Jemahl Evans- author of 'The Last Roundhead'

                       Jemahl Evans interview part one 


                                        Jemahl Evans -pic supplied by the author                             

I was delighted to interview author  Jemahl Evans via Email recently. His lead character -Sir Blandford Candy- " an irascible old drunk with a hatred of poets and a love of hats" , was ninety five years old in 1719, and  the sole surviving Roundhead.

 One enthusiast summed up Jemahl's 2015 novel, 'The Last Roundhead', as '"Flashman meets the Three Muskateers in a picaresque romp through Stuart England" and the sequel, 'This Deceitful Light' , is certainly of a similar nature. A collection of five short stories 'Davenants Egg and Other Tales' (2017) , all connected to the 1643 Siege of Gloucester, has also appeared, demonstrating the bitter humour and the bizarre, as well as the heartbreak to be found in a civil war.

People looking for stories about dashing cavaliers or Puritan idealists building a new Jerusalem will probably not immediately take to Jemahl's work which is quite 'anti-heroic'. But this is immaculately researched and entertaining historical fiction at its best, drawing in both the obvious and far lesser know aspects of the English Civil War. The endnotes of Jemahl's work show the depth of his knowledge for this era.

Part Two of the interview will be published at some point in September 2017 .

Jemahl's website   also cover his many interests in addition to the English Civil War.

What attracted you to write about the English Civil War- aren't you originally a Medievalist?

Well, it's been a while since I did any academic research but in my heart I'm still a medievalist. I knew when I started that I wanted to play with the idea of a found manuscript life Defoe's 'Memoirs of a Cavalier' and historical concepts about personal testimony, whilst also making it relatable to a modern reader. I didn't think that the medieval period lent itself to that ( although I played with the idea of a confessional before execution at one point.).

The initial spark was a bored Year 8 class on a Friday unhappy with the topic  finishing in 1660, so I told them the story of William Hiseland ( the historical last cavalier). After that, the notion of the last Roundhead and his life sort of clicked in my head. The Seventeenth Century has so much social change happening in such a short period; the widespread literacy rates, political conflict, and the fashion for gentlemen of Blandord's class recording their lives and curiosities/stories all made it perfect for the style of fiction. If it's good enough for Defoe, after all.

You stress how wretched and vile warfare can be. Do you think that anything noble, inspiring or commendable came out of the English Civil War? (You seem quite impressed by the life and career of John Hampden)

All war is vile. I think Blandord would like Owen or Sassoon who didn't dress that up in pretty words and make it a 'sweet and seemly thing. The English civil was were particularly destructive ( killing more as a proportion of the population than World War 1 of 2). There was certainly honour and chivalry, Hopton and Waller's letters to each other demonstrate that, and concepts that came out of the period from people like William Everard, Lilburne, and Winstanley were fundamental in forming our political franchise. The civil war is the most pivotal period in British History but often overlooked.

Hampden was certainly someone of strong values and morality, who was generally well regarded by both sides, and there is a real JFK what-might-have-been vibe about his legacy, but he dies very early in the war before the real bitterness and hatred fully take hold. For Blandford, the old man looking back, I think it's a case of a lost opportunity to stop the madness, but he knows what comes next ' he knows Hampden will die and England will descend further into chaos. There seems to be that real tragic element in the memoirs and histories of the period when people started to look back at Hampden's death. Had JFK lived, of course, Vietnam, civil rights, the cold war, all could have ruined his legacy.; perhaps the same who have happened to Hampden if he had survived at Chalgrove Field.

You seem to be very keen to highlight lesser obvious scenes in the English Civil War such as the 1643 sieges of Reading and Gloucester, the lives of gypsies, a massive great football match in London, the plight of out of work actors and stagehands, Blandford having a mixed race servant: Are these more than devices to enrich the novel? Do you feel that fiction writers neglect many aspects of the English Civil War? 

I didn't initially plan to make Coxen mixed race but there was a vague reference him having'dark countenance' which could really mean anything in the 17th century from Black African to Charles II. That probably the biggest liberty I have taken with a real character although he is very obscure to hopefully I will get away with it. Because black/mixed race British feature throughout the historical record I wanted (to) depict a racially accurate society. Ideas of a homogenous white Britain are pretty nonsensical from the sixteenth century onwards, and even before, the international nature of the church made other races if not common certainly visible. Similarly with the Romany people, they are often ignored in out history but they were there; the primary sources are full of them. Bear baiting, cock fights, football and the theatre; these were the great entertainments of the day. I wanted to depict that society as accurately as possible, not just focus on Roundheads and Cavaliers but on a society in collapse.

