Tag Archive for Huckerby Mark

The Real Defenders of the Realm: A Guestpost by Nick Ostler

For the first in my summer series of literary connections in London, Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler visited The Tower of London at night to attend the Ceremony of the Keys. I’m delighted they chose to share their account with us on my site, and explain the links to their fantastic middle grade series ‘Defender of the Realm‘. 

The Tower of London has been getting urgent phone calls all day. Journalists from major newspapers are enquiring after the health of its most famous residents: the ravens. Are they all alive? Are they still there? Have they flown off never to be seen again? Ever since King Charles II decided to move the Royal Observatory from the Tower to Greenwich, rather than displace the ravens that had been disturbing its work, legend has it that should the ravens ever leave, then the White Tower will fall and calamity for the entire kingdom will surely follow. The reason for the press’s sudden concern today is news of an emergency meeting of the entire royal household. Speculation is rife that something terrible has happened – perhaps even a death among the most senior members of the Royal Family. Later they will learn the reason for the hurried get together is in fact the decision that Prince Philip will cease engagements from the autumn, which will be greeted by an overwhelming chorus of “Fair enough, he is ninety-five.”

“Wait though, they literally called you up to ask if the ravens were still at the Tower?”

“Oh yes, I get lots of calls every time anything like this happens. They take it all very seriously.”

We are sitting in the bar of the Hung, Drawn & Quartered Pub, a few hundred yards as the raven flies from the high walls of the Tower of London. The man answering our questions is Chris Skaife, the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster, who has for the last twelve years had the kingdom-saving responsibility of looking after the Tower’s ravens. Tonight he is off-duty and in civvies rather than his scarlet tunic and Yeoman’s bonnet (though his tweed jacket and bow-tie are almost as dapper) and in light of what we’ve just been told I am relieved to find that no ravens have vacated the Tower to accompany him. Although, as we are to learn later, they could if they wanted to.

We are to be the Ravenmaster’s guests at the Ceremony of the Keys, the nightly ritual that takes place after the tourists depart, in which the Tower is ceremonially locked up for the night – one of the many ancient traditions we recreate in our British fantasy book series, Defender of the Realm – and something not to be missed. But first there will be an informal tour, encounters with ghosts and gangsters and another rather pleasant pint of bitter. So we decide we’d better get a move on. On the way out of the pub, Chris points out that it should more correctly be called the Drawn, Hung & Quartered, because that is the order in which the gruesome disemboweling process is actually performed. I don’t think he is talking from personal experience, but a beefeater is the sort of person who should know these things, so I don’t argue.

As we cross the drawbridge and pass beneath the Byward Tower, it is easy to see why this place continues to cast a spell over otherwise rational thinking people. Myths and ghost stories that we might have dismissed as nonsense back in the cozy pub, suddenly seem all too plausible as we follow the Ravenmaster through the eerie, wide cobbled lanes of the fortress. This is a different place at night. Gone are the gaggles of tourists with their flapping maps and the unruly herds of schoolchildren demolishing packed lunches. What we are left with now is the arrow marks dug into the wall by a bored guard centuries before, the names – Traitor’s Gate, Bloody Tower – that hint at the gruesome fate of those who came here but never left, and the tales of apparitions that still have the capacity to send grown adults running in tears from the Beauchamp Tower. If Horrible Histories did a theme park, this would be it.

But there is much more to the Tower of London than torture and horror and death, fun as all that is. Because there is life here too and rather a surprising amount of it. The Ravenmaster is just regaling us with another tale of doom and imprisonment when he pauses to wave hello to a young woman wearing headphones as she ambles passed. “My daughter,” he explains. It seems odd to think that to some people this isn’t merely one of the world’s most famous historic places, it is also simply ‘home’. But around one hundred and fifty people, the Yeomen and their families, live within the confines of the Tower’s walls. It has always been a workplace and home as much as it has a fortress and prison. And no-one here works harder than the Ravenmaster. From replying to the queries he gets from all round the world about the ravens (which can take up to three hours a day), to conducting tours for visitors and VIPs (Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin particularly enjoyed meeting the ravens, no surprise there) – this is one busy beefeater. And that’s before the none-too-small matter of tending to the Tower’s seven ravens (six and a spare).

We could hear the gentle, throaty ‘gronking’ of Erin, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Jubilee and Munin (Merlina, the only truly ‘tame’ raven, has her own digs elsewhere), long before we reach them. “They know I’m coming,” says Chris. Had they heard and recognized his voice in the distance? Or do they have some sort of primal sixth sense? As you might expect after years in their company, Chris has developed a deep understanding of the raven’s ways and crucially of how much there is still to learn about them. Ravens are said to have the same intelligence as a 3-4 year old child and the current Ravenmaster has dedicated himself to making their lives more natural and enjoyable, despite their celebrity status. For starters there are their plush new quarters, a row of large enclosures in the shadow of the central White Tower, where they can sit outside on their perches all night long, safe from foxes. Then there are their wings – Chris does not clip them nearly as much was the case in the past, so they can fly reasonably well. Well enough to reach the spire on top of the White Tower, as he found to his cost one day when a particularly adventurous bird refused to come down and he had to climb up to get her. But with intelligence comes a sense of humour, and the raven flew just before he reached her. He has even had to retrieve the occasional wanderer from outside the Tower walls, but the kingdom remains very much intact. Chris’ love for his birds is infectious as he recalls, with a glint in his eye, how one raven put an entire school party off their lunch by plucking a leg clean off an unfortunate pigeon right in front of them!

