TOUCHSTONE TUESDAYS 6: He Who Lives By The Sword!

If Toy Soldiers were my youthful passion (Read ‘Touchstone Tuesday 5’, below), the sword is my lifetime one.

My mother always said she felt that I was born with a sword in my hand – which must have been rather painful for my Ma, birthing wise! It is certainly true that one of my earliest photos – alas, now lost! – is of me, aged three, in full Zorro regalia, complete with plastic rapier. We lived in California at the time, so he was my hero. We moved to England when I was nearly seven, and my reading led me to other heroes – D’Artagnan of the Musketeers, assorted Viking heroes from the novels of Henry Treece with their named blades ‘Soul-Snatcher’, ‘Life-Biter’; Excalibur from any tale of Arthur.

So I was more than ready, when I went to my senior school at thirteen – University College School, in Hampstead, London – to pick up a sword in earnest, and join the fencing team.

swordsThe sword you see here, with its guard on the right, is my sabre. Though I trained in all three weapons – foil, epee, and sabre – it was the last that I was really drawn to. Connoisseurs mock me, decrying it as a hooligan’s weapon of slash and leap, compared to the finesse required for the foil, or the elegance of using the epee. But for a teenager steeped in swashbuckling, the sabre was it. It suited my sporting temperament too. I have always been better at sports where I don’t have to think too much. I was a good right back at football when it came to scything down opponents – just don’t let me dwell too long on the ball and have to think who to pass it to! I preferred rugby – tackle this person now, run with ball until tackled. Simple.

Sabre was all about instant choice and acting upon it. And so I excelled. Became school sabre champion at sixteen. Reached the semi finals of the London Schoolboys Championship that year, 2 years younger than the others. If I have a ‘I could have been a contender’ story, fencing is it. I fell out with the maestro, a strict Christian disciplinarian who objected to some of my new interests i.e. girls and beer. But a fellow I regularly beat in tournaments from a rival North London school was fencing for England a year after I gave up.


Sigh! Still, I channelled my passion into my career. Essentially I became an actor so I could leap about with bladed weaponry. And I have done lots of it. If I was not Zorro I was his opponent Sir Miles Thackeray in the 90’s TV series. If I was not D’Artagnan, I fought him as Cahusac of the Cardinal’s Guards in ‘The Three Musketeers’ at the Bristol Old Vic in 1988. (Here, stabbed through the throat)



SHAKESPEARE'S REBEL 3bAnd then there is my writing. Swords abound – and came to the forefront in my 2014 novel, ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel’ (Click on title to read more of it) about William’s fight arranger in 1601 London.

And it was the thrill of my life when we launched the book at Vancouver’s Shakespeare festival, Bard on the Beach. We did an evening of swords and words, allied with my friends at Academie Duello, the extraordinary medieval martial arts school in Vancouver. For on that night I fought as my main character, John Lawley.


Using the backsword (A light broadsword) you see above – and click here to watch the fight!

I keep these weapons near. All my touchstones I will handle for inspiration at some stage in my writing process. These I will grasp and do moves with when I am too long at my desk, lost in a thicket of words. And, of course, when I am writing a fight, I will draw one, and leap about my hut – as lost in swordplay as I was when I first picked up the plastic rapier, aged three!

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Welcome back to Touchstone Tuesdays. My attempt to blog consistently by writing about the objects I treasure and that I keep around me in my writing hut. Today: my Toy Soldiers

It will probably not surprise my readers to learn that I have always been keen on matters military. My passion may stem from being the child of warriors – my father was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, my mother a Norwegian spy. It may be a past lives thing – if reincarnation is true, then I have certainly fought, perhaps in several incarnations. What I can be certain of is that I am thrilled by battle (While willing to admit that I am thankful every day that I have never had to take part in one!). This passion was initially reflected in my reading, later my writing. In my choice of sport – I was a fencer. But really it found its first full outlet in wargaming – the assembling of, and playing with, an army of miniature metal soldiers.

