Robin Blake

Biografie şi Bibliografie

My family’s origins are Irish on both sides. The Blakes migrated to Lancashire in the 1830s.  Our family historian, my cousin Christa Mee, has found out that our great-great-grandfather John Blake, and his wife Bridget, were illiterate migrants to Lancashire in the 1830s. They worked as mill hands in the cotton industry – as card-room workers according to the census – but with no job security, they had to move with their numerous children from town to town every few years to stay in work. Their eldest child, also John, improved himself and transformed the family’s fortunes by establishing a business in Accrington manufacturing an ingenious water pump known as a hydram - the “Blake Ram”. This was (and still is) a “self-acting” device, which works by harnessing water hammer – the energy released when water flowing through a pipe is suddenly interrupted.  As a water pump, powered entirely by water, the Ram is a fine piece of intermediate and renewable technology. The Accrington engineering factory remained our family’s business until my father’s retirement in 1970.

My mother’s family was in business in Cork as whiskey distillers and brewers. Getting started in 1829 they were ruthless in the elimination of any competitors in the city, but they did make very good whiskey and stout.

My parents met during the Second World War and I was born in Preston, Lancashire, in 1948, an early product of the post-war baby-boom. There is a school of thought that my lot have more reason to be happy and well-adjusted than other 20th century generations, having missed two world wars, benefited from the National Health Service, and entered our teens just in time for sex, drugs and rock n roll. I don’t know if all these things were wholly beneficial, but I can tell you that on 21 July 1964, when I saw my first live band at the Queens Ballroom, Cleveleys, they were the Kinks, and it was unforgettable.  

I was then in the middle of a ten-year stint as a pupil at Ampleforth, the Yorkshire public school. I remember every master in detail: some of them kind, others cruel. Most were monks, and dressed in the black Benedictine habit, with hoods. They were sometimes referred to as "crows". The school is set in beautiful country. To the south lay the soft, green Rye valley and to the north the Bronte-esque grimness of the North Yorkshire Moors. Life was Spartan in the winter cold. We slept in vast barn-like dormitories and were always hungry.

Ampleforth provided an excellent education and in 1967 I was lucky enough to get a place at Jesus College, Cambridge, where I studied English under Professor Raymond Williams, a very well-known Marxist critic of the time. Among Raymond’s many books were Culture and Society and The Long Revolution, both of which influenced my outlook on life and art. I was a typical long-haired leftie student in those days.

I then became a long-haired leftie schoolteacher at Woodberry Down Comprehensive School in north London, where the staff in the 1970s was mostly, like me, young and idealistic, while the boys and girls were often very unruly. I look back on a time of acute anxiety (when the going was hard), exhilaration (after some lesson had gone well) and overall exhaustion. We were determined to teach a lot of literature at all levels, and I remember that we all particularly enjoyed working with Penguin’s mould-breaking Voices anthologies, with their mixture of unexpected poems and evocative photography.

Feeling slightly frazzled, if not completely burnt out, I left to do a postgraduate diploma in Social and Cultural Studies at Chelsea College, London University. My kind younger sister, with her awesome secretarial skills, typed a long essay I wrote on Hegel, which neither of us could understand. I completed a better one on Thomas Hardy, in which I wrote about the great novelist and poet as an “observer of morality” by which I meant (if I remember rightly) that he stood sceptically outside moral systems, while examining and testing them through his stories. I can see now that this is not too far a step from what a crime-writer does.

Between 1975 and 1978 I indulged in wanderlust by living and teaching abroad. First I went for a year to Varna, Bulgaria, then a hard-line Stalinist society dominated by material shortages and political propaganda. Here I lived an austere but satisfyingly Le Carré-esque life of institutionalized paranoia, being shadowed, bugged and phone-tapped around the clock. The experience effectively cured me of any marxist fantasies, and I remained immune to the Trotskyist (so-called Militant) Tendency which swept through progressive British politics in the 1970s. In 1976 I moved next door to Turkey, living and teaching for two years in Istanbul, a magnificent city which would in due course become the setting of my first novel Fat Man's Shadow. I now realise that in those years as an expatriate I had accidentally given myself a 2-part course in 20th and early-21st century geopolitics: first the communist regime and then the Islamic world.

Back in London I found a job at Capital Radio. Independent commercial radio was still a relatively new phenomenon and the government had ensured that, by the terms of Capital’s licence, a proportion of “community programmes” had to be made to dilute all that rock n roll. I was involved in a segment for young people (“Hullabaloo” presented by Maggie Norden) and later in making documentaries and drama-docs.

In 1981 Fanny and I married and we have three sons. I left Capital in 1986 to became a full-time writer, which I have been ever since. The everyday life of a writer is humdrum, but you can see on this site a list of the books that I have managed to produce so far, with a picture of some of their covers and a few extracts. In 2008 I was appointed Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Brunel University. The RLF Fellowship scheme places professional writers in universities and colleges to act as consultats to students about writing skills. In this role I have to deal with many issues arising from stuents' written work, from the structure of complex arguments to the use of the dreaded apostrophe.