I think in the past, certainly the Victorian period, there was a lot of romanticised fiction set during the civil war, but there are some wonderful writers around now using the period. Cryssa ( Bazos), who you have already interviewed, Mike Arnold's books are great adventure stories, Angus Donald's brilliant books about Captain Blood and the Crown Jewels are highly recommended ( fortunately I always had Blandford in Tangiers for that event so it wasn't a story I planned to use). M.J.Logue's series is wonderful, Katherine Clements is another. I do think how each generation of authors have depicted the
civil war probably says more about their/our society's view of it than anything else. I'm writing in a post-referendum period of real division in Britain that we haven't seen for forty years or more. That's bound to have an impact on my writing, but it may take a few years of reflection to really understand. Ask me again in twenty years.

With Reading and Gloucester, that was really a case of the history leading the way. Samuel Luke's troops were involved in those battles/sieges and his journal is one of my main sources for the series. Sometimes the story simply falls into place quite conveniently. Finding an account of Marston Moor by a captain Camby was just a wonderful piece of fortune. I love tying those fictional threads into the real history.


Your lead character Blandford Candy seems to have a terrible disdain for poets. In your work, Edmund Waller attempts a feeble Royalist conspiracy and implicates everyone he can think of to save his own hide when caught, Davenant fares badly with the pox, Blandford has a feud with Samuel Butler which lasts into their mutual dotage.....are there any poets or poems from the era whose work you admire? If so can you give examples. 

I love the literature of the period, from Milton to the bawdiest broadside ballad. Blandford obviously has his rather tetchy relationship with poets of the period, but that is mainly down to their personality and treatment of him in verse. Samuel Butler's 'Hudibras' being based on Parliaments' Scoutmaster General and sidekick was just so perfect in giving the character depth and motivation to write his history. There was a cut scene of him getting drunk with Dryden and going to see Cromwell's post mortem execution in 'This Deceitful Light', so he does have some poets that he likes. There's more of him and Davenant in the third book.  Actually Waller's poetry I find a bit vacuous and lacking in depth compared to the metaphysicals that preceded  the satirists that followed him, but I get why Pope and other praised his rhyme and metre. Off the top of my head I don't think Blandford uses any of Waller's work in the epigrams. He really was an odious swine in the civil war. 

I think anyone who gets quoted or appears in the novels is someone whose work I enjoy, although Dryden, Rochester, Marlowe, and Marvell are definite personal favourites. My first degree was combined studies ( English Literature with Medieval History) and I tried to stick to early literature to mirror my history major but I had to take two later modules ( There's not a great deal between Beowulf and the Wife of Bath). That meant modules on renaissance literature, and satire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The satire course in particular fascinated and enthralled me : Rochester, Swift, Marvell and Pope are genius in describing the human condition. 

There's also a lot classical literature and references that were common during the period. Homer and Ovid were probably as popular as any early modern poet in the seventeenth century. I do love the way that literature builds on and uses the past. Shakespeare might have ripped off the classics, but hey, the Beatles ripped off Thomas Dekker whilst Bob Dylan just changed the words to 'Nottamun Town' for 'Master of War'. 

To go back to your question about me as a medievalist, I am but also realise the medieval, early modern, the dark ages, the ancient world are completely arbitrary terms that are meaningless really. They just help historians signpost change. There was a deliberate choice in having a very John Cleland ( the author of Fanny Hill) encounter Blandord and his stories. History reaches a long time into the future, someone of Blandford's age knew people who fought the Armada, Celand dies just before the French Revolution. We often view history in the short term, the immediacy of an event and the impact. Having an old man with a longer view of the past narrate was important in that respect for me. The civil war, its division, its literature, all had a profoundly longer impact on Britain than is generally recognised. In some ways the division between Cavalier and Roundhead become fixed into Tory and Whig, Conservative and Liberals, Capitalists and Socialist. I found it quite fascinating that the areas that voted to remain in the 2016 'Brexit' vote mirrored the areas that initially declared for Parliament in 1642. Correlation is not causation but things like that do interest me. 

to be continued 


Popular posts from this blog

Jemahl Evans interview Part Two

Review of Jemahl Evans 'Of Blood Exhausted'