Napoleon's Grand Armee and Wellington's Redcoats

Napoleon’s Grand Armee and Wellington’s Redcoats

Here is my collection, on one shelf of my hut. Each 25mm (about one inch) tall. They are from the Napoleonic era, specifically towards the end of it, and its bloody climax at the Battle of Waterloo, probably my ‘favourite’ battle – and one I have yet to write about. I have an even number of troops on each side and of the various types one would need to wargame i.e. recreate and fight, according to written rules, a skirmish or battle of the era. So I have three regiments of infantry on each side: a line regiment, a Guard/elite regiment and a light regiment. I have two batteries of cannon per army. I have two squadrons each of dashing cavalry.

And, of course, I have the commanders, depicted here before their flags – Napoleon himself and his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington.

The Rival Generals

The Rival Generals


Each tiny figure I painted sometime between my 11th and 14th birthdays. I marvel now at my younger self’s patience. My complete absorption. (The fact that I can still see!)




Polish Lancer and Officer of 'The Blues'

Polish Lancer and Officer of ‘The Blues’


In this photo you see two my of my faves: An officer of the Blues, the premier regiment of the English Household cavalry. And a man he may have faced upon that bloody Belgian battlefield: a Polish Lancer. With these two figures – and their companions – I think I reached my height as a painter.



I played wargames as a teenager. Occasionally over the years since I have encountered someone who shares the passion and have got the figurines out again – there is a huge subculture of ‘gamers’ in the original sense of the term. No screens and advanced graphics for us! A few hills carved from plaster board and painted green. A few miniature plastic trees – and these soldiers, pushed around a tabletop, their movements measured by rulers, their firing, morale, attacks and defences governed by rules that seek to replicate the period’s tactics.

The truth is, these soldiers lay in a tool box, cushioned in foam for years as I shuttled around the countries of the world. They have emigrated as much as I – which means eight times. So to finally get them out, set them up in ranks again, even if I have yet to play a wargame with them again… it’s a delight. I look at them – and marvel at the youthful me, lost in that world of war. At these tiny men in whom I poured so many of my imaginings.

'The Old Guard never surrenders'

‘The Old Guard never surrenders’

And this outsize fella? He is a plaster souvenir, bought by me at the store on the actual battlefield. I was twenty years old and had hitch-hiked from Granada, in Southern Spain to Belgium. It was the Summer of ’76 and I was returning to London and college at the end of a long Summer. Waterloo was to be my lost stop in Europe. My place of pilgrimage. I’d hitched in from Germany and, as so often happened, the driver of my last ride offered me a bed for the night, in his family home. Turned out the father was the CEO of Peugeot cars, so I was wonderfully fed, offered a superb malt, breakfasted on croissants, then was dropped on the battlefield early the following morning. I had it largely to myself.


The Battlefield today.

The Battlefield today.

It is wonderfully preserved, and the features of landscape and the main houses – the farmhouse of La Haye Sante, the chateau of Hougement – are also still there. I wandered, a kid in a candy store, until I had to hitch my way out of there to make the night ferry from Ostend. (I marvel at that version of myself as much as I do the teenage painter – the hitchhiker, carefree and broke, accepting the kindness of strangers!) I had just enough money to see me home, precious little for food – and the little extra I needed to buy this veteran of Napoleon’s Old Guard. As content as only a 20 year old on adventure can be.

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TOUCHSTONE TUESDAY: The Walls of Constantinople

There are touchstones you find, like my sea shell. There are those you make, like the sling shot. Those you buy, like the shepherd’s crook.

And then there are those that are used to attack you.

Welcome again, to Touchstone Tuesdays, my weekly blog of objects to be found in my writing hut. Things I have acquired over the years, during my wanderings. This week: a piece of the Theodosian walls.

