Who is Marah Chase?

Marah Chase and the Conqueror's Tomb 3D.jpg

Who is Marah Chase?

Well, to answer that is really to answer who is Jay Stringer?

My brain has always been split in two. Half of me wants to be Elmore Leonard, to write quirky crime characters, plotting heists, in street-level stories, showing the conversations that happen when authority figures aren’t around. The other half? Steven Spielberg. Stan Lee. Jack Kirby. Ray Harryhausen. I want to blow shit up, and have car chases, have sword fights with statues, and swing at big, daft, fun ideas.

But there’s no way to be both, right?

Sure there is. I came to realise, the biggest problem I was facing in my career, was my own ideas about what the career needed to be. My first three books were hardboiled crime tales set in the Midlands. My next two were louder, funnier, more violent, and set in Glasgow. Two very different series of books. But I’d still gotten it into my head that I needed to stick to one overall tone -street level crime- to reach an audience. The Spielberg side of my brain was clamouring to be listened to, the Leonard side of my brain was, frankly, demanding a break.

I would keep trying. I wrote a couple books that were supposed to be fun but ended up as oddities. As a writer stuck between two warring impulses. Those books Just. Didn’t. Work. I wrote an action adventure set in the 40’s that just read like a flimsy pastiche. They’re doomed to stay in the drawer.

That’s when I looked again at one of my big influences. Chris McQuarrie. McQ gained fame (and a way-too-early academy award) for writing The Usual Suspects. A quirky, intelligent, dialogue-heavy crime story. (We won’t focus too much on that film now because…tainted by human trash.) His next major credit had been The Way of the Gun, a dark little oddity of a crime movie that I truly love. It was slightly obnoxious. It didn’t care whether you liked it. And it was a crime movie about criminals. From a writer (and first-time director) who was feeling trapped by the fact Hollywood only wanted him to keep doing the one kind of story. And when he did tackle a big project, he always found a way to ground it in the same spirit. This is the guy who decided the place to start an X Men movie was in a concentration camp. But if you’ve come to hear McQ’s name for the first time in recent years, it’s as a guy who writes and directs big movies. Edge of Tomorrow. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Mission Impossible: Fallout. Looking at his directorial credits is kinda nuts. First film: Way of the Gun. Tiny crime movie, vehemently rejected. Second film: Jack Reacher. A Tom Cruise vehicle. A big movie that was really just a small crime movie at heart. Third film: Mission Impossible.

If the guy who influenced me so much in my teens could shift gears like that, why couldn’t I?

I thought back to the very beginning. Way back before I’d written a novel, before I dropped out of University, to the young guy writing short stories and scripts. My brain was split in two, but I was young and sure the two sides could co-exist. I was writing dialogue-driven heist stories starring two different versions of myself, sarcastic kids named Fry and Fuller, and I was writing stories about a rogue archeologist-turned-treasure hunter named Marah Chase.

Yep, she’s been around in my head for that long. I had Chase kicking around in here long before I met Eoin Miller or Sam Ireland. I can date her creation pretty close to the fall of 2000 or spring of 2001. Why? Well, that’s the period when my head was owned by one specific album. Kids in Philly by Marah. It was a fun, loose, freewheeling album. Slightly chaotic. Both old and new at the same time. And in my mind, stealing that name for my character was the best way to signify what -and who- she was.

So if the me of 2000/2001 had been so sure, so confident, that I could embrace both sides of my writer brain without fear of losing anyone, and if the writer who’d been a major early influence on me was managing to do the same, why was I holding back?

I opened up to the idea of listening to who Marah Chase had become now, after (at the time) fifteen years in my head. And she was fun. I had fun writing her. People that I passed early pages to had fun reading her.

Not that she’s a bag of laughs. Who is Marah Chase? She’s difficult. She’s angry when you want her to laugh, she laughs when you want her to be angry. She’s a mercenary who isn’t comfortable with that choice. She’s an adventurer who has lived life without a plan. She’s gay. She’s not a “kick-ass heroine” because she lives, and survives, in the real world, where she’s smaller than most of the men she comes up against, and has to be intelligent about how she fights. But because of this she can also kick some ass. And she just can’t seem to keep from getting in car chases, motorcycle chases, hanging off the side of moving vehicles, and finding fascists and nazis to punch. In her first adventure she’s teaming up with a British spy to go up against ancient cults to find the tomb of Alexander the Great and foil a Westminster coup. In the second adventure, that I’m finishing up now, she starts out looking for the Fountain of Youth but soon learns the trail actually leads to [REDACTED] and that every history book on the planet may soon need to be changed.

And I realised, after letting her run across the pages for a full book, that she wasn’t that far from my quirky crime characters. She’s a rebel. She’s someone who lives in a space that authority figures don’t mingle in. She’s still, really, pulling off heists. She’s a bag of contradictions. She’s just telling a story on a larger canvas, with 99% more explosions. (There was that time a small gas canister blew up in the Miller trilogy…)

And embracing this new voice allowed me to embrace representation in the way I’d been trying to for years in my crime novels. For me, it’s never been about a gimmick. It’s never been about marketing. It’s never really been about making books about representation issues. I wanted to populate my book with diverse and interesting characters, and to say to readers of all backgrounds, you are welcome in my fiction for who you are, not what I can make you. The problem was, as a cis straight white able-bodied author, I found that if I didn’t specify what ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation a character was, the reader’s default would be to assume they were cis, straight, able-bodied and white. But then, if I did specify, as a crime writer who likes tackling issues in his work, it was too easy to slip down the road to tackling the issues. And then you start to worry that this will be seen as a marketing gimmick. ‘Buy my books because I have X in it.’ Which defeats my whole intention. But then, oddly, embracing the big fun ideas of Marah Chase showed me that was another limitation I was imposing on myself. In writing the equivalent of a summer action movie, I was starting to populate the cast with the kinds of characters who haven’t typically been featured in big summer action movies. And in this new writing voice, they simply were who they were. (I can’t wait for you to meet Hass in Chase 2. He’s trans. He’s Muslim. He’s strong as hell, and loyal to Chase. And only the latter two elements are important to the story.) Finally, my characters could just be who they were, with no need to explain themselves.

