I grew up in rural Staffordshire in the 1980/90s, which turned out to be a fruitful enough place for a boy absorbed by the past. Every year on Wakes Monday our village would host an ancient folk dance. People belonging to the old local families would dress up and parade around the parish boundaries, accompanied by a hobby horse and a Maid Marian. They would come to a stop in the evening beside an open-framed hexagonal structure we called the Butter Cross, where Dr Johnson’s father used to sell his books on his way home to Lichfield from Uttoxeter market.
This provided me with a first glimpse into the vibrancy of history and how it could stretch its strange tentacles up into the present. I have always been drawn to historical stories. To begin with it was the gritty twentieth century – the world wars, the ideologies, the monstrous dictators – and after that it was the elegance, politicking and treachery of the Tudors.
I learnt about these at the local schools in Uttoxeter and then at Collingwood College, Durham University. After that I lived for a few years in Madrid before moving back to London where I went on to do an MA at City, University of London, where I’ve been ever since.
I also settled on a new period of history. This was the Georgian/early Victorian world, so fired up with energy and intent and ideas, broadly covering the years between 1750-1850. It is world of Dickens and Brontë, Humboldt and Constable. It’s a time of letter writing, of ambition, of poetry, of scientific improvement, of war, of revolution and style, caught half way between the old rustic world and the new metropolitan one, when the western society we live in today was being built.
Most of my work has centred on this time. My first book was called Damn His Blood and was published in 2012. It reconstructed a criminal case, the murder of a clergyman called George Parker in rural Worcestershire in 1806 and the strange sequence of events that followed. The Times Literary Supplement called it a “brilliant, startling debut” and it was a book of the week in the Guardian and on BBC Radio4.
While writing Damn His Blood I became intrigued by the weather records of the time. The language – a fret of wind, a double-reefed topsail breeze – seemed so unusual and unsettled. It turned out that at just the time the unfortunate Reverend Parker was being shot in his glebe, Luke Howard was giving clouds their modern, scientific, names and Francis Beaufort was jotting down his idea for a standardised wind scale.
These milestones set me off on my second book, The Weather Experiment. It was a more panoramic story, a far cry from my 1000 acres of rural Worcestershire. It let me follow Robert FitzRoy to the frozen wilderness of Tierra del Fuego, James Glaisher seven miles into the sky over Staffordshire and Francis Beaufort to the South China Sea. It ended with one of the great controversies of Victorian science, FitzRoy’s weather forecasts of the 1860s.
The Weather Experiment came out in the UK and USA in spring 2015. It 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 and it was long or shortlisted for four literary prizes.
Since 2010 I have been teaching on the MA in Creative Writing at City, the University of London and in 2017 I joined the tutors on Oxford University’s Mst in Creative Writing. In March 2014 I was the Writer in Residence at the unique and magical Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales and in 2016 I was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to research the history of James Cook’s first voyage of discovery in the South Seas.
This research forms part of my work in progress, a book called Endeavour that will be published in 2018.