In the competitive world of literary festivals Alderney, a small island of 2,000 inhabitants, punches above its weight. This year there are over 350 literary festivals in the UK alone. Despite being just three years old the Alderney litfest attracted award-winning authors with international reputations whose regular speaking engagements include the venerable Hay Book Festival, and even the exotic Dubai Festival of Literature.

So why did eleven busy and successful authors make the adventurous journey in a tiny plane to this three-mile-long rock off the coast of France? Andrew Lownie, an author and literary agent, sums it up. ‘I’d heard from writers who’d come in previous years that Alderney was a charming island and the festival was well-organised and fun – as it proved to be.’

The Festival’s annual theme is ‘History fact and fiction’, and this year’s focus on the difference between reality and fantasy proved timely in an international media storm about false news. Alderney has more history per square foot than a small island deserves. From the Nunnery, considered to be Britain’s finest small Roman fort, and links with the Duchy of Normandy, to Tudor wrecks, Napoleonic forts and Nazi fortifications the island has it all and the Festival’s programme skilfully reflected its broad span of history.

Ruth Downie, author of seven mystery novels centred round a Roman doctor, regaled her audience with medical practices in the first century AD. Still in the Ancient World, Simon Turney who writes military novels based on Julius Caesar’s campaigns contrasted them with the historical fantasy stories which he also creates.

Elizabeth Chadwick , a New York Times bestselling author, discussed the dilemma of sifting fact from fiction when writing a historical novel. She quoted descriptions by other novelists of Eleanor of Aquitaine as a blonde, brunette and redhead, but carried out her own research to establish the known facts about this intriguing medieval queen among the many myths that were spread to tarnish her reputation during her lifetime and later.

Fact can be the jumping-off point for a novel, as Anna Mazzola, the Festival’s first Debut Novelist, explained. A newspaper account of a murder in nineteenth century London inspired her to explore the aftermath of the event in fictional form. She hadn’t expected truth to catch up with fiction but a descendant of the murderer contacted her when her book was published. Fortunately they considered that having a criminal in the family immortalised in print was a plus point.

The practical details of war was a theme taken up by Joyce Meader, who has the impressive title of historic knitter. Her research – and collection of over 10,000 knitting patterns –revealed the intricacies of knitting soldiers’ balaclavas and long johns, along with woollen bandages and slings for military hospitals. She kept her audience entertained by the large assortment of historic knitwear which she brought on the plane despite the restrictive luggage allowance.

The ripples of World War 1 reached out to the Channel Islands, and Jason Monaghan’s first historical novel traces its effect on a community in Guernsey. Jason is well known on Alderney where for the past nine years he has led an archaeological dig for Roman remains at The Nunnery.

Military historian Dr. Matthias Strohn discussed the challenges of separating fact from fiction particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries which offer so many primary sources, both reliable and unreliable.

Guy Burgess ‘Stalin’s Englishman’ lived in a world of deception and intrigue. His biographer Andrew Lownie identified some of the influences which turned a middle class civil servant into a spy who betrayed his country. Wallis Simpson was another 20th century figure whose life can appear to be more fiction than fact. And like Eleanor of Aquitaine she was the subject of rumours, myths and attempts to blacken her reputation. Through meticulous research her biographer Anne Sebba, an acknowleged expert, has been able to dispel many of the scandalous stories and focuses on the sometimes surprising truth.

In a group discussion Imogen Robertson, chair of the Historical Writers Association, talked about the links between research, reality and imagination with Anna Mazzola and Elizabeth Chadwick. Should historical fiction attempt contemporary styles of speech or use authentic swear words, and most importantly should historical facts be overlooked for the sake of a good story? The three authors concluded ‘We’re not historians, we’re giving readers an experience and providing entertainment.’

A highlight of the Festival was the Dinner Debate at The Georgian House on the motion ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ Ably umpired by the Festival’s chair Simon Scarrow, the Roman case was forcibly put by Simon Turney in full Roman military uniform, while Ruth Downie in an elegant Celtic costume defended the contributions of the Ancient Brits. In law, medicine, marriage and much more, the debate achieved an amicably even score.

The writers were generous in their advice for would-be authors among the audience. Imogen Robertson revealed the myths and realities of being a writer, while Alderney’s very own best-selling novelist Rachel Abbot swapped opinions with author and literary agent Andrew Lownie on the relative merits of the traditional and independent routes to publishing.

