Today is the UK release date for Saxon’s Bane. To mark the occasion, Jonathan Oliver of Solaris sat me in front of a video camera and asked me loads of questions, ranging from my thoughts on genre, to the background to key characters in the book, and my writing journey. We even touched on the healing power of horses! The interview has been posted on YouTube at:
A wonderful crowd of friends and family swelled the shoppers at The Forbidden Planet in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, on Wednesday night, for the launch of Saxon’s Bane.
My agent Ian Drury of Sheil Land Associates kindly kicked off the proceedings before I was persuaded to read the first chapter. A Q&A followed, in which the questions were mercifully uncontroversial but lively enough to swell the numbers queuing to buy the book.
I’d found a very suitable wine, so perhaps it was inevitable that a little frivolity would creep into the occasion, in which a Saxon replica helmet (gratifyingly close to the book’s cover image) featured heavily!
I was humbled by the number of friends who came along in support, some of whom had traveled a long way to be there. The Forbidden Planet team were stunned that I was still signing books when they were preparing to close the shop, which I gather is almost unknown for a debut launch.
Saxon’s Bane is now available in print form (Mass Market Paperback) in the United States and Canada, and will be released in Trade Paperback format in the United Kingdom on 12th September. It is also available worldwide in all standard eBook formats.
I started Deer Island thinking I’d just read for thirty minutes before bed. I put it down in the early hours, when it was nearly finished and all hopes of a full night’s sleep were gone, and I’m still trying to define its appeal. The quality of the writing certainly has something to do with it; the prose is clean and bare, yet wonderfully descriptive, but there is something more than style.
I’m also trying to define the book. It doesn’t fit easily with convenient labels. ‘Memoir’ is probably the closest fit, since it structured as personal recollections. Ansell has lived and worked with the destitute, has himself been a squatter, and has wandered the wild places of the earth. This slim book could also be seen as a series of vignettes; of poverty, of lifestyles, of places, all of which are articulated with sharp clarity.
I think I was hooked by the way he writes with such respect, even love, for the kind of people most of us hurry past in the street; the alcoholics and homeless beggars, Ansell’s friends and companions during his years serving with the Simon Community. There are also descriptive passages of intense beauty; it’s worth buying the book just for the paragraphs where he emerges from a freezing rainstorm in the Kalahari desert to see a scimitar-horned gemsbok standing under an extraordinary, purple sunset. His descriptions of Jura, the ‘Deer Island’ of the title, could inspire me to shoulder a backpack and start walking North.
I’m left with the impression of a man whose life is richer for carrying so little with him, ‘Memories,’ he says, ‘are the only things we truly own, and even they slip from our grasp if we don’t handle them with care’.
Let me share a little happiness; my author copies of Saxon’s Bane have arrived from the wonderful people at Solaris. It is almost exactly six years since I stepped off a corporate ladder and went freelance, specifically to release time to write. Six years from ‘I’m going to do this’ to publication, and I tell you this moment feels better than any business deal I ever landed. My thanks to those who’ve helped along the way, many of whom will find their names inside the cover. It seemed appropriate to record the moment in the arbour, where much of Saxon’s Bane was written.
Saxon’s Bane will be released in the USA on 27th August and in the UK on 12th September.
The excitement is always the same; that sense of anticipation, of adventure, of setting out on the next leg of a voyage.
It starts perhaps in darkness, with the boat snubbing at its anchor chain, making irregular swoops under the conflicting pressures of wind and tide. The cabin seems fixed, solid, a warm, sea-scented fug of damp wool and coffee; it is the world outside that moves around us. A pool of light over the chart table shines on polished teak and racks of almanacs, a timeless image that Scott or Shackleton would recognise. The sea sloshes against the hull, plopping and dripping as if we were trapped in some celestial cistern. Movements are hushed, purposeful.
On deck, it is the noise that you notice first; thousands upon thousands of seagulls, roosting on some island nearby and calling into the ghost-light before dawn. It is an eerie sound, and suddenly I understand the old sea-stories about seagulls holding the spirits of dead sailors. And beneath this cacophony, there is the electric hum of wind through tight rigging.
