Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Times Picks the Best Historical Novels of 2011

‘Much the best was Justin Hill’s Shieldwall, which superbly evoked the wordplay of the period’s poetry as it unfolds a compelling story of Earl Godwin’s battles against the Norse.’

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Singapore Day 2: Man Asian Shortlist Announced

What to do at a literary festival?

Well - I always imagine them something like my backpacking trips when I was a younger me: early nights, lots of reading, up early, and hours and hours walking and seeing places.

Then you throw in a bunch of writers, and the balance shifts more to long dinners, late night's drinking and then late mornings, just up in time for breakfast, where we sit and wipe bleary eyes and set out for our days.

I was delighted to be included in the Chinese writer's lunch: and as soon as Paul Tan of the festival told me this, I struggled to bring all my mandarin back to mind. Was with Bi Feiyun and Taiwanese writer, Hao Hsiang-yu.

Then an interesting event on settings, with Meira Chand, Kunal Basu, and Dawn Farnham. A really interesting session, followed by dinner with the Man Asian Prize team who were buzzing from their simultanous launch of the 2011 longlist.

Bi Feiyun spent the night trying to finish off the last of last year's prize money on some fine wines: and I thought that was a good lesson in life, to share the bounty we get with others. A great guy, who's had a great year, also winning the Mao Dun Prize. Well done him!

Great that the prize is attracting big names, and that the prize is so well run: slick, professional, and focussed on the job of promoting Asian writing.

Razia Iqbal below:

Friday, October 28, 2011

Singapore Writers Festival

There's something special about festivals that call themselves writers festivals, rather than literary festivals, and spotted Bi Feiyun sitting in the lobby as I went for lunch.

Bet he's not written a think since I last saw him at the prize event last year: there's something highly disruptive about winning prizes like the Booker/Man Booker. And then who else should I run into here, than a bunch of Hong Kongers standing in the hotel lobby.

Thanks to Jean who was the best of volunteers, taking me out to find a very delicious beef randang. And then a few hours wandering the streets with a taste of pork knuckle in vinegar; and cracked pepper pig stomach and chicken soup with a spicy sweet soy sauce.

Everyone very friendly. First event tomorrow, after a rather long lunch.

Tonight we're off on a boat trip. Ten writers sent up the river: will we survive? Will I be sea sick..?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Unknown Soldiers of 1066

History – like memory – tends to fixate on the principal players, victors and casualties, and glosses over circumstantial details and many events of interest to us remain hidden and mysterious. 

Arthur’s twelve battles are just names without locations, as is Brunanburg; while even the locations of later battles like Bosworth are often sketchy. But the Battle of Hastings is unique in that we have an astonishing amount of detail of this battle, fought 945 years ago. 

We can trace, for example, Harold’s movements from September 8th when his army supplies ran out; almost to the day through to his famous march north to the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September; and then south again, ending up at Hastings, on 14th October. Of the important men who died at the battle there is Harold, of course; his two brothers Leofwine and Gyrth and their friends and cousins and retainers, but we also know the spot – the precise spot - where Harold’s banner flew and where he was killed. 

We know this because William insisted that the high altar of his abbey mark the exact spot, and when the Norman monks started work on a site they thought much more appropriate, William furiously chastised them and ordered them to do his royal will. 

Uniquely we also know some of the common folk who died at Hastings. We know, for example, Abbot Leofric of Peterborough died on campaign but before the battle. (Campaigns in Saxon times were no doubt as unsanitary as they were in Florence Nightingale’s times. ‘Summer sickness’ doubtless thinned both armies). 

Another Abbot, Aelfwig of Winchester’s New Minster died in the battle with twelve of his monks: and the lack of information provokes us to wonder who these monks were. Were they the moustached and warlike monks, like Bishop Leofgar of Hereford, Harold Godwinson’s chaplain, who died in battle with the Welsh? Can we picture these Winchester monks in the heriot – here-geat – wargear of mail, helm and spear, wielding beaded axes and chanting their prayers? Or were they performing a more supporting role – tending, ministering, and caught up in the massacre after the battle? 

