Author's Note - Creating the Armstrong and Burton Series and Lost in Solway
I profess to be no kind of authority on politics or history, the truth of which was made plain to some friends who once invited me onto a quiz team thinking I was going to be their secret weapon, and were subsequently amazed at my general cluelessness. Having said this, I find some of the real people and historical events appropriated for use in the Armstrong and Burton series endlessly fascinating, although I've only scraped the surface in terms of my real understanding. If you are also interested in learning more, on this page I've gone into some the sources of my own background research. You'll also find some links to external blogs and history resources on the in context page, and some shorter articles on the blog page.
It's also worth mentioning here that the books don't seek to promote any political agenda. Our characters have been dropped into the historical timeline, leaving room for a little dramatic licence here and there, and allowed to behave according to their own consciences and ideologies. As in real life, they are imperfect individuals trying to make their way in a complicated world. They make plenty of mistakes and have as many failures as they do successes or victories. If there is any message or theme hiding in there; it's that no matter how strongly glued you are to your ideology, you're not always right, and your opponents are not always wrong.
To help to underpin the general historical background, I relied on a number of sources - life is so much easier now that you can find so much out by just sitting at your computer. I've been mindful not to allow the novels to get too bogged down in detailed political procedure, and spent quite a bit of time considering how to cover some of the tragic events, such as the Harrods and Brighton Bombings, which needed to be included in the story-line but, understandably, still deeply affect the real people who directly experienced those, and other traumatic events, at first hand. I considered that, within reason, public figures were more or less fair game, provided they were not misrepresented or defamed. I was, however, mindful when referencing news reports of the day, not to go into any detail that might offend or undermine the privacy of people directly involved, but not in the public eye. For that reason, some aspects of my coverage of those types of events has been deliberately vague.
Although a number of true-life public figures make appearances throughout the story, the principal characters are wholly fictitious and should not be taken to represent the individuals that really held senior government positions at that time. More details of the characters and how they were inspired appear on the Who’s Who page.
A favourite resource of mine is the BBC Podcast website, from where you can listen to or download interviews and documentaries, in some cases going back decades, for free. Desert Island Discs has an incredible archive of interviews and conversations with Labour, SDP-Liberal and Tory luminaries of 70s and 80s, along with entertainers from the UK and Hollywood (dating back to the silent days), as well as mythical figures from World War Two including Montgomery, Vera Lynn and and Douglas Bader. Elsewhere on Radio Four, Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time Series and UK Confidential, a study of Cabinet Papers from the 70s and 80s, is well worth a listen, as is Matthew Parris's series, Great Lives. You can explore further, from Radio Ulster to Five Live and the World Service, from which their regular series Witness, provides eyewitness accounts to many pivotal events.
Other internet sources are probably quite obvious; political archives and YouTube for news reports and documentaries, history blogs, the list is endless. Wikipedia can be a good starting point for research into almost anything, but I think it always pays to confirm facts with the primary sources. Generally speaking, I've found their political and history pages reliable, although I haven't relied on anything definitive without additional corroboration. I also relied on a number of encyclopaedias and archived articles from Collier's Weekly and The Times, and many other sources.
The human side, or vibe, can be often best inspired by the dramas and comedies from great writers, directors and actors, and the art that emerged either at the time, or soon afterwards. I've looked back on some old favorites, including Our Friends in the North, When the Boat Comes In, Boys from the Blackstuff, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, A Very British Coup, All Good Men, Bill Brand, and a number of works by Tony Garnett and Ken Loach including Rank and File, The Price of Coal, Days of Hope, Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home. Many of these great works can also be viewed, in full, on YouTube. The Thames TV Drama Edward and Mrs Simpson was very helpful in understanding the general 'vibe' of the Abdication Crisis, which is a major storyline in The Honourable Company.
Many of these sources have also been useful in providing general background for Lost in Solway, which touches on issues of post-war housing, industrial upheaval, social change and urban poverty, but from a very different perspective.
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One of many partial inspirations for the character of Alf Burton was union leader Jimmy Reid (1932-2010).
Here he is in a fascinating appearance on the Parkinson Show, debating Kenneth Williams.
In early 1973, Kenneth Williams was a guest on the Parkinson Show, with actress Maggie Smith and Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman. He became involved in a heated exchange with Michael Parkinson over the conduct of the trade union movement, and social and political ideologies more generally. Although by today's standards it was fairly mild, it garnered such a reaction that Kenneth was invited back to debate with union leader Jimmy Reid for a special show. At that time Jimmy Reid had recently taken on the Heath government, staging a "work-in" at Upper-Clyde Shipbuilders in protest against plans to close the shipyard, with the loss of up to 6 000 jobs. The unusual industrial action received global attention, and the Heath government backed down, extending subsidies to keep the yard operating. Whichever side of the argument you might be on, this is an illuminating debate, which provides a fascinating snapshot of 1970s Britain, and a side of Kenneth Williams rarely seen.
The first video is the complete segment featuring the initial exchange between Parky and Kenneth Williams. The second video is the Jimmy Reid special in full.
Link to an interview given to Olympia Publishers' Author Spotlight feature, following publication of
The Banqueting Club in 2019