Then there are the lights. There are navigation buoys all around us, winking red, green or white, and a lighthouse that sweeps its searchlight beam over all, marking our course to the open sea. We work in the dancing beams of torches hung from our necks, no hands to spare. ‘One hand for yourself, one hand for the ship.’ Otherwise, the horizon-less world is seen in tones of grey; the sky, lightening in the East, the sea, oily dark, reflecting the lights, and the land, low, humped, charcoal-black. Far away, a necklace of streetlights is an intrusion.
You know the instant when the boat comes alive. One moment, she is tugging at her anchor chain, impatient, captive, and the next she is free. Already her bow swings out of the wind, running for the sea before her anchor is fully shipped like an escaped horse trailing its tether. Now the pattern of lights moves around us, signposting the channel. By the time the sails are set it is dawn; the gleam of the lighthouse fades into a lonely grey behind us, and the horizon lightens into silver ahead, as the boat puts her shoulder down and runs. More coffee, clasped two-handed, warming, and as we lift our noses from our mugs the wind carries the fading smell of the land.
That atmosphere was always there for the brief time I spent at sea in an old friend’s boat, the same sense of adventure whether we were pointing her bow towards Lezardrieux, or L’Aber Vrac’h, or the rocky rip-tides of Raz de Sein (fortunately taken at slack water). Then, at journey’s end in La Rochelle, I saw a poem by Baudelaire, set in ugly, vomit-green plastic on a beautiful old tower. It captured that mood rather well. It may lose something in translation, especially if it’s me that’s doing the translating, but as far as I can make out, it says
But the true travellers are those who leave only for leaving; light-hearted, like balloons, never straying from their fate and, without knowing why, say always “Let’s go!”
I fear I’ve tested an old and good friendship.
It began when a friend I’ve known since university days asked me to crew for him when he sailed his yacht from Portsmouth to La Rochelle. But, I pointed out, I haven’t sailed since I was an eighteen-year-old Royal Naval cadet, and that was so long ago that Chief Petty Officers wore bushy beards and had fond memories of battleships and the rum ration. About the only advice I could still remember was when one such grizzled character said “always remember, lad, when you see the seagulls walking, it’s time to go about.”
No problem, said my chum, you’ll soon pick it up again. So at first light one morning, which at this time of the year is so early that even the seagulls asked us to keep the noise down, we left the Needles rocks astern and slipped down the English Channel, with the hilltops of Wight shrouded in cloud behind us.
No problem, I agreed, when Alderney lay abeam after just 11 hours of good sailing, and we decided to push on to Guernsey. With hindsight, we’d have been better off in Alderney, because even the best and most experienced sailors (and my host has spent half his life at sea) suffer the occasional ‘unforecast blow’.
“I think we’ll take in a reef,” he said as the boat put her shoulder down and charged the waves like a rugby player trying to break through the opposing pack. We were in, he explained, the Alderney Race. This, I gather, has nothing to do with an amiable local sporting competition, but is a body of water that surges North at anything up to six knots (seven mph to we landlubbers), then turns around and charges back South again at a similar speed. The trick is to make the flow work for you, and at all costs avoid battling ‘wind over tide’, when the sea conditions can become seriously nasty.
“Perhaps another reef.” A wind speed indicator made a brief appearance and registered thirty knots. Force six, gusting seven, which seems to inspire respect among yachties, especially when it hits you across the tide in the Alderney Race. Waves came at us straight out of a Japanese woodcut; big, growly bastards with their tops tumbling white above the boat’s cockpit. In the canyons of water between them, the boat would come more upright, sheltered from the wind, until they lifted us to their summits and slid beneath us, angry, all piss and vinegar. And on these summits the wind would hit us full on, blowing the boat on its side so that we stood on the edges of the cockpit benches with the deck at our backs. Division of labour was required. My friend handled the complicated stuff like navigating and working the sails. My job was simply to steer to a given course.
