TRC characters: royal or rogue, emotions rule – Rasputin

11/03/2012 at 6:58 pm (History, Royalty, Russia) (, , , , )


Sexual and religious deviant? Healer. Illiterate. Practitioner of self-flagellation? Rough-mannered. Common thief?  Staretz – holy man? Libertine. Peasant. Rasputin. Adored by the Tsarina’s best friend, Anna Vyrubova. Hated by the Tsar’s nephew-in-law, Prince Felix Yusupov.  Loved by many aristocrats, mainly women. Feared by politicians. In the year of his murder, 1916, a fiery right-wing member of the Duma, Vladimir Purishkevich, friend of Yusupov, said of Rasputin:  “The Tsar’s ministers …… have been turned into marionettes, marionettes whose threads have been taken firmly in hand by Rasputin and the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna — the evil genius of Russia and the Tsarina … who has remained a German on the Russian throne and alien to the country and its people.”

Yusupov was in the Duma for the speech and he soon persuaded Purishkevich that Rasputin had to be killed.  Not surprising that Yusupov was quick to rope in someone who might help him achieve his dubious objective. He had honed his already considerable networking skills when he was in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University between 1909-1912. Yes, the same club as Messrs Cameron, Johnson and Osborne belonged to eighty years later. In fact, Yusupov was so effective that the Oxford University Russian Society he founded is still running today.

So while Rasputin did have the patronage of the Tsar and Tsarina, among others, he was up against a very determined, politically sophisticated and organised man in Yusupov, who also had enormous wealth at his disposal to use for any ends he desired.

But what was the secret of Rasputin’s appeal to the Tsar, Tsarina and other members of the Imperial Family?  And what drew the loathing of others? Reading between the lines during our research, TRC answers: the same thing in both cases, sheer emotion.  Theirs and his. We’d probably call his, “emotional intelligence,” these days.  He always seemed to say the right things to his devotees, however brusquely, or be available when most needed. But none of this cut any ice with those who detested him. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to say much of his enemies’ antipathy to him stemmed from personal and political jealousy. How dare this uncouth creature, this Siberian peasant inveigle his way into the Court, and flaunt himself as a friend and adviser of the Tsar and Tsarina? Friend or foe, the source of their attitude to him was emotion. Here’s Yusupov’s description of Rasputin’s eyes: “small, shifty, gray,” so “sunken under heavy eyebrows” that even close up it was sometimes difficult to see them. And Vyrubova’s description? “………extraordinary eyes, large, light, brilliant…..”  Yusupov and Vyrubova met Rasputin several times. So why the contradictory description of his eyes? The source of the discrepancy lies in the differing emotional perspectives from which they viewed Rasputin.  And while we have used this rather simple example to demonstrate our point, you don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to work out that people’s opinions about him would have been just as polarised when it came to more serious issues.

Rasputin’s death on 29 December, 1916 is one of the iconic murders of all time. At the hands of Yusupov, Purishkevich and…………? If you think you’ve seen or read it all before, you haven’t. Not until you’ve read the highly creative TRC. So read it. It’s delicious.

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How TRC was written – Part 3

06/03/2012 at 5:00 pm (Current Affairs, Great Britain, History, Royalty, Russia, Tennis, The Ruthless Court, Writing) (, , , , , )


Mid-morning. Snowflakes are spinning gracefully down between the naked arms of the Winter Goddesses (trees to you). I sit at my computer desk mesmerised by this beautiful sight in January 2010. I’m in the middle, so to speak, of writing TRC and desperately hoping to have some chapters to send to Autumn for her editing and input. But the haunting Winter scene is distracting me.

But then it hits me. This is just the sort of weather the Russian terrorists in TRC would relish as cover to infiltrate the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) here in Wimbledon at night to hide their weapons for use on their planned day. My fingers begin to pound the computer keyboard. I’d like to say fly over it but that’s not the way I type, alas. Anyway, I’m only occasionally glancing out my window now at the snow for more inspiration.  And it comes in bucket loads. Three entire chapters full. They help to make up a good part of the tension filled confrontation between the terrorists’ leader and a senior MI5 officer.

And this inspiration also leads me to think that we should go on the guided tour of the AELTC grounds, though we have been spectators at The Championships a good few times and knew the place pretty well. So we go a few weeks later. And it pays off. Being almost alone in it (well 2 of only 15 people), we were able to survey the practice ground, Aorangi Park, and its surrounds, among other areas, at leisure, without our attention being taken away by other spectators or one famous tennis player or another! And our purposeful look round look provides more ideas. So I got back to our manuscript and jazz up the chapters I’d written about the infiltration and subsequent storming of the Centre Court.