Before the main event, there is just time for a refreshing pint of ‘Beefeater Bitter’ in The Keys. Yes, the Tower even has its very own pub, for the sole use of the Yeoman Warders, their families and lucky guests like us. Tonight, as on many nights, the bar has been given over to a charity fundraiser, and we enjoy our drinks to the sound of announcements about the upcoming raffle results. It’s another example of how these days the Tower of London uses its unique position to quietly educate and inspire rather than to intimidate. And talking of intimidating, the Yeoman Warder who will be guiding us the short distance down the lane to watch the Ceremony of the Keys has an important announcement:

“If you have a camera, kindly place it carefully on the ground… and then stamp on it.”

Some rituals are too solemn, too important and well, too plain cool, to be interrupted by the flashes of camera phones. The Ceremony of the Keys has taken place every single night for the last seven hundred and forty years. The one night it was a few minutes late, the Officer of the Guard wrote a formal letter of apology to the king. The reason for the delay? The Luftwaffe had just dropped a bomb on the old Victorian guardroom. Tonight, as the Chief Yeoman Warder locks the mains gates and returns down Water Lane with his escort of four guards, we are treated to an ancient piece of military theatre. A young sentry steps out, points his rifle at them and barks out “Halt! Who comes there?” “The keys!” replies the Chief Warder. “Whose keys?” demands the sentry, who is clearly no pushover. “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” the Chief Warder patiently replies, and that seems to do the trick. “Pass, Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. And all’s well,” concludes the sentry, and with that the escort makes its way to the Broadwalk Steps by Tower Green where the Tower Guard presents arms and the Chief Warder declares “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” to which we all respond with a resounding “Amen!”. Precisely seven minutes after it began, the ceremony is brought to a close as the clock tower strikes ten and we listen to a rather chilly bugler squeak his way through the Last Post.

If you’ve read our first book in the ‘Defender of the Realm’ series, you’ll know that it is at this point that all hell breaks loose. The monstrous Black Lizard attacks in an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels and is fought off by the brave beefeaters and mysterious white knight superhero, the Defender. We are suitably relieved as this fails to happen in real life and instead return to The Keys for a farewell drink. Like all great British traditions, the Ceremony of the Keys is short, simple and rather moving. It has been a privilege to witness.

Afterwards, on the way back to Tower Hill tube station, we pass the Merchant Navy Memorial – the place that in ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’, Hayley discovers a secret entrance to a ‘sally port’ tunnel leading under the road into the Keep beneath the Tower. It is a reminder that although our Defender stories put an affectionate, fantastical spin on British history and traditions, the people who live and work within the Tower of London’s walls are the real, living embodiments of the selfless duty that has served our nation for generations. It is a story they retell every night for seven minutes, starting at 9:53pm sharp.

Tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys are free of charge, but there is a long waiting list (unless you’re lucky enough to know a beefeater!).

Once again, thanks to Nick Ostler for this brilliant blog. ‘Defender of the Realm’ and ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’ by Mark Huckerby & Nick Ostler are published by Scholastic and you can buy them by clicking on the titles. I heartily recommend that you do. For more information, go to www.ostlerandhuckerby.com

 

 

Defender of the Realm by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler

Defender of the Realm

A superb premise, well executed. It’s easy to tell that authors Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler are screenwriters – the book begins with an action scene of the heir to the British throne dashing through the streets to avoid both paparazzi and security guards. You can almost hear the director’s voice – zooming the camera in here, sweeping through the streets there.

Fourteen year old Alfie is a reluctant heir to the throne, particularly when his father dies suddenly and it is thrust upon him rather more prematurely than he had hoped. However, there’s more to the job than photo ops and ribbon cutting – and Alfie discovers that the lineage of royalty is also a lineage of superhero power – fighting a centuries old battle against monsters and supervillains (all in immense secrecy – the public is unaware of the King’s dual royal).

At the same time, the reader’s focus is drawn to a commoner – teenager Hayley Hicks – who happens to get caught up in one of the secret battles, and before long is more embroiled in royal shenanigans than she could imagine. She is the perfect antithesis to the privileges and snobbery of royalty, and a great sparring partner for Alfie.

What’s delightful about this novel, as well as the constant flux between ‘real’ life and ‘fantasy’, and the grounding of the teens who are as normal, acerbic, and witty as a reader could want – is the phenomenal ‘history-building’ that the authors have imagined to accompany their premise.

