the world you came out of?’ Juliet Bates


Juliet Bates hails from the North East of England and lives in France teaching art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Caen in Normandy. Her debut novel The Missing was published in 2009 on Linen Press, her short fiction has appeared in various publications.

Bates' latest novel The Colours is out now on Fleet Reads, an imprint of Little Brown. This sweeping novel features a mother and son separated in the early 1900s. With its rich visual descriptions the novel is an exploration of looking differently at our surroundings and relationships to place. 

Juliet, your latest novel The Colours has just come out, what’s it about?

The Colours is a novel about a mother and a son, Ellen and Jack. Despite their intimate connection they’re separated for most of the novel which explores Jack’s slow reconciliation with his mother’s condition and, not unconnected to his mother, Jack’s reconciliation with his hometown and the landscape and environment around it. That’s at the centre of the novel, the people part.

And the non-people part?

The town itself is a fairly important character and I was interested in the way in which the environments and landscapes changed over the period of the 70 years of the novel: socially and geographically. It’s also a novel about looking. Looking in the context of being an artist in Jack’s case and in terms of Ellen and her synesthesia. Ellen sees things in a slightly oblique, strange, oddly coloured way. I suppose it’s also a book about the way in which people perceive the same things differently. In this novel you have these two characters in parallel seeing this landscape and environment in very different ways.

So there’s a connection to your last novel, The Missing, when it comes to themes of people’s ways of processing and perception?

Yes, and understanding things that have happened in the past in various different ways, which I hadn’t picked up on when I was writing The Colours, but there you go!

Well now we’re all cooped up in our homes it’s a great time to release a book about seeing things differently.

Absolutely. Everyday I get emails from students sending me pictures of stuff that they’ve been doing and it’s great. I hope that other people are doing the same, where they’re nudged into creativity using a very minimal amount of materials and things they’ve got to hand. I sense that a lot of people, not just my students, are experimenting and being inventive. I’m sounding very positive, but I think that’s true!

Maybe now everyone’s had a drop in quantity of visual input they’ll think about ways of upping the quality?

Let’s hope so, we’ll see how it goes! That’s something that Jack talks about himself in the novel where he tries to get students to look more and look closer and look better and it would be nice if people did that. I take the train to work and on French trains there are blinds, and people pull the blinds down! I find that…

…Unforgiveable!

I know! I don’t understand it at all so the book is an attempt to encourage people to keep the blinds up.

Can you tell us a bit about your career and how you came to write novels?

I have spent all of my adult life in art schools in one way or another. I studied Graphic Design, although I was never a graphic designer. I worked as an illustrator for a while. I did an MA in art-history and I started teaching fairly early on in Britain. I then moved to France and started teaching in France. I started writing just after moving to France, in 2003/2004 and I had my first piece published in 2005. I think the writing in English really came as a consequence of living in France and struggling with the French language and English became this space that I could feel comfortable with.

Like a linguistic refuge? Did you speak any French at all before you went to France?

Yes, I did. But when you’re working you then you realise the enormity of the task, you realise how much you don’t know! I think I still struggle, after 20 years. I live with an English person and I work with, oddly, I happen to work with a lot of English speaking colleagues, which doesn’t help. French has always been a bit of a struggle for me.

But it helped you develop your English?

Very much so, yes. It gives you an awareness of how a language functions and I went to school in the 70s when we didn’t do anything to do with grammar, and very little to do with punctuation. It was a huge learning curve for me to properly learn a language.

In a way, when you learn a second language you also re-learn your first language. 

Yes, certainly. And I was widening my vocabulary. You become aware of language in a way that you weren’t aware of it when living in your own country. On top of that you have the added benefit of learning culturally, learning about other writers for example. I would have probably written stuff had I stayed in Britain but I think it was more of an imperative in France, it became more important, I became more motivated to do it.

Your new book The Colours is steeped in art and visuals, was it a challenge to be writing about art?

It came fairly naturally to me, I don’t think I would have been able to write in any other way. That comes from the Art History background where you spend a long time writing about paintings. The issues begin when I stand and stare at things too long which means the pacing slows down quite a bit. I also felt I wanted to write a lot about the technical aspects of painting. And once the novel went to Rihannon, my editor, it needed to be pruned of those bits.

What sort of technical details?

Oh I had a whole scene, page after page of stretching canvases and working on two at the same time because the oil paints dry slowly so you need to work on several paintings at the same time. Or mixing paint: what sort of surface do you mix paint on? I have friends who use glass because it’s a very smooth surface to mix paint on and what colours do you want to mix and then again what paint brush sizes and diluting, how much do you dilute the paint? Do you want something watery, or more thick, even moving your body or moving your arm when you’re painting, depends very much on the quality of the thickness of the paint that you’re using. I had all this stuff!

I guess if you have such a sense for the technical intricacies and the really dense visual descriptions it must be easy to forget that there’s a plot!

I think that’s certainly true! I don’t know whether I should say this, but I didn’t plot the novel really, I just sort of started writing and let it develop in its own way. Obviously I got excited about long passages of description.

That’s where editors come in handy!

Exactly, and you’re always in that half way mode of thinking ‘yes well, they’re right’ and ‘aaaaarrghh!’.

But how will people understand how to stretch a canvas?!

Exactly! It feels important! To be fair my editor was very sensitive and it was always ‘if you want to’ or ‘if you think it’s a good idea’ and I think knowing that it was a bit loosely plotted it was a good idea to tighten some of those things up. They did slow things down quite a lot, so I’m happy with it.

Now our final question: Lockdown Literature, what are you reading right now?

Ok I am embarrassed about this…I’m in a writing mode at the moment. A lot of my reading happens on the train when I go to work. I have a 40 minute journey which is perfect for proper reading and I’ve missed that since the lockdown. I find it very difficult to read another novel at the same time as writing my own novel. I had a whole year of proper reading last year and up until the point when I started writing the novel.

And once you’re writing you steer totally clear of any other books?

Now I’ve got three novels by the side of my desk, which are like talismans for me. One of them is Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, just so good. And another is Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs Dalloway, and Herta Müller’s The Appointment. And I dip into them, open a page randomly and read a passage. Sometimes I read a passage aloud, because it helps one understand the language or understand the structuring a bit better or the pacing or whatever.

Aha, they’re your literary muses!

They’re my muses! And I also noticed, I have Atonement by McEwan, which is the period that I’m dealing with, which is why it’s sitting on the desk. I’m also in the process of reading a biography of Oswold Mosley which is called Black Shirt: Oswold Mosley and British Fascism, and it’s by Steven Dorril.

Oh a nice bit of light bedtime reading…

Oh yes, the intricacies of British government in the 1920s and 30s…

That’d send anyone to sleep!

I can do about two or three pages at a time! It gets a bit more racy when he moves onto Mosley’s affairs but it’s pretty dense stuff. And that is research for the book which I’m trying to write, for which I manage a paragraph a day at the moment. 

Another book set in the first half of the 20th century then?

The 20th century is the place I want to be, so it’s another 20th century novel. I vowed I would not do what I did with The Colours which caused me a bit of trouble which was dealing with such a long period of time because that caused me difficulty with pacing. So this novel is set in a single year, 1936.

