Historia talks to David Gilman, author of the Master of War series, about his new novel, The Last Horseman.
Your new book takes you away from the Hundred Years War to the turn of the 20th century and the Anglo-Boer War. That’s quite a jump. What was the seed of inspiration for the book?
Writers move across different times in history. It was the creation of the character and the events that overtook him that appealed to me and the Boer War was a story I hadn’t come across in fiction. Having lived in South Africa I came to appreciate the people and the landscape. It’s a country that can be harsh, but it’s a place I have always wanted to explore in a novel.
The war that exploded in 1899 threw British soldiers against a determined and dogged enemy. And there were some fascinating women of the time. I used two strong female characters in this book. One, a victim of her circumstances, the other a product of her beliefs.
Years ago I read (among other books on South Africa) Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War, and had come across the original edition of Deneys Reitz’s Commando. For years they sat on my shelf not yet inviting me to have a go at a fictional account. The vast sweep of this magnificent country, the drama that unfolded in this war and the characters caught up in it, enticed me. I also wanted another layer of interest to write about, and for the novel not to just be a ‘war story’.
It’s not a conflict that’s been covered very much in historical fiction. If novels can help us learn from the past, what would you like people to learn from The Last Horseman?
I’m not so sure there is anything to learn, quite honestly. What I hope might interest readers is the complexity of the war that went beyond two armies fighting each other. I haven’t overburdened the text with too many facts but there are instances that evoke a critical appraisal of how badly things were run. I was also keen to start the book in Ireland and to bring in the Irish question of Home Rule and to express the different motivations of those involved, whether they be Fenians or women obliged to turn to prostitution when working in music halls. Like the war itself there were those who played the conflict to their own advantage.
It is a novel of its time and I don’t think we should try and impose today’s feelings or morals on any historical novel. Jingoism was not unique to Victorian times, but what a time it was. Of course, that’s not to say that there weren’t those around who objected to the war. In many respects the Anglo-Boer War foreshadowed the Great War that followed a few years later and still we didn’t learn.
As you mentioned, the other thread is the troubles in Ireland. Did you intend to draw parallels with the rebellion there, or with other international conflicts?
No, I had no intention to do that. The Irish desire for Home Rule was slowly gaining momentum in 1899/1900. Perhaps the only parallel I can find in the story is that war is hell. There’s no glamour. What always strikes me is that there are men (in this instance if we are talking about frontline combat) who fight for each other. That’s where honour lies, if such a thing exists in war.
Your main protagonist is Joseph Radcliffe, a lawyer who defends Irish republican rebels. Was he inspired by any real life figure?
No. I wanted an ‘outsider’. A liberal, compassionate man in a time of conflict, someone who was on the wrong side of the establishment. And it wasn’t that he defended only Fenians. In this story these cases were to the fore because they were essential to the plot.
How did he come about?
I certainly thought of someone who wasn’t part of the establishment. In Victorian times there was pretty much free movement for people travelling around the world so an American married to an Irish woman chimed for me. He was also a flawed character who, through an act of love, kept a secret hidden from his son.
His own history made him what he was. What I liked about him was that as an ex-cavalry man he had experienced the harshness and brutality of war in a different country – America – and had absolutely no desire to repeat the experience even though he was part of what would have been considered an elite force. He had fought at the tail end of the American Civil War as an officer, and then with the Buffalo Soldiers, the black regiments when they fought in the Indian Wars. This gave him a strong background in savage fighting. It also allowed me to bring an African American as his close friend into the novel.
The man who causes harm to Radcliffe and his son is a British Dragoons Officer who lives only for war, and both of these men fight with a different motivation and passion. A coming together on the field of battle was inevitable.
You lived in South Africa for a while. Did that have an influence on the book and if so, how?
South Africa is a fascinating country. The people and the landscape are wonderful source material for a writer. It’s a beautiful place but the landscape and climate can be extremely harsh. Such conditions demanded that tough and resilient people lived there, as were the men who went to explore and search for its mineral wealth. Just as tough and resilient were the soldiers sent to fight. The Anglo-Boer War came as a real shock to the politicians and generals. The British Army came up against a mobile, well-equipped enemy in harsh conditions, but the soldiers went forward and paid a high price not only in battle but also succumbing to disease. As the war progressed it became more ruthless and brutal than the conventional fighting that went before it.
It’s not that difficult. The appeal of a story gets filed away until time permits me to write it. Writing the Master of War series means there’s a lot of ongoing research and character development across the books. It’s time consuming but my publisher had re-jigged his publication dates last year so I had another six months added to my contract before the second book in the series was published. I could have carried on with my third book, but the previous year I had written a standalone children’s novel, so knew it could be done in the six month time frame. I was fortunate with The Last Horseman in that I had – for once – plotted out the book because I had been planning it for a while.