A few months later and the novel is progressing well. And yet another Godsend comes our way: the shenanigans of forming the UK’s coalition government. Won’t say why or how, as that might spoil TRC for you when you read it, but I do mention these ten words, extrapolation, Rasputin, Tsarina Alexandra, Prince Albert Victor and fierce rivalry.

By the time the 2011 Wimbledon Championships come round TRC is almost ready for publishing. We are confident that our research, my work and life experience and Autumn’s knowledge of history and her journeys and time in Russia have all informed our writing well. We feel that we’ve creatively brought alive and intertwined on the pages of TRC the last Russian Imperial Court, Rasputin, Prince Albert Victor plus his journey on HMS Bacchante to Barbados at Christmas 1879, and present day Russia, London, Wimbledon tennis and Madagascar.  And we’re able to sit back, enjoy the tennis but also look out for any indications of how our scenes in the AELTC – hostage taking, for example – might or might not work in practice. We are pleased to see that, minus our characters and events, the general scenes at the tennis within which part of TRC takes place actually happen as we wrote.

So after the tennis is done for another year and we take some time and polish up our manuscript we go about the business of publishing our novel. And here it is for you to enjoy. One reader writing a review of TRC said, “great book, good story well told.” So don’t miss out.

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TRC: Grand Deeds but Human Nature – The Tsarina to The Queen

23/02/2012 at 8:14 pm (History, Royalty, The Ruthless Court) (, , , , , , , )


Emotion and personal values, not great political thought, rule those who rule us, and inform their actions. This has been so in the past and is now. We saw many occurrences of this as we trawled through information about the real lives of the historical characters who are essential, fictionalised members of our cast for TRC. So we, shamelessly but plausibly, sexed up their motivations and emotions we uncovered. And not only did we allow them, in our plot and narrative, to retain these enriched emotions, we also transfused these into the Twenty-First Century characters we created from scratch.  So for your entertainment in the next few weeks we’ll take a look behind the public face of key real-life characters in our novel.

Speaking of the present, is Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign and her intention to continue linked in any way to the reason for the fall of the Russian Imperial Family?  I’d bet you are saying, “Even for novelists you’re stretching it a bit, aren’t you?”

But it’s not so far-fetched. The link? That other long-reigning woman, Queen Victoria. She virtually adopted her granddaughter, the six year old Princess Alix of Hesse, later Tsarina Alexandra, after Alix’s mother, Victoria’s daughter Alice, died. In the next decade and a half, Alix spent nearly as much time in England with Queen Victoria as she did in Germany. As a child and young woman she was greatly influenced by her grandmother’s attitudes and values to royal life. But even before her “adoption”, her governess was an Englishwoman who implemented a regime very similar to that the old Queen had established in bringing up her children. So Alix was imbued with values such as loyalty and God’s call to service, royal service in particular.

As for our Queen, look at the parallels with Victoria. Accession to the throne at a young age, married to a man she adores, strong faith, a determination to overcome difficult times in her life (for Victoria, unpopularity after Albert’s death; for Elizabeth, the 1990s – Diana; her children divorces) and, like Victoria, a model of how a constitutional monarch should behave. These similarities are not all simply coincidental but several of them are the result of Queen Elizabeth taking example from her great, great grandmother.

And back to Tsarina Alexandra. In her approach she shared and applied many of the personal values of Victoria (and Elizabeth), but, alas for her and the Russian Imperial Family, she took God’s call to service to the extreme. While the two English queens try/tried to influence politicians, the Tsarina wanted her husband to be an absolute ruler. Somehow, it seems, Victoria’s teaching on this subject was lost in transference. Not translation as the Tsarina spoke perfect English from an early age. But neither Alix/Alexandra nor her husband, the Tsar, had the personal skills to weave aspects of a constitutional monarchy into Russian society. So, in the end, emotion and personal values either lead to triumph – Diamond Jubilee – or disaster – multiple, tragic murders in a cellar. Get TRC from Amazon and see how we entertainingly used all this to help us write a fantastic, unique story.

Next week: The real emotions and behaviour of Prince Albert Victor, and their consequences (he was Jack the Ripper, some say).

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French Open 2011 Week 1: Nice Work, Double Agent Andy Murray

31/05/2011 at 10:28 am (Current Affairs, Great Britain, Russia, Tennis) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Roland Garros in the sunSo the first week of the 2011 French Open was interesting. Here’s what we got from it.