Would you only write about the first half of the 20th century?

Well or the second half, but it would always have to be before I was born. As soon as it gets to the point where I was born I can’t handle it. Contemporary life: I can’t handle it! I don’t want to be the subject of my own novel so it always has to be before. I think it’s about trying to work out where you come from, what’s the world you came out of?


Thanks very much to Juliet for talking to us, and the ongoing pleasure of being her literary agents. The Colours is out now on Fleet Reads. Interview edited for clarity.

‘I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met the man who had no feet.’


Kevin Doherty called time on a successful and lucrative career in marketing to make good on his lifelong dream of writing.  Doherty's well-loved historical thrillers range from gripping espionage in Cold War Russia to daring heroism in Nazi-occupied France. 

His fourth book, The Leonardo Gulag, is a startlingly original tale of art and survival in a notorious Soviet prison camp. We spoke to Kevin Doherty about choosing his genre, slow-burning ideas, and the power of fictional woes to escape real ones. 

Kevin, what did you do before you got into writing?

I earned a living! A sensible living! My background is in marketing and at the time I decided to take the plunge I was Marketing Director of Coca-Cola UK, which was one of the best marketing jobs in the world really but there was this itch inside me which had been there for, honestly, a good many years.

So you decided to chuck it all in to become an author…

I agonised over the decision for a long time, talked it over – and over! – with Roz, my wife, and we thought ‘What are we going to do here? I have this wonderful job but there is this unfulfilled dream,’ and we decided to take the plunge. I was very, very fortunate, incredibly lucky, because I really would have felt very daft if it had all come to nothing. But I did end up with a published book to show for my efforts at the end of a year and a half.

How did you break the news to your colleagues at Coca-Cola?

I walked in and said to my boss, ‘I need to have a conversation with you, a very serious conversation,’ and he was very understanding. I think really in his heart he knew where I was coming from but it was a very difficult thing for him to take on board. He wanted to know if I was unhappy with some aspect of my role, if I would maybe be interested in transferring to the US, could he do anything to make me reconsider? All these kinds of things.

Pretty supportive all in all!

When I was maybe about six months into the period I heard from a friend who’d been in contact with a man who was the chairman of a company that I’d been a director of and he was asking, ‘What’s going on with Kevin?’ ‘Well,’ my friend said, ‘he’s gone off to write his novel,’ and the guy said, ‘Doesn’t he have three sons and a mortgage to support?’ and my friend said, ‘Yes … hmmm.’ And that bemusement would have solidified into something more negative if I hadn’t managed to pull it off.

You’d decided to write a novel; how did you settle on writing historical political thrillers?

A shrewd question, and the answer is a marketing man’s answer. I sat down with a blank sheet of paper and said, ‘OK, what are the various categories into which novels can be assembled? Could I be interested in writing a horror story? Could it be a thriller? What kind of thriller? Or could it be a romance? Is that something I could handle?’ I went through all the categories I could think of, then looked at how I thought these various categories were performing. I didn’t have any statistics to go by but mooching around bookshops and talking to people or watching what was on display, what was being promoted – that all helped.

A very analytical pre-writing process then…

Alongside that it wasn’t too difficult to say, ‘Don’t kid yourself, you’re never going to be able to write a romance novel, that’s not the kind of person you are.’ The candidates really were horror and some type of thriller. ‘So does that mean a crime thriller?’ I wondered. ‘Someone gets murdered and it’s about catching the perpetrator? No, I don’t want to do that.’ I realised that what I was really excited about was political thrillers…

And then you homed in on the Soviet Union?

I took the next step, which was, ‘Do I think I could put myself into the shoes of someone completely alien in terms of their society and culture, in other words someone in the Soviet Union – someone powerful and corrupt?’ That was when the fun really started because I knew that I wanted to do exactly that. It was going to be bloody difficult but that was what I wanted to target. The result was Patriots.

Your new book, The Leonardo Gulag, is, as the title suggests, about a Soviet work camp and the artwork of Leonardo da Vinci. Where on earth did the ideas come from for this?

The very original first seed was when Roz and our three sons and I were in a traffic jam in France. I’d picked up some leaflets about places to explore around the city of Amboise. One of them was a Leonardo da Vinci museum and we sat in our traffic jam and looked at our map, and realised we could come out of this traffic jam and not be very far away from this museum. So off we went. The place, Château du Clos Lucé, was where Leonardo spent his last years. At some point it became a museum, housing replicas of some of Leonardo’s inventions. I wandered around looking at all of this – Leonardo has always fascinated me, I have always been interested in art – and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could pull together some kind of story that involved Leonardo’s work?’ That was really where it all came from.

And the Soviet Union dimension?

The whole Soviet dimension didn’t enter into the scheme of things until many years later because I never got anywhere with the Leonardo idea; well, I made the occasional attempt but never really got my head around it properly. I abandoned it and put it in a bottom drawer somewhere. Then other things happened, including the two novels that followed Patriots. It was Roz who said, ‘I think you should go back to Leonardo and have another crack at that,’ and I said, ‘OK – let’s give it a go!’ So if Roz hadn’t said that, who knows – maybe I would never have attempted it again!

How long are we talking about, between visiting the Leonardo museum and publishing The Leonardo Gulag?

A very long while. We are talking in excess of 20 years. A long time.

Yikes! It was percolating away in the background. I think many people imagine novels to be written all in one go, but some really do filter through over years in the subconscious, don’t they?

Yes! And what always intrigued me was that, going back to what I said about that day when I sat down and thought, ‘OK, I’m going to write a novel, now what type of novel is it going to be?’ – that was a brutally rational process, that was the marketing man at work: clinical. Compare that with the fact that this thing was just sitting there – literally as well as figuratively – in a bottom drawer, going nowhere … and then one day, ‘Boom!’

I heard you used Google Maps to view satellite images of some of the book’s settings, to get a sense of the geography of these remote and isolated work camps in the Arctic Circle?

Well, that’s when things came into play like the ice river which the prisoners are driven along to get to the work camp. If you look at the satellite view of the whole Vorkuta region you will see the rivers; black ribbons running along the landscape. Those are the rivers that freeze up once you get into autumn and really don’t unfreeze until about two months in the summer.

Very cool. Anything else you found?

I was well into the writing of the book when I discovered this heartbreaking cemetery, which you can actually find on Google Maps. There are a couple of photographs which show a rough area of land, I wouldn’t even call it a field because it’s all humped and ridged and so on, with these tragic handmade wooden crosses with the extra crossbar of the Russian Orthodox faith, and with handwritten inscriptions – just names and dates. That is really heart-rending to come upon.

It sounds like researching for The Leonardo Gulag must have been bleak and heavy. Was it ever just a bit too depressing?

