Highwayman’s Hamper: Rhubarb Gin

I’ve been helping a church friend manage her allotment since Christmas. Once of the challenges; rhubarb glut. There are around 12 rhubarb plants on the five-pole plot – which means that as cut-and-come-again croppers, these delicious Russian beauties can easily produce more than 3 kilos of rhubarb every week between April and September.

I love it. Sour and surprisingly fragrant, as well as possessing a beautiful bright pink colour, rhubarb has now colonised our freezer as well, cut into chunks ready for a year’s worth of crumbles. And our shelves, pickled and chutnied with onions, malt vinegar, cardamom and coriander seed.

But I still had too much. So I bought some gin to infuse. After three weeks on the jar, the chunks of rhubarb were greyish brown green and the liquor… floral pink.

I think inside me there must be a frustrated product designer, born one childhood breakfast when staring at cereal boxes. I did in fact design food packaging for fun from about the age of eight or nine.

If I have time (it’s been a full and looks to be an even busier year) I might be returning to this brand. Rosehips will be ready to make cordial before I know it, the first elderflowers are already out and desperate to be champagnified and with allotment access… Anything is possible. A Highwayman’s Hamper reward level on the next Kickstarter?

A note on allotments: in the UK, the standard size of a Local Authority Allotment is 10 poles – around 250 square metres. However, many allotments are let, as my friends is, as a half-allotment of 5 poles. Now these are strictly square poles – areas of ground 5 1/2 yards broad by 5 1/2 yards long, and the traditional dimensions of an allotment are 1 pole  broad by 10 long, similar in size to ancient shares in common fields. OF course an acre is exactly 160 square poles, so it won’t surprise anyone that my friend’s allotment is 1/32ndth of an acre, or around 5.5 by 27 metres.

If you’re still with me, take a quick look at these two maps. The first is a hundred years old, published in 1919 but surveyed in 1915, and shows the site of the current Barking Abbey School and Barking Allotments. In the centre, beneath a label number 58, is a decimal number: 42.579.  This means that the surveyors making this particular map in 1915 measured enclosure 58, the eastern portion of Barking Park, to be 42.579 acres. Or the equivalent of 681 full size allotments. Or 1362 allotments the size if my friend’s. The second image shows the same piece of England now, with the patchwork of the allotments in the far upper right. Of course, the good council men of Barking didn’t decide to turn the entire plot into 1362 half allotments. If they had, extrapolating from the density of rhubarb plants on our share, that could have produced 4 tons of rhubarb every week between April to September. Or around 80 tons in a season.

Barking Park 1919 (note the acreage on the right)
And in 2019. Allotments in upper right.

That would be a lot of rhubarb. Most of the UK’s rhubarb is grown in sheds in the Rhubarb Triangle, up in Yorkshire. But not the fragrant pink treasure that flavours the Highwayman’s Hamper Rhubarb Gin. That comes out of the alluvium of the Thames floodplain, with gratitude to Barking council and Danguole.

Still reading? You deserve a refreshment. If you haven’t a bottle from the most exclusive Steampunk Hamper on hand (understandable – I’ve only made two so far), then other rhubarb gins are available. These are the two suggested servings printed on the rear label:

Crooked Billet
Pour two measures Rhubarb Gin and two measures rosehip cordial into a heavy mug. Top up with hot water, a strip of orange zest and a cinnamon stick.

Hedgerow Ice
Shake 1 measure Rhubarb Gin, 1 measure Creme de Cassis, crushed ice and fresh mint leaves. Strain into a Martini glass and top with a borage flower.

A Warm Invitation

I will performing at the Berkshire Brouhaha in a couple of weeks’ time, at the kind invitation of Duke Box himself. The Brouhaha is a new steampunk event, masterminded by the Duke and his cronies, and is sure to draw a good number of the region’s Steampunks together.

And while Bracknell itself is a little off-the-map, it is still a part of Steam Highwayman country: when I was living in Marlow, I would ride down to Bracknell to participate in teacher training events. For any of you interested in post-war housing estate developments (like me), it’s worth a wander.

If you’re local or intending to be there, it would be great to see you. I hope to be reading for you at around 2.30 (dependent on the many vagaries of steampunk time, as once you mess with the historical continuum it plays havoc with our modern clocks). I’ll also have copies of Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways with me, on sale at a particularly good price, and be happy to sign any.

If you want more information about the event, you can try the Facebook or Eventbrite pages just here.