We don’t know. It is as the historian Richard Fletcher wrote, that facts seldom speak for themselves and ‘have to be coaxed and entreated into utterance’. The gaps between these facts are fertile ground for the historical novelist, who brings the facts and characters to speak. 

Other names include Godfric, Sheriff of Berkshire, who was no doubt leading the worthies of Berkshire. Imagine those waiting at home, hearing rumours of slaughter. The terrible absence of men who did not return. Their experience must have been like the hometowns of the pals regiments when they began to hear rumours of the Somme. You wonder if any of them really knew what happened to their sons, fathers and husbands. 

Most of these names are gleaned from the Domesday Book: men who were still remembered 20 years after the battle, when the book was composed, and English scribes began to count every ox and cow and pig and hide and yard of land. These missing men were the GPs, vicars, local businessmen, and MPs of their time. They were the local lord of the manor; the self-made farmers and freeman; the lynch pin of their communities; the good and the respected and the resented; that familiar face that rode off to answer King Harold’s fourth summons, and did not return. 

There was Eadric the Deacon. 

Breme, a freemen from Suffolk, who had been one of King Edward’s men. And then there are unnamed men: men from the abbeys of Abingdon, St Benet of Holme, Bury St Edmunds, St Augustine’s, Canterbury were all said to have fought in the battle. Individual men listed in the Domesday Book: one from Cavendish in Suffolk, and two freemen from Tytherley who rode off in September 1066, and did not return: the unknown soldiers of 1066. 

Tytherley is now split into two villages, with both with churches dedicated to St Peter. Google the place and you get images of churchyard tombs, bungalows, houses for sale, a black and white picture of a Victorian gentleman fishing in the village pond. It looks much like any other village, really. Green, hedgerows, a church wall war memorial, someone’s photograph of a full English breakfast: rashers, sausages, tomato, both scrambled and one fried egg. 

Both East and West Tytherley are listed on Wikipedia, and neither entry remembers the men of 1066. The earliest mention is for 1335, when the manor, no doubt still part of the royal estate inherited by William from Harold, and so to Edward III, who then gave it to his wife, Queen Philippa. The next entry records that William Fothergill Cooke invented the first commercial electric telegraph whilst living there. 

It’s a fairly typical village. And so it was in 1066. Then three men held it from King Edward, and then King Harold after him. It had land for 6 ploughs, 2 villans, 22 bordars, 7 ½ acres of meadow, and woodland for fencing. The Domesday Book says ‘two of those who held [in 1066] were killed in the Battle of Hastings’. 

Were they brothers? Neighbours? Friends? Begrudging neighbours? We do not know. But there are stories in these scant facts. Ways of coaxing those facts to speak. Their names are like the faces of people standing in the fire lit shadows of a Vermeer painting: just brief and tantalising glimpses of people usually lost to the long dark night of history. 

As with so many of our glimpses into Anglo-Saxon England, the detail about these men is brought to us because of a land dispute. The scribe records that ‘The men of the hundred say that they have never seen the king’s seal, nor his officer who had given seisin of this manor to Alwine Ret…and unless the king were to bear testimony, he [Alwine] has nothing there.’ 

This comment hints at the chaos after Hastings, and no doubt refers to a disputed inheritance; resentment of how the dead men’s families fortunes changed. We are lucky for these flashes of faces from the long dark winter’s night of the past. How the grievances of the men of Tytherley were resolved we cannot tell. Away from the spot lit leads of Harold and William, the light of history only falls so far.  But Hastings still stirs up strong feelings, and we the inheritors of these Tytherley men are still arguing over that battle's inheritance.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Look what's just landed in my inbox

Always great to see the 'face' of a book you've written, and here's Shieldwall, in its mass market form.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Long Road to Hastings....