Here am I -Atop the Theodosian Walls

Here am I -Atop the Theodosian Walls

These are the great defences that protected the fabled city of Constantinople on the landward side for close to 1000 years. They were only breached once: on May 29th 1453 when Mehmet ‘Fathi’, Sultan of the Ottomans, took the Christian city by storm after an epic seven week siege of relentless gunnery and daily assault. It became a Muslim city then and, eventually the fabulous place we know today as Istanbul.

The siege was the subject of my 2011 novel, A Place Called Armageddon

The Fall of Constantinople 1453(Click on title to read more)

The novel is a multi-narrator take on this extraordinary time, told from both sides of the walls, Muslim and Christian, from Sultan to mercenary. I chose to write it after my first visit to Istanbul when I fell madly in love with the place. Gave me a good excuse to return – tax deductibly, of course.

Mortar on brick

Mortar on brick

It was on that second trip that I acquired this piece of these walls– and here’s the story of how I did.

I had rendezvoused with my good friend, Allan Eastman – film director, writer, gourmand, philosopher and fellow history nut – to explore the city again and spend a lot of time on the walls where so much of the action of the novel was to take place. One day we decided to walk them from south to north – about six kilometres worth, closing off the city from water to water ‘like the collar on the neck of a dog’. They are still remarkably preserved, the more accessible parts patched up, some parts less well tended, stretches with ruined towers and crumbling ramparts. About nine this one morning, we wandered into one of those bastions, a small, roofless fort, trying to imagine who had defended it, treading on the shattered brick and masonry that Turkish cannon fire had created.

Suddenly we were not alone. Nine boys, ranging in age from ten to fifteen had run across a stretch of barren ground from their homes in a nearby poorer neighbourhood. “Heh, mister. Mister!”, one – the largest one, the leader – shouted, smiling. “You give me cigarette?”

Allan and I looked at each other. Both of us are seasoned travellers. Both have found ourselves, on rare occasions, in ‘situations’ before – wrong side of the tracks, far from authority, in the company of those who might mean us harm. Calm is the key. Soft talk. Moving slowly. “No, no,” we said, hands raised pacifyingly, beginning to pass through them.

They closed up. Words now came without the smile. “You give us money. Money!” “No, no,” we repeated, feigning calm, still walking, nearly through them, the road – cars, people – not far.

Then something shoved me hard on the back. Hard enough that I felt it through the daypack I wore on my back. I turned. That oldest boy was staring at me hard from a few foot away. I gave him what I hoped was ‘the look’. Not aggressive, not fearful. I don’t want to fight, it says. But if I have to… (What’s that line from Polonius to his son in ‘Hamlet’? ‘Beware of entrance into a quarrel, but being in/ Bear’t that th’opposed may beware of thee.’)

They let us pass. We made the road. Flagged a cab – the better sites began a couple of klicks further on anyway, we reasoned. Away from the wastelands.

A great day was spent. We discussed, we analyzed, we imagined. The book, part of it, was taking shape in my head. Late that night in my hotel room, I was wearily unpacking my back pack – guides, maps, notebooks – and I found…

…The stone. I was puzzled for about a second, until I realized: the boy hadn’t shoved me in the back at all – he’d hucked a stone at me. It had hit the pack and dropped in the open flap.

Another few seconds – and the grin came: That section of wall had been rendered into small pieces by cannon fire – like the piece I was holding now. Fired by one of that boy’s ancestors.

Rock up

The grin widened: I had taken Turkish shot on the walls of Constantinople. And now I was holding history.

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TOUCHSTONE TUESDAY: The Shepherd’s Crook

Welcome again to ‘Touchstone Tuesday’.

When I started writing this series, I thought it was a useful way of focusing on task: to blog consistently. All advice manuals tell you that regularity is the key. Yet in sitting down and seeking a subject I was often lost, flailing and thus inconsistent. But then I remembered one of my most elementary truths: write what I love. And I love my touchstones, those objects I keep around me in my writing space. Love them and love to tell their stories.