Selected scripts and radio programmes

1980           London Can Take It, - 60-minute radio documentary on the London Blitz 1940-41. Writer/producer/presenter.

1981           You Can’t Say That – five-part series about literary censorship worldwide, presented by Melvin Bragg for Capital Radio. Writer/producer.

1982           Tales of a City (‘The Nun of Kilburn’; ‘The Astrologer’s Apprentice’; ‘Mrs Pepys’s Diary’; ‘Midnight Streets’; ‘A Precipice in Time’; ‘Suffragettes’.)  Six 60-minute historical radio plays for Independent Radio. Writer/director.

1983           Enigma – 60-minute radio biography of Edward Elgar, written for one actor and shellac recordings for Independent Radio. Writer/director.

1991           Robert Herrick: A Celebration. Feature for BBC Radio 3. Writer.

1992           Excesses of Youth. Feature for BBC Radio 3 on Hector Berlioz in Italy. Writer/presenter.

1995           Anna’s Way – feature film script for the British Film Institute and Hamburg Film Büro. (Unproduced)

I wrote, produced and presented numerous additional feature programmes for radio during my 8 years as features producer with the Capital Radio Talks Dept., many of which were broadcast throughout the independent radio network.

1987            Mind Over Medicine: Can the Mind Kill or Cure? (Aurum/Pan)
                     Compulsion:  A Psychological Study (with Eleanor Stephens,                                   Boxtree)
1990            Fat Man’s Shadow (novel, Viking/Penguin)
1992            The Gwailo (novel, Viking/Penguin)
1999            Anthony Van Dyck: A Life 1599-1642 (Constable/Ivan R. Dee)
2000           Essential Modern Art (Parragon)
2001           Cold Burial: A True Story of Endurance and Disaster  (with Clive                            Powell-Williams, Viking Penguin/ St Martin's Press)
2001            Saints (Collins Gem)
2004           Stubbs and the Horse (with Malcolm Warner, Yale U.P.)
2005           George Stubbs & the Wide Creation, (Chatto & Windus/Pimlico)
2011            A Dark Anatomy (novel)

In addition I served a sort of apprenticeship as a crime writer in the 1990s with Lynda La Plante, making novels out of episodes from her TV crime series Trial and Retribution. Lynda is an amazing story-teller and meticulous researcher and I learned a lorry-loads of useful stuff from her, for which I will be ever grateful.

Another foray into the world of crime writing was under a nom de plume Christopher Bird. It was The World of Inspector Morse and I was lucky enough during this project to get to know the kindly, and fiendishly clever, Colin Dexter. His books have probably influenced me more than I realize.

I have written widely on the arts and general subjects for the national, daily and weekly press and the internet. I did a 5-year stint as weekly book reviewer at The Independent on Sunday and I have since contributed regularly on books and the visual arts to The Financial Times. I am also a contributor on Stubbs and Van Dyck to the online Literary Encyclopaedia  and I have written about what I read as a child for the quarterly journal Slightly Foxed.

Sometimes my books and broadcast work have been reviewed. Here is a selection of critical quotes; actually they are almost all admiring quotes – spot the exception!

Tales of a City: “Blake is always inventive … fresh, colourful, bawdy and convincing” (Paul Ferris, Observer); “this entertainingly eccentric series”(Jill Neville, S. Times); “the actual writing and studio direction, both Blake’s responsibility, were very good indeed” (David Wade, Times); “the most important element for its success is the language. People speak as if they mean it, in a form which is modern enough to avoid seeming archaic and yet historic enough not to suggest that language has not changed” (James Bromwich, T.E.S.)

Anthony Van Dyck: A Life 1599-1641: “An excellent read … genuinely interesting and well-researched… Robin Blake writes with enormous enthusiasm for his subject.” (Antonia Fraser, S. Times); “A remarkably silly book” (Brian Sewell, The Evening Standard); “Blake is truly illuminating when he describes a given place at a given time and looks there for the source of decisions.” (Peter Campbell, LRB); Refreshingly different… it brings the period convincingly to life. (Andrew Wilton, Observer).

George Stubbs & the Wide Creation: “Robin Blake illuminates the works with brilliant detail about the era” (Christopher Hirst, The Independent); “Stubbs emerges as a real person rather than as simply an opaque reflection of the order and calm projected by his pictures.” (Michael Prodger,  S. Telegraph); “Much careful scholarship and sensible speculation” (Matthew Reynolds, TLS); “…this painstaking, scholarly and admirable study…” (Edward Pearce, Glasgow Herald). I choose not to quote from any of the book’s unfavourable reviews, though one particularly one by Craig Brown in the Daily Mail sticks painfully in the memory. Mr Brown was painfully off-beam – but I would say that.

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