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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Meet the Author: Back Home by Tom Williams

Today we welcome Tom Williams to Meet the Author. We’re headed to Richmond in south west London to learn how dancing, the Andes and Buenos Aires come together with the Argentine tango to the beat of Tom Williams life.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I live in Richmond, in south west London. I street skate and ski and can dance a mean Argentine tango. I’ve spent a lot of my life writing very boring things for money (unless you’re in Customer Care, in which case ‘Dealing With Customer Complaints’ is really, really interesting). Now I’m writing for fun. I blog regularly, mainly about history, but quite a bit of random stuff as well (link below for my website).

In which genre do you write?

Historical fiction, although I’ve been experimenting with something contemporary.

How many published books do you have?

Six – three about a spy in the age of Napoleon and three set in the mid-19th century.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author’s flame?

I’ve always wanted to write, but I found it very difficult to write fiction around other stuff, especially when I did a lot of non-fiction writing for my work. As I got older, I found that I could afford to work less and write more, so that’s what I did.

What is an interesting writing quirk you have, that we wouldn’t know by reading your biography?

I’m a spectacularly lazy writer. I spend far too long staring out of the window. I aim for a thousand words in a day, which really isn’t very many.

What does your ideal writing space look like?

What do you do when not writing or marketing your books?

I dance a lot of tango and do a little bit of dance teaching.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself through writing?

I have a very dark sense of humour.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve done or experienced to help create a scene or plot?

In ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ my hero rides across the Andes rather too late in the year and is nearly caught in the snow. This is based on something that really happened but I just couldn’t visualise it so I went to Argentina and rode up into the Andes at a stupid time of year when there would be snow around. I spent three nights in an unheated stone hut at 3,000 metres and I have never been so cold in my life. In the end it contributed less than a page to the book but I wouldn’t have missed it for worlds.

Do you journal write or keep a personal diary?

Not regularly. I take a lot of photographs and use these instead of a diary.

What is the most amusing, crazy or inspiring thing that has ever happened to you?

I went to what I suppose you could call an immersive theatre performance in Buenos Aires. It was set in a famous bar and various people came in and recreated life in a famous tango bar during the Golden Age of tango. There were quite a lot of people in the bar but it slowly became clear to my wife and me that we were the only actual audience and everybody else was actors. It went on for hours and was most surreal experience of my life.

What do you miss about being a kid?

Nothing. Anybody who thinks that their childhood was the best days of their lives has done remarkably little since.

What’s the last movie you watched and why did you choose to watch it?

‘Blind Date’. (Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglément.) I like watching rom coms with my wife and French rom coms can be very good. We both loved this one.

A penguin knocks on your door and is wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he there?

“You really need to cut down on the drugs.” Because you really need to cut down on the drugs.

Do you believe things happen for a reason? Do you have an example from your own life to share why you believe this?

Some things happen for a reason. You work to make something happen and then it happens. Other things are completely random. A few friends have died over the years. In many cases it was totally unexpected and at a time when they were full of life and plans for the future. Stuff just happens. Life is not fair.

If you could ask your pet three questions, what would they be?

My pet ferret has been dead for years and I still can’t face owning another. So in the unlikely event of ever being able to talk to him, I’d have to ask him about the after-life.

What’s your favorite place to visit in your country and why?

Mid-Wales (if you could call that my country because I live in England). My wife lived there when she was a girl and we often go back. Where we stay is almost totally off grid (no main water, no landline phone, very limited Internet access, no TV). It’s beautiful and peaceful and I always feel better for being there. There are some photos on my website at (link for my website below).

Tell us about your most recent book and where we can find it.

The last book I had published was ‘Back Home’ which completes my cycle of three books about a mid-Victorian character whose adventures take him into the real-life worlds of the white ruler of Borneo (in ‘The White Rajah’) and the Indian Mutiny (‘Cawnpore’). It completes the trilogy but it stands alone if you just want to read a book set in London in 1859 – a world which had astonishing parallels with the England of today.

There are a couple more books about James Burke which are awaiting publication.

Thank you Tom for being a part of Meeting the Authors. It was a whirlwind dance doing the interview tango with you. – Camilla

Learn more about Tom Williams and where to purchase to the book:

Tom Williams website:

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