Let me try and answer it this way. When I’m writing, I’m writing for me first and foremost and then I take a step back and say, ‘Is this going to be of interest to anyone else?’ The readers I try to keep in my mind are not only those who are perfectly happy but also those who may have a sadness in their life, a need – maybe they’re in a dead-end job and have to commute to and from London or some other city every day and they hate it, and they take refuge in a paperback during their train journey; or maybe they’re suffering an illness of some description or have some other sadness or loss, and they take refuge from that in reading. If an author can give people a story that provides the refuge they’re looking for, I think that’s worthwhile doing. Now you could do that by writing something that’s really funny and makes them laugh, but I can’t do that, it’s not my kind of writing. Or you can bring them into a situation which is tense, maybe tragic, frightening perhaps, whatever, and that becomes a refuge that they can go to.

Of course, fiction at its best is escapism.

It sounds weird: escaping into a worse situation than they themselves are in. But I remember my late father-in-law used to have a saying: ‘I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met the man who had no feet.’

That sums it up perfectly!

All this stuff about gulags and how people were treated. It’s all depressing stuff, but should we forget about it? No, I don’t think so. Can it be put to good use so that we can still relate to it today? Yes, absolutely. And besides, perhaps we owe that to the people who had to suffer in that cruel regime. So it didn’t depress me in the way you might expect.

Finally, can you tell us some of your literary favourites and inspirations?

Well, it’s going to be all the obvious ones, isn’t it, and quite rightly too: Frederick Forsyth, Robert Harris, John le Carré, Sebastian Faulks, Robert Moss, Martin Cruz Smith. And many more, from the past as well as today…

And any not-so-obvious literary loves?

Yes – Guy de Maupassant, a 19th-century French author writing about French society of his day. He writes about the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, but he also writes about French countryfolk – often self-sustaining smallholders or ordinary working people, people who are just getting by. In Maupassant’s stories they can be very resilient characters, and very shrewd, sometimes even wily, because they’re used to surviving. There are no flies on them, if I can use that expression. I first read Maupassant when I was a teenager, and I realised that these folk were very like the people I was growing up among. Their language and culture may have been different, and the century in which they lived, but other than that I could see the resonance of them in my Irish compatriots.


Thanks very much to Kevin for talking to us, and the ongoing pleasure of being his literary agents. The Leonardo Gulag is out now on Oceanview Publishing. Interview edited for clarity.

I am the Queen of the Killer Eels! In conversation with Rachel Bennett


Rachel Bennett is a Manx writer of Crime and Thrillers whose debut novel The Flood came out in September with Avon Books. The novel takes places in a flooded town where a death in the family unspools into a dark tale of past and present mysteries. 

Here she talks to us about her career in the Isle of Man's criminal courts and pathology department, her work with the Manx Lit Fest, and her love of classic horror.

Rachel, you’ve had some interesting jobs, tell us a bit about them.

For ten years I was working in the criminal justice system; my posh job title was Clerk to the Deputy High Bailiff; she was the first female member of a Manx judiciary so that was pretty exciting, on the same level as a magistrate. I was working in the criminal courts and in the lower criminal courts.

And what did you do there?

You know in movies when you see a stenographer in the court typing away? They do a recording now; it was my job to press ‘record’. And it was all the paperwork that goes along with that. I never personally sent anyone to jail, but I had to complete the paperwork to send people to jail!

So witnessing the daily comings and goings of petty crime?

Yes exactly, we’re such a small jurisdiction you see the same folks coming in all the time and you get to know faces and names and we also worked quite closely with the prison and probation service and everything so I got to know a little bit about the rehabilitation of criminals side of things; I wanted to pull some of that into a book if I could.

So you heard about some interesting criminal stories I imagine?

Certainly, one particularly memorable one was when a farm accidentally released a load of slurry into a river, killing 28 fish and one eel – but the advocate representing the farm insisted that although 28 fish had indeed died, the eel later recovered. This was despite us being shown a photo of the (definitely dead) eel pinned to a board! The eel became known as Lazarus and was forevermore a long-running joke in the office.

Oh right, some pretty off the wall stuff then…

Yeah just have a google of Manx news. I’m not sure if it’s just being on an island that we’re particularly susceptible. And we have our own laws and our own government and everything…

That throws up quite a few interesting linguistic quirks doesn’t it? Isn’t there a law for ‘Furious Driving’?

Yeah there is a charge of ‘Furious Driving’. We’ve got one called ‘Provoking Behaviour’ too, anything that would provoke a reaction you can charge it under ‘Provoking Behaviour’ and get done for it.

Sounds like the kind of open-ended law an authoritarian dictatorship would love(!)

Yeah it’s not an offence you can go to prison for but if someone’s being a bit drunk and shouty, or having an argument with the neighbours, or doing something else weird…

…I’m being provoked!

You are doing an action that would provoke a reaction from me therefore…

Any other funny words or phrases that come to mind?

Yes, we’ve got Deemsters instead of Judges. When they swear them into office they have to take an oath that they will take the law as straight and impartial ‘as the backbone lies within the herring.’

That’s fantastic!

Yeah in the court building there’s a big metal statue of a herring and you can see its backbone down the middle, isn’t that neat?

And along with courts, you’ve worked in Pathology too, is that right?

Yes, before I started in courts I was in the Department of Pathology for about ten years. I was in the office and I typed up post-mortems and stuff.

Yet another great job for someone who wants to write crime books…

The main thing it taught me is that pathologists will not leave their office for anything. When you read a crime book and it’s like ‘the pathologist went to the crime scene’, oh no he didn’t!

So not just an insight into pathology but pathologists too.

It gives you a real insight into the many terrible things that can happen to a human body and how they can fail, stop working, come apart and all that sort of thing – but you do become a bit blase about it.

You have to develop a detachment I suppose?

Yeah I’m not sure how healthy it was, everyone there was quite mad in their own personal ways. But it was very interesting and it definitely got me writing about that sort of thing and the forensic side.

Working as a fly on the wall in pathology and criminal courts, you couldn’t be better placed to write a crime novel!

It’s meant that I’ve had access to people. The number of times I said to someone ‘can I ask you a million questions about your job?’. There are some very nice people on the Isle of Man Constabulary Force who I owe a lot of beer to for some very random questions(!)

Let’s talk about your latest book The Flood. Where did you get the idea to set a novel in a flooded town?

Just from watching it on the news. I’ve fortunately never been in that situation but I’ve always really liked the idea of a locked, enclosed location like an isolated place, and watching the news and seeing towns that are properly cut off; it’s a setting I’ve always wanted to use. I had tried to use it a few times and it didn’t take off… this book came very close to having killer eels in it.
Same setting, some of the same characters, killer eels.

No way! What happened to them? Don’t tell me Leslie made you cut the killer eels?!

No, no, I grew up reading pulp horror like Guy N Smith. My first big love is always going to be monsters and ridiculous scary stuff. It was honestly a real departure to try and write about the real world. It’s relatively easy when there’s zombies or killer eels because if you get stuck you can make a monster appear and they do the hard work for you.

Right! You get to play by your own rules. The reader reads it on your terms. Who are they to say what your killer eels should be doing? You made them!

Exactly: they’re mine! They do what I tell them! I am the Queen of the Killer Eels!

So it sounds like a lot of the details came from different imaginative processes and ideas you had.