So who is Jay Stringer?

He’s a writer who’s finally let go of the limiting rules he’d imposed on his own career. There are times I want to give you the cinematic equivalent of small heist movies full of character actors and crackling dialogue. There are times I want to give you the big summer blockbuster. I’m sure there will be times, soon, when I want to give you some horror or sci-fi. I don’t have two sides of my brain at war with each other anymore. I just have one brain that wants to enjoy writing stories. I hope you come along for the ride.

Pegasus Books, and my editor Katie, got the point of the whole project and jumped on in for the ride. The first Marah Chase adventure drops -probably from the side of an aeroplane- on July 2nd. And it’s already had some awesome people saying awesome things.

Here’s some praise for Marah Chase and the Conqueror’s Tomb.

Stringer, author of the Sam Ireland and Eoin Miller mysteries, has a winner here with Marah Chase―pulse-pounding adventure, in the best Indiana Jones tradition, with a charismatic gay woman fueling the action.”
Booklist (starred)

Stringer effortlessly weaves a complex web of espionage and betrayal around a rip-snorting, larger-than-life adventure in the spirit of Indiana Jones.
Antony Johnston, creator of 'Atomic Blonde' and 'The Exphoria Code'

A fun, new twist on the traditional adventure tale, Jay Stringer’s Marah Chase and the Conqueror’s Tomb updates and re-imagines the Indiana Jones-style treasure hunter narrative. Marah Chase is cunning, empowered, and queer, a Lara Croft for the 20th century. The action propels forward at a breathless pace, each chapter a cliff-hanger. A delight to read!
John Copenhaver, author of 'Dodging and Burning'

If you merged Ocean’s Eleven with Indiana Jones, you’d get Marah Chase and The Conqueror’s Tomb―a high-octane, pulse-pounding race to save the world from an ancient weapon.
Julie McElwain, author of the Kendra Donovan Mystery Series

A full-throated adventure that combines the politics of contemporary terrorism with ancient myths. With conspiracy theories and a sassy heroine, Marah Chase and the Conqueror’s Tomb will keep you turning the pages to the very end.
Tessa Lunney, author of 'April in Paris, 1921'

Ever wonder what Raiders of the Lost Ark would be like if it was set in the present day and Marian Ravenwood got to do all the cool stuff instead of Indiana Jones? Marah Chase and the Conqueror’s Tomb gives you a chance to find out. Jay Stringer has given readers a ripping yarn with all the elements of a multi-dimensional spy adventure: a dangerous, high-stakes quest, formidable adversaries, international intrigue, love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, cliff-hanging suspense a la Dan Brown and, best of all, a cast of characters that will keep you thinking about them and wondering what they’ll do next. Then there’s Stringer’s deliciously ambiguous approach to the potentially supernatural. Is it magic or technology? Read it and decide for yourself.”
Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, co-author of the New York Times bestselling 'The Last Jedi'

Robin Hood in Stringerville Stood

I’ve been on a deep dive into the Robin Hood myth recently. Why? Well, you may find out in the next couple of years, if all goes well. But way before I took any professional interest, I’ve always been drawn to the story, and the character. If your childhood is in the midlands, while Robin of Sherwood is on television, and you have a surname that comes from archery….there’s a good chance you’re going to be invested in the myth of Robin Hood.

I realised recently that much of my own writing could be seen as one spin on the character or another. I have an unsold novel sitting in a drawer that my agent pitched to publishers as ‘Robin Hood meets Elmore Leonard, set in the modern day.’ And many of my frustrations with the current British crime fiction market could be summed up with the question, ‘why are our stories all about the Sheriff?’ 

Did Robin Hood really exist? And does it matter? Historian Stephen Knight argues that our obsession with the real identity of Robin Hood is a symptom of modern tabloid thinking, and that there’s much more to be learned from studying the evolution of the legend, and how it reflects the time it’s being told in, than to analyse one specific time in history for any written record of one person. As a writer, I can see the strength in his argument. Ultimately storyis how we observe the evolution of our culture. The legends we tell, and the way that we tell them, define who we are. 

It could well be that there was no realRobin Hood. He could be a social invention. A figure we needed to create, to tell ourselves who weare, and borrowing aspects from other legends along the way, developing into….ummm….(checks notes)….Kevin Costner. 

But I think another reason story exists is to solve mysteries. To fill the black holes in our knowledge. In times gone by, we filled it by creating gods and monsters, and using them to carry morality tales. In more recent times, we write and read fiction. I think the central drive in staring at a mystery is because we need to stop it being a mystery. And so, even though as a writer I understand completely where Dr Knight is coming from, it’s also as a writer that I can’t help but be drawn into the mystery of finding the real Robin Hood. 

We all know the story. Or think we do. Film and television shows of the past century have focused in on one particular version, and that’s become our go-to. Set somewhere in the 1190’s, during the third crusade, we meet Robin (or Robert) of Loxley. A Lord who returns home from the crusades to find Prince John is usurping the throne of the beloved Richard the Lionheart. And the scheming Sheriff of Nottingham is enforcing harsh taxes on the people of England. Robin rebels against this tyranny, and becomes outlawed, finding refuge in Sherwood forest. Everything ends in a swordfight on a staircase, and Robin wins the heart of Maid Marion, who may or may not have been his childhood sweetheart.

