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Robert Wilton – The Thames Valley History Festival Interview

by Rosie Hayes

Robert Wilton worked in various British Government departments, was advisor to the Prime Minister of Kosovo in the lead-up to independence, and is now helping to run the OSCE, an international mission in Albania. He’s co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity, does a bit of gig-rowing and poetry-translating, and divides his time between Cornwall and the Balkans. Drawn from the secret archive of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutinyand Survey, Treason’s Tide (set in 1805) was the Historical Writers’ Association Best Debut Novel, and Traitor’s Field (1648) is now out in paperback.


What do you find most interesting about the British Civil Wars?

I’d always assumed I’d have been a Royalist: proud, sentimental and wearing a fabulous hat. Seeing a book about the war on the shelf at home made me ask the question again. Then I started to wonder how a secret organization devoted to continuity and stability – the Comptrollerate-General of my novels – made the transition from divine right monarchy to republic.

Finally, the more I read, the more I got excited by the explosion of ideas. All the old certainties about government and religion – monopoly ideas – were overturned in a ferment of alternatives and new possibilities. Different people could have different ideas, and the spread of printing at the same time gave those different ideas dramatically wider influence. The mid-17th Century was the most amazingly fertile time for radical thinking in Britain – linking unique philosophers with passionate simple soldiers – and groups like the Levellers and the Diggers were evolving ideas that wouldn’t be realized for 200 or 300 years. Writing Traitor’s Field I fell a bit in love with the Diggers – and got new respect for the roundheads…

Do you think that historical fiction and espionage go hand in hand?

There’s no right answer, there’s no simple truth, in either. Even events we think we know lots about have uncertainties of detail or understanding. In Traitor’s Field, the killing of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough – something we have historical eye-witness accounts of – is part of the mystery: we see it from different perspectives in the course of the book, and the truth of it has dramatic implications. Traitor’s Field includes a variety of documents, all of them assertions of truth and all of them somehow questionable; that’s historical analysis and that’s also deception. The reality of espionage – and the best espionage writing – is in the shades of grey.

To make someone become a spy you have to sympathize with their views enough to be able to encourage them to sympathize with yours. Spies inhabit the shadows, the places between. In Treason’s Tide, the English Channel was a major feature, almost a character, and the people who crossed it back and forth were transgressors in more ways than one.

Have any of your experiences working for the MOD, Foreign Office, Cabinet Office, or advising abroad, affected the way you write or formulate ideas?

Working in the Civil Service gave me great respect for the hidden people who keep the country going: people doing unglamorous work for decades for low salaries, who simply care about what they do, or about their country. I guess that, being originally a civil servant, I have some instinctive feeling for the great continuities of the system and the country, and that’s really what the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey is about. Working abroad gave me dramatically wider perspective on the UK – like seeing yourself for the first time.

And every kind of writing I’ve done feeds into how I write novels: writing briefing papers for Prime Ministers taught me as much about structure and tightness as did writing short stories; translating poetry makes you think about the real weight and meaning of individual words.

Your series features more than one period of history, and does not focus on one main character. What links your series together?

Few have heard of it, but the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey has been working in the shadows of British Government for more than four centuries. Looking into its archive, you realize that at every moment of tension, or instability, or crisis in the country’s history you can see traces of the Comptrollerate-General in the background. It’s always been fighting for stability, for continuity, but at different times that has meant different things and you can’t always be sure whose side the organization was really on.

You can’t really talk about it as an organization: it’s always evolved, and adapted, and attracted a really odd mix of people – geniuses and heroes, chancers and outright frauds. And traitors.

I’m looking for the most compelling stories from the archive: in Treason’s Tide the Comptrollerate-General’s role in 1805 when a change of wind or a moment of inattention – or treachery – would have given Napoleon a successful invasion; how the organization survived the chaos of the late 1640s, the decay of Royalism and the execution of the King and the unrest in roundhead ranks, in Traitor’s Field; the extraordinary story of what the Comptrollerate-General was doing in the weeks before the first world war, in the forthcoming The Spider of Sarajevo.

What made you choose to write fiction instead of historical fact?

A taste for deception? Perhaps – hilariously – I thought it would be easier. Credibly recreating a past world and at the same time weaving a narrative through the known historical record can be a bit of a challenge: I couldn’t put Nelson off the French Coast if he was really chasing around the Caribbean, however useful it would have been for the building of pressure; I couldn’t put Cromwell in an important meeting in London if he was really fighting in Scotland, however handy for the plot.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be sharp-eyed and expert, and like good historians they really care about the integrity of what they’re reading. I want them to read an extraordinary detail, and be tempted to check it on Wikipedia – and find out that it’s true.

What would you say to younger readers, or perhaps those that find the English Civil War dull?