A Twitter Playthrough

Steam Highwayman by Sam Iacob

A little while before Christmas, my fellow Gamebook author Sam Iacob began chronicling his adventure as the Steam Highwayman on Twitter. If you’ve read any of his work, then his sarcastic pleasure in mad adventure will come as no surprise – but you may not know what a talented cartoonist Sam is as well. These are his images (shared with permission) which have the honour of bring amongst the very first fan art for Steam Highwayman. I love his interpretation of the velosteam above, as well as the desperate expressiveness of the Highwayman’s face. There’s a Beano-sort of quality to it, don’t you think? And that’s from a chap who says;

My favourite artists are Otto Dix, John Blanche, Ralph Steadman, Raymond Briggs and Caravaggio.

Well, I haven’t found anyone quite get into the spirit of Steam Highwayman like Sam has. Always on the lookout for cash and advancement, utterly ruthless and driven to pick at any loose narrative threads… And he looks after grandma too.

Steam Highwayman performing an act of charity

Sam and I crossed paths at that Thing at Tring, and he showed a gratifying interest in the project. Slightly inspired by that playthrough, I’ve started a fresh playthrough in Highways and Holloways, partly with the intention of taking a player’s mindset into the writing of The Reeking Metropolis, which has had its first clean passages written, amongst many placeholders and structural drafts.

Feed those birds, Steam Highwayman

Smell the oil, the coal-gas and the hot metal once more: the Steam Highwayman is heading for the Reeking Metropolis itself – London.

I’ve been working on the navigational network that underlies Steam Highwayman III. I drafted a map and began on numbering it some time before Christmas, but now I’ve started the dog-work of creating the passages and links that tie all that movement together. Creating an explorable city is very different to adapting the country lanes and villages of Buckinghamshire for a map. Some areas need to feel like dense networks of streets, but I don’t want the reader’s journey through them to feel slow or boring, so there have to be some short-cuts, timesavers and asymmetrical routes to keep the movement interesting.

I’m using the excellent National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced archive of OS maps that I’ve blogged about previously, but I’m imagining some differences due to the departure point c.1785. For a start, ‘Regent’s’ Park is right out. Queen Maria’s Park seems a better fit for this timeline.

But what these maps really offer is the detailed alternate world of a London that has almost disappeared. Mews, old watercourses, slums and old bridges… The site of the London stocks (that’ll come in handy) and old Devonshire House…

Some of it is unchanged, of course. So as I was detailing a movement along Upper Thames Street from London Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge, not only did I realise that I should include a quest engaging with the Royal College of Arms, but that I also needed to give St Paul’s its place.

There’s only one melody that says ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’ to me. Not ‘Zadok the Priest’, not even ‘Jerusalem’, but the Sherman brothers’ ‘Feed the Birds‘.

Now what sort of self-respecting Steampunk would miss the chance to check on that old birdwoman and buy a bag full of crumbs?

Well, at this rate it’s going to be a long, detailed and intensely-researched book.

Great.

How Many Books?

Since the publication of Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, on 31st December 2017, I have sold 644 books. In some ways, that’s not a large number. From other angles, it’s still really quite a small number. Approximately two-thirds of these are copies of Smog and Ambuscade, another third Highways and Holloways and I’ve sold a total of just sixteen copies of Write Your Own Adventure: Choice-Based Fiction in Schools.

But there’s something unique about selling books in the age of print-on-demand. Take SH1 (Smog and Ambuscade)‘s sales during 2018. I sent backers 197 copies as rewards for my first Kickstarter campaign in 2017: I know the names of every one of these readers. Then I sold another 68 copies through face-to-face sales at events or meetings: these customers, too, are known to me. 68 more were sold online, and these I know less about – only the country in which they were sold by the distributor, Ingram – the UK, US or Australia. They could have been ordered by bookshops at retailer’s discount and still be standing on the shelves (unlikely), ordered through Amazon (although Amazon’s reports for SH1 only account for around 40% of this number) or ordered through other online bookshops or dealers. Then another 70 copies were pledged for during the SH2 campaign in Autumn 2018 – again, to named, interested readers.

Volume is small, and so is my profit. Booksales have made me around £350 in total to date, as the larger amounts pledged for Kickstarter campaigns are absorbed by the costs of working with an illustrator and publishing the book. My intention is to create what publishers call a long-tail product – a book that does not go out of fashion and continues to sell steadily for years. In fact, I do hope that online and face-to-face sales of Steam Highwayman will increase. At 1000 copies a month, I would need no other income……..

But instead of volume, what I have is connection. I have good estimates of how many of my backers pledged primarily to support me and how many have actually begun to read the books. I have received good, personal responses from interested gamebook readers and writers, steampunks and readers that directly improve my ongoing project. The numbers are still very small, but behind most of those numbers is a name and behind many of those names is a face. Very few authors or publishers can boast that they know their readership as I do.