On the face of it, however, this version of the story is the easiest one to do away with. King Richard wasn’t Sean Connery. He wasn’t a beloved king. In fairness, he wasn’t a tyrant either. In looking at Richard, it’s best to remember the trap that waits for historians: hindsight. We look back and use the way things turned out to frame people’s motivations. Was Richard good or evil? Neither. He was a man. He was likely vein, and certainly impulsive. He made rash decisions and seemed mostly interested in war and acquiring land. He spoke French and Latin, and barely stepped foot on English soil. He grew up in his father’s territories of what we would now call northern France and spent the vast majority of his ten year reign fighting wars in Europe and the Middle East. He didn’t sneak back into the country, as per most modern retellings. That was first added into the Hood story by Walter Scott, in the novel Ivanhoe. It’s much easier to give in to the hindsight trap and paint Prince -later King- John as a tyrant. He shared the ego of his elder brother, but seems to have lacked the charisma, or the talent for war. He was given more to political scheming and greed, raising regular taxes at an unprecedented rate, and importing foreign mercenaries to appoint as Sheriffs when the Barons started to resent his authority. One particularly grizzly event that shows his nature is when he captured a political enemy, Matilda de Braose, and starved her to death in a dungeon, along with her young son William. He was such a bad king that English Barons invited the Kings of both France and Scotland to invade and take over the throne. 

It’s easy to see how Robin Hood could have risen up during  John’s reign to fight back. But the main reason I dismiss this era so readily isn’t because of a lackof a Robin Hood figure, but rather, because of the existence of one. Wait, what? Yes. 

There was a powerful Lord, by the name of Fulk FitzWarin, who became embroiled in a land dispute with King John and found himself outlawed. He fought a guerrilla campaign against the crown for three years, and was eventually pardoned and reinstated. However, rather than fighting a Sheriff in Nottingham, or cutting about in Sherwood, FitzWarin was a Marcher (the Welsh border) and his fightback against the king was a largely national one, taking place across many locations. And, though his story bears many parallels to the version of Robin Hood we now know, he had his own mythology spring up around his actions, one that co-existed with that of the Sherwood bandit. And there’s nothing to suggest he ever went by the name Robin. In addition, none of the surviving early stories of Robin Hood mention either John or Richard. If John was such a vital part of the tale, as he so clearly is with Fulk, surely he would be named in the earliest surviving ballads? So it’s possible, if not probable, that many of the elements we now know as ‘Robin Hood’ have been borrowed from Fulk FitzWarin, but it appears just as probable that we’re looking somewhere else for the genesis of our hero. 

But am I correct to use the locations of Nottingham and Sherwood as qualifying features? Not necessarily. 

The earliest surviving ballads to mention Robin Hood place him in Barnsdale. And, though there are other places in England to share that name, the details in the ballad seem to suggest the Barnsdale of Yorkshire. The geographical references are entirely consistent with that setting and its surroundings. There are problems with the idea. As I’ve said, there is at least one other Barnsdale in England. And the ballad, by definition, is simply the only surviving written version of something that was passed around orally. The version we have was printed sometime after 1492 and is estimated to have been written around 1450. Since most searches for a realRobin Hood focus on candidates between the 1190’s and 1320’s, we can see there’s a period of at least130 years between the ‘real’ story and the ballad. And stories told in oral tradition will be localised in the telling. Whichever tavern you’re sat in, as the balladeer relates their tale, is going to be not far from where all of this took place. Just as a stand-up comedian will both localise and universalise their stories. Robin hood will have taken place in the village next to you, and in every village you can imagine. So really all that we know for sure about this ballad, the Little Geste of Robin Hood, is that it was written down by someone who knew the Barnsdale of Yorkshire quite well. And although this is the earliest surviving ballad, we have other poems and texts that survive from around the same time, if not slightly earlier. There is much evidence that Robin Hood was related as much in village plays and poems as he was in song, and there are as many early references to Sherwood as there are to Barnsdale. And although the Barnsdale of Yorkshire was a large wood, it wasn’t a Royal Forest, which has always seemed like an important part of the story. 

But this Nottingham/Yorkshire divide matters very much to the people of those two regions. There is local pride, and tourism at stake. And hell, if you have a chance to claim Robin Hood as your hometown hero, you’re going to take it, aren’t you?

The Yorkshire connection has led to one of the more favoured candidates for the job. Historian Joseph Hunter found records in court scrolls of a Robert Hode of Wakefield. A number of other writers, including Graham Phillips, have dug into the records of the time to piece together a trail of clues that this man could in fact have been outlawed, and that his later life could possibly mirror Robin Hood’s later years as told in the Geste. Furthermore, the King of the Ballad is named as Edward (with no number), and historical records show that Edward II travelled north, to Nottingham, during Hode’s lifetime circa 1323. This would appear to match with the part of the ballad that shows the King travelling to Robin’s forest and offering him a pardon. And sure, the King didn’t visit Barnsdale, but it’s not hard to allow that Robert may have travelled south into Sherwood, or that some messages may have been passed, or that there’s some other grain of truth to that aspect of the story. Such an event would also go some way to explain the Yorkshire/Nottingham crossover, and perhaps Hode was active as an outlaw in both areas. This all ties up nicely, and on the face of it matches up to the ballad. An important element of all the earliest stories is that Robin isn’t a lord or knight. He’s a yeoman. The full meaning of the term has led to much debate, but it could be simplified to say a skilled worker. And Robert of Wakefield would appear to fit this bill. He was also married to a woman whose name starts with an ‘M’ asin Matilda rather than Marian. (My research showed that Marian is often an afterthought in the search for Robin.)

Case closed? Well, not quite. It would take a whole separate blog post (or indeed a book, and there are several I’ll recommend later) to weigh up all the pro’s and con’s of this candidate. Some of the most compelling evidence used to support his claims can fall apart under close scrutiny. And it takes a leap of faith to look at a few scattered court records from 700 years ago and link up all the separate names into one person. And, as I will discuss a little later, it appears the name ‘Robin Hood’ was already known as criminal alias by the middle of the previous century. Having said that, it can’t be ignored that Robert Hode of Wakefield’s life does seem to fit closely into the ballad. As I said earlier, balladeers would localise their tales. Even if you’re as sceptical as me that Robert Hode was the originof the myth, it’s still quite possible he’s part of the development of it. And also possible that the surviving ballad is including elements of this local hero. 