It took Harold Godwinson 17 days from hearing of William's landing to march south and face a battle. Embarrassingly, it's taken me a week or so longer to get a synopsis put together. I blame Real LIfe TM - but finally done and sent off and can't wait to get stuck in. There's some really fabulous material here: great choices for the characters, complex and interesting situations - and unlike Shieldwall - there's a lot of not battle action, which I know will please a lot of people. (Heh - I didn't get to write history...!) And I'm sitting at my desk, and I find myself in early Autumn, which is the best time to start a novel. Can't wait to get stuck in. Am going to spend a couple of days letting a head of steam build, go through index cards and pick out good bits, and then set off with a Harold Godwinson as he sets out in life. He's only a young lad in a cloak and kirtle, sitting whittling a stick and dreaming big dreams: and I bet if you told him he'd end up being Earl of Wessex and King of England, and die in the most famous battle in Christendom, when I bet he'd be pretty happy with that. And if anyone is curious about the appeal of Shieldwall to an Asian audience, then here's Peter Gordon in the Asian Review of Books...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bringing History to Life: Hong Kong Book Fair

A great talk, covering Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Perspectives on China, and the differences between Fiction and CNF

Interview: Wall Street Journal

Justin Hill is something of an anomaly: He’s an English writer, based in Hong Kong, who has garnered international acclaim.

Two of his novels, “The Drink and Dream Teahouse” and “Passing Under Heaven,” were nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and he’s won a Somerset Maugham Award, a Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and a Thomas Cook Travel Book Award shortlist placement for his writing.

Before coming to Hong Kong four years ago, Mr. Hill spent nearly 15 years living in and writing about China. The subjects of his works have included his experiences and observations as a young volunteer in the fast-changing Shanxi province, the life of female Chinese poet Yu Xuanji and the small African state of Eritrea.

His latest, “Shieldwall,” released in May, is a historical novel set in 11th-century England, shortly before the Norman Conquest. The book received glowing reviews from critics at publications such as the Sunday Times and Guardian for its historical accuracy and gripping battle scenes.

Read full interview Here

By Patrick Brzeski

Review: The Australian

Work of English historical fiction re-creates land fit for Saxon heroes George Williams

Shieldwall comes as a pleasant surprise. Hill has written about events usually passed over in favour of more well-known times. Moreover, he has done so with obvious passion and in a manner that is evocative and at times almost poetic in catching the mood of the era.

This book is an undoubted success both as a work of fiction and as a tale of history. It gives a stirring and well-researched insight into the disasters, mishaps and treachery that made life in 11th-century Saxon England such a misery.

The author has not told the whole story of the events leading up to 1066. There is obviously much more to come. Indeed, Shieldwall is planned as the first in a Conquest Trilogy. The next two books will certainly be welcome.

Read Full Article here

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sunday Times Review Shieldwall

Great review for Shieldwall in the Sunday Times this week. Catch the whole review here

If you don't have a Times subscription, then here's a sample:

'Written in supple, intelligent prose, which carries echoes of the wordplay in Anglo-Saxon poetry, Shieldwall is a vivid historical novel. Hill not only succeeds in bringing the distant world of pre-Conquest England to life but, in Godwin, has created a complex character whose struggles to be true to his ideas of faith, duty and friendship are entirely convincing.' Nick Rennison, Sunday Times

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Shieldwall #9 Best Seller at Hatchards

Clearly a shop with a discerning clientele....

Dymocks Dinner: Shieldwall returns to HK

It's not often you pass your local bookshop and find a large picture of yourself.

The event was at Grappa's Cellar

All that Old English study finally comes of use when needing to quote the Battle of Maldon and Maxims II on stage.

Book Tour Part 7: Shieldwall in Charlbury

There were hopes that I'd be on Excess Baggage again saturday morning, meanwhile I spent two nights in Charlbury - one of the most charming English market towns you could hope for, nestled in fabulous Oxfordshire countryside.

First stop was a talk to the children of Charlbury Primary School: who were one of the most enthusiastic audiences I had: with ten hands going up each time I asked for a question, and the year 6 boys at the back who asked 'Is it gory?' and when I said there were gory bits gave out a large 'YES!'

Nest morning I took advantage of a quiet morning for an eight mile stroll through ancient woodland. More very tall trees, the delightful little church just outside Charlbury, and lots of deer.

A saxon door still in the stonework:

Vicky and Ed had organised a delightful evening at the Corner House, and Jon at Evenlode Books came along and was the jolly bookseller by a large pile of Shieldwall.

Fine weather, lots of old friends, and new, and a great way to end the tour.