I would love to see my books going further afield and I’d love to earn more from them, but a good proportion of the current situation is a result of my own choices about how to play this game of authorship. I could have hunted for a publisher for SH1 – and I’d certainly still be looking. I could have looked for an agent – and I don’t know where I would have begun. I could have started with ‘normal’ book – a novel – and I still wouldn’t have completed writing and perfecting it. What Steam Highwayman has done for me is to allow me to become an author in miniature. Now all I have to wait for is for reality to catch up!

If you’re writing, don’t give up. Persistence works. Find an outlet that allows you to succeed, not to mimic other writers of the past or the present. You won’t be Pratchett, or Rowling, or Dickens, but each one of those had to persist and to play the long game…

Christmas Eve by the river

The days are short, the light is low,

It bounces on the water like a skipped stone.

Ripples in the gravel become waves on a sea,

Casting shadows in lines, semi-regularly.

Reeds hang o’er the river, wheaten gold,

The mud gleams and shimmers and doubles each gull

Which waits while the tide returns and the sun struggles up

To a low zenith.

This quiet eve of Christmas is a short day

And a little work goes a long way.

Warm in the sun but cold on the breath,

The air catches clouds in mysteriousness,

Holding them still, for a moment, till they disappate,

And I, like the gulls, reflect and wait.

A Birdin the Hand…

Is worth two in the bush. And here, at last, but not behind schedule, is the first printed copy of Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways (featured alongside its sister volume and our family Christmas tree.)

It feels wonderful to have this hefty chunk of book in my hand after seeing it in my mind’s eye and on the screen for the best part of nine months. Thankyou to everyone who pledged towards the project, allowing me to commission this fantastic artwork from Ben and pay for the much-needed proofing and so on. I’ll be checking this book as carefully as I can before excitement gets the better of me and I ship the backers copies. Then the book will be live on Amazon too – and in fact, I already have pre-orders to fulfil!

Dragonmeet was a real adventure for me. I had a great time crossing paths with several increasingly familiar faces from the Gamebook community – Mark Lain, Colin Oaten, Jon Green and Stuart Lloyd among them. I also made a new friend in fellow author, David Cartwright of Camelot 2050, with whom I shared a table. If you, like him, want something to fill the space where Arthurian legend should meet saturday-morning science-fiction, then check out his two novels – a third is promised for March.

It was tiring day, I’ll not deny. I hit a new high on step-counter… But I was particularly encouraged by the interest in my WYOA book and took several pre-orders for that, which have now been ordered. There were even a couple of orders for SH2, which will be shipped after the backers’ copies.

So where next? Nottingham – the richest plum of them all (as King John would say). Next weekend (8th-9th) I’ll be featuring at the Steampunkalia at Wollaton Hall with live readings after 3pm on Saturday and around noon on Sunday. And this time I’ll have a hard copy of SH2 to show…

Tomorrow at Dragonmeet

Tomorrow I’ll be at Dragonmeet in Hammersmith, selling and signing Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, as well as accepting pre-orders for Highways and Holloways and Write Your Own Adventure.  Dragonmeet has got a reputation as a really lively, friendly convention, so I’ll be spending some time a-wandering around as well as meeting people on my author stall.

I’ll be with several other authors in the demonstration room (first floor), rather than in the trade hall. Will I still be able to make sales?  Who knows!  I’ve only got 13 paper copies of SH1 in stock currently, so I’ve created some nice paper order forms for buyers to purchase copies once these run out – or pre-order copies of SH2 and WYOA.

I know that several other Gamebook Authors are going to be there, including Jon Green and Ian Livingstone, downstairs in the trade hall.  I’ll also be keeping an eye open for others drifting around and plenty of the region’s board game developers are booked in to.  Watch out for a couple of Facebook Live sessions as I keep myself entertained…

Authors Abroad!

Did you ever have a visit from an inspiring writer to your school?  The chances are good that they were booked through Authors Abroad, an agency who place writers, performers, poets and illustrators in schools across the UK and internationally.

I’m really pleased to announce that I am now be available for school visits through the Author’s Agency, running my Write Your Own Adventure workshops and inspiring the next generation of writers.  You can book me on their website or by contacting Trevor on +44 (0) 1535 656015, or email him at trevor@caboodlebooks.co.uk .

Who knows who’ll catch the gamebook bug next!

Where is the Steam Highwayman now?

Well right now he’s at home. But this time next week…

Hammersmith! Dragonmeet! Convention! Sales and signings! I’m hoping to be there somewhere, along with veteran gamebook authors Jonathan Green and Ian Livingstone. Not been told which stall I’ll hold yet, but here you can download a whole programme to guide you round. Some more info here too:

Anyone else be there?