Star Attractions

Reigning women’s champion Francesca Schiavone and No. 3 men’s seed Roger Federer sailed through week 1 with relative ease, both winning their first 3 matches in straight sets. Just for the sake of gloating, Schiavone’s 1st round encounter with Melanie Oudin was as predictable as we, well, predicted, with the Italian player rushing through the match 6-2 6-0. As tennis blogger Craig Hickman said on Twitter, “It wasn’t as close as the scoreline”.

However, some of the other top players weren’t so lucky.

Everyone was keen to see Captain of Clay, Ruler of Roland Garros and World #1 Rafael Nadal make his first appearance in this year’s French Open. In round 1 he was up against all 6’9” of big serving American John Isner. The reigning champ took the 1st set 6-4 and everything seemed to be business as usual. But it all got a little odd when Isner took the Spaniard to a 2nd set tie-break and then had the audacity to win it. OK, so it was 1 set all. Rafa dropping a set on French clay is rare, but him losing a Roland Garros match is even rarer, so surely it was only a matter of time before he prevailed here. Apparently no one told Isner this, because the World #39 then went on to take the 3rd set to a tie-break as well—and he won that too. John Isner was 2 sets to 1 up on the five-time French Open champion and no one could quite believe what was happening. Nadal had never been taken to five sets at this slam before, but he’d have to go 5 to win the match. And that he did. After not making one single error in the 4th set, Nadal took control again in the 5th, finally winning the match 6-4 6-7 6-7 6-2 6-4. “For moments in the tie-break, I didn’t play very well. I was probably too nervous “, laughed the King of Clay afterwards.

On Thursday, Rafa looked like he was going to have another wobble against compatriot Pablo Andujar. The World #1 had taken the first 2 sets, but was 5-2 down in the 3rd. He then had to save about a thousand set points. Well ok, 8. The third set went to a tie-break in which Andujar completely messed up a drop shot to give Nadal two match points. Rafa only needed one. The Spanish player’s 3rd round match was a lot more straightforward; he beat the Croatian qualifier Antonio Veic in straight sets, taking well under two hours to do the deed.

Maria Sharapova had a proper Thursday wobble. She was a set and 4-1 down against 17 year old French girl Caroline Garcia but then won 11 consecutive games to win the match 3-6 6-4 6-0. Strangely, Garcia’s incredible losing streak of 11 games started happening right after Andy Murray tweeted that the #188 youngster is a future #1. Nice work double agent Murray; your Russian comrades salute you.

 Kim Clijsters’ Thursday was more than a wobble. In her second round match against the Netherlands’ Arantxa Rus, she threw away a match point, at 5-2 up. Rus got it back on serve to 5-4. The Belgian No. 2 seed had another match point during the 10th game of the set, but she blew that too, sending a shot wide. So it was 5-5 and Rus broke Kim, before holding her serve—with the help of Kim sending a shot wide on the Dutch girl’s game point—to take it to a third set. Rus really started causing shockwaves in this final set, striding to a 4-1 lead as part of a streak that saw her win 10 out of 11 games. At 5-1 up, Rus then wasted a match point herself. On Rus’ 2nd match point, the 20 year old hit a cross court winner to take victory  3-6 7-5 6-3. It’s not even as if Kim didn’t have her fair share of luck during the match. One of the Belgian’s shots hit the net, hit the net post and then gently did a short lob back into her opponent’s side of the court for a winner.

The thrills, spills and upsets continued on Friday. Women’s 2010 runner up Sam Stosur had made it through to the 3rd round, only to be unceremoniously dumped out by the unseeded Argentine Gisela Dulko.  On the same day, world #1 Caroline Wozniacki’s 3rd round was also going badly. Her opponent Daniela Hantuchova hit down-the-line winner after down-the-line winner and Caro made error after error with the net result being that the Slovak player caused a major upset by beating the Danish 20 year old, not just comfortably, but spectacularly—6-1 6-3. As match commentator Andrew Castle said of Wozniacki’s error ridden match, “That was one of the most inept performances that I’ve ever seen from a top seed in a grand slam”.

With both Wozniacki and Clijsters going out so early, it’s the first time in the Open era that the top two women’s seeds have exited a tournament before the 4th round.