Yeah and stealing bits from everywhere to be honest, I’m a terrible pick pocket when it comes to ideas, and things that I’ve seen in various places. I try and write down everything because my memory is terrible. I put everything into my notebook and then I’ll steal bits like a magpie, and try and smoosh them all together into a cohesive story. And sometimes it works and sometimes it really doesn’t. Fingers crossed it seems to have worked ok so far.

Well it has certainly worked for The Flood! Have you enjoyed having the book out?

It’s been great! Everyone’s been so nice about it. People keep talking to me about it and it’s so weird to have something that’s been inside my own head for years, and now suddenly people are talking about it *like it’s a real book*; where they’re up to, which bit they’re reading now, what they think is going to happen. It’s a bit of a surreal experience. I’m very much enjoying it though!

In September you were a part of the Manx Lit Fest, is that right?

Yes, the Manx Literary Festival is our local lit fest and I squirmed my way onto the committee a few years ago. I coordinate their Writers’ Day which is aimed at aspiring authors. It’s been very successful – we’ve just had our eighth year. It’s lead to quite a few success stories from our local authors. Elizabeth Brooks had a book out last year called ‘Call Of The Curlew’, Rona Halsall has just had her fourth book out on Bookoutre, and they all found literary agents through coming to our events!

That’s great to be cultivating local talent.

Yeah we’re so proud of our local authors, there’s a shocking amount of home grown talent over here.

So what’s next for Rachel Bennett? How’s the future looking?

Looking rosy! Book two is with the copy-editor at the moment. Actually it’s just come back from the copy editor, I’m supposed to be doing edits right now, but I’m putting up Christmas decorations and things, I’ll get around to it very soon! They’ve sent me the cover it looks fantastic. Due for release end of May next year, so that’s very exciting. I’m trying to get ahead with book three as well.

Any monsters on the horizon?

Not quite… I’m trying to stay in my lane with this for a moment, I’m trying to stick to the crime and thriller thing, that seems to be what people would like at present.

We’ll see how book two does, and maybe if the publishers get desperate we can pull out the fantastical monsters.

Well, if you need a back catalogue of ridiculous monsters attacking Birmingham I’ve got us covered!

And organising the Manx Lit Fest for next year?

Yes, we’re in the throes of planning it at the moment. We haven’t announced who we’ve got next year but between you and me, [REDACTED]’s coming over next September.

Woah my gosh that’s incredible!

We do quite well to be honest; for such a small festival we’ve had some pretty good names – we got Martina Cole last year. She made everyone come back to the hotel and sit in the bar getting drunk until two in the morning! She kept buying everyone drinks and wouldn’t let them leave, she was an absolute star.

What a legend! Anything else on the horizon?

I’m in a new job now, I’m now a librarian which is amazing and I’m working in the mobile library side of it as well, which means I get to go out in a bus full of books, drive around, it’s like Postman Pat you just go around and distribute books to people.

What a great CV you’ve got, you must never be short of anecdotes!

Yeah I’ve got a lot of stories, I’ve just given you a sample, but I have a lot more. If we ever end up in the pub I’ll tell you some of the others.

Save it for the lit fest after-party!

Definitely. We’ll see if we can get someone like Martina Cole to buy our drinks⬛️


Thanks very much to Rachel for chatting to us, and the pleasure of being her literary agents. Interview edited for clarity.

Singapore Writers Festival

Inaugurated in 1986, the Singapore Writers Festival celebrates South East Asian literary talent as well as bringing together writers, speakers, and delegates from all over the world.  

Artellus director Leslie Gardner made the trip across the globe to attend workshops on Science Fiction, hear talks by Roxane Gay and Marlon James, and buy more books than she should have...


The week-long writers festival was packed with great talks and vividly attentive participants. All was spread out among three venues: The Arts House at the Old Parliament Building, the National Gallery of Singapore (a staggeringly innovative architectural gem), and the basement of the Asian Cultures Museum – across the bay from colonial reminders of earlier times, Raffles Hotel and the Fullerton Hotel – formerly Post Office for the nation. The festival could not have been placed in a better spot in this tropical city-state replete with food stalls and shopping malls.

Before the festival however, a quick visit to the big Japanese owned bookstore Kinokuniya in the Takoshima Mall on Orchard Road, where I picked up all the brochures required. It’s also a great spot to buy and browse for books in Asian languages and English – they pushed and supported the festival with great promotional skill, and had extensive information on the festival and Singapore’s local writers.

Onto the Festival proper… My interest in Science and Speculative Fiction was evidently shared. Impressive numbers attended talks on things such as ‘The Future of Science Fiction’, ‘Chatbox and fiction’, or ‘Invisible Cities, Memory and Fiction’. There were workshops with enthusiastic participants such as ‘Postcolonial Criticism and Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction’. The big questions were tackled with gusto: how the future would look, the impact of video games on plot and character, and what’s science and technology got to do with fiction? All in the presence of such writers as Boey MeiHan who writes Science Fiction in all-women and all-Asian universes, and the veteran writer, Pang Hee Juon.

The dilemmas all science/speculative fiction writers wrangle with were reworked, and refreshed at the same time. These workshops and talks about Science Fiction – and the carefully distinguished ‘Speculative’ fiction – dominated the schedule and were rightfully jam-packed. The excellent attendance did not preclude fun individual encounters, including one memorable talk in the corridor with Malaysian Science Fiction writer Ahmad Patria Abdullah about his rather more traditional view of Science Fiction. A genre that, in his view, should be founded not only in the time the novel is written but also bounded by technology of the time. In vain I advocated for Science Fiction having actually contributed ideas to real-life scientists! Technology and aliens are what we make of them…

Of course the crime novel is my other personal passion. I walked away with bags of crime books by local Singaporeans. One author, Nick Humphreys, was sitting at the table signing his books. I purchased Marina Bay Sins, the first in a dark satirical detective series set in his native Singapore and published by Marshall Cavendish. And then, well, I purchased Daren Goh’s ‘The HDB Murders’ (also set in Singapore) published by the local branch of publishing house Math Paper Press. These texts are a great way to get to know the seedy sides of the place, which Singaporeans are eager to disclaim(!) In conclusion: my bags were much heavier on the return to London.

Back in the festival ‘Bad feminist’ Roxane Gay brought much laughter in her session, and Marlon James spoke – his speculative works are all on sale along with his Man Booker-winning novel, ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ – and essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer – both spoke to engaged audiences, admirers through and through.

As well as Singaporean branches of UK-based publishing, there are also those small local houses which for me are a great discovery. This is another indication of their seriousness in distributing into South-East Asia. There is a plethora of publishing houses in the city-state: Marshall Cavendish (SA branch), Penguin Random House (latest to the party in SA), and Math Paper Press, etc. There is still the ancient and noble tradition of publishing houses linking to bookstores, with the result of bookstores everywhere. Singapore dollars being reasonable value for my sterling-based budget, I bought a few more than planned (eek). The wonderful ‘Books Actually’ had a stand at the festival – we’d wandered its shelves already – and bought poetry published by their ‘ Math Paper Press’, which they run out of their backyard. The ‘Closetful of Books’ shop had a spread of local and international writers’ books that were irresistibly placed right at the entrance to the festival; Temptation was everywhere.

