My special guest today is Malcolm Archibald. He’s chatting with me about his new historical novel, Windrush.
Welcome, Malcolm. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Born and raised in Edinburgh, the sternly-romantic capital of Scotland, I grew up with a father and other male relatives imbued with the military, a Jacobite grandmother who collected books and ran her own business and a grandfather from the mystical, legend-crammed island of Arran. With such varied geographical and emotional influences, it was natural that I should write.
Edinburgh’s Old Town is crammed with stories and legends, ghosts and murders. I spent a great deal of my childhood when I should have been at school walking the dark roads and exploring the hidden alleyways. In Arran I wandered the shrouded hills where druids, heroes, smugglers and the spirits of ancient warriors abound, mixed with great herds of deer and the rising call of eagles through the mist.
Work followed with many jobs that took me to an intimate knowledge of the Border hill farms as a postman to time in the financial sector, retail, travel and other occupations that are best forgotten. In between I met my wife; I saw her and was captivated immediately, asked her out and was smitten; engaged within five weeks we married the following year and that was the best decision of my life, bar none. Children followed and are now grown.
At 40 I re-entered education, dragging the family to Dundee, where we knew nobody and lacked even a place to stay, but we thrived in that gloriously accepting city. I had a few published books and a number of articles under my belt. Now I learned how to do things the proper way as the University of Dundee took me under their friendly wing for four of the best years I have ever experienced. I emerged with an honours degree in history, returned to the Post in the streets of Dundee, found a job as a historical researcher and then as a college lecturer, and I wrote. Always I wrote.
The words flowed from experience and from reading, from life and from the people I met; the intellectuals and the students, the quiet-eyed farmers with the outlaw names from the Border hills and the hard-handed fishermen from the iron-bound coast of Angus and Fife, the wary scheme-dwelling youths of the peripheries of Edinburgh and the tolerant, very human women of Dundee.
Cathy, my wife, followed me to university and carved herself a master’s degree; she obtained a position in Moray and we moved north, but only with one third of our offspring: the other two had grown up and moved on with their own lives. For a year or so I worked as the researcher in the Dundee Whaling History project while simultaneously studying for my history Masters and commuting home at weekends, which was fun. I wrote ‘Sink of Atrocity’ and ‘The Darkest Walk’ at the same time, which was interesting.
When that research job ended I began lecturing in Inverness College, with a host of youngsters and not-so-youngsters from all across the north of Scotland and much further afield. And I wrote; true historical crime, historical crime fiction and a dip into fantasy, with whaling history to keep the research skills alive. Our last child graduated with honours at St Andrews University and left home: I decided to try self-employment as a writer and joined the team at Creativia . . . the future lies ahead.
Published works: Fourteen novels, mainly historical, sixteen works of non-fiction, mainly historical plus chapters in academic and non-academic books, around 100 newspaper and magazine articles and many educational resource packs
Pending: Fort Publishing intends to publish A Glimpse at Dundee (non-fiction) in 2016 and Fledgling Press has my Mendick: Golden Voyage (historical crime novel) on their list for 2016 publication. Creativia has a number of my books, written with three different names including my own.
Awards: The fiction includes Mother Law which was a runner up in the 1999 Dundee Book Prize and Whales for the Wizard that won it outright. There is also Darkest Walk that was shortlisted for the Roma FilmFest.
Other: selected to judge articles in the 2015 Scottish Association of Writers AGM, plus have talked on whaling, the Boer War and Victorian Crime in many locations.
Please tell us about your current release.
Windrush is set in 1852, the height of the Victorian period. The main character is an eager young officer named Jack Windrush. Unable to join the famous Royal Malverns, he is commissioned instead into the despised 113th Foot, the Baby Butchers.
Determined to rise in the ranks by making a name for himself, he is sent with a small detachment of the 113th to join the British expedition. When they get involved in the attack of Rangoon, Jack realizes that war on the fringes of the Empire is not honor and glory, but death alongside bravery and skill.
Witnessing the terrors of war, Jack begins to question the whole framework in which he has grown up. After a chance meeting with a renegade British soldier, Jack is forced to revisit his perception of the world.
Set in the Anglo-Burmese War, Windrush is the first book in Malcolm Archibald's series of military novels.