Okay. So, I mentioned that ‘Robin Hood’ was already known as a criminal in the previous century. Records have been found from 1262 showing that someone named William had his name amended on a court scroll to ‘William Robehood’. A previous entry shows him as ‘William, son of Robert Le Fevre.’ (Le Fevre being a French term for Smith.) This is generally taken to mean that his name was adjusted to reflect the fact he was a criminal, and therefore that ‘RobeHood’ was already used as a form of shorthand for a bandit or outlaw by 1262. (I have a slightly different question about this, but I’ll return to that later.) If this reading of the records is correct, then we can narrow down our search. 

Do the same kind of records give us any other clues? Yes. There is a Robert Hood/Robertus Hood, from Sheffield (that Yorkshire connection again) who shows up on records as at outlaw circa 1225. Almost nothing else is known about this figure, but we do know that two of the people who are likely to have crossed paths with him -or at the very least to have known about him- were Eustace of Lowdham and Brian de Lisle, both of whom have been identified by different writers as candidates for the Sheriff figure. Eustace was serving as Deputy Sheriff of Yorkshire around the same Robertus Hood found himself on the wrong side of the law, and was later briefly appointed as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. De Lisle was a chief justice of the Royal Forrest, and himself later served in post in Nottingham. It’s extremely tempting to think this Robertus is our man. In knowing so little about him, we have room to fill that blank space with our own narrative. But in truth, that would be taking the same leap of faith that I used to weaken the case of Robert of Wakefield. 

All of this is based around finding someone with a name that matches the legend. Is that necessary? I’ve already shown that some of the key elements of the legend, Nottingham, Sherwood, the King, even the time, are all up for debate. So do we have candidates who don’t even have the right name? The answer is yes. And they make for possibly the strongest current contenders. 

First, let’s jump to 1265. The Barons of England rose up in their second rebellion of the century, led by Simon de Montfort (of incredible anti-Semitism fame) and attempted to depose King Henry III (John’s son, but a figure long overdue some attention and reappraisal.) When this rebellion failed, many of the people involved were outlawed. One of these outlaws, Roger Godberd, fled to Sherwood (though this is sometimes disputed, with counterclaims he used a forest in Leicestershire) and led a campaign of violence against the local Sheriff. Indeed, he was captured, taken to Nottingham Castle, and escaped. At one point, Godberd and his gang members were protected by a Knight, Richard Foliot, who sheltered them in his castle. This is a key detail. Looking back to the Little Geste of Robin Hood, one of the most important elements of the story -and one that doesn’t appear to have been borrowed from other outlaw cycles- is when Robin and Little John are sheltered by Sir Richard of the Lee. This is such a strong parallel, that it becomes hard to overlook. And also, in some speculation I’ll add myself, Henry’s son, Prince Edward (later of Braveheart fame) was an active combatant during the rebellion. He led troops into many of the final battles. So is it possible that a Prince Edward, playing a role in the real events, was later adapted by balladeers into King Edward, as they both localised and universalised the tale? Roger feels like a strong candidate to me almost exactly becausehe has a different name. The Robert of Wakefield theory revolves around stringing together a lot of vague records to make a man with the right name fit. But the story of Roger Godberd is making no attempt to bend to fit the myth. There’s not even any records that he was ever referred to by the name Robin Hood. It’s almost as if he’s sat there, in history, daring us to write him off. He doesn’t care what we think. He just has the simple fact that the recorded events of his life very closely match the legends of someone known by a different name. But there is one other main drawback to his claim. The date. Godberd, and his actions, all took place afterthat court scroll of 1262. Which still makes me look earlier. 

As I mentioned, de Montfort’s rebellion was the second one to take place that century. If we look earlier in the 1200’s, we find another candidate. A man who served as a Royal Bailif during the time of King John, before being outlawed. He led a rebellion against the King, which included a small army of archers who operated in the forest, cutting off supplies from people who were trying to send goods and money to their monarch. And furthermore, none of this is left to legend. We know this man existed, and that he did these things. And in fact we know he was later rewarded by the crown and accepted back into society. So, sounds pretty slam dunk, right? Well I agree. Except for a few details. He has a different name, operated in a different place, and rebelled against a different King. 

After King John signed, and then withdrew, the Magna Carta (this is misleading, as it wasn’t called the Magna Carta until a later reissue, but that’s the term people know it as now) the Barons of England rebelled. It’s worth pointing out, for all that it’s easy to paint John as a tyrant, very little is known about what ‘normal’ people thought of him, all we know is that the Barons hated him. And, as much as it serves people on the political right in the current climate to hark back to Magna Carta as the moment ‘we’ all became free, it’s important to remember the document was about a tug of war between a King and his Barons. Very few of us reading now would have been considered ‘free men’ at the time, and so few of the privileges and protections in the document would have applied to us. Magna Carta is an important step on the road to rule of law and of citizens rights, but it is onlythe first step, of many. Anyway, political rant aside. After John went back on his word, the Barons led a revolt. As part of the civil war, the French invaded and occupied much of the south of England. William of Kensham, a Royal Bailif loyal to John, wasn’t having this. He was outlawed by a crown he didn’t owe loyalty to, for defending one that he did, and led group of as many as one hundred archers in a guerrilla war in the forest of the Weald, on the south coast. The Weald at the time was still a vast ancient forest, far larger than Sherwood, and William was able to regularly prevent the French troops from passing supplies inland to the castles they occupied. This small army played a vital part in the war, and John himself wrote to William to thank him for his efforts.

William was active at pretty much the exact time we would need the original Robin Hood to have existed. His exploits fit very easily into the profile of our mythical hero. A yeoman, leading a band of archers, using a vast ancient forest to ambush soldiers and run away, directly impacting the ability of one King to usurp the throne of the other. We also know his activities were celebrated nationally, he became a very famous figure, and his actions spawned a whole host of ballads and poems. He’d become largely forgotten until recently, when historian Sean McGlynn identified him as a contender. 

Between William of Kensham and Roger Godberd, we could possibly see the composite form of the legend come together. William provides the overall heroic profile, Roger brings some of the key specific criminal actions. Over time, could these two men become merged into one, mythic hero? Perhaps along the way stealing some romance from Fulk FitzWarrin?

Yes. 

No. 

Maybe?