Read. Imagine. For once, this wasn’t two rival Kings fighting, or two rival countries: it was two sides fighting for ideas that they believed in, for a way of life, for rights, for freedoms. There were tough choices and they tormented individuals and tore families.

Andrew Marvell and John Milton. Lucius Cary giving up on the world because he could no longer reconcile his gentleness with his politics, and galloping to certain death at the Battle of Newbury. Blanche Arundell defending her home against siege. Oliver Cromwell, of course, the obscure clumsy country gentleman who turned out to be a genius of war, the hero of democracy and a butcher, the idealist and the great compromiser.

More than 10% of the population died as a result of the war, by one reckoning, but perhaps in the end it gave us a longer-term stability and mistrust of extremes that saved us from worse chaos later. The Levellers described ideas of democracy that were only realized two centuries later; the Diggers described ideas of community and awareness of the land that we’ve barely realized four centuries later. And, of course, there were the hats with big feathers.

What were the decisive factors that led to the downfall of the Royalists?

Temporary downfall, shall we say :) ? They never had London, and that meant a persistent strategic and economic weakness. As they were tiring, they came up against an army with a new coherence and drive. And they lost a couple of close but critical battles. (The English Civil War was not a sure thing, and nor was the King’s execution.)

That’s just the English bit, though; 1642-46. It was an forlorn struggle after that, an increasingly exhausted movement fighting on increasingly dubious grounds (trying to rouse Irish and Scottish unrest to install a Scottish King over the English Parliament and Army).

How important is the theme of treachery in your novels?

Crucial – but can we call it alternative loyalty? I’m interested in motive, in the greys not the blacks and whites, and that means understanding why people think they way they do and why they sometimes change their minds – or change their allegiance, or recognize a higher allegiance. In a civil war, a traitor is just a person who thinks differently to me.

If you’re a loyal Englishman in 1650, do you fight for your Scottish King and his Scottish Army against Cromwell’s Englishmen? If you’re an English artisan or reformer in 1805, or an Irish anything (in 1805 or almost anytime), can your only loyalty be to the English Government with its restricted aristocratic rule and agents provocateur? In Treason’s Tide several of the main characters are distinguished by the way they move freely outside the normal restrictions of society. In Traitor’s Field, some men find that chaos frees them from restraint.

How did you conduct your research?

I start with the outline of the period, looking for the main strands of conflict and change that need to be captured to drive the novel. Then I look for two things: the moments of crisis, and what their inner workings were; and the oddity, the mystery – the unexplained defeat or death. I love old books and of course old documents – the British Library is a special place – but it’s a wonder of the internet age that I can write detailed narratives of the 17th or 19th centuries, say, while sitting on a terrace in the Balkans.

Are there any other historical time periods you would like to write about, and why?

The Spider of Sarajevo, the next in the Comptrollerate-General series, is out in spring/summer 2014, on the centenary of the events – and documents – it portrays. The lead-up to the first world war was an extraordinary, mad time. A continent that had reached a peak of civilization threw itself cheerfully into barbarism.

What do you like about events most?

Talking to people who care about stuff. As I writer, I live in my head; in a computer screen; in the past. It’s a solitary and pretty odd existence; and the tortuous process of publication makes the reader (I know who you are, sir, and I’m most grateful) a distant, mythical figure. Then I turn up to a library or a bookshop or wherever and meet real live readers, people who are passionate about stuff that I’m passionate about – history, books, words, ideas – and want to discuss them.

What makes your event special, unique, or controversial?

The good people of the Windsor and Eton Brewery: I’ve spent much of my adult life sponsoring the beer industry; it’s nice to see a little something in return. (I was guest of honour at a beer festival in Albania, but the less said about that the better.)

I’ll be in conversation/debate/grumbly disagreement with Lloyd Shepherd, who’s a fine writer and a sharp tweeter and an old acquaintance. Our partners used to be colleagues, which was how he and I met, and we rarely got a word in; maybe the audience can keep us quiet on Friday 8th. And I’m interested to see if TVHF can organize an, er, festivity in a brewery.

Robert Wilton is the author of the Comptrollerate-General series of novels, the first of which won the Historical Writers’ Association/Goldsboro Crown for best debut. Follow @ComptrollerGen. He worked in various British Government departments, was advisor to the Prime Minister of Kosovo in the lead-up to independence, and is now helping to run an international mission in Albania. He’s co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity, does a bit of gig-rowing and poetry-translating, and divides his time between Cornwall and the Balkans.

Thank you for your time Robert,  look forward to seeing you at The Thames Valley History Festival 2013.

Traitor's FieldFind out all about Robert Wilton  @

Robert is on Twitter @ComptrollerGen

Robert Wilton is a guest author at the Thames Valley History Festival

Robert will be speaking at a History Professors Friday 8th November, at 7.30m

Tickets are £7.50 (10% discount with advantage card)

If you buy tickets to two different events you get a third event free.

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