Organised and financed (alongside income from tickets) by the National Arts Council, the festival brings together multiple languages: English, Slinglish, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil among others. The mix of cultures is a core value in Singapore – and it is reflected in the literature. The festival was a celebration of global literary talent, billing the likes of home grown Singaporean writer and poet, Rex Shelley, (author of the classic The Shrimp People) alongside Canadian, Jamaican, British, and umpteen other nationality writers and speakers.

It was an atmospheric festival figuratively and literally: peppered with sporadic claps of thunder and lightning, the heavy tropical heat outside which meant hustling from one venue to another to be blissfully alleviated by air conditioning. I left with a head full of ideas, an armful of books and every intention of returning next year.

 

Power, Corruption & Lies: The World of Michael Gillard

Michael Gillard is an award-winning investigative journalist with decades of experience uncovering corruption, organised crime, and illegal activity at the heart of London's establishment and beyond. 

His latest book LEGACY (Bloomsbury, 2019) traces the sinister underbelly of London's acclaimed 2012 Olympics, where organised crime and corruption were more involved than most people imagined.

Director of International Security Studies at RUSi and Artellus Associate Raffaello Pantucci spoke to Gillard about his work... 

 

R: This is not your first book on organised crime and corruption in London, but tell us a bit about how this particular book came about?

M: It came about when I was in a pub, strangely, in 1999 and a load of detectives were there some of whom I was going to meet and amongst them there were two who looked particularly mournful and I asked one of them what was up and he explained to me that they had just come off this operation, this secret operation in East London targeting an organised crime figure called David Hunt who I had never heard of and that this character had walked away from the operation without any conviction. He had been held on remand in prison for slashing the throat of an associate which had happened at a car show room that the police were bugging, but for reasons that they weren’t aware of, they suspected corruption, he had got off because the witness had withdrawn his evidence. And then we got talking about the level of criminality that Mr Hunt was supposed to be involved and it just intrigued me enormously and from that point on I made it my business to find who he was and what he was about. 

This is the first time David Hunt was one of the subjects of your books? Did he come up in earlier ones?

He was covered briefly in my first book Untouchables, which came out in 2004, but that was based on work about police corruption that I had started in 1999. 

Were you worried writing about such dark and secretive topics as police and political corruption and organised criminals? 

Not particularly, I am cautious. But if you look at the statistics British journalists by and large don’t face the types of threats that journalists in other countries, largely outside Europe, do face for reporting on this area. There have been two examples, interestingly enough in Northern Ireland and Ireland, of journalists being killed, not as a result of crossfire, but as a result of targeted assassination. One being Veronica Guerin in 1996 and the other being Martin O’Hagan in 2001. Veronica, who wrote about organised crime, and Marty, who wrote about the dirty war in Northern Ireland and the involvement of paramilitaries on either side in organised crime. But in general the idea of journalists being in danger for covering this area doesn’t really compute here, so there is not that kind of reason to be afraid. The bigger fear I feel about journalism in the UK is lawyers and the assault on freedom of expression through the rise of privacy law for the big rich, crooks and politicians.

So it was lawyers who scared you the most rather than any of the criminals or corrupt people you were looking at?

Gillard’s 2004 book The Untouchables (Bloomsbury) covered corruption in London’s Metropolitan Police

Rather than scare me, annoy me. 

Could you tell us a bit more about Davey Hunt in particular?

David Hunt’s rise to the top of the gangster tree is typical of his generation – so he’s in his late fifties now – in terms of coming from a very hard, marginalised area in London, East London. And from a large family of brothers and sisters, I think he was the youngest who by the age of twenty-one had established himself as the top dog in his family which is no mean achievement. 

I think there’s a misconception about gangster-ism in this country in particular. Very few gangsters are Robin Hood characters. Most of them are both moral conservatives and arch capitalists, and through heavy organised crime they want to legitimise themselves, and he was a classic example of that, and to do well for their family. And I think that at the time I started to look at him, he was on his way to becoming what they say in organised crime parlance, a legitimate businessman.

And he had done this through a number of means, through street cunning, a propensity for violence, psychological intimidation, and he is, you know, a street smart top gangster.

Some sociologists and writers try to look for environmental conditioning rather than the free will of some working class men to be career criminals. I think the very smart criminal Stephen Raymond said it best when he told me in an interview for Untouchables – “I’m a criminal by design not default.” 

Raymond went on to tell me that he was “95% legitimate.” I asked about the other 5%, which he said he only did to piss off the police and show them how clever he was. Narcissism was his undoing and he eventually got a hefty sentence for a massive cocaine importation. 

So by the time you were looking at Hunt he was a legit businessman rather than criminal anymore?

He was on his way to becoming a legitimate businessman. There had been quite incredible investments in a scrap metal yard on the Thames in Dagenham. He had bought himself a twenty-acre mansion in Essex. He had other business interests in entertainment – the infamous Epping Forest Country Club – and at the same time he was effectively a tax ghost. And when he did file any returns or make any mortgage applications, he lied about the size of his income; on paper he was a freelance scaffolder. 

One of the fascinating things about reading the book is that you uncover all sorts of nefarious wrong doing and malfeasance, have you ever seen any prosecutions result from your work?

Unfortunately, I think I can say that I am a classic example of journalism having no effect whatsoever in terms of prosecutions. You can put it into the public domain, but at that point it’s down to the authorities. I think this country has a pretty poor record of prosecuting organised crime, its not because they don’t have the statutory tools, there are other problems with it. And also one of the things in this particular area is that after the events of 9/11 and the events in London of 7th of July, there was a wholesale disposition of policing away from organised crime work into counter-terrorism work. This combined with an anti-corruption campaign that took shape between 1994 and 2000 had a joint effect of stopping detectives having the necessary experience to tackle organised crime as the agenda moved elsewhere to tackling home-grown Jihadis and other issues around counter-terrorism.

Tell us a bit about your sources of information – how do you get people to tell you the ins and outs of these secretive worlds? And how do you assess/evaluate their reliability?

On the first part of that question, I think journalism is about getting out on the street, you can’t do it on the phone, you can’t do it on a computer alone. So I spend a lot of my time in pubs – obviously because I like drinking – but because it is a great leveller of getting police officers, criminals and people on the fringes of crime to talk to you. And they will talk to you in relaxed circumstances. That, however, has changed dramatically since the Leveson Inquiry into media standards and the effective criminalisation of relationships between journalists and police officers outside of a controlled press office environment. Therefore, the type of people I used to speak to for stories are terrified one of losing their pension if caught and two of possibly even going to prison. So it’s a lot more difficult now than it was before – but before, during the 90s and 2000s, because, as I mentioned earlier Scotland Yard was at war with itself over corruption issues, that created a lot of hurting detectives in that organisation. Any journalist worth their salt is able to exploit their pain for public gain, to get information about what’s going on and that’s certainly what I did.

And when it came to evaluating sources and their information?