Based on all the available information, I would argue this is the most likely scenario. That Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest is a blend of William of Kensham and Roger Godberd. The story told and retold, always shaped to fit whatever we need a hero to be. Maybe even, along the way, Robert Hode of Wakefield was added into the mix, with two outlaws of a previous century filtered through a local hero, and told as Robin Hood of Barnsdale. For now, my theory rests there. 

And yet. 

There are still questions. Still some thorny objections. That figure from 1225, Robertus Hood, still calls to us. He would be in the right place, at the right time, with the right name. Maybe his story will always be lost to us. Or maybe, in the coming years, a new document will turn up, a previously lost court scroll, or a different poem, some extra detail that fills in his life and gives us the answers. 

There’s also one lingering doubt I can’t shake to this ‘composite hero’ idea. If we have two (or more) different people, with completely different names, how did we settle on ‘Robin Hood’? And why would it have become a known criminal alias by 1262? True enough, Robert was a very common name. And historians have found enough people with variations on Hode/Hood to suggest that, if not common, it wasn’t uncommon. Is it possible that ‘Robin Hood’ is simply a ‘Joe Public’ type of name, something applied to say that this hero could be any of us? Maybe. But, though Robin was an increasingly common nickname for Robert, it’s also a name of French origin. And, in a century when war with -and invasion by- France was a persistent danger, would English folklore have adopted a French name for their everyman figure? That doesn’t ring true to me. But that’s purely a gut feeling. 

And I didn’t play fair right at the start. In dismissing the 1190’s, I skated by on one other possible candidate. Long before pop culture solidified around Robin of Loxley, Robin’s surname was sometimes given as variations on Fitzodo or Fitzooth. And, although Loxley is often assumed to be town of the same name in Yorkshire -largely because of the Ballad’s link to Barnsdale- there is also a Loxley in Warwickshire, only a few miles away from Shakespeare’s Stratford. There’s a record of Robert Fitzodo, a Knight who lived in Loxley, who appears to have been stripped of his knighthood during Richard’s reign. And there’s a grave in a nearby churchyard that matches a drawing of Robin Hood’s grave dated from 1670.  And that would bring the story right back to where we started. A Knight who was disinherited during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. He wasn’t from either Barnsdale or Nottingham, but Fulk FitzWarrin proves outlaws during that time could operate over large areas.  

Is this the real Robin? For my money, and again, based on current information, I still feel like the William/Roger composite is most likely. And the fact that John and Richard are absent from the all the earliest ballads and poems still leads me to rule out the 1190’s. Could Robert of Loxley be a historical coincidence? Someone we only notice now because of later additions to the story? But Robert of Loxley clearly can’t be completely ignored when looking for a real….Robert of Loxley. 

And that really brings us to the end. As frustrating at it is, we may never know more than this. Historians have been scouring records for hundreds of years, and all it’s done is raise more questions. And I have an additional theory. One that I think is new and hasn’t been researched. I’m not ready to share it yet, because it may well frame my own take on the story, but I do want to add something else to the conversation. Let’s go back to 1262, and that court scroll of William Robehood. As we’ve seen, this has been compared to a previous entry that shows William to be the son of Robert le Fevre. The conversation here seems to have focused solely on the question of whether the change to Robehood shows that Robin Hood was established as a shorthand for ‘criminal’ by the 1260’s. But what if the clerk was being more literal than that? William son of Robert becomes William RobHood. Is it worth trying to find more information of Robert le Fevre? Could William literally be the son of someone known to the court clerk as Robin Hood? 

 

Suggested bibliography.

The standard bearer for Robin Hood research is still, for my money, JC Holt’s book.

For more information of Roger Godberd, I would suggest you check out David Baldwin and for the William of Kensham link I throughly enjoyed Sean McGlynn’s recent work.

If you want to deep dive into the Robert of Wakefield theory, with references to Robert of the Warwickshire Loxley, try and track down a copy of the out of print work by Graham Phillips.

When In Roma

Screenshot 2019-01-22 at 13.54.37.png

I got some traction with this tweet. But also, it’s become clear, a lot of people aren’t really sure what it was getting at. Public consciousness is still a fair way behind when it comes to Roma issues. There seems to be a split between people who’ve never even considered the matter, and between those who are paralysed by fear over whether they’re allowed to say ‘Gypsy.’

So, let’s just deal with a few things head on. Something of a guidebook, if you will. This will all be an oversimplification, there will be a ‘yes, but’ at every turn. This is just a start for people who have questions. 

Gypsy is an ethnic term. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s not about clothes. You don’t become a Gypsy just by wearing a load of bangles.  It’s not an Irish bareknuckle boxer. And, I love you, Bruce, but it’s not a short-hand for something vaguely mystical or romantic in a song. “I went to see the Gypsy at the DMV,” probably doesn’t sound as ‘cool’ as getting your fortune told beneath a tree somewhere, but it’s far more likely to happen. 

The word comes from Egyptian. When the Roma first started showing up in northern Europe, they were assumed to be from Egypt. (A similar line of logic in France led to the name Boheme, under the assumption the Roma had come from Bohemia.  And there are regional variations within the Roma. For instance, in Wales the settled Romani are called Kale, in England they’re Romanichal.)

Over time, Gypsy gathered more negative than positive connotations. If you hear the word gypped in relation to stealing or conning, it doesn’t take much thought to figure out how that word came about, and why it’s something you shouldn’t say. Likewise, gypo is often used as a more general insult, to anyone who looks scruffy, poor, has long hair, etc. And again, it doesn’t take much thought to realise why that’s something you shouldn’t be saying. So, is it automatically a slur? No. You can use it, in the right context, with the right people. But the best guidance would be proceed with caution. It’s a variable thing. Some Roma are completely fine with the word. Some are completely against it. Many are somewhere in the middle, depending on how and why it’s being used. 

