Today I’m delighted to feature Alec Marsh who writes light-hearted historical adventures. His first book Rule Britannia, was set against the backdrop of the Abdication Crisis in 1936. It introduced his likeable protagonists Drabble (a Cambridge historian and mountaineer) and Harris (an old school friend and press reporter. They made their second outing last year in Enemy of the Raj, set in British India in 1937.
Alec was born in Essex in 1975 and studied history at Newcastle University before embarking on a career in journalism. Over the last 20 years he has written for most of the national newspapers and written for the New Statesman, the Spectator and Country Life. He is now editor of Spear’s, and has recently moved back to Essex with his wife and family. He is working on the third novel in the Drabble and Harris series which will be set in the United States.
Over to Alec
Which five pieces of music/songs would you include in the soundtrack to your life and why?
OK. First, Thrasher by Neil Young. I was played it when I was about 14 or 15 at school and it’s stayed with me ever since. If you don’t know it, it’s acoustic poetry from the vanguard of the sustainability cause c. 1970. Epic.
Second, Italian Plastic from the Crowded House, c.mid 1990s. It’s a special piece of time travel for me and I wish I’d enjoyed it this much at the time, which reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s line that youth is wasted on the young.
Ditto, The Beatles and the Stones, from The House of Love, a song I’ve listened to for 25 years and reminds me what it’s like to be 20 all over again. At my wedding we played a song that I heard when I lived in Istanbul in 2015 by Jools Holland and his band. It’s from the 1930s, and you’ll probably know it – Enjoy Yourself (It’s later than you think) by Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians – which is an essential song at any party, but not one of the five.
Next is These Days, by Nico, which is haunting AND on the album of The Royal Tenenbaums, which remains among my favourite films, and which – the album – I must have listened to a thousand times while writing Rule Britannia, my first Drabble and Harris novel.
No list could be complete without Johnny Cash – and for me, his rendering of Neil Young’s Four Strong Winds is astonishingly powerful. Put it on now. I think I’ll go out to that one when my time comes.
What five things (apart from family and friends) would you find it hard to live without.
First, a laptop/ a pen and notebook.
Next, good food and wine.
Then it’s books, history, the sea.
I think that’s five, maybe a baker’s five. Of these the first – so that I can write and record and enjoy that process, is certainly the most important. The next speaks for itself. Books and history – I’d hate to be away from the pleasure of reading and learning. And the sea… I sailed the Atlantic in 2003 and it remains one of the greatest experiences of my life. The blue wilderness is something else. If you can, do it.
Give five pieces of advice to your younger self?
Enjoy it all much more.
Have more belief in yourself.
Remember that everyone’s just trying to get through the day.
Tell us five things that most people don’t know about you
First, a story: When I was five, I was locked in an upstairs bedroom as a punishment – to cool off after a tantrum. Instead of cooling off, I climbed up out of the window, with a teddy for company, and then slid down the roof to the gutter. I then threw teddy down onto the lawn as a test, before leaping the eight feet or so myself from the first floor to the ground. A monkey roll later, I trotted around to the front door and knocked on it until my mother answered. I then told her never to do that again. She didn’t. But my grandfather did have bars put on the windows just in case.
Second. Before writing Rule Britannia, I wrote two other novels in my twenties and early thirties – both set in journalism and transparently autobiographical – which presently reside in laptops and will never been seen. They were part of my long, long apprenticeship before getting published, (it’s still continuing) but also belong to a phase before I think I’d realised the purpose of writing which is for others, not yourself.
Third, my first job was as a pot-washer, aged about 14, in a kitchen of a banqueting hall owned by my family since the 1950s in Essex. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been washing up ever since.
Four, I met my wife on railway platform after the train I was travelling on broke down, thereby bringing a halt to the entire West Coast Mainline. We were both travelling south – and we’ve never looked back since. That was ten years ago, and we now have two boys. Once I would have said that writing is the most important thing in the world. It still is. But I also know better. Dedicating my second novel, Enemy of the Raj, to my boys was an incredibly special moment at the keyboard. For Herbie and Douglas. Four very special words.