In terms of evaluating, that’s a very interesting area – we’re currently in a sort of journalist policing space where believing fully in an alleged victim of crime has reaped some horrific results. For example, the recent imprisonment of Carl Beech for making up allegations about a VIP paedophile ring. That was the product of a swing in the pendulum towards police offers believing at the first instance anyone who comes in with an allegation of sex crime. Journalists have also suffered from that problem and I think that what we should do is neither believe or disbelieve but treat fairly and firmly. At the end of the day it is in our interests to establish whether we’re being lied to so that we don’t look like fools. When I’m dealing with criminals, who are notoriously slippery, or people on the edges of crime, I generally don’t believe anything they say until and unless they implicate themselves in the same crime they’re trying to implicate others in. That seems to me to be a good test; that criminals can gas on about any criminal activity that other people have done, but until they implicate themselves in crime to you they’re almost worthless. So I take that as a starting point. It’s interesting; when the police think about recruiting informants, who are largely and most effectively from the criminal world, they look at their motivations and they divide it into three main things: one is revenge, two is money – because police have an informant fund (I don’t and won’t) – three is to get rid of the opposition. 

That’s how they gauge their effectiveness. Criminals aren’t going to speak to cops and implicate themselves in crime freely, whereas strangely the relationship between the journalist and the criminal is one where they can discuss their own criminality, sometimes boastfully, because they know that you’re not going to immediately arrest them or use that as leverage to make them become an informant. Basically, the first thing I look to is whether they implicate themselves in their own criminality, and then I look for corroboration, sometimes from police intelligence files and police officers and other criminals about that criminality. 

For Queen And Currency (Bloomsbury, 2015) was Gillard’s exposé of Royal Protection Officers serving at Buckingham Palace

At various times the book reads like a film – are there plans to shoot the stories you have written?

The simple answer is that, quite interestingly, there is a mania in television and film land at the moment for true crime stories that can be turned into returnable multiple-episodic dramas. The problem in this country is we do it very badly compared to America, and there are other reasons for that, but the most obvious one for me is that crime is treated a lot more seriously and with respect in the US because they understand its implications for wider society from the lowest level to the highest level of government. In this country, we reduce it to a broken-nosed slap-dash Guy Ritchie-type approach. Within that, journalists trivialise their own patch by inventing stuff that they don’t need to and trying to apply the American mafia model to the UK. I’ve always said that we have a very unique organised crime climate here that lends itself brilliantly to drama. When I devised the idea of doing this book I wrote a synopsis and almost immediately it got optioned by a film and TV company in the UK looking for this multiple-episodic state of the nation drama who could see that something like ‘Legacy’ was effectively ‘The Long Good Friday’ 40 years on and in real life.

Talking of The Long Good Friday, it was written by Barry Keeffe who I had the pleasure of meeting and we discussed the poor state of affairs in how crime and cops and corruption are represented on the UK screen. He said it was because the writers write ‘from the outside in’ whereas Barry, a former crime reporter in East London, wrote ‘from the inside out.’ Broadcasters here commission from the same incestuous pool of writers who believe they can turn their hand to any genre with credibility when they can’t. On the other hand younger writers who’ve grown up with The Wire think they can write that here forgetting it was conceived and written by a former Baltimore crime reporter and a retired Baltimore detective – from the inside out – and that Britain has its own unique crime scene.

Talking of which, I was recently the victim of crime – a smash and grab raid on my copyrighted journalism to make a very clichéd British crime film with some high profile actors. It’s about to get ugly unless they make amends.

Do you prefer writing in book form or long-form journalism for daily outlets?

I think books are more enjoyable when you’ve got something to say, because the ability to combine your investigative skills with a writing space is quite attractive but difficult and I think that the carbonisation of news journalism makes it difficult sometimes to express the richness of the material you’ve already got, whereas books allow you to be a lot more expansive and draw the reader in. And I think that a narrative non-fiction style of telling true crime stories is great, which is why, if you have access to transcripts of covert conversations or surveillance logs they lend themselves greatly towards helping that narrative non-fiction storytelling which is essential in getting people to move across what are often very complex and dark criminal landscapes. 

On a lighter note – who is the most interesting character you’ve written about or come across?

I don’t believe in glorifying criminals or cops. This binary narrative that you get in drama and true crime books of cop vs. robber is quite dull; I’m more interested in the professional journeys of flawed people who try to do good but do good for doing bad or vice-versa. Many have a very odd redemptive arc, are never perfect, fatally flawed and when I see that in individuals, if you can then interview them thoroughly to get into the elements of their life, how they think, you can try and do justice to them as individuals. Of those characters, the two I’ve most enjoyed writing about are Paul Page, a royal protection officer at Buckingham Palace who was the subject of my 2nd book, and Jimmy Holmes who was a criminal associate of David Hunt who then decided after they fell out to become a guerrilla gangster and do a lot of hit and run activity against Hunt to try and get back at him for what he felt was his self-emasculation under Hunt. Those two characters plus a third I would add, a black armed robber from West London called Hector Harvey, who was so smooth and clever he was able to have over his criminal associates, the Flying Squad and the anti-corruption squad in a masterful piece of duplicity. 

Those 3 characters probably are the ones I’d say are ready-made films. In fact, I have written a pilot drama with my two colleagues Michael Holden and David Whitehouse about Paul Page, who ran a Ponzi scheme at Buckingham Palace during the great housing bubble, so the story is bookended between the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the global financial crisis of 2008.

Finally – what’s the next story you’re going to tackle?

I’m interested in how after the Leveson Inquiry into the so-called hacking scandal the media is being put back in its cage and on the back foot while big business and politicians are unfettered in their greed and corruption – I spoke earlier about the criminalisation of sources in the police – while this all happened, print journalists are becoming risk averse and controlled largely by lawyers worried about data protection and privacy issues. Meanwhile in the private sector, corporate intelligence companies are breaking the law willy-nilly and sucking up all your personal data instructed by pukka law firms on behalf of very ugly and dodgy clients here and abroad, be they corporations, oligarchs or captains of industry and I find that a very interesting area to look at for a book – the decline of journalism and the rise of corporate intelligence firms stealing your privacy and the revolving door with state intelligence and policing agencies. 

Separately, and again with Michael and David, we are developing a drama around this idea of a newspaper investigations unit in an upmarket right-wing broadsheet operating in a post Leveson world. It’s called Monster.⬛️

Many thanks to Michael Gillard for this deep-dive into his world, and for the honour of being his literary agents. This interview has been edited for clarity.

 

Afghanistan to Zambia: The incredible career of Paul Wilson, author of Hostile Money.

Paul Wilson's incredible career has given him a ringside seat to many of recent history's flash points. His work as a soldier, diplomat, and agent of international commerce has taken him from Afghanistan to Zambia and everywhere in between. 

Paul Wilson's expertise on global politics and finance has been distilled into his debut book Hostile Money: Currency in Conflict, published on The History Press. Here, Paul Wilson talks us through the spectacular career that made him the expert on global finance and war.   

Paul Wilson, you’ve had a remarkable working life, how did that happen?

I’ve been really lucky to have had the professional life that I set out to have when I left school decades ago, which was to have an interesting one. My principal objective was not to make lots of money, which is a good thing because in writing books I’ve discovered you don’t make a lot of money, not in writing the sort of books that I want to write anyway(!)

How did it all start?