This week: the Shepherd’s Crook.


Here it is, pictured against Fulford Harbour, with Mount Maxwell, on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, in the background. But like me, the crook is a transplant from another, very different land. I found it (or it found me, more of that anon) while walking on the Wenlock Edge…


…in the fabulous county of Shropshire, in England.

Hope Bowdler, Shropshire. The Long Mynd in the background.

Hope Bowdler, Shropshire. The Long Mynd in the background.








Let me describe the staff first and then come onto our meeting. It stands at about four feet tall and is a hazel ‘wand’ – hazel being a magical wood as any fan of Harry Potter will know. Hazel is also one of the hedgerow trees – others are oak, beech, hawthorn – that are shaped and bent to grow along the edges of the fields of England. Found by someone with an eyes for such things – as the man I met certainly was – he’d have taken the stick, cut it to length, snipped all the side shooters off, and left it to season for a winter in a shed with no walls, protected from rain, open to the winds. Then he’d straighten it, varnish it with several layers of  ship deck varnish before taking a ram’s horn, boiling that till malleable, then shaping it under steam to the perfect crook you see, affixing it firmly to the wand (the fixing a mystery to me!). Finally he’d attach to its end what became my favourite word for a while: ferrule. A circular brass cap, protecting the wand’s end from splintering.

A photo from my friend Alex Waterhouse-Hayward. He asked me to grab the things I loved - and swore he wouldn't put the outdoor toilet in!

A photo from my friend Alex Waterhouse-Hayward. He asked me to grab the things I loved – and swore he wouldn’t put the outdoor toilet in!

It’s a practical tool, of course, as any good stick is. I use it for walking, and it has saved my ankles and knees on many a rough slope. Shepherds use it to herd, ushering sheep into the pen their collies have driven the flock to. The crook end, reputedly, is for hooking a strayed lamb from hedge or pond.

How did my stick and I meet? Another example of what I call ‘Humphreys Happenstance’ – the seemingly random events that hover around my life like butterflies in a summer field.

It was late Summer 2004 and I was in Shropshire, that county on the English-Welsh border, the land that is for me the quintessence of England: hedgerows, gorse and bracken high hills studded with sheep, plunging valleys, Saxon or Norman churches, the 500 year old pubs snuggled next to them.

Eaton-under-Heywood - the church where part of The Fetch is set.

Eaton-under-Heywood – the church where part of The Fetch is set.

A place I love. I hadn’t been for a while, as my son had been born six months before. But I needed to get away to research my new Young Adult novel – THE FETCH, (Click on title to read more), which was to be largely set in one of the places where I most like to be – another example of ‘write what you love’. So I’d been walking on the Wenlock Edge – (Click HERE if you want to read the wonderful A E Houseman poem and get a feel for that ancient landscape) – on a warm early Summer’s day. Heading back to my car I fell into step with a Lancastrian shepherd, (as you do) who had two border collies frisking around him, a breed I love. He also had an old and weathered crook, which he’d made – one of many ways he occupied his time while tending his flocks. As we neared the car park he told me that he was on his way back from a County Fair. That he’d been commissioned to make a crook for some nobleman who’d failed to show up and collect it. ‘This one,’ he said, opening the rear door of his jeep, pulling out…

It was love at first sight. And like that rare and wondrous feeling, it left me a little breathless and slow of thought. ‘Does that m-mean,’ I eventually stuttered, ‘that this is now for sale?’ He considered. ‘Suppose so,’ he said at last, ‘since the bastard Duke never showed up.’

Money changed hands – 80 pounds if memory serves. Not cheap – but I’d have paid double, such was my desire. And the craft alone, the care that went into its making? Priceless.

