This was the view from my window.
I was riding a train. The light was draining from the sky and turning the dusty Egyptian landscape crimson when a hand in a black robe came from behind and thrust a bread roll, smelling of spicy meat, at me. It was followed by a torrent of Arabic, not one word of which I understood, but their meaning was clear. I was being urged to share a meal by a woman in the seat behind. ‘Shukrun,’ I smiled, dragging it out of my meagre cache of Egyptian words. ‘Thank you.’
Kindness to a stranger. It was so unexpected and touched something deep inside me. Yet I found Egypt overflowing with such gestures, and despite the riots that were currently well under way in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I was treated with warmth and mint tea wherever I went.
So why a rattling 10 hour train journey – instead of a fast and sanitised plane – from Cairo to Luxor? It was because I was hungry to see the country. I wanted to be a part of it, my feet firmly set on its Nile-irrigated soil. For hour after hour on the train I was mesmerised by its landscape scrolling past my window, its distant pink escarpments drifting in and out of view, as elusive as its ancient gods. But that wasn’t the reason I was here. My characters, Jessie and Monty, take the same train in 1932 and I needed to experience Egypt through their eyes.
Life on the other side of the window was endlessly fascinating. We stopped every few miles, sometimes for no apparent reason but other times at bustling towns whose presence was announced from afar by pencil-thin minarets that pierced the blue sky. Black-shrouded women gathered in chattering groups to wash their clothes in the canal that ran parallel to the rail track, while men wearing loose galabayas fished in it and boys swam and dive-bombed its murky waters. White herons strutted at its edge and palm trees leaned gracefully over it, offering shade. I wanted to jump out and join them.
During that strange and oddly changeless day, I caught sight of markets bursting with colourful fruits and level crossings with no gates where goats and children wandered at will. Rubbish heaps spilled into the canal like ugly scars outside each town and everywhere there were donkeys, always donkeys, pulling carts or carrying men and bundles on their backs, dwarfed by their loads, their spindly legs sticking out under them like lollipop sticks.
But above all it was the kindness that lodged in my mind. I want to make that extraordinary journey again, but this time I’ll take a bag of spicy meat rolls with me to share with a stranger.
Only one week to the publication of SHADOWS ON THE NILE in the UK on 20th June – and things are hotting up.
One of the utter joys of writing books set in exotic locations is the need to explore them for research purposes. Of course much of my research is done through books, photographs and old film footage, but there is nothing like seeing a place with your own eyes, engaging your senses with its unfamiliar sights and smells.
I love to get involved. Riding its trains, rattling in its buses, fighting your way through its markets, handling its cabbages, talking with local people. Even finding you’ve been rooked over postcards and getting the money all wrong is part of the fun.
In Egypt the colours are different. I was struck by the way there seemed to be three that dominated the life there – the vast sheet of blue overhead, the soft undulating beige dust of the hills and roads that finds its way into everything, and the vivid luminous green of the irrigated fields that roll out in strips on each side of the Nile. And always the desert lies just a heartbeat away.
A mesmerising country.
This photograph I took at one of its finest monuments, the awe-inspiring mortuary temple of the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut. What a woman! She ruled Egypt for 21 years and made a great job of it. She was the first known person in the world ever to import trees from abroad – she filled her gardens with the foreign trees frankincense and myrrh. She even had herself immortalised as the Ancient Egyptian god Osiris in this magnificent row of statues outside the temple. A bit like Harry Potter dressing up as Dumbledore! Sadly they were largely destroyed by later ill-tempered envious pharoahs, but they are still impressive.
I hope I have conveyed some of this wonder and beauty in SHADOWS OF THE NILE. Scratch me and I will bleed desert sand. So check it out and let me know what you think.
Only two weeks to the UK publication of SHADOWS ON THE NILE.
This is always a thrilling time. To see the book with its gorgeous cover at last hitting the bookshelves – as well as flying through the ether to the e-readers – is a moment to treasure.
So where is the story set?
Well, the word Nile and the image of the pyramids on the cover give a bit of a clue! Yes, most of the action takes place in 1932 Egypt, only a few years after Howard Carter’s opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun caused Ancient Egypt fever to take the world by storm.
It’s the complex story of Jessie Kenton, a commercial artist living in 1932 London. When she was a child her younger brother, Georgie, went missing and she never saw him again. Now, as an adult, when her other brother, Tim, an archaeologist, suddenly vanishes, Jessie is determined to find him.
With the assistance of the aristocratic but impoverished Monty Chamford, she follows a trail of clues that lead her to Egypt. Her search is difficult and dangerous. Powerful men do not want her brother found. Against a background of violent political unrest in Egypt and the breathtaking wonders of the ancient tombs, of scorching desert and the relentless sweep of the Nile, Jessie is forced to face who she is and to confront the demons that haunt her.
It is only here in the timeless Land of the Pharaohs that Jessie finds not only love, but a greater understanding of the brother she lost so many years before.
So there you have it! And this is just the start. Lots of exciting photos and info yet to come about my research and about the themes behind the story.
So do drop by again soon!
Excited to be whisking up to London tomorrow. Showtime is upon us: the RoNA Awards will be presented by Richard and Judy in the elegant surroundings of the RAF Club in Picadilly.
I am looking forward to the glitzy occasion, not just because of the whole intake-of-breath thing that happens just before each winner’s name is announced and the treacherous tingle that whispers for a split second, “It could be me. Probably not … but it could.”
No, the reason that I’m really looking forward to it is because when a bunch of writers – who, let’s face it, spend most of their days stuck on their own at a keyboard or writing-pad, scoffing gingernuts and talking to the walls while wrestling mulish plotlines into submission – get together, a special kind of buzz happens. Read More…
My UK publisher – Sphere/Little Brown – has done it again!
Not only did they come up with a moody and magnificent cover last December for the export edition of SHADOWS ON THE NILE, they have now produced a stunning new cover for the UK edition, to be published on 20 June 2013. Here it is – beautiful rich colours and a sweeping image of the Nile that makes the back of my neck tingle. Wonderfully evocative. Thank you, Little Brown.