Friday with Friends: Doing the Tango and Writing Historic Novels

Welcome to a new series on Meeting the Authors …. Friday with Friends. On select Fridays we will feature a unique guest post/interview with an author that has previously been interviewed on MTA. Welcome to Tom Williams to help kick off this new series.

When Camilla was kind enough to offer me space to write on her blog, I asked if she had any idea what people would like to read about. She replied, “If you want to write about your passion of dancing, that may be fun.”

Well, I always love writing about tango, but I also want to encourage you to read my books. And although I keep wanting to write a book about tango, I never have yet. So can I write about my dancing and link it to any of my novels?

Oddly enough, maybe I can.

A very, very long time ago, I used to ice dance. Here’s a photo of a much younger me posing with wife, son and competition cup (we all danced on the same recreational competition team).

One of the other ice dancers had taken up Argentine tango and started teaching it and she persuaded Tammy and me to give it a go. That was over 20 years ago.

It’s fair to say that we got quite enthusiastic about it. In 2003 we made our first trip to Buenos Aires and life was never quite the same again.

We’ve been back more times than I can remember since then. We’ve danced in France, Iceland, Portugal, Turkey and Romania. We’ve tangoed for fun in parks in Barcelona and hotels in the Highlands and semi-professionally in an Army base and on a narrow-boat. Tammy has even gone dancing in Korea. Here we are dancing where we live. (Please be gentle with us – it was 10 years ago.)

As I took up writing, the idea of a book about tango obviously came up once or twice. I even started on one, but I was never able to make it work. Instead I ended up a writer of historical novels.

My first book, The White Rajah had just been turned down by all the major publishers on the grounds (mainly) that it was “too difficult for a first novel”. My agent suggested I write something more straightforwardly commercial.

But what? I started asking around my friends if they had any ideas.

On one of our trips to Buenos Aires we had met an Alaskan woman who was even more passionate about tango than we were and was living there for six months. (The most we have ever managed has been six weeks.) It was her suggestion that there were lots of interesting figures linked to the early history of European colonisation of South America and the struggles for liberation from Spain. So it was that I discovered the real-life British spy, James Burke, and his role in the 1806 British invasion of Buenos Aires. His Argentinian adventures were to become the basis for Burke in the Land of Silver.

I had a lot of fun following his footsteps around the town, exploring the remains of the old fort (now hidden away under the presidential palace) and riding out into the Andes, which he crossed on horseback. Sadly, my research into his life didn’t allow any room for tango. James Burke was active in Argentina early in the 19th century and tango only arrived almost a century later. The South American poet and historian of tango, Horacio Ferrer, writes:

“Nowadays, it is thought that between 1895 and 1900, Tango was born as a musical art clearly predestined and unmistakable.”

(Argentinian poets write like that.)

High in the Andes: not ideal dance conditions

Leaving aside issues of historical authenticity, there is limited potential for tangoing in the snow at 3,000 metres on the road to Chile, though we did get the odd dance in back in Buenos Aires. Poor James Burke, however, doesn’t get to dance at all, though he does join a group of gauchos, the cowboys of Argentina, as they sing after a cattle drive.

The guitars began to play again and everybody joined in singing long, slow songs about the loneliness and loss that seemed an inescapable part of living in this vast emptiness at the bottom of the world. The words were sad and the melodies plaintive but the singing evoked the beauty of the landscape and the passion with which they loved it.

In Argentina, many people believe that tango is principally about the songs and only secondarily about the dancing. The music of tango is the soundtrack of Buenos Aires and the songs are still songs of loss and loneliness; the struggle to find love and the inevitability of its loss. They are sad songs that somehow make you feel happy. It is true, as the great tango composer Astor Piazzolla said, that “Tango is darkness made light through art.”

The real James Burke may never have got to tango, but he did go on spying until well after the Napoleonic wars were over. He carried on in my books, too. In fact, I have just re-published the first three books (starting with Burke in the Land of Silver) ahead of publishing two new ones later this year. I’ve carried on dancing, too: the photo shows Tammy and me celebrating our Ruby Wedding two years ago.

James Burke, spy

James Burke’s published adventures take him from South America to Egypt and, inevitably for any Napoleonic wars hero, to Waterloo. His further adventures will see him up to dark deeds in Spain and Ireland. You can find out more about Burke and his world (and my other books) on my web-site:

Burke in the Land of Silver

Burke and the Bedouin

Burke at Waterloo

Tom Williams

Tom Williams used to write about business but he’s given that up to indulge himself and write historical novels. Besides three books about James Burke he has three others set at the height of Empire in the mid-19th century: The White Rajah, Cawnpore and Back Home.

He lives in Richmond and, when he’s not dancing (or teaching people to dance), he spends a lot of time street skating.

Thank you for this great post! I absolutely love it, as I find it inspiring to learn more about the past and current lives of authors.  I adore the video of you and Tammy dancing. You two are beautiful! Wishing you all the best, Tom! – Camilla

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Twitter: @TomCW99



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