Novak Djokovic has looked scarily determined all week and extended his flabbergasting unbeaten run to six months by playing tennis that was as authoritative as it was impressive in his 1st and 2nd rounds. In the 3rd round came the much anticipated match-up with the resurgent former U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro. In fact, we all had to anticipate it a little longer than expected, as for some reason the tournament schedulers put it as the last match of the day on Philippe Chartier court. Of course, the match before—Tsonga vs Wawrinka—went the full five sets, so Djoko vs Delpo was eventually moved to the Suzanne Lenglen court. Cue some big hitting and massive Del Potro forehands in the fading light. Djokovic took the first set, but then the big Argentine took the second. With no hope of completing a further 2 or 3 sets before the light ran out, the match was suspended until the following day, Saturday. The next day brought less drama, as the Serbian player saved 2 break points in the 3rd set and went on to break Del Potro, eventually taking the set 6-3. The next proved even easier for Djokovic. He won it 6-2, and so his winning run was extended.

Brits Abroad

Monday saw the great British-Russian showdown between Anne Keothavong and Vesna Dolonts. Out on the hinterlands of Court 7, there was little shade and nowhere to hide as Anne broke Dolonts in the 1st set, eventually winning the set 6-3. The Russian however, fought back in the 2nd set, breaking for 4-3, despite Anne having had 2 opportunities to take a 3-0 lead. But then Anne broke back to put the set back on serve. She sadly squandered a match point in this topsy-turvy set and was then broken again, with Volonts taking the 2nd set 7-5. In the decider,  Volonts broke Anne for a  3rd time and won the match 3-6 7-6 6-4. The match lasted a massive 3 hours and 20 minutes and proved to be battle more than worthy of both Britain and Russia.

Much later on the same day, Heather Watson’s opponent, experienced Frenchwoman Stephanie Foretz Gacon, broke her in the 1st set and was serving for the match at 5-4 but got tight and got broken back. However, she broke again for 6-5 and then once again failed to serve it out, leading to a tie-break, which gutsy Watson won 8-6 to take the 1st set 7-6. She’d saved 4 set points in total. After that,  Foretz Gacon just fell apart, as did her forehand. Here we were in the 2nd set with Heather leading 5-0. Was a British girl actually going to get a bagel at Roland Garros? Unfortunately not, as Heather failed to grab the match point on her serve and Steph won her 1st game of the set to take it to 5-1. Heather, however, didn’t waste any more time and broke the world #140 in the next game to win the match. Heather herself has moved into the top 100 on the back of that victory.

On Tuesday Elena Baltacha and Andy Murray played their 1st round matches. Andy Murray won 6-4 6-1 6-3 but was seemingly unhappy with the way he played. There were quite a few unforced errors and he did get broken twice during the course of the match. Andy loves a drop shot, but sometimes they don’t love him back. Baltacha beat American qualifier and Twitter addict Sloane Stephens 7-5 6-2.

In the 2nd round, Muzza, Bally and Watso all played on the same day. Playing against Simone Bolelli, Murray saved 5 break points in his 1st two service games, but the 6th break point–the 4th of his 2nd service game—was one too many and the Brit got broken. He broke back towards the end of the set. He got another break and had 2 set points at 6-5. Bolelli saved  them and it went to a tie-break. For the most part, Simone made error after error, leading to Murray winning the tie-break and the set with a beautiful passing shot. Murray won the 2nd set 6-4, but got broken once so had to break twice. Andy got broken yet again in the 3rd set and all of a sudden Bolelli was 5-3 up—like in the 1st set, he would serve for the set. But would he choke it away this time? Yes. Yes, he would again fail to serve it out. Murray was again out of jail and on the loose. He eventually won the match by taking the set 7-5. Andy really needs to improve his serve before the potential match-up with Rafa in the semi-finals.

Baltacha was broken in her 1st game against her opponent Vania King, but got it back on serve, broke Vania again and won the set 6-4. But then Vania won the 2nd set 6-1. Elena lost 6-4 in the final set. Heather was beaten by a respectable scoreline of 6-1 6-3 by #16 seed Kaia Kanepi, although it took the Estonian two match points to finish the Guernsey girl off.

So by the 3rd round, Murray was the last Brit standing. He played the German surprise package Michael Berrer. With the Brit winning the first set, things seemed to be going to plan until, 2-1 up in the 2nd set,  Murray turned his ankle and collapsed whilst hitting a forehand winner. After treatment, he was able to carry on and somehow won the match due to a combination of Berrer not quite knowing how to play an injured player and Murray himself knowing exactly what to do to win points quickly and get himself out of there.

Homeboys and Homegirls

And what of the home crowd’s French heroes and heroines?

