Rorke's Drift and Isandwana

We  moved near to Brecon in 2013 where there is a terrific museum commemorating the 24th Regiment of Foot (South Wales Borderers) which fought in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1878-80. So soon after we went to South Africa to visit the battlefields and a haunting experience it was too. At Isandalwana the Zulu King Cetshwayo  wrong footed Lord Chelmsford so that he split his army and left the bulk of it in camp while he went chasing off to engage the Zulu warriors several miles away; in fact the main Zulu army was in hiding waiting to ambush the poorly defended base camp. Almost all the defending forces were killed, over 1,300 British and Natal soldiers, the biggest defeat in imperial history. A small contingent held out at the staging post of Rorke's Drift nearby hence slightly redeeming the reputation of the army.

Today the battlefield of Isandalwana is much as it was. It is easy to imagine what carnage took place with the masses of British and Natal dead  and disembowelled all over the veldt, so that their spirits could escape their bodies. I do believe that when extreme pain is suffered a sense of it remains in the atmosphere, a sort of haunting. I felt it too at Cawnpore where the British community was massacred in the Indian mutiny - the other Victorian imperial disaster - and of course in Flanders on the Great War battlefields.

At Isandwana our imaginations were certainly inspired by the oration of our guide Andrew Rattray from the Fugitives Drift hotel nearby. It was unfashionable but effective - emotional, patriotic, opinionated and pro Zulu. His father David was the expert on the subject and able to fill the Royal Geographic Society in London many times over with his story telling. Tragically he was murdered by an intruder to Fugitive's Drift a few years ago.

As a postscript I discovered in Brecon when we returned that the 24th Regiment of Foot was in 1879 actually the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment which recruited in South Wales; it became the S.W.B. two years later. There is a vault under the museum, not open to the public, that contains trophies from Isandalwana. One is a Zulu shield with a neat triangular bayonet hole through it such as the  foot soldiers of the 24th Regiment carried  on the ends of their rifles. Makes you think.

Face to Face with John Freeman

07 March 2013: in the New Statesman published my 6,000 word essay about the enigmatic ex-soldier, government minister, broadcaster, editor, ambassador and professor, John "you -should- change- your-life-every-10-years" Freeman. Actually, I think I am the only person outside his family who knows he is still alive - aged 98 and living in a military care home. I think he led one of the most extraordinary public lives in the second half of the 20th century but always seeking anonymity. This 'anonymous celebrity' caught the eyes of reviewers. "A terrific read" wrote Roy Greenslade in a Guardian blog.



A crime-writer on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme "Front Row" boasted recently that as soon as he had a new book out "I'm on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I'll go on forums and post them under my name and various other names". Apparently not only praising your own book but trashing your rivals under a pseudonym is called using "sock-puppets". Now this is nasty but  it probably works. The literary world has enough gullible book buyers and, more worryingly, ill-informed agents and publishers who are taken in by this deceit. The trouble is that most people's morality is relative; once other authors cheat it's very tempting to follow their example. What's more I've some sympathy because the non-fiction publishing world is desperately short of money. Like other non-fiction writers I know, it's a long time since I received a decent advance payment and print runs these days are  so small that it's hard to earn much in royalties. The publisher of my last book actually fined me for exceeding the word count, though this was not in the contract.Then he  reduced the number of photo pages so that the photographs, for which I had paid the clearance incidentally not the publisher as in the old days,  were reduced in some cases to the size of a postage stamp. No wonder authors get kind of desperate to  make some money! If this is true of non-fiction writing then documentary filmmaking is even more impecunious. Many of my students have to go on Kickstarter or Indigogo to raise money for a budget. This is a form of begging. One or two I know with a burning conviction in their film actually mortgaged their houses to pay for filming and editing. I'm not talking about beginners here, but professionals with training and track record. This is a world where selling yourself by bullshitting is almost a given. The system of film credits invites it. Who may claim creative ownership of a film? The Executive Producer? The Producer? The Associate Producer? The Assistant Producer? None of them, in my view. Only the Writer and Director deserve the credit which is why I always insist their names come first or last in the list.

Then we come to the vexatious matter of the C.V., the 'curriculum vitae',  a glowing version of which is essential to get a film commissioned. I've read so many that I can pick out 'porkies' (lies) as soon as I open the attachment. But again I have some sympathy. My own view, to quote President Kennedy, is that "facts are sacred, opinion is free", by which I mean that the award/status/review cited on the C.V. must be factually correct though the significance you attach to it  is up to you. To give one example, which shows I am by no means whiter than white , you may have read on my website that in 1991 I was awarded a prestigious BAFTA for an American series I versioned called "The Civil War". Well, it's true and the certificate is on my wall, but ninety percent of the credit belongs to the creative genius of the  films, Ken Burns. The former statement is fact, the latter opinion is free. Of course, I did not qualify my award by mentioning my minor role. Its tough out there and I need all the help I can get.

So, if you have read the new version of "The Last English Revolutionary", please give it a kind review on this website; then I won't need to ask my wife to write one!!! Thanks.