Monday 28 October 2019

"The Cap of Liberty"

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My latest short story, "The Cap of Liberty", has just been published, and it's safe to say that it's a bit different. For a start, it's accompanied by an academic essay written by Professor Robert Poole and exploring the factual background to the story. And it's appearing in an anthology just published by Comma Press, and edited by Ra Page, called Resist. The sub-title is: Stories of Uprising. I was commissioned to write a work of fiction connected to the Peterloo Massacre, which occurred two hundred years ago last August.

Those who know me may well think that I'm an unlikely contributor to an anthology of fiction about protest, a book with subjects ranging from the distant past (Boudica's Rising) to the recent present (Grenfell). The fact is that I'm seldom seen on marches or waving banners, far less glueing myself to anything (except by accident) but I was pleased to be asked to take part. I've had a connection with Comma Press for a long time now, getting on for fifteen years, and they are an admirable independent outfit, based in Manchester, and dedicated to producing high quality books at the cutting edge of contemporary literature. They are (I quote from their very interesting website) a not-for-profit initiative dedicated to promoting new writing, with an emphasis on the short story, and committed to a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses, and they aim "to put the short story at the heart of contemporary narrative culture". Words to savour. I've always regarded these aims not just as worthy but truly admirable.

A long time ago I had a short story published in a Comma publication of Liverpudlian fiction edited by Tane Vayu, and this led to a couple of CWA anthologies which I edited for them: I.D.: Crimes of Identity and M.O.:Crimes of Practice . Suffice to say that contributors included Mick Herron and Sarah Hillary, then relatively unknown and now superstars of the crime genre. More recently I contributed an essay about Sherlock Holmes short stories to Morphologies, another very interesting Comma Press book.
For those interested in how a story of this kind gets written, let me quote from Ra Page's original brief: "I would love to see what a no-holds-barred crime/detective story dealing with a historical protest might look like. Especially a protest like Peterloo. Of course, you might want to set the bulk of the story in the aftermath of the event (or even much later down the line), and then reveal aspects of the massacre through the backstories. That's up to you. I realise there weren't detectives or even police officers in 1819; it was all magistrates and soldiers, agent provocateurs and debt-bonded 'spies'. But I'd be super-excited to see what you did with it. 

Anyway, you can take any approach: exactly how the protest intersects with your story is up to you. You can set your story slap bang in the middle of Peterloo, or you can have Peterloo in the recent (or even distant) background, as long as it was eventually revealed (or some aspect of it) by the story."

I thought long and hard about whether to accept this invitation, partly because I do have quite a lot of projects going on at present, and partly because I knew it would require a good deal of work, not only in terms of practical research but also thinking myself into the right mindset for the story. But I love Ra's enthusiasm and commitment, and so I said yes. He'd arranged for me to talk to Robert Poole, an expert on Peterloo, and I found our conversations and his writings on the subject very helpful. I decided to set my story in the 1830s, so that it became a sort of "cold case" narrative. Once I'd figured out a way in to the material -  always so important when one tries something different - I went on a research trip to find out more about my chosen protagonist (a person from real life who has, in fact, appeared once before in my fiction).

The result was "The Cap of Liberty". It is in essence a story about both justice and injustice, which are key themes of so many crime stories and pretty much all of my own fiction. I'm glad that it's now seen the light of day and I hope the book will be a big success for Comma. 

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