Five. I love Westerns. It’s not very fashionable, I admit, but ahead of the pack of science fiction – come on… Star Trek, Star Wars… The Terminator! – it’s there. I spent a chunk of my childhood watching old John Wayne movies and I remember in the Nineties, Dances With Wolves, resetting the dial on the way the West was understood – a direct line from Dee Brown’s excellent and seminal, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (read it, but have a hanky). I love the spirit of adventure, the frontier spirit, the remoteness. But it’s a jaded story because of the story of the Native Americans, whose story it also was. This is the reason that I’ve set some of my next Drabble and Harris book, Ghosts of the West in the west, because I wanted to show how recent and inter-rated this history was. I’m just working on the final edits of that and I can’t wait for September when it’s out.
Tell us five things you’d still like to do or achieve.
First, I would love for Drabble and Harris to hit the bestseller list. I expect that’s obvious, but more than that I would love it if they could become identified cultural artefacts – in the way that Inspector Rebus, Miss Marple or Holmes and Watson are. That would be something. Second order identified cultural artefacts would be fine.
Second, I’d like to be proficient in Latin – I’ve tried but I’m hopeless at it. The brain just can’t compute.
Third, I’d like to sail the Atlantic again one day. I’ll catch more fish the next time.
Fourth, I will see Neil Young in concert once Covid is over — all being well.
Five, I’d like to be a good grandfather one day – and keep Drabble and Harris going to see one of them – or both, become grandfathers too.
Thanks for sharing with us today Alec, it was lovely to discover more about you. I enjoyed the music choices as it introduced some new music to me. The great thing about this feature is discovering things that certainly passed me by because I was at a different stage in life. Can’t argue with your live without items either, reading and learning strikes a chord for me. You sounded a very resourceful and fearless five year old, clearly the qualities needed to sail the Atlantic, I hope that opportunity comes your way again. God luck with the Latin, I’m still struggling to learn Spanish, I think my brain has lost its capacity too. Here’s hoping that Drabble and Harris become household names, that will impress your future grandchildren!
Ernest Drabble, a Cambridge historian and mountaineer, travels to rural Devon to inspect the decapitated head of Oliver Cromwell – a macabre artefact owned by Dr Wilkinson. Drabble only tells one person of his plans – Harris, an old school friend and press reporter.
On the train to Devon, Drabble narrowly avoids being murdered, only to reach his destination and find Dr Wilkinson has been killed. Gripped in Wilkinson’s hand is a telegram from Winston Churchill instructing him to bring the head of Oliver Cromwell to London.
Drabble has unwittingly become embroiled in a pro-Nazi conspiracy headed by a high-status Conservative member of the British government.
And so, Drabble teams up with Wilkinson’s secretary, Kate Honeyand, to find the head and rescue Harris who is being tortured for information…
Enemy of the Raj
India, 1937. Intrepid reporter Sir Percival Harris is hunting tigers with his friend, Professor Ernest Drabble. Harris soon bags a man-eater – but later finds himself caught up in a hunt of a different kind…
Harris is due to interview the Maharaja of Bikaner, a friend to the Raj, for his London newspaper – and he and Drabble soon find themselves accompanied by a local journalist, Miss Heinz. But is the lady all she seems? And the Maharaja himself is proving elusive…
Meanwhile, the movement for Indian independence is becoming stronger, and Drabble and Harris witness some of the conflict first-hand. But even more drama comes on arrival at Bikaner when the friends find themselves confined to their quarters… and embroiled in an assassination plot!
Just who is the enemy in the Maharaja’s palace? What is the connection to a mysterious man Drabble meets in Delhi? And what secret plans do the British colonial officers have up their sleeves?