After a very brief spell in London I went into the army and I served in all the usual places you’d expect: Cyprus, The British Army of the Rhine, and so on. It was really answering an urge to travel that I had already developed because my family had emigrated to Australia when I was 13 and come back when I was 16. So I’d already literally been around the world by the time I was 16 and that left me with quite itchy feet.

And you ended up in West Berlin?

Spandau Prison under joint British and Soviet control in The Cold War.

The last post I was posted to was in Berlin and was called BRIXMIS, the Commander in Chief’s mission to the Soviet Forces in East Germany. The original purpose of BRIXMIS was to liaise with the other side, the Soviet Army. The unit had other responsibilities which included supporting the management of Spandau Prison where Rudolph Hess, the last remaining living Nazi, who was imprisoned there after the Nuremberg trials. It was extraordinary for somebody of my era then to have the opportunity to censor the correspondence of Hess, and agreeing with a soviet counterpart what television or radio programmes he was permitted to watch or listen to, these were really enriching experiences.

How old were you at that point?

I was about 27 at that stage. Hess was already a very old man by that time. That was the end of my army career, I came out after that because I thought there’d be nothing equally interesting to do.

So you moved on from  The British Army and into the diplomatic service.

Yes. At the end of my time in Berlin I moved into the diplomatic service. And again that was a hugely enriching experience. I had two spells working in departments relating to Eastern Europe and southern Africa. This included responsibilities for the London end of relationships with the ANC. A lot of ANC members were at that time still in exile in Zambia, so I got a trip out there to see some of these young ANC types who were going to benefit from scholarships to the UK. But I also had opportunities to visit other places like Angola which was also on my patch to look after. The foreign office did try to tempt me with a posting to Angola, but that didn’t strike me as quite so attractive, and instead I got posted to the British High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan.

So from Eastern Europe, to the south of Africa, and then to Pakistan?

Pakistan was extraordinarily interesting because my responsibility was to look after our reporting on Afghanistan. At that time there was no British Embassy in Afghanistan, the building was there, looked after by a skeleton staff including Gurkha guards, but there were no British diplomats in Kabul and all the coverage of Afghanistan was done from Pakistan, and that was my responsibility. So I was travelling up to Peshewar on the north west frontier every other week; it was extraordinary to cross the confluence of the Kabul and Indus rivers and then to enter the North West Frontier Province. I had one trip travelling through the Khyber Pass with the United Nations on a visit to a de-mining operation in Afghanistan. And in 1992 I went on the Foreign Office’s mission to Kabul to establish relationships with the new Mujahidin government which had overthrown the old socialist government. So it was again, an extraordinarily exciting time. The time in Kabul with my colleagues from the foreign office had many interesting moments.

You were put into these very politically active situations in foreign countries, do you feel you made any progress there?

No, absolutely not. I think at the end of the two years clearly the old socialist regime that was just clinging on to power after the Russian withdrawal had been overthrown but it hadn’t been replaced by a more stable regime or a regime that was able to drag Afghanistan out of its terrible conflict which was initiated by the Russians in 1979 when they invaded. Whenever I think about it since I see very little to believe that we’ve made progress. When I came back after Islamabad I went back into the Eastern European section. I had more or less concluded that I was going to go out into the private sector.

So this is the next career transition, from the Foreign Office to the private sector…

The transition could hardly have been better, because I moved to De La Rue, a company that has been around for over 200 years. Its principal business is supplying printed currency to countries all the way around the world. So that means dealing with ministers, central banks, presidencies and so on in all sorts of different countries and the experiences of the army and the foreign office gave me a huge leg up in trying to work with people from quite different societies, conducting oneself cautiously with the top decision makers in those countries.

Were you interested in money before that?

Well I had no more interest in money than the average person, who looks forward to receiving some of it at the end of every month(!) But what was striking about working for De La Rue  was just how interesting the company was. It was always very closely involved when something new was about to happen: when a new country was about to born, or a country was collapsing into turmoil, or emerging from turmoil. At one point in the late 80s early 90s it was managing elections for countries coming out of conflict: Angola, Mozambique, Bosnia, Cambodia. They also helped produce ballot papers for the first post-apartheid election in South Africa so it has this tremendously exciting world in which it plays, dealing with currency, passports, and elections.

Sounds perfect for someone who likes to be in the thick of the world’s current affairs!

That’s it. And I was fortunate to rise up the ranks of the organisation and find myself running the sales team for currency division which at various times was supplying to Iraq and Afghanistan, as they emerged from conflict, and that has definitely been drawn on for my book. Not only the broad experiences of the sort of things that happen when people have to make these decisions: ‘are we going to introduce a new currency or not?’, but also just generally it fired up my thinking in a load of these areas where I was responsible for advising the most senior people in the company: ‘should we be going down this route?’ ‘Is it appropriate?’ ‘Do we have to wait a little longer to see what pans out in this particular country?’ So that kind of political sensitivity, understanding what’s going on and how far you could and should go was definitely left over from the foreign office.

A childish question, but do you have a favourite currency?

Cape Verde’s vibrant currency

Funnily enough I was always struck by some of the work that had been done by one of De La Rue’s managers for Cape Verde. He was very uncompromising in achieving designs for currency that were really world leading. Beautiful designs. It’s very attractive and it has an impact on people when they arrive in a country and say ‘Wow that’s beautifully designed!’. He ended up producing some really fine designs for Cape Verde, so they always struck me as really fascinating, very attractive.

Cape Verde! That’s a great curve ball answer, who’d have thought!?

Sometimes the more powerful countries have the more boring designs.

That’s interesting actually. It’s true that US dollars are very boring, and the UK’s always had quite conservatively designed currency, although I like the £2 coin. Why is that?

Well, I think some countries see the currency as more of a necessary statement about national pride, culture, ethos, and so on, than other countries do. It’s almost in almost inverse proportion to the power of the country.

And in this long career working in places around the globe, where have been some of your favourite spots, that still have a place in your heart?

Well, Berlin was a fantastic place in the 80s, and it’s still a fantastic place now. But I spent a lot of time in Central Asia covering Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and I think if I went back there tomorrow, I would not be lost. It would be pretty comfortable for me.

I imagine not many Brits can say that about Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan! And where should we be paying attention to now?

Now I’ve spent a lot of my time outside of the currency world, outside the world of De La Rue, and now I’m very focused on Iran. Since last year I’ve been running the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce. And in the time I’ve been sitting in the hot seat, it really has sharpened up, the whole US-Iran position. As you can see from the news these days it’s getting more and more fraught, more and more tense.

And once again your job’s given you a ringside seat! But Iran’s the place to keep an eye on right now?

Paul Wilson is currently running the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce.

Oh yeah absolutely, it is a test case for Trump and his whole style of government. It’s a test case for the UK which lifted sanctions on Iran in early 2016 in return for Iran giving up its nuclear programme. And everybody has agreed, the international atomic energy authority, and most national governments agree that they (Iran) have performed their part of the deal, whereas the reality is that I think they’ve got good grounds to believe that The West has not fulfilled its part of the deal, so it’s a big test case. And of course, we all hope that it doesn’t decline into open conflict.

And any other things we should be worrying about?