Simon Scarrow’s latest novel weaves real-life events in Greece during World War Two with family history and fictional romance, an appropriate combination of fact and fiction to round off the Literary Festival.

History changes every time we tell it according to Hilary Mantell. Over a weekend of fourteen sessions – many of them sell-outs – the lively audience heard from eminent historians and novelists how the boundaries between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy can blur. But one fact was obvious – the festival was a huge success with speakers and audience alike. Authors loved the warm welcome they were given by Alderney as well as the opportunity to get to know each other and their readers. ‘One of the best festivals I’ve ever done’ claimed Lloyd Shepherd while Jason Monaghan went further. ‘This has to be the best literary festival in the land (if you count the tiny island of Alderney as ‘in the land’). It’s cosy, it’s intimate, with a focus firmly on history.’

Islanders and visitors from Jersey, Guernsey and the mainland were equally enthusiastic. Residents Anne and Michael Doury attended many of the talks. ‘Alderney’s festival is so special because its scale gives it an intimacy not found at larger events’ says Anne ‘and the authors were around for questions and conversations throughout the weekend. We’re already looking forward to next year’s programme.’

Visit the Alderney Literary Trust website at


Researching Sam Plank – a Georgian Magistrate’s Constable

portraits-of-pretence-coverI’m a demanding reader – I want books to entertain, educate and inform (or is that the BBC?) – and so I am an equally demanding author.  As soon as I realised that I wanted to write historical fiction, I knew that I was letting myself in for a huge amount of research.

Sometimes, as I leaf through yet another newspaper from 1824, I think how simple it would be to write something set today, when I just know what people drink and how they drink it and how much it costs.  But a similar scene in an historical novel opens can after can of worms.  Let’s say, for instance, that I want the narrator of my series of historical crime novels, magistrates’ constable Sam Plank, to come home after work and sit down at the kitchen table to have a chat with his wife.  Is such a couple in the 1820s likely to have a kitchen at all, or just a range in the corner of the only room?  (The former.)  Did people sit in the kitchen in those days, or was it purely for cooking?  (Yes, they sat there – but not on funky bar-stools from Ikea.)  Did they drink tea?  (Yes, but it was expensive, and often they were on second or third or even fourth “brewing” from the same leaves.)  Did they have cups, or mugs, or beakers?  (Yes to all three, but of varying quality.)  And I had to check all of that just so that I would feel confident writing “Sam sat heavily on one of the kitchen chairs, and Martha, sensing his mood, wordlessly pushed a cup of tea towards him.”

When I read an historical novel, I need to feel sure that the details I am imbibing along the way are accurate, and so as an author I am scrupulous about authenticity.  If readers are going to trust me to take them back in time, I must get it right for them.  In all four novels so far, my constable – rather like his modern beat counterpart – spends a great deal of time walking around London.  And whenever I send him off on a new journey, I do it myself – to check journey times, and likely views, and any particular sounds or smells that might be significant (church bells, for example, or the scent of the river – which was of course much, much stronger two centuries ago).  My husband calls it “walking the Plank”.  In Sam’s latest outing – “Portraits of Pretence” – he has dealings with a French banker in Craven Street, which still exists, but now it is all but lost down the side of Charing Cross Station (a much later arrival, in the 1860s), and so imagination and old drawings came into play when I had to describe its former significance.  Museums and art galleries are invaluable when it comes to descriptions of clothing and furniture, although I have now become a very critical watcher of costume dramas, tending to sniff dismissively and say “He would never have worn a collar that tall in 1832 – sheer madness”.  Still, obsessive pickiness is no bad thing in the historical author, and perhaps even the best qualification for the job.

makeoverSusan Grossey graduated from Cambridge University in 1987 with a degree in English, and then taught secondary English for two years before realising that the National Curriculum was designed primarily to extinguish every spark of creativity in its teachers.  She then became a technical author, and reached the pinnacle of this profession when I was asked to document the workings of a choc-ice wrapping machine in Cardiff, while wearing a fetching blue hairnet (which I forgot to remove until it was pointed out by a cashier in a petrol station on the M4).

Since 1998, she has been self-employed as an anti-money laundering consultant, providing training and strategic advice and writing policies and procedures for clients in many countries.  As part of her job, she has written several non-fiction books with exciting titles like “Money Laundering: A Training Strategy”, “The Money Laundering Officer’s Practical Handbook” and “Anti-Money Laundering: A Guide for the Non-Executive Director”.