I relished the characters, loved the mix of the Irish on both sides of the conflict and liked the fact that I could introduce an African American character who added to the explosive mix. In my main character, Joseph Radcliffe I had a decent, politically liberal man, sick of war, so not your typical hero, who also had a strong friendship with a black man. This relationship gave the two men a deep understanding of each other and they were thrown back into a conflict that neither wanted any part of. And what really appealed to me was that these were not young men. They were veterans, feeling their aches and pains, but when the time came their skills in the ways of war had not deserted them.
You’ve published three in the Master of War series so far. Are there more to come?
Yes. Just editing Book 4, Viper’s Blood, and am working on Book 5, Wolf of the North.
Are there other historical periods or stories you’d love to explore?
I enjoy discovering facts behind certain periods in history. So I could pick up a book at any time on any period and think it worth pursuing. In the Master of War series my characters spend time in Italy fighting for Florence. The idea for these books came about because I saw a fresco of the English mercenary captain, Sir John Hawkwood in the Duomo in Florence many years ago. So the more I read the more interested I became in the Italian renaissance.
I’m currently reading a biography on Saladin, another book on the go is the history of the Byzantine Empire. I also have a strong interest in the 1930’s and 1940’s, especially World War II and those agents who worked in France and I’ve had a plan to explore them in a novel.
You have a varied professional background, including spells in the Army, as a firefighter, photographer and TV screenwriter. How do you think your personal experience has influenced you as a writer?
My younger formative years placed me in some fascinating and often quite frightening situations, especially when I was in Fire and Rescue. (I had lied about my age in order to get in). There were some harrowing moments and I suspect I’ve seen every possible result of violent attacks on the human body. Those experiences mean I don’t sugar-coat the action in my books because I want to create a well-drawn narrative of battle and survival. As well as writing a pacy story I’m interested in exploring my characters’ emotional responses and the impact of their lives when confronted with violence. Medieval war in particular was brutal and we shouldn’t gloss over it. When men got hurt in battle they usually died in agony from their injuries. In my first book in the medieval series, Master of War, my main character, Thomas Blackstone, took several months to recover from his wounds, so I prefer to let the story unfold in a believable time-frame. What I found so interesting about this period was the sheer stamina and strength that these men had. They fought for hours in armour and mail. When I was in the army having slogged along with, at times, near-enough my own body weight on my back, I have an appreciation for their endurance. Like most who have served in the armed forces being wet, cold, exhausted and scorched by the sun can also be accompanied by moments of fear and if that fear can’t be overcome then it has to be managed. Soldiers at any time in history face the same demons and to ease their burden they share insulting, black humour, and I like to employ this behaviour in my books. My experiences are nothing new but they give me, I hope, a sense of realism in the books.
Africa is such a special place but as far as The Last Horseman goes, I know it would have been a tough environment to wage war. I remember fighting veld fires in 90 degree heat and humidity in South Africa so it was easy to imagine the sweat and effort it took for British soldiers to engage with an entrenched enemy in such a hostile environment. My writing is quite filmic, I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing, it seems to be working. I’m not sure where it comes from but I suspect it’s having been a child who played truant and who spent his days hunched in the front row of a Liverpool cinema. Becoming a professional photographer helped frame images, and then with scriptwriting the visuals tell the story more often than the dialogue. Hopefully, by bringing these things together, my books engage on both the written and the visual elements.
Do you have any favourite historical writers?
I tend to avoid reading historical fiction when I’m writing it. I turn to thrillers and crime. I’ve read Bernard Cornwell’s, Sharpe series and The Fort. Many years ago I enjoyed the James Clavell books, so too Patrick O’Brian and Rosemary Sutcliffe. Mary Renault was a favourite when I was younger and Norman Mailer’s, The Naked and the Dead, definitely struck a chord all those years ago as did James Jones’s, The Thin Red Line.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I have various options. Can’t really say more because some of the ideas are bubbling away quite nicely.
David Gilman is an award winning author and scriptwriter. He has written many radio and television scripts including several years of ‘A Touch of Frost’. He has also written for Young Adults and won the French literary award – Prix Polar de Jeunesse. His work has also twice been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. His epic adult Historical Fiction series, Master of War follows the fortunes of Thomas Blackstone in the 100 Years’ War. His latest standalone novel set in Ireland and South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War, The Last Horseman is a sweeping tale of heroism and treachery, love and loyalty.