Hay 'paid' it's authors with a case of Cava: and so this was my contribution to the festivities:

Then it was back to London for a quick signing at Goldsboro Books,

An Ethiopian lunch at Menelik's on Caledonian Road: which looked like this and hit all the spots:

Thanks to Soph, Charles and Lara, Tara, Ed and Vics, Buz the Broadsword, Martin and Shirley for coming along, Katie and Damien, William, Isabella, Harper, May, Felix, Bella for your bedroom, Jon, Daniel, Zoe and everyone else who helped me along the way.

Book Tour Part 6: Shieldwall in London

Back in London had a very busy time coffee/lunching/dinnering with a great selection of friends.

For you, dear reader, one of the highlights was the the inaugral meal of the Historical Writer's Association (HWA) where there was a great collection of the UK's best historical novelists. For a room full of literary types, it was a very jovial, friendly and fun evening. 'So what's your period?' was the general question, and then you found yourself listening to an expert in anything from Romans (Ben Kane, Manda Scott and Tony Riches); medieval (Robyn Young); pirates (Mark Keating); 18th Century (Imogen Robertson) - and that's just a taster of who was there - severely limited by my memory.

There were signings at Hatchard's and a very interesting lunch with John Man, one of the most interesting writers on Mongolian history.

Book Tour Part 5: Shieldwall storms York

I grew up in York, and know the alleys and snickleways like the back of my hand so it was a joy to be back and avoiding the inevitable crowds.

The beer and black pudding were as good as any I remember, and my hotel had a particularly good full Yorkshire breakfast.

There was a book signing at Waterstones: thanks to everyone who turned up, especially Michelle of Scarborough!

And then a day out and about, at Benningborough Hall, where I had forgotten how tall trees in England are.

And what an oak tree looks like after it's been hit by lightning.

Book Tour Part 4: Nottingham cont

Nottingham Castle was built across the valley from the Saxon town by the Normans, and was a critical part of the royal estate up to Richard III's time. And it was from Nottingham castle that Richard III marched to Bosworth.

It's on a sandstone ridge and the sandstone is full of tunnels. Could recommend this highly enough: and here are a few pics.

Book Tour Part 3: Shieldwall heads North to the Land of Snot

Yes, Snottingeham - The Village of the People of Snot - is the old name of Nottingham, the next stop on my tour. I was the guest of the university there, and was expecting a few night's stay in a 1960s pre-fab, and instead found myself greeted by the porter 'Are you my house guest sir?' and then taken along a tree-lined avenue to a delightful Georgian country house, and into the Newstead Suite, where the chancellor stays when in town.

I had a busy 40th birthday, doing a talk on 'Landscape and Space' with Thomas Legendre and Matthew Welton and then a public lecture in the evening on 'The Writer in China'.
A fine curry afterwards, and then I happened to be near Lenton Road, which to me, and many others, means Games Workshop. Couldn't resist going over and hanging out, and meeting the geeks, and visting the figure museum there, with some of the best of miniature painting and diaoramas.

GW is also the home of one of my favourite pulp publishers: Black Library, and I had a very enjoyable session with Nick Kyme, who has an amazing ability to riff on an idea.

I've a lot of respect for pulp fiction writers because a lot of 'literary' writers could learn a thing or two about story telling from them. So it was a delight to meet up for a curry with Graham McNeill, New York Times Bestselling author, the author of an astounding 22 novels, and winner of the David Gemmel Legend Award. We ended up in a late-night rock bar, and really enjoyed the night, Graham's a great guy!

Lunch that day was in the world's oldest pubs, with a great pint of pale ale, and the next day a fabulous tour through the tunnels under Nottingham Castle.

Book Tour Part 2: Shieldwall at Bosham

The reason I wanted to go to Bosham is here:

and here -

Yes, the church (well, the arch) featured in the Bayeux Tapestry is still here, and the saxon tower remains, with only one floor of Norman addition. A fine beacon, no doubt, for the sailors who plied the mud flats. The church, and the fact that the manor house here, almost definitely sits on the site of the hall where Godwin and Harold spent a lot of their time.

It was very odd being somewhere, which I had already imagined and written about, and then visited. It was much flatter than I had imagined, and the tide made much more of a difference here: as it sped in over the mud flats, and altered the feel of the place twice a day.