However, even this is not enough financial crime for me, and in her spare evenings and weekends she writes fiction – but always with financial crime at the heart of it.

Susan’s website is at

She blogs at

And she tweets @ConstablePlank

Elizabeth Cromwell’s story

by Carol McGrath

Two years ago I was a speaker at The Alderney Literary Festival, discussing The Bayeux Tapestry, Medieval Women and Fact into Fiction. It was an unforgettable experience. The festival had a buzz that all participants thoroughly enjoy. The Alderney hospitality was fabulous, so it is with great pleasure that I respond to a request to contribute to the 2017 festival blog.

woman-in-the-shadows-newSince 2015, I have published The Betrothed Sister, the final part of ‘The Daughters of Hastings’ Trilogy set mostly in medieval Denmark and Russia. Although I shall return to Medieval England with a new Trilogy concerning medieval queens, in the meantime I have written a novel about Thomas Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth. The Woman in the Shadow is in its final edit stages and will be published on August 4th 2017. This is the first time I have written about the new book for a guest blog, and I do hear a few whispers of Why Elizabeth Cromwell; yet, why not? Here is what motivated me to write about the Cromwells.

First of all, very little is known about Thomas Cromwell’s wife, so I was intrigued as to what her life might have been. Secondly, I had written about Wolf Hall in my MPhil thesis and that sparked my curiosity about Thomas Cromwell’s home life and career until 1526 which was the opening year to the King’s Great Matter– Henry’s desire to divorce Catherine, his wife of nearly twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn, whom he had hoped would give him a son.

The novel investigates Thomas Cromwell’s little-known early career from his wife’s perspective, through her eyes and in a first person narrative voice. I use what is recorded about Elizabeth Cromwell, née Wykes, to explore in fiction the life of a Tudor woman from the Merchant class. With this in mind, I was able to create a narrative with the London Guilds and Companies as the novel’s background and infuse the story with the city’s atmosphere – daily life and jowl to jowl living, the year’s festivals, guild pageantry and importance of saints’ days, Tudor marriage, child birth and death. I wrote these elements into scenes with Thomas and Elizabeth as the novel’s protagonists, supported by a gallery of characters invented and real. To create a narrative drive for this story, I gave Elizabeth a secret connected to her first husband, Tom Williams. This has consequences that permeates the novel right to the very end.

It is recorded that Cromwell married a young wealthy widow circa 1514, whose first husband had been in cloth and had been a King’s yeoman. Thomas Cromwell’s work as a merchant and later as a lawyer takes him by 1516 into Cardinal Wolsey’s orbit for whom he worked on land transfers. Cromwell was ambitious, but not as ruthless as he later became.

Thomas Cromwell was a humanist, interested in interrogating Greek and Roman ancient writings. He was for Church Reform, such as The Bible in the vernacular. In 1517, he travelled to Rome on a mission for the Boston Guildsmen to renew the Boston Church’s right to sell and profit from the sale of indulgences. He returned cynical about the curia and, having a phenomenal memory, he learned the Erasmus translation of the New Testament by heart. He also questioned the sale of indulgences and the power of relics, although, according to an inventory taken on his home Austin Friars, he had possessed a relic.

Thomas Cromwell was extremely social, fluent in several languages, loved all things Italian, and he was a family man. However, he did have a daughter called Jane out of wedlock circa 1520, referred to in a will he made after his wife Elizabeth’s death. After Elizabeth died, he never remarried.

What is known about Elizabeth Cromwell is sparse. Her family home was Putney as was Cromwell’s childhood home. Her father was well off and worked in the cloth trade.

With this background in mind, I imagine a silvered haired, petite Elizabeth, who unlike her husband is wary of Wolsey and of the dangerous, sycophantic court. In the novel, Elizabeth takes over her first husband’s business after his death. She is an educated woman who, after her marriage to Thomas Cromwell, makes fabric sample books to help sell new mixes of silk and linen infused with beautiful designs. She loves her garden and still room, and her children. Elizabeth does not like Cardinal Wolsey and is concerned that he will bring Thomas too close to a dangerous court. She is, throughout the novel, sympathetic to Queen Catherine, as were the majority of city merchant wives.

It is probably as well that Elizabeth died of the sweat in 1528 before Cromwell climbed the greasy pole of ambition within the Tudor court. For those of you who watched Who do You Think You Are with Danny Dyer, allegedly a Cromwell descendant, I had thought of giving Cromwell a Dyer strut, but, so far, I have resisted that idea.


c-mcgrath-030Carol McGrath is the author of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy, about the Norman Conquest from the point of view of the royal women. She studied for an MA at Queens University Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre for Creative Writing and later worked on an MPhil in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She lives near Oxford City in England in a very old village.