So, the Roma started to turn up in northern Europe, eh? Okay, where did they turn up from? First, another misconception. Despite the similarities in name, Roma people don’t originate from Romania. Though there is a large Roma population in Romania. The truth, to put it in somewhat romantic terms, is that the Roma wandered north from India around 1500 years ago and have been moving ever since. As you can imagine with any ethnic group migration, communities settled down on every stop along the way. There is a broad distribution of Roma across the world, each with their own history and culture, and each also with some overlap. There’s no one central religion that binds them together as a people, and no claim to a traditional homeland. But there is a flag, which was adopted in 1971 by the World Romani Congress. The world population is estimated to be somewhere between two and twenty million, but putting numbers on this can be near-impossible. How to define who should be included? In countries such as the UK and USA, many Roma families settled down and assimilated into local communities, meaning there are people now who have Romani backgrounds without even knowing it. Some Roma still live on the move, others live in settled, but distinct, communities. Some do live in trailers, many just live in those ‘normal’ things we like to call houses. I know, shocking, right? It’s almost as if they’re just a normal ethnic group trying to live normal lives, and not, as Hollywood attests, bands of roving thieves and mystics looking to turn you into werewolves. Given that they tend to be a persecuted community in every country they settle in, the Roma will also tend to be included within the various refugee and migrant groups that keep showing up in the news, fleeing war, drought, and poverty. Yes, there are Romani people showing up in European countries as refugees, but no, that’s not because they’re automatically travelling people, but rather, because they’re one of the groups most likely to need to flee persecution – or be kicked out of a country. 

What of this persecution I’ve referenced? That’s all just a thing of the past, surely? Nope. As I mentioned before, the Roma don’t have a central religion -they will tend towards whatever the dominant faith is in the country they are settled in, often Christianity- and they don’t have a traditional homeland. Those two factors -combined with over a thousand years of narratives about them being shifty, or criminals, or practicing the occult- continue to make them easy targets. Many Roma who canpass as ‘normal’ in any given country, do. You might well know someone who is Romani, or of Romani extraction, without realising it, because a great many people find it easy simply not to bring it up. They have to sit silent when friends start talking about gypos or blaming the town’s ills on travellers. That’s a large part of why there are so many people in the UK and USA who don’t even know they have Romani blood in their family, because their ancestors settled and tried to fit in. Why would they do that? Necessity. I don’t have to walk far from my house here in Glasgow, to get to Govanhill, which has become home to a very vocal and visible Roma community. And I also don’t have to go far to see how they are smeared in the media, hated by locals, and blamed for everything and anything that happens. There are far-right activists putting up anti-Roma posters on the streets of Glasgow. Literal Nazis pushing their agenda. Faced with this, is it any wonder that many Romani people over the years have chosen to settle down and avoid harassment? 

But more than that, assimilating has often been a way of simply staying alive. Up until relatively recently, it was a criminal offence to even be a Gypsy in England. As early as the 1500’s – basically as soon as they showed up- England started programs of deportation. Oliver Cromwell, that loveable scamp, saw the Roma as slaves. Property. Once Australia started being used as a penal colony, they were shipped there as criminals. 

Okay, but slavery, penal colonies? That’s all kinda old hat, right? Life is surely easier for the Roma now? Well, starting in 2009, France began a program of…ahem…’repatriating’ Roma. 10,000 in that first year. 8,300 in 2010. They set a target of 30,000 for 2011. The European Union stepped in with threats of legal action. There have been persistent rumours that France kept a database of French Roma citizens. Two separate independent studies have proven that to be false, however, imagine for just a moment being Romani in France during that time, with the state enacting a deportation programme, and you living under fear that your name is on a list somewhere. Now imagine that at regular intervals. 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Names on lists? Families rounded up? The world has a name for the genocidal ethnic cleansing that took place during the second world war. For the Roma, the cost of those years was so high, that there is a different name. One that is used far less often. The Porajmos. The Devouring. The irony that the Nazis were rounding up and massacring a group of people whose ethnic origin was Indo-Aryan is one of history’s sickest jokes. 

But the world learned from World War Two, right? We all came together and agreed that kind of thing can never be allowed to happen again? Between 1971 and 1991, Czechoslovakia (Later the Czech Republic and Slovakia) enacted a program of forced sterilization on Romani women. It was carried out without the women’s knowledge, during other surgical procedures. A Czech investigation into the matter reported that at least 90,000 women were affected by this program. 

There is a lot of fear about the current rise of the far right. Many people are seeing Nazis for the first time, and getting scared. Others are seeing something they had thought long since defeated. Politically, they’re taking control. And a time when tech companies make it easier for governments to know everything about a person and their movements. Long before our smartphones started spying on us, Romani people were already well practised at concealing details about themselves and refusing to put their ethnicity on forms. Many don’t want to reveal their background on social media, because why make the work any easier for Them. They come for people in a certain order. And the Roma -among others- always seem to be at the front of that queue. But the Roma are also a testament to the fact they come for people in the ‘good’ times, too. And they get away with it. And will continue to, unless we start changing the narrative away from ‘understanding the monsters’ and instead start empathising with their targets. I’m not seeing the need to listen to the bullies when there are people at the other end of the scale who are never listened to. 

There are Nazis on the streets in my home city. In your home city. In my country, the Government is letting them dictate policy. Sticks and stones can break bones, but words can break spirit. Now is the time to start learning the right ones to use, and to start listening to the right people.

Ten Rules For Not Giving Advice

I have dismissed the culture of writing advice many times. The only reason I pay any attention to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is because they’re Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing. He knew what he was doing. There are countless people out there on the internet right now offering you advice, and I’m fairly sure most of them aren’t Elmore Leonard.

But I still get asked for advice from time to time. And I recently -somewhat flippantly- posted my own 10 rules on Twitter, in response to another beardy navel-gazer getting paid to write his own, most of which weren’t actually rules, and almost none of which were any good.

So, with the standard disclaimer that these might only work for me, and you gotta do you, and with the reminder that these are offered for free, here are my own current 10 rules of writing.

  1. Dialogue is about what people aren’t saying.

    What are they hiding? What are they omitting? Where is the lie? Particularly in crime or mystery fiction, where characters can be driven by secrets, and self deception.

