I grew up in rural Staffordshire in the 1980/90s, then travelled north to study as an undergraduate at Collingwood College in ancient, beautiful Durham. After university I spent three years living and working under Madrid’s blue skies before I returned to London to start an MA in non-fiction writing at City, University of London in 2008. I’ve stayed in London ever since.
I’m interested in the history of ideas and, particularly, that free-wheeling and elegant period of human progress we call the Enlightenment. For the past ten years I’ve been trying to find new ways of telling stories from this time.
My first book was Damn His Blood (2012). It reconstructed the murder of a clergyman called George Parker in rural Worcestershire in 1806 and the strange sequence of events that followed. The book’s also a social history of a small village caught mid-way between the old Georgian world and the new metropolitan one. The Times Literary Supplement called it a “brilliant, startling debut” and it was a book of the week in the Guardian and on BBC Radio 4.
While writing Damn His Blood I became fascinated by the weather records of the time. The language they used to describe clouds, storms and mists seemed so obscure and unsettled. I wanted to know how society had progressed from that situation in 1806 to the point when the first ‘scientific’ weather forecasts were being issued in 1861. The story of what actually happened became the subject of my second book, The Weather Experiment (2015).
The Weather Experiment was a Sunday Times Bestseller, BBC4 adapted it for a three-part television series and it was selected as an editors’ pick in The Times, The Literary Review and The Week. Richard Morrison of The Times chose it as his Book of the Year, The New York Times included it in their 100 Notable Books of 2015.
My latest project has been to construct a biography of HM Bark Endeavour, the collier James Cook commanded on his first voyage of exploration in 1768. I’m intrigued by the ship’s constant mutability and her close involvement with so many of the significant events of the high-Georgian age. Endeavour was published in the UK and Australia in August 2018. It was an instant bestseller and it was chosen as a book of the year by the Sunday Times, the Times, the Tablet and Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads.
Since 2010 I have been lecturing on the MA in Creative Writing at City, the University of London. In 2017 I joined the tutors at Oxford University’s Mst in Creative Writing. In March 2014 I was Writer in Residence at the unique and magical Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales, and in 2016 I was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship, which allowed me to follow Endeavour to Australia and New Zealand. In 2018 I devised a new history-themed, time-travelling podcast for History Today magazine, which I now present: Travels Through Time.
Photograph: Richard Wilson