Who are you?
I’m the author of four books, including my most recent The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication. I specialise in historical biography about fascinating but flawed people, and my subjects have so far included Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson, Lord Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb, Ada Lovelace, Charles II, Samuel Pepys and Lord Rochester, among many others. As a journalist, I write for a wide range of newspapers and magazines about literature, culture, history and current affairs. When I’m not working, I live in Oxford with my wife, Nancy, and daughter, Rose.
How did you begin writing?
I’ve always been an enthusiastic, even obsessive writer from a young age. I’ve also never had a vast number of obviously employable skills, other than any literary ability I might possess, so I always hoped that this might form the basis of my future career and livelihood. So far – touch wood – it seems to be working out.
How did your career start?
After I left Oxford in 2005, I did various internships at places like the Observer and the New Statesman and generally made a nuisance of myself at publications that I liked until they commissioned articles from me. Then I went to work at Conde Nast in 2006 at GQ Online on a maternity contract, and it all started from there. I worked in journalism for about 6 years full time, and then decided that I’d rather write books and work as a freelancer.
Why did you choose to write about Rochester for your first book?
I got very interested in him when I was about 21, because he seemed to be this odd mixture of entirely contemporary and very much of his time. On the one hand, you’ve got poems of his like ‘Timon’, which could have been written by Philip Larkin, and on the other you’ve got ‘A Satire Against Reason And Mankind’, which is his masterpieces and is probably the best satirical account of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the court of Charles II. But he also led a fascinating life – he served his country with honour at sea, abducted an heiress, impersonated an Italian quack doctor, was involved in all manner of sexual, political and literary skulduggery, and was a brilliant writer. And all this before dying of syphilis at 33. I always wanted to read a really good book about his life, and waited…and then waited a bit more. And then thought that I was probably about as well placed as anyone else to give it a go, and so emerged Blazing Star, which you can buy here, and judge for yourselves.
And for your second?
It made sense to revisit the historical side of the Restoration at much greater length and in finer detail, and so Restoration was my attempt to write a social history. It seems incredible that a single year would begin with the end of the Plague and finish with London burning to ashes, but that was the case, to say nothing of a messy and embarrassing naval conflict, scandal, mass bloodshed for regicides and sexual misbehaviour. It would have been a good time to live – but only for the Restoration equivalent of the 1%. Anyway, judge for yourselves here.
What about book three?
Lord Byron, from the perspective of the nine key women in his life. Thus, Byron’s Women. To call him ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ is probably an understatement. I wanted to write a feminist account of the emotional (and possibly physical) damage that he caused them, but also to explore the psyche and outlook of a remarkable series of people.
And the latest?
I started researching a biography of Walter Monckton, Edward VIII’s lawyer and ‘fixer’ in 2018. His was a fascinating life, but it struck me that his involvement in the king’s abdication was the most interesting thing about it. So I did some digging, and a fascinating story revealed itself, full of skulduggery, drama and betrayal. I shifted focus and emphasis to a general story of the events of 1936, and The Crown in Crisis was the result. I very much hope that people enjoy it.
What have been the highlights and lowlights of your career to date?
The professional highlight, by some distance, has been the warmth of the reception to The Crown in Crisis, on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ve been thrilled by how critics and readers alike have been enjoying it, and am deeply honoured by their comments so far. Otherwise, I’ve loved many of the events I’ve done, and addressing a sold-out audience at the National Portrait Gallery in 2017 was a particular highlight. And meeting readers always makes it worthwhile.
Every good book deserves a sequel…watch this space…
What else do you do apart from write about literature?
My career has encompassed everything from working as a quizmaster for a Dutch media company to working in a couple of start-ups dealing with everything from property to cultural trends, and recently I’ve mainly been writing reviews and features for The Critic. You can see some of my pieces here.
Will you come and talk about your book to my school/book group/university/literary symposium?
Almost certainly. Depends where it is, and when, but I enjoy talking with people about what I’ve written and am always up for a good chat.
Will you speak at our literary festival?
Again, probably. Please contact my excellent agent Ed Wilson both cases for details.
Will you come and do a book signing at my shop?