    This approach can be of real help if you’re stuck. Back up. Look at the characters in the scene, and figure out what is the one thing they don’t want to say. Note that down for each character, then get them talking, and let them talk around those secrets. The conversation will flow, your subtext will be grabbing out for the reader’s attention, and your page will fill with words.

  2. Apply show-don’t-tell to character, and plot takes care of itself.

    There are many nuggets of well-meaning writing advice that are handed down and repeated, over and over, to the point when they become hollow. Show don’t tell is one of these. It’s often talked about it terms of plot. Exposition. Details. Reveals. Clues. It becomes a rule used to show the audience information, rather than tell it.

    Once again, pause, back up.

    This is tip is tied up in another modern little trap. Character has become the person, not the traits. The word is now shorthand for our dramatis personae. And that’s not wrong. It’s a good shorthand, we all use it. But we sometimes lose sight of character as aspect, as the traits that are revealed by the plot.

    And this is the real power of show don’t tell. Show things about your character. Show who they love, who they fear. Who they trust, who they hate. At a recent event I was asked how I’d managed to juggle all the plot details of How to Kill Friends and Implicate People in my head, because there’s a lot going on in that book. But the truth is, I didn’t. I managed the plot by managing the characters. At any given point in the story I was aware of their goals, their hopes, their fears, and I chose (hopefully) the right moments and techniques to reveal them to the reader. The plot…..took care of itself.

    Think of an action movie like San Andreas. Yes, it’s a big dumb spectacle. But it’s also one of the purest examples of this. The film is all about trust. Again and again, the story is showing us trust affirmed and broken. Heroes, in fiction, are the ones who people are able to put their faith and trust in. Horror films are more driven on fears. Crime can be driven on trust, or fear, or any number of similar elements.

    Show them. Reveal them. And show us why characters have earned -or haven’t earned- these trusts, hopes, fears. And the plot, I promise you, will happen.

  3. Write the scene from the POV of the person most invested in it.

    Elmore Leonard didn’t make this one of his own ten rules, but it can be found throughout his work. Which character is most invested in the action, the drama, or the tension of the current scene? Or who will have the freshest, most engaged take on what is happening? If the character is interested or engaged in the moment, the reader will be, too. And, once again, this will reveal character, which will, in turn, move plot.

    Okay, I hear you right now, saying, but I write my books all in first person, there’s only one character narrating. Hey, go write your own rules. Or figure out how to make this one work for that one voice. You think this is a free ride? Go do some work.

  4. Never use exclamation marks. Ever.

    Don’t all shout at me at once. You want to use them? Go right ahead. I mean, if you’re reading someone’s rules of writing just to disagree with them, there’s probably something more productive you could be doing. Writing, maybe?

    This one is a personal preference, more than a general takeaway. I think a good writer can express tone through dialogue. An exclamation mark -or slammer, as I like to call them- generally feels lazy to me. Most of the editors I’ve worked with have operated under a rule of one slammer per fifty thousand words (give or take.) I say that is one too many. The words, the way you use them, the speed, the urgency, all of these things can be expressed without sticking a slammer on the end.

    So, sure, use ‘em if you must. Just be aware you lose a year of your life for every one, and proceed with caution.

  5. ‘Write what you know’ is a dangerous trap.

    This is another of those pieces of advice passed down from yore. I believe it’s the most dangerous. It puts a limit on your work. Of course, like all the worst ideas, it’s got a grain of truth to it. We should know what we write. But we need to remember we can change what we know at any time. ‘Write what you know’ is the hill that bad fiction dies on. Generations of straight white men, writing straight white male fiction. Giants of the literary world who are feted for writing navel-gazing, middle class kitchen dramas, about navel-gazing, middle class people. Or, even worse, it leads to genre fiction where authors write the genre fiction that they know. The same tropes and cliches, trotted out, page after page.

    Push past your own walls. Go out and talk to people. Hear how they talk. See how they think. Learn what’s important to them. Ask questions. Read outside your comfort zone. The real thing, the real thing, is empathy. If you approach your work with empathy, pretty much everything else will be figured out along the way.

    Forget write what you know.

    Live by know what you write.

  6. Never take writing advice from the kind of people who offer you writing advice.

    Yes, even me.

    Especially me.

  7. Finish things.

    Stories have endings. Anybody can write, but you become a writer by finishing what you start. Not everything, don’t worry. We all get stuck. We all throw out work. But at some point, you need to knuckle down and finish a story, and then…..let other people read it.

    One of the reasons I’ve become hesitant to give writing advice over the years, is that it seems most of the people who are asking for it haven’t finished their book or story yet. And you, dear procrastinator, are standing in your own way. You can’t become a good stand up comedian until you perform in front of people. You can’t progress as a filmmaker until you make a film. And you can’t really learn anything as a writer until you finish writing something, and let people engage with it.

    Once you do that? I can help you. Other writers can help you. You can help yourself. You’ll see the shape of story. You’ll know the pitfalls, you’ve proven you have the motivation. We can get down into the foundations of what you’ve built and help you move it all around.

    Come to us with a story, we can help. Come to us with an idea, and all you have is an idea.

  8. Rule six was really important.

  9. Dialogue should vary.

    Here’s another dangerous old piece of advice; ‘read your dialogue out loud.’ This is problematic on a number of levels. Firstly, you absolutely should do this. Secondly, this can absolutely become a trap.

    Wa-huh? Stop confusing things, dude.

    Okay. Well, I’d say that advice doesn’t go far enough. You should read everything you write out loud. The whole thing. Language is alive. It flows. It needs to move like fire, searching for oxygen. If you don’t read you work out, there’s the risk of ending up with stilted, dead prose.

    And dialogue needs to sound like people talking. So of course you need to check that it actually….sounds like people talking. But at every stage of the process you need to be aware of the potential trap. Be conscious of not making every character sound like you talking. It’s an easy thing to do. In making sure that all the dialogue flows easily off your tongue, it can start to all sound the same.