I still take it for any extended hikes I do. It is the perfect ‘feel’ for me, its ‘grip’ right where it should be, my lower arm extended out in an exact right angle from my body. Mostly now it just rests near the door of my writing hut. Not in sight, my eyes would get drawn to it too often. But ready to be lifted and swung when I need a break, for mind and body. And this I know: it is Number One on the list of ‘Things I’d grab in a fire’. (Something I’ve thought about more lately, since my new novel FIRE is coming out next month).

So now, next Tuesday… hmm! He looks around, spots… Oh yes! By way of complete contrast, geographically, historically – why not a piece of the walls of Constantinople? Now there’s a story.

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In which the author rambles on about the objects – touchstones  – that surround him in his writing hut.

Of the many touchstones I will write about on TOUCHSTONE TUESDAYS this one would definitely make Top Five in ‘Things I would grab in a fire’. Maybe Top Three.

Almeria. August 1975. My parents had moved to Southern Spain the year before on the no-doubt-reasonable premise that since I’d just turned 18 I could bloody well fend for myself! (They did invite me to go with them but since I’d decided to be in actor I thought I’d better stay in England and do some training. Also these were the days when kids still left home at 18, actually chose to. No living in the parents’ basement, ordering take out pizza and hitting the bong while playing Call of Duty at 37 for my generation!) But of course it did mean a wonderful place to visit often, cheap holidays in the sun, the Mediterranean to play in, and do one of the things I most love to do: drift around in the sea in an snorkel and mask and make like an octopus.

IMG_1020 (1)One hot day I spotted this shell, about ten feet beneath me. I dove for it, brought it up. Its occupant was gone but the two halves were still attached by gristle then. I admired its shape, its perfect symmetry. Like lines within a tree you can see the way the creature grew and grew, its tiny beginning, its evolving majesty as it fed. There’s the dark band about halfway down it. I can almost imagine the creature thinking: ‘That’s it, I’ll hunker down here and so end with a decorative flourish!’ But then something pushed it to go further – competition? Clam love? It went for another burst and completed the glorious shape that I found.

I took it home, even though I knew the fate of shells: to lose their fabulous shine and lustre as they dry out. To end up bleached and forgotten in some flower bed, or ignored on a bathroom shelf. Then I had an idea. I took my Mum’s hair lacquer (Yupp, that’s what mums used then) and sprayed the shell. Voila! It’s retained its sheen ever since. And though the gristle dried and disappeared and the two halves split, it is still perfect.

IMG_1028 (1)To me, from the side it looks like an angel who has folded her wings.

From above, the endless shells it was before it was complete.

Opened, a bath for a Botticelli maiden to rise from.IMG_1027 (1)





A grain of sand, digested, hardened, the first brick in the wall that was to be the creature’s shack, then hovel, then apartment, then house, then mansion.

I will look at it when I need to think of something pure and beautiful. When I need to remind myself that creation is a process, a layering, steadily growing from something as infinitesimal as a thought. That my struggles in writing – in life – are about building moment on moments, smoothing, hardening, accreting until the day something can be made complete. Even, dare I say, beautiful.

Next week’s Touchstone: probably Number One on the list of things to grab in the fire: my Shepherd’s Crook.

(Clarification: Before I end, a little clarification about last week’s post and the use of a Biblical sling shot. Someone pointed out that they still didn’t quite understand the mechanics of it and I realize I was unclear when I wrote ‘When you are ready, you site on the target – and then you throw the knot at it.’ To clarify: the knot is tied at the end of one of the ropes. You press that against the other end, which has a loop that you have put two fingers in. So when you get it whirling above your head, when you ‘throw’ the knot, those fingers keep the sling attached to your hand. The knot end shoots out and the whole weapon straightens, the pouch opens and the stone is hurled out. The knot is like the site on a rifle – if you hurl that where you want to hit, the stone should follow. e.g. (in the novel I will never write) ‘David sited on the Goliath’s forehead just above his nose – and hurled the knot at it.’

Clear as mud? I may have to put up a video!

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