I was not a great success. “Steer for Herm,” he said, pointing at a low smudge of darker grey in the driving rain, marginally more solid than the cloud. “We’ll shelter in its lee.”
At which point we dropped into a trough between the waves that would have swallowed a London bus, soared up the valley wall, and were hit by another wave. It’s not the big bastards that irritate me, it’s the sneaky ones that jump up at the last minute to slap the side of the hull and send water spraying into your face. We dropped into the trough, spitting sea,all points of reference gone. At the top of the next wave, sure enough, there was the charcoal smudge of land, and I aimed at it.
“That’s Sark, not Herm!” My friend called in exasperation as he emerged from the chart table a few minutes later. A lesser man would have added ‘you idiot’. He didn’t. I did. “Can’t you feel the wind on your cheek?”
Wind on my cheek? Yes, I could feel the wind on my cheek. I gather it’s an aid to navigation. I could also feel more rain on my face than would be delivered by the average power shower, and I had half the English Channel inside my foul weather gear. But hey, ho! We altered course for Herm.
I can’t believe I did it again. But as we emerged from a trough, only one island was visible in the murk, and I steered for it. Alas, it was Sark again, not Herm. Long, uncomfortable tacks crawling our way sideways into the wind were wasted in a dash for the wrong rock. Unbelievably, he didn’t shout. He didn’t even reprimand. He just stared at Herm with water running down his face, and probably did a very slow count to ten.
His trial was not yet over. If you sail West at 5 knots, and there is a current to the North of 5 knots, your course over the ground will be North West. You can sail towards safety and go straight over rocks. By the time we were approaching our anchorage in the lee of Herm, both my glasses and the tiny ‘Course over Ground’ indicator were crusted with salt, and running with water. Clear instructions like “come to starboard to a course of 280” were wasted on a trainee helmsman who was effectively blind. Anchoring did not go well, even after we resorted to landlubber-friendly instructions such as “aim for the pair of rocks that look like a dog’s b****ks.”
Still, amazingly, there was no shouting. Just a sense of relief that was almost palpable when we were finally secure, although the mood in the cabin was initially subdued. Then a bottle of Scotland’s finest appeared, and we retold each other our own story. With the second glass, and the second retelling, the laughter began; great belly laughs as whisky and long friendship turned potential disaster into real humour.
I sense that the story of the man who couldn’t tell Herm from Sark will enliven his dinner table for years.
My wonderful publishers, Solaris, sent an Advance Review Copy of Saxon’s Bane to Christopher Fowler, the author of thirty published novels including the Bryant and May mysteries. Christopher commented:
‘Once there was a great classical tradition of rural British horror from MR James to The Wicker Man. Now Geoffrey Gudgion has revived the style and modernised it to great effect, proving there’s still nothing as creepy as the countryside.’
Thank you, Christopher! Definitely a quote for the cover.
Rather than enthuse about it myself, (well I would, wouldn’t I?) I’ll also share the observations from an online community of writers and agents, some of whom have been part of my own writing journey ever since Saxon’s Bane started to take shape.
‘Perfect! … dramatic and classy. There’s a sinister feel to it and an impression of today (from the road) and history.
Stirring, evocative, all the things a cover should be. I’d grab it if I saw it on the table!
It has a darkly beautiful feel … this absolutely would make me pick up and buy Saxon’s Bane. It says to me that it’s both historical and contemporary. Anglo-Saxon. Pagan. Powerful.
That’s fabulous I can’t wait to get my paws on a copy!
Very dramatic, and promises an intriguing combination of ancient and contemporary (just as the book delivers.)
I’d definitely pick it up. The cover puts a shiver down my spine and says modern/historical/edgy/scary mix.
Oh I like it. It says hardship and violence and a good story.
It’s very strong. It makes me think dark, dark things are afoot.’
Saxon’s Bane will be released in the UK and USA, in print and ebook formats, in September 2013.