What inspired you to write this book?
I have always been interested in 19th century military history, but less from the tactics and battles than from the human point of view. What sort of people joined the army, why did they join and what sort of experiences did they have. As my grandfather and great grandfather both served as soldiers in Queen Victoria’s army, I do have a family link to the campaigns, which heightens the interest.
The campaign I chose to start the series is not well known, which was a bonus. It is the lesser known wars that typified the imperial experience more than the better known. Men at the fringes of the known world, peering through the mist of prejudice and misunderstanding as they risk their live against an enemy they know nothing about.
Here is the opening sequence from Chapter Four:
‘Welcome to the 113th Foot.’ Colonel Murphy stared at Jack across the width of the desk while a punkah-wallah slowly pulled the cord that rotated the fan that stood above his head. He dropped his eyes; ‘home to all the sweepings that the gutter rejects.’ He poured gin into a squat glass and tossed it back in a single swallow, refilled the glass and repeated the procedure. Jack noticed that he only used his right hand; the left sleeve of his tunic was empty.
Jack felt the sweat easing from his scalp under the regulation forage hat and tricking down the length of his spine. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Thank me?’ Murphy paused with the next glass half way to his mouth. ‘You’ve little to thank me for, Windrush. You know what Wellington called the British Army? He called them the scum of the earth. Well, the 113th gets the scum of that scum, rapists, thieves, blackguards of all descriptions.’ He drank the gin and poured himself another. ‘I would not be surprised if we had a murderer or two, or a blasted Whig like as not.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Jack had never taken any interest in politics but he knew his father had been a Tory and the Whigs were the opposition, so he supposed that Colonel Murphy shared his father’s opinions on matters political.
‘And cowards,’ Murphy’s eyes were red-rimmed as again raised them to hold Jack’s gaze. ‘You’ll have heard the stories, no doubt.’
‘There have been rumours,’ Jack said cautiously.
Colonel Murphy banged his glass down on the desk. ‘So don’t expect any glory here, boy.’ He shook his head. ‘Not for us the immortal battles and newspaper headlines. Oh no, we had one battle and we ran away. Now we get garrison duty at the arse end of empire so we die of fever and ague. If there is a hell hole or disease ridden swamp anywhere, that’s where they will send the 113th.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Jack could not think what else to say. Certainly this port of Moulmein did not appear to be the healthiest place in the world.
Colonel Murphy wheezed in a breath of humid air. ‘As you are no doubt aware, Windrush, every regiment of the British Army carries their reputation and history on their colours.’ He did not wait for Jack to agree or disagree but continued. ‘Do you know how many battle honours the glorious 113th displays?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Jack had scoured London’s bookshops for every book on the regiment and had read them on the interminably long voyage from England. There had not been many; the 113th was not the sort of regiment about which people wrote books or published memoirs.
‘Well?’ Murphy’s hand hesitated on the neck of the gin bottle. His eyes were like shining sable at the foot of blood red pits. ‘How many?’
‘None, sir,’ Jack said quietly.
‘Exactly; none, sir,’ Murphy tore his hand away from the bottle. ‘So what heinous crime did you commit to join this illustrious regiment? Did you bed the wrong woman? Steal the family silver? Cheat at cards?’
What exciting story are you working on next?
I am currently engaged in the second book in the Windrush series, where Windrush and the 113th find themselves in the Crimean War, with a very different enemy and climate.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I have always written although it was not until after I had a dozen or so books published that I began to think I could actually be a writer.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I have been writing full time for a few months now: before that I have had a variety of jobs. The most recent was a college lecturer in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands.
My writing day starts at about 6 in the morning and continues until my wife gets fed up with the incessant tapping of the keyboard and demands my attention!
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I have a habit of leaping up from my desk to grab books from wherever they happen to be so I can check a reference. By the end of the day I can be half hidden behind a mound of piled up books, with a cat often nestling among them, purring. Not sure that is interesting, but it is how I work.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A seaman; that dream did not last long.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
If you wish to write, then be prepared for very long hours, with people who do not appreciate the amount of effort it takes. It is a career of immense lows when books are not well received, and of tremendous highs when at last you hold your own creation in your hand. It is a rollercoaster of emotions but worth the creative effort.
Thanks for being here today, Malcolm!