G.B. Edwards and Ebenezer Le Page – the Alderney Connection

A guest post by Steve Foote

Steve Foote grew up in Guernsey, but now lives in UK. He visits the Bailiwick regularly and is vice-chairman of the Guernsey Society. He founded Blue Ormer in 2015 in order to publish Edward Chaney’s biography of G.B. Edwards.

Since its publication in 1981, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Gerald Edwards has been recognised as the greatest work of literature by a native Guernseyman, and indeed one of the most important novels of the twentieth century – and even more popular in the United States than it is in the United Kingdom.

Genius Friend CoverIn the thirty-five years since its publication, Edward Chaney, to whom G.B. Edwards dedicated his only novel, has been researching the life of his friend – and has just completed the first biography of the man who was considered a mysterious recluse in Weymouth, where he spent his retirement.

The result is a comprehensive biography of the novelist’s life from his Guernsey origins, being hailed as a ‘genius friend’ by his peers in Middleton Murry’s Adelphi circle in the 1920s, through to his descent into obscurity in the 1940s. The second part relates how Chaney met Edwards in Dorset in 1972, illustrated by the writer’s letters, and how the novel eventually came to be published in 1981, five years after the author’s death.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the biography is the insight how many of the episodes in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page are inspired by his own family history – including his relations in Alderney.

Continue reading “G.B. Edwards and Ebenezer Le Page – the Alderney Connection”

Guest post by Adrian Murdoch

Adrian Murdoch is a historian, journalist and broadcaster. A former senior correspondent and editor for Reuters, he is the author of a number of books, including “Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest”. Andrew Roberts named it one of the books of 2006 in the “Daily Telegraph” and Tom Holland called it “surely the definitive work on the massacre in the Teutoburger Wald”. He is also the co-translator of a book of Latin and Greek erotic literature, “Emperors of Debauchery: The Dedalus Book of Roman Decadence”. He has presented and appeared in a number of documentaries for the History Channel, National Geographic, PBS, ZDF and others. He has also worked as a consultant on a couple of films. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Adrian Murdoch*The photograph taken by the news agency AFP/Getty makes it come alive. In the aftermath of the explosion of the Mount Sinabung volcano on Sumatra island, Indonesia, a group of five ladies is hurrying along the road. Behind them, the mountain can barely been seen, but its presence looms from the muddy blackness of the sky. All five ladies have thick clothing on and cushions on their heads. Continue reading “Guest post by Adrian Murdoch”

Guest Post by Clare Mulley

CLARE MULLEY is an award-winning biographer and author. She studied history and politics at the University of Sheffield, and gained her MA in Social and Cultural History from Birkbeck College, University of London. Her first book, The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb (2009) won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize. Her next work, The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville (2013) led to her being presented with Poland’s national ‘Bene Merito’ honorary distinction in 2014. She is now working on a dual biography of two women in the Second World War, due out in 2017. A busy public speaker, Clare also writes reviews for publications such as History Today and The Spectator.

Having spoken at the inaugural Alderney Literary Festival earlier this year, I was delighted when one of the organizers, Isabel Picornell, invited me to write this guest blog. Delight turned into some apprehension, however, when Isabel asked me to consider the excellent subject of what the people I have written about would say, if they knew they were being written about. Continue reading “Guest Post by Clare Mulley”

A message from one of our trustees

A personal insight into what makes one of the trustees of the Alderney Literary Trust- Isabel Picornell – so passionate about historical fact and fiction, and why she is committed to making the Trust a success.

I was 10 years old when my father gave me James Michener’s “The Source”, the story of a fictional archaeological excavation of a tell in northern Israel. That book transformed my life. History for me had been a boring list of kings and generals, castles and battles, dates and dynasties, broken bits and pieces gathering dust in museum displays. But in his book, Michener made the ancient artefacts tell their stories, of the real people whose lives revolved around them, with hopes and fears just like us, and whose existence had been forgotten for thousands of years … until the artefacts again saw the light of day.

That book inspired me to become an archaeologist, and to this day, that book is my most treasured possession. Every time I look at it, I remember how it first inspired me to dream of discovering lost worlds.

Continue reading “A message from one of our trustees”