The thing that really gives me pause for thought at the moment is the dependence on the internet as a platform for our monetary systems. Everything we do now with telephone banking, and internet banking etc – we’re so dependent on the internet that that leaves us, our monetary systems very vulnerable to attack by cyber hackers. We’re now moving into a brave new world but one where our fundamental way of doing business is open to serious attack. The point is that governments need to have a plan B in their pocket. Because if someone decides they’re going to mount cyber attacks on an unprecedented scale to bring down a country’s economy, then you need to be able to have good old fashioned currency to hand. It’s no good leaving that to another day.

You’ve worked all over the world, you’ve been involved with some of the major global political issues of our age, when did the penny drop that you really ought to write a book about all this?

In my De La Rue time I looked at a lot of these issues not just as a sales opportunity but I was always interested in the political, military, diplomatic dimensions of what was going on. I was Director of Government Relations, when there was a lot happening in the world. There was a civil war erupting in Libya where the currency had a part to play, South Sudan emerged as the world’s newest country. And I had ringside seats in these things. And I was accumulating by that time so much knowledge and experience and expertise in the crossover between the commercial and the political worlds that quite a senior civil servant said to me, ‘You’re the guru on this sort of stuff’, this was around 2011, and I suddenly thought, ‘well perhaps I am, and isn’t this something I should be writing about?’. ⬛️

Our thanks to Paul for letting us interview him, and for the on-going pleasure of being his literary agents. Interview edited for clarity.

Paul Wilson’s book ‘HOSTILE MONEY: Currencies in Conflict’ came out in May on The History Press. The book covers the interplay of money and power across centuries of world history; from civil war in Ancient Rome to today’s economic sanctions on Iran. ORDER YOUR COPY HERE.

 

Edinburgh Science Festival

With one Artellus author now permanently based in the Scottish capital, and another starring in the Edinburgh Science Festival, Artellus Director Leslie Gardner took a trip north of the wall border.

For this month's Artellus blog Leslie reflects on a fun trip to see Andrew Elliott and his lecture on big numbers, and a rendezvous with Elmet's creator. Leslie writes...

“Edinburgh was glamorous even in the misty fog and rain they specialise in. Dodging the Brexit protesters in front of the registry office in Princes Street, I turned into the Old Town over Northbridge to find the arts centre housed in the Pleasance Theatre where the Edinburgh Science Festival is being held these days. The whole show was very professionally conducted by staff who I reckon will soon be holding theatre and comedy shows for the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe and International Performance Festivals. But today Science was the order of the day.

The children’s events that populated the daytime schedule were really quite sophisticated! They in turn were balanced by adult conversations in the evening. Enter our man Andrew Elliott whose popular blog Is That A Big Number? puts numbers and stats into fun and relatable perspective. Last year we sold Elliott’s concept for a book based on his blog to Oxford University Press. Today OUP had helped set up Andrew Elliott’s talk about his book ‘Is that a big number?’ at the Edinburgh Science Festival – he told a sold out room that a billion ants could line up the length of NYC’s Central Park – can you just see that? Well, that’s just about what he asked – with dollops of ancient history starting in early Greek times when mathematicians and geographers were the same people, who knew?

It was a fascinating lecture, followed by unusually good questions and talk (no ‘more of a comment than a question’ here!). Numbers and stats in the public mind are a political issue too – if you did not realise – when Boris Johnson talks about millions of pounds not only does he probably not know what he means, but we don’t either. But it sounds big. By all accounts a very successful and witty talk, afterwards everyone filed upstairs to buy a copy of the book, complete with signature of the night’s mathematical entertainer.

Again through Edinburgh’s darkened cobbled streets and to the pub, there to meet with Fiona Mozley. Having moved from her hometown of York, I find her fully ensconced in town with her spouse Megan, now  entirely occupied teaching literature at the historic university. Meanwhile Fiona works on edits for her exciting new novel…”

 

Noireland Festival: Belfast

Friday 8th - Sunday 10th of March 2019 saw Belfast host NOIRELAND, a new International Crime Fiction Festival. The three day festival celebrated all things crime with panels, workshops, and talks. 

Artellus director Leslie Gardner was in attendance. Here she reports from the bustling festival in mid-Brexit Belfast.

Leslie writes...

A day in Belfast for The Noireland International Crime Festival. Decades after my first visit, it was an entirely refreshing occasion and a changed city. Last time when I was attached to the BBC Radio Drama Department police were everywhere on the streets, and you were constantly frisked. No photos then or your film would be confiscated – this time: sweetness and light, friendly locals, and I took a slew of pictures.

The organisers, like good detectives, had left no stone un-turned when it came to content: True Crime, the role of mothers in crime, the Victim Point of View, and talks from top crime writers like Stuart MacBride and Belfast’s very own Adrian McKinty (a revelation – as smart and funny as his main protagonist Sean Duffy, a Catholic cop in a Protestant town when the Troubles were still in the air). The evening only built on the successes of the day– Gothic crime, social media crime, ‘outside’ crime, a rageful Brexit panel … and at the end of each event we were (quite rightly!) exhorted to go drink-up and buy their books.

Karen Sullivan, founder/editor Orenda Books was in attendance and particularly entertaining, cheering on various authors in the panels on her list. Seasoned readers, practising new crime writers, and published authors peppered the panels with questions. Attempts to hold down the rabble rousing in the Brexit meeting, and a pitch to create a viral event when two panellists threatened to get into a fight, were the tamer parts of the discussions.

The day was as relentless as the reading experience of these crime stories – dark and tough for the most part. No ‘cosies’ here! Darkened rooms, spotlit panellists, and no time to eat contributed to a dynamic and intense day. The quality of the talent and content on offer made it all worthwhile.

Adam Hamday’s scary explorations of the crimes on the internet caused many parents to think of denying their children smartphones.

Take, for example, Alex Reeve’s exploration of historical transgender issues in his crime novel. Set in a remote corner of the Scandinavian forests, the deaf and transgender Will Dean must hide who they are to escape being hanged as a murderer. Claire Allan’s ‘dark domestic noir’ is perhaps a new genre unto itself – and the involvement of children adds a new level of tough. Adam Hamday’s scary explorations of the crimes on the internet caused many parents to think of denying their children smartphones.

Brian McGilloway, Martyn Waites, and Declan Hughes warn us of the changing nature of crime with advent of Brexit (of which they are deeply critical). The current political dramas may be notable for their presence in the press, but for their absence in their novels; domestic and familial crimes instead of international thrillers and crime stories will prevail they determined… escapism. Spooky crime stories like Laura Purcell’s increasingly introduce the Gothic supernatural into the genre. In the process they supplanting traditional thriller themes, making it all much more up close and personal.

Throughout the day there were constant references to the trusted friends their editors had become in the writing process. Indications that agents were dampening (yet necessary) while editors more receptive. Once I’d had my fill I left those still standing to their drink and late-night final event of the day, listening to John Connolly’s new one. I trekked across town to my hotel behind Belfast Cathedral, thoroughly satisfied at the good talk and company. Here’s hoping Noireland Crime Fiction Festival proves to be a repeat offender⬛️