This is a piece I wrote as a guest post for Linda Green’s book blog, Books of All Kinds, during the pubication blog tour for None So Blind. If you’d like to see the original post, including her review of None So Blind, you can find it here.
Prior to writing None So Blind I wrote fiction set in the fourteenth century. I was fascinated by the way the biblical Four Horsemen – War, Famine, Pestilence and Death – hovered over the entire period. Add climate change (yes, really) regicide and revolt to the mix and I thought I’d never need to stir beyond that hundred year period for fascinating settings for fiction.
The only problem was, there was something I’d been desperate to write about ever since I was a child growing up in West Wales.
The Rebecca Riots.
And it was a problem because the Rebecca Riots didn’t happen in fourteenth century England. They happened five hundred years later and a hundred miles over the border, in mid-nineteenth century West Wales. And, quite apart from my preference for the late middle ages, that was an inconvenient setting. In bookselling terms it just wasn’t seen as sexy.
But, as I resolutely ignored the urge to write about the Riots in the quest to remain published, the crime fiction landscape continued to evolve. And, when the international success of BBC/S4C joint venture Hinterland introduced Ceredigion to a UK and Europe-wide audience, it was clear that there would never be a better time to set crime fiction in West Wales. So I decided that I would write my book about the Riots, then hurry back to the nice apocalyptic fourteenth century.
It took me a fairly predictable two years to research and write None So Blind and, though I hadn’t been under any illusion that my foray into the 1840s would be brief – historical fiction takes a lot longer to write than the more contemporary version – I hadn’t anticipated what might happen while I was there.
Because, by the time the book was done, not only had I fallen in love with my two central characters, Harry Probert-Lloyd and John Davies, I’d also fallen in love with early Victorian West Wales.
Before starting the research for None So Blind I’d known shamefully little about the area I’d grown up in and I’d been surprised to discover that the nineteenth century Teifi Valley had an awful lot in common with the late medieval period. Labourers lived in cottages that would have appalled a better-off medieval peasant, rural sanitation was non-existent, two generations of increasing poverty had left people unable to buy even things a fourteenth century peasant would have found necessary and agricultural technology had barely emerged from the Dark Ages.
But, surprising as it was to find a quasi-medieval society in the British Isles at the height of the Empire, what really fascinated me was the way in which West Wales society was in the throes of a cataclysmic, slow-motion crash with a political system in which rampant capitalism was being fuelled by previously unimaginable communication technologies (railways and the telegraph).
You can get some idea of what that crash looked like if you consider the situation in some developing countries now. The twenty-first century, cyber-capitalist, world economy exists, cheek by jowl, with abject poverty and a slowly-disintegrating tradition of subsistence agriculture.
And, then as now, society was set on its ears by such a gargantuan clash of cultures. But the impoverished tenant farmers of West Wales had neither the numbers to threaten the kind of social unrest the Chartists were agitating for in the cities, nor the vote which might have helped them choose different leaders.
Riot was the only answer and, in rapidly multiplying – and sometimes illegal -tollgates, the farmers had a tangible focus for their anger and frustration. Months of destruction and nocturnal anarchy – swiftly branded the Rebecca Riots – ensued. And the authorities were powerless to stop them.
It’s against that backdrop that Harry and John investigate the death of Margaret Jones in None So Blind. The riots may be in the past by the time blindness drives Harry home from his life in London, but their lingering after-effects are ever present and they make it difficult for Harry to get at the truth. Only his partnership with John, and the gradual revelation of secrets they are both hiding from each other, allows Harry to find out what really happened to Margaret Jones.