Alfie has a ‘mentor’ and guide in the shape of advisor, Lord Chamberlain, who is a great pontificating character. He teaches ‘real’ history to Alfie, including the magical powers of the crown jewels, how King Alfred the Great really fought the Vikings (and their dogs!), how Elizabeth I fought the Spanish king and his armada of vampire mermaids…plus a whole new way at looking at Beefeaters.

It’s lovely because it ties in British history, especially the places Alfie must go to fight the Black Dragon: Westbury, Stonehenge, Edinburgh Castle, as well as royal settings in his real life rather than superhero life – the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, even Harrow School. This makes the book very British in ‘feel’, which is exactly how a book about royalty should be.

The characters are all well drawn, the action is relentless, the plot tight. But most of all it’s pure fun. This book definitely gets my royal seal of approval. You can buy a copy here.

For age 8+

An Interview with Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, authors of Defender of the Realm

Defender of the Realm

Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler are an Emmy and Bafta-Nominated screenwriting partnership, and scriptwriters of the new and highly acclaimed Danger Mouse. Their first foray into the world of children’s publishing, Defender of the Realm, is published on World Book Day – it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s an action-packed, gripping novel, about fourteen year old Alfie, heir to the throne. What Alfie doesn’t realise is that as well as becoming King, he also assumes the inherited role of ‘Defender’ – superhero, who must battle to save the country from the Black Dragon. My review will be published Sunday, but I had the honour of interviewing the writing duo behind this fab new series. This is what they said.

You’re an award-nominated screenwriting duo. What made you decide to write a children’s book?

Well, we both love books in the fantasy genre for this age and writing a novel was always something we wanted to try. But really, it was the content that dictated the form in this instance. Defender of the Realm takes place in a parallel reality version of Britain and we needed to figure out the big rules for that universe… a universe where monsters are real and Kings and Queens are secret super heroes. We felt only a book would allow us the freedom to explore all of that in depth and get it right!

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There are a lot of inventive ideas in the book such as the magic of the crown jewels and playful ideas with the magic of lineage. How did you come up with them?

It all flowed really from the “what if?” idea of Kings and Queens being secret superheroes. That was the big idea and from there, the supporting ideas of magical crown jewels, alternative secret history of Britain and inherited blue blood super powers seemed to come naturally. It was so much fun to work on because of that, you know you’re on to something when the ideas don’t stop. It felt like striking oil! The rules of it all were hard to figure out and pin down but that was part of the job of this book, set out the stall for our world and tell it in a fun and exciting way. We did a lot of research into the royal history of Britain as well. The more we looked into the idea of monarchy, the greater the similarities to superheroes were apparent.

Writing is usually quite a solitary act, how do you pen a novel together? What are your writing practises?

We’ve got immense respect for writers who write on their own. It’s a tough gig keeping a level head when dealing with the ups and downs of the business and keeping yourself fresh, happy and ready to write! So it helps to have someone to laugh with about things- so much of this business is out of your control it’s good to have someone alongside reminding you of that. Work wise,  we spend a lot of time talking before writing anything, a habit picked up in screenwriting where producers invariably want to see outlines before you can proceed to script. So we spend hours breaking the story, then we extensively outline to the end and only then do we start writing. We take alternative chapters, then switch over, give notes and plough on, fighting to get that first “dirty draft” done. Then we rewrite. It’s fun seeing each other’s chapters because even with all the detailed outlining, we surprise each other with how we’ve written it.

The book mixes fantasy and reality, with giant powerful lizards and also the paparazzi and a citizen’s viewpoint, in that of Hayley. Is one of you better at fantasy and one reality?

No, it’s part and parcel of the Defender world- those rules I mentioned above. Nailing the level of reality, how the fantasy and reality of the world intersect, was part of the development we did. We both brought ideas to the table, from big action sequence ideas to smaller (but no less important!) character details.

Do either of you plan to write solo at any point? What would you miss most about the other if you did?

I don’t think so. I hope not! Cue Nick announcing a new six part, solo graphic novel. Here’s the thing: the big concept of the King or Queen of Britain as a superhero was Nick’s idea way back when and he unthinkingly and unselfishly let me in on it purely because we’re a writing partnership. It wasn’t called Defender of the Realm then, it was only a germ of an idea and it’s now very much “our” idea now. But I thought it was a great pitch with massive potential. Hopefully people will think the same after reading the book. We always say the best thing about working in a partnership is that you only have to have half a good idea and then the fun is working it up together.

Have you already written the film script for Defender of the Realm, and who would you cast as the Lord Chamberlain (a somewhat staid and grumpy, though very knowledgeable and quite endearing, authoritative character)?

Good question. Before Defender was a book we were thinking it was a big TV show or film and we considered doing it that way. As I said, doing it as a book gave us the freedom and time to explore the world and get it right. Of course, we dream that one day the film rights might sell (!) but who knows, it would be an expensive film to make and make right. I always imagined LC as Ian McKellan myself. Charles Dance would also be perfect. We’re lucky in the UK that we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to actors with great gravitas who would fit the bill. Someone with bearing, hidden depths and possessed of a withering glare!

With thanks to Mark and Nick – you can pre-order your copy of Defender of the Realm here, or you can read my review on Sunday and then buy it!