This is also the place where Knut's eight year old daughter is said to be buried, and where he was said to have tried to turn back the tide. But instead of a tale about his arrogance and stupidity, he actually went on to tell his courtiers that this was proof of the power of the Almighty.

It was clear why this would be a favourite haunt for Harold Godwinson, a dedicated falconer, as there was plenty of game birds for hunting.

Book Tour Part 1: Shieldwall and the Hay-on-Wye Festival

Arrived in London, and drove down to Hay with Charlie Viney, and his son, Tom, and had a great time: seeing England again, and talking all the way from London to the Welsh border.

When we were almost there, we passed through Ewyas Harold, which has one of the few pre-Conquest Motte and Bailie castles in England: built by Ralph the Timid during Edward the Confessor's reign, to protect against the Welsh.

Stayed here: The Swan Inn, and expected it to be full of writers and intellectuals, but was strangely quiet.

Walked along the river, which must have been the border between the Welsh and English, and found a post-Conquest Motte and Baile castle in the field across the road, and after dinner in the long summer twilight, conducted a little tour for the London literary types.

A fine castle:

Talking to a whiskey soaked audience, courtesy of Highland Park.

And then my big talk - going head to head against a double act of The Archbishop of Canterbury and Simon Russel-Beale - and delighted to have a fine turn out. First talk on Shieldwall went very well: and a quick signing, before heading back to London via Hereforth: where the Welsh burnt the cathedral down in 1056, after a vigorous resistance in which 7 canons were killed.

Remembered how Bishops of Hereford seem to have been the military type, with responsibility for leading the local resistance. Like Bishop Leofgar, once chaplain to Harold Godwinson, who died in battle in 1056.

Thoughts on Hay:
I was very impressed with Hay, not having been there before, and hearing that it was more corporate than literary. Peter Florence was delightful, the audience diverse and interested, and what impressed me most of all was the number of school kids. I've never seen so many at a festival, and thought this was an excellent feature.

As an author: the volunteers were excellent and helpful; the carrot cake and coffee generously distributed, and the tech support as smooth as it gets.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shieldwall Breaks into the Best Seller lists at #2!!!

the picture says it all, and just time to squeeze in a bottle of the finest bubbly before flying to London for the UK Book Tour!

UK Tour Dates

I asked my wife, What to take on a book tour? She told me a pen, ink and a spare change of underwear. And books of course! I've got my own list, and will be adding and subtracting from that in the next few hours of scrambled packing, but just time to let you know what's happening in the next few weeks.

If you're around, or it's a rainy day, and you have nothing better to do, then why not come and listen to some old english. Or indeed, the adventures of Godwin Wulfnothson. Or indeed, about that other great conquest of England, in 1016, not 1066!

Friday 27th May
2pm The Moot, Hay-on-Wye: An intimate, whiskey sipping atmosphere, sponsored by Highland Park. Who could miss that?!
4pm Elmley Foundation Theatre, Hay-on-Wye: Gripping fiction that reclaims the Saxon history of Ethelred, Edmund and Harold from the Norman conquerors by a multi-award-winning novelist. (and my last public appearance as a 39 year old, who's been sipping whiskey all afternoon...)

Tuesday 31st May
2pm Landscape and Space: Nottingham University, English Department
6.15pm The Writer in China, Nottingham University Public Lecture.

Friday 3rd June
Accessing the Medieval: Nottingham University

Saturday 4th June
12pm Waterstones Bookshop: Book Signing

Monday 6th June
St Peter's School, York

Thursday 9th June
Charlbury Primary School

Friday 10th June
7pm Corner House, Charlbury

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Party Shoes on...and an interesting link

Zee Stone Gallery, 7pm, 19th May.

Period costume only. Leave battle axes at the door, please

Want to read more: click here Thanks to Dymocks for picking me as their Author of the Month.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Run Dont Walk to your nearest Bookshop!!!!

Shieldwall is selling out all over Hong Kong, so make sure you grab a copy quick!


Buy Shieldwall Week Launches in Hong Kong

Let's get Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother off that number one slot!

Buy Shieldwall this week and lets put literature back into the best seller lists!