As we also predicted,  the Aravane Rezai/Irina-Camelia Begu match was interesting—so interesting that the breakthrough Romanian did indeed defeat the French crowd’s struggling home favourite, 6-3 6-3.

Another home favourite looked to be in trouble later on the same day, as Gael Monfils, the world no. 9, lost his first set of the tournament to veteran German and world no #145 and Bjorn Phau. The Monf bit back in the 2nd set, taking it 6-3. The third set also went the Frenchman’s way, 7-5. By the 4th set, Monfils had had enough of this nonsense and bagelled his opponent to take the victory 4-6 6-3 7-5 6-0. Not content with one fourth-setter, Monfils then went on to drop a set in his 2nd round match as well, against compatriot Guillaume Rufin. Again the top ten player managed to pull off a victory, winning  6-3 1-6 6-1 6-3. Monfils’ 3rd round match was at last a straightforward one as he beat Belgian Steve Darcis in straight sets.

The surprise Frenchman of the Week Award goes to Stephane Robert. World no. 6 Tomas Berdych took a two sets lead against the home underdog, but then lost the 3rd set and lost the 4th as well. The long fifth and deciding set drew the match out to 3 hours and 23 minutes in total, with the marathon eventually being won by Robert 3-6 3-6 6-2 6-2 9-7. When the score was shown on Chartier,  a cheer of appreciation rippled around the home crowd like the delicate waves on the Seine. It was the 31year old world #140‘s greatest victory—his first on the clay of Roland Garros. He was promptly beaten in the next round by Italian Fabio Fognini, winning only 3 games in the entire match.

Any other business

It seemed like Thursday was the day of upsets, because as well as Kim losing to Rus and Nadal and Maria looking shaky, top 30 player Marcos Baghdatis was beaten by world no. 217 Leonardo Mayer and the 28th seed, the Russian Nikolay Davydenko, was beaten by the aforementioned Veic.

The still popular but still erratic Ana Ivanovic lost in the 1st round. It’s hard to remember she’s a former world no. 1 and the 2008 French Open Champion, as since injury in 2009 her results have been just short of woeful for long stretches at a time. The recurrence of a January abdominal injury during a Fed Cup match last month probably didn’t help the Serb’s preparation for this slam.

On Saturday, Swiss veteran Patty Schnyder retired from the sport. This was hardly surprising as every now and then, for the past 5 years, I’ll look at the draw for a women’s tournament, see her name and think, ‘Is she still playing??’  Never again will I have that experience. Never again.

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Who is Anna Vyrubova?

28/05/2011 at 8:39 am (History, Royalty, Russia, The Ruthless Court) (, , , , , , , , )


Actress Alisa Brunovna Freindlikh as Anna Vyrubova in the film 'Agony'Anna Vyrubova, quite simply, was one of the most important women in the last days of the Romanov dynasty. It was her who introduced the eccentric, wild-living, self-proclaimed mystic Grigori Rasputin to the last Tsar of Russia and his family. Anna Vyrubova was Tsarina Alexandra’s lady-in-waiting and best friend. When Rasputin fell into Anna’s social circle and started impressing the ladies with his apparent faith-healing and prophetic abilities, Anna wasted no time in introducing him to the royal family, in the hope that he could alleviate the agony Tsarevich Alexei regularly went through due to his haemophilia.

Rasputin did indeed seem to relieve the young heir’s suffering whenever he was near—however he was also the source of much controversy, due to his partying ways, his love for the ladies and his closeness to the Tsarina. At the onset of the First World War in particular, outrageous rumours about the exact nature of Alexandra and Rasputin’s relationship flew around like birds. As Orlando Figes in A People’s Tragedy says, one such rumour involved Anna herself: ‘There were even rumours of the Empress and Rasputin engaging in wild orgies with the Tsar and [Anna], who was said to be a lesbian’.

In The Ruthless Court, Anna Vyrubova plays as important a part in Rasputin’s relationship with the Romanovs as she does in history, acting as an interlocutor between the two parties whenever the mad monk needs someone to plead his case for him—which is often, as his feud with ‘John Richmond’ (the alter ego of the supposedly dead Prince Albert Victor) over the Tsarina’s heart frequently takes visible and violent turns. And Anna is also inadvertently responsible for restoring Rasputin’s fame and reputation as a ‘true’ holy man just at a time when it looked like he was falling from favour.

Things get even more complicated when Anna develops romantic feelings for ‘John’ and he decides to use her by playing along, not only to keep tabs on Rasputin through her, but for other purposes as well…

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