    A common phrase I hear is ‘I write dialogue to a rhythm, like music.’ Usually -in fact, almost always- I hear this from people who aren’t musicians. Certainly not drummers. Probably not bass players. Possibly a rhythm guitarist, whose grasp on such concepts can be hazy at best.

    We don’t have to look far to see auteur screenwriters who are feted for writing great dialogue, and yet churn out the same voices again and again.

    Do I have any extra tips for overcoming this? Well, half the time I’m lucky. When I have the luxury of time, I’ll let the characters audition for me on the page, and in my head, waiting until I find a distinct voice that interests me, and then I’ll write for that voice. But the rest of the time? When I’m writing to assignment or deadline, and I need to be getting words down on the page before I have a clear idea of the voices? I’ll cast people. Friends. Celebrities. Actors. I’ll pick distinct people for each role, and I’ll write to their voice, rather than mine, while I wait for the character to take shape.

  10. I need a tenth rule? Okay. Guess I do. What will it be? I’VE GOT IT. Don’t be solitary.

    Writers aren’t solitary.

    The job can be, but don’t give in to it. We sit at desk, or on the sofa, or on the toilet (what? don’t judge me, this post has gone longer than I expected) and type. We talk to ourselves. We throw exclamation marks around. But we need other people. We need contact. We need ideas, and laughs, and frustrations. We need to get out of our own heads and into other people’s, and we learn to do that best by doing it. Once outside, we’ll find there’s a wonderful, large, supportive community of people who want to help.

    There will be authors who’ve been exactly where you are, and know how to get out of whatever rut you’re stuck in. There will be readers who want to lift your spirits by telling them how much your words have meant to them.

    As with everything else, there are traps here. There are people who want to take advantage of other writers. There are people who want to use you to elevate themselves. There are emperors with no clothes on, and they’re going to dare you to notice. And there will be people who will give advice they haven’t earned. How do you tell the good people from the bad? I’m afraid that’s on you. There’s no way around it, you need to learn that lesson yourself.

Freedom Of Reach?

We’re talking a lot about freedom of speech and censorship. You’re all forcing me to engage my brain, and this needs to stop. We can’t escape the discussion. Whether we’re debating the rights and wrongs of no platforming, or whether we need to ban certain songs.

It seems odd that we only debate these issues in relation to bad things. The same liberal dudes who will line up to say ‘well, I don’t think it’s right to call for the eradication of all left-handed comedians, but I worry about the slippery slope of censorship,’ will insist that liberals shouldn’t refer to Nazis as ‘Nazis.’ And I think we can all agree that, while we want to play devil’s advocate on behalf of awfulness, Hilary Clinton was absolutely and completely wrong to refer to deplorable people as ‘deplorable.’

 But I get it. I understand the arguments. We want to allow the idiots and the bigots to expose their idiocy and bigotry. We’re concerned about the precedent of giving anyone the power to ban words. We worry that refusing to platform people means we’re closing ourselves down to honest debate.

A word that has now become a homophobic slur, used in a beloved Christmas song, was once an Irish slang term for lazy. And, in the region I grew up in, the same word referred to a type of food. And even if the songwriter intended the word in the modern sense, rather that its original meaning, aren’t we crossing a dangerous line by censoring anything?

We can find proof of our argument, too. Nick Griffin of the BNP was fatally exposed by being given a national platform on the BBC’s Question Time. And the very idea of censorship, of deciding which ideas are allowed, and which aren’t, isn’t that what the bad guys do? Isn’t it all a bit too Orwellian?

On the other hand, not all bigots are idiots. Giving a platform to someone who is very good at expressing a bad idea does mean you’re giving a megaphone to the bad idea. The same BBC show that destroyed Nick Griffin helped to expand Nigel Farage’s influence, bringing his populist brand of racism to living rooms across the country on a weekly basis. And does ‘no platforming’ a transphobic activist mean we’re shutting down a debate? Yes, but why should we ask trans people to tolerate a debate about their very existence?

It seems that many of us will accept that free market is a flawed ideology when it comes to business, to human rights, and to laws, but still want to believe in the idea when it comes to speech and the marketplace of ideas.

For all my snark, I’m not here to trash the idea of freedom of speech. All of the arguments I made in favour of it are things I’ve said myself. For most of my adult life I’ve described myself as a freedom of speech absolutist. When I was campaigning for Scottish Independence, one of my many arguments was that a ‘new’ Scotland could have a ‘new’ constitution, including a guarantee of free speech.

But I can’t get past the idea that neither side of the argument really costs me anything. I’m very hard to offend. Straight white CIS man. Aside from the snowflakes of the alt right, and their cousins in gamergate, comicsgate, and getalifeyoumanbabiesgate, people in my category need to accept that we’re pretty much untouchable. The last thing I hear in life probably isn’t going to be a racial slur, as I’m strung up from a tree. I’m not going to hear taunts about my sexuality as I’m beaten into a coma. There’s never going to be a debate about whether I’m allowed into the correct toilet for my gender identity. I’m never going to have to worry whether the lyrics to a Christmas ditty, overheard in supermarkets across the land, are normalising a hatred that could kill me (Though Mr Blobby had a good go at it.)

And I think that’s where I come to. We all want to have a hard and fast, set-in-stone answer on this issue, and to never have to think of it again. But society is a conversation. A constant, evolving, conversation. We don’t need rules etched into stone tablets, we need empathy and nuance.

If we’ve reached a point in time where we’re asking conservatives, sexists, and racists to accept their views were framed by straight white men, don’t we also have to have the same conversation about liberal ideals? To all the people -including me- who have grown up accepting the idea that there are no bad words, that we need to allow idiots to expose themselves, and that every idea should be listened to, don’t we also have to think that maybe it was straight white men who came up with that logic? That maybe our very foundational beliefs about freedom of speech were created, and repeated, and enshrined, by people who never really had to worry about the weight of words?

Maybe it’s time we devalued devil’s advocate and started protecting people. Maybe it’s time we realised that free market economy is as corrupting for words as it is for money. And maybe it’s time we re-evaluate every idea argued for by white dudes, including the ones we’ve always thought were right.