None So Blind by Alis Hawkins #BookReview #GuestPost #BlogTour

West Wales, 1850. When an old tree root is dug up, the remains of a young woman are found. Harry Probert-Lloyd, a young barrister forced home from London by encroaching blindness, has been dreading this discovery. He knows exactly whose bones they are.
Working with his clerk, John Davies, Harry is determined to expose the guilty. But the investigation turns up more questions than answers.
The search for the truth will prove costly. But will Harry and John be the ones to pay the highest price?

I'm so pleased to be hosting the blog tour for None So Blind by Alis Hawkins today. Huge thanks to the author and to Emily Glenister from The Dome Press for inviting me and for my copy of the novel.  Following my review, I'm also delighted to be featuring a fascinating guest post Alis has very kindly written about the historical background to her book, particularly the 'Rebecca Riots' which form a key part of the background to the story.

I must admit to feeling a little daunted when I first picked up None So Blind; at well over 400 pages long I knew it wasn't going to be a quick read and wondered whether the historical facts in this crime novel would prove to be a little too dense.
I needn't have worried for though Alis Hawkins has written a book which brings to life the period and vividly details the societal challenges and upheavals of the time, it never becomes a dry history lesson and I was completely engrossed by this beautifully written story. It was one of those novels which captured my thoughts completely and even when I wasn't reading it, I found my mind wandering back to West Wales and to the mystery behind a young woman's death.
The main protagonists in None So Blind are far from the usual characters who try to uncover the truth about a death and I loved reading a crime novel with such an original premise to the investigation. Harry's recent diagnosis means he has to come to terms with losing his sight and what that means both personally and professionally. He engages the help of a clerk, John Davies out of necessity and the juxtaposition between their places in society and Harry's belief that they can interact as equals is absolutely fascinating and a real glimpse into the long-held positions of the time and the sense that things are beginning to change. Chapters are told from both their perspectives and it soon becomes clear that both men are hiding just what they know about the untimely end of the young woman whose bones were found buried under a tree.
It's not just Harry and John who are keeping secrets, however, the book is teeming with them as it becomes impossible to know who can be trusted and just why so many people are seemingly determined to block the course of justice. This is where the historical elements really come into play,  as the traditional practice of the ceffyl pren and the tumultuous events that occurred during the Rebecca Riots of the past are brought back into focus with some people are prepared to take any steps necessary to prevent their previous actions coming to light. This small community knows more than it's letting on and there's an increasingly unsettling tension to the novel as it becomes ever more obvious that Harry and John's persistence is potentially leading them into danger.
The rich descriptions coupled with the smattering of Welsh words interspersed throughout the novel conjure up the setting so magnificently, I was transported back in time to the Teifi Valley. None So Blind is exactly what I'm hoping for when I read historical crime; Alis Hawkins evokes the attitudes and traditions of the region at that time with an assured authenticity which means the intriguing mystery at the heart of the story becomes a riveting and poignant search for the truth. Atmospheric,  compelling and thought-provoking - I highly recommend None So Blind and am now eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in The Teifi Valley Coroner series!

Who Was This Riotous Rebecca 
by Alis Hawkins 

Hi Karen – thanks so much for having me on Hair Past A Freckle and for allowing me to share a bit of the background to my new historical crime series. It’s a pleasure to be asked to write a guest post for somebody who’s such a champion of books. 

None So Blind – the first in my Teifi Valley Coroner series – is set in the aftermath of the most widespread and prolonged episode of civil disobedience ever seen in the British Isles: the Rebecca Riots. If you’ve never heard the name, read on…

Imagine the scene. A crossroads in the depths of the West Wales countryside more than a century and a half ago. Sunset is long past and, tonight, there is no moon. Clouds hide the stars and the night is as black as a crow’s underwing. The wind blows restlessly but there is nothing else to hear but the cry of a vixen and the occasional screech of an owl. 
Then, as if from nowhere, men appear, converging on the crossroads from every direction. A few are on horseback, most are on foot. Some carry ancient muskets, some axes, others have saws and hammers. A few carry horns and drums. Every face is blacked and every man is dressed in at least one item of women’s clothing. A shawl. An apron. The better-off sport a tall Sunday hat.
Once all are gathered, torches are lit and the crowd moves off up the road. And, as the darkness of night is challenged, so its silence is broken as shouts and cheers ring out in the clear, cold air. The plangent challenge of horns echo around the valley while drum-thuds provide the mob’s heartbeat as it bears down on the tollgate.
Their leader – dressed in a plaid petticoat and grey apron with a shawl wrapped about his head like a turban – dismounts from his horse. Bending his tall frame into an elderly person’s stoop, he accepts the support of a stick thrust into his hand and shuffles towards the tollgate. He stands before it and taps it with his stick.
I am old and blind my children, he croaks, what is this that bars my way?
It is a gate, old mother, comes a ragged chorus.
A gate you say? And what is its purpose?
To steal money from the poor, old mother.
Should we allow such a thing?
No! Rebecca’s children roar.
Then, says their leader, straightening once more and turning to them to speak in his own voice, off with it, my children!
And, the brief mock trial over, the gate is reduced to matchwood.

This is the kind of tollgate riot which took place for the first time in Pembrokeshire in 1839 and which, over the next four years, spread throughout the three counties of Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. When the local authorities found that they were powerless to stop the riots, parliament sent in half a dozen Metropolitan police officers and a platoon of mounted dragoons. They all proved useless. The rioters could gather, destroy a gate and melt back into the rural night before soldiers or police officers had even pulled their boots on.

Outraged questions were asked in the House of Commons. How could these Welsh peasants appear at will and destroy gates, night after night, without a single person being arrested? The Times of London sent the world ’s first investigative journalist – Thomas Campbell Foster – to embed himself with the farmers and find out what lay behind their extraordinary actions. His almost daily dispatches paint a fascinating – and surprisingly sympathetic – view of the actions.

The riots were in no way co-ordinated across the three counties. Each band acted independently but each leader was known, by popular tradition, as Rebecca. Why? 

The romantic version is that the leader of the first riot, a poor, prize-fighting, lay preaching farmer from the Preseli hills called Twm Carnabwth, was provided with a petticoat by the only woman in the parish large enough to lend him clothes – an elderly widow by the name of Rebecca. However, sadly for the romantics, historians have been unable to find a single Rebecca in the parish records of the time. 

A far more likely explanation is that the name was taken from a verse in the book of Genesis: ‘And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.’ Those chapel-going farmers knew their Bible and they expected it to speak to them and guide their actions. 

But, the origin of the name aside, did these Rebeccas actually lead riots?

In case you’ve ever wondered, ‘reading the Riot Act’ involved a magistrate or sheriff announcing to a crowd he (of course, they were always men in the nineteenth century) found unacceptable that:

Our sovereign lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.

But the Riot Act was read only once during the Rebecca Riots and that was in broad daylight when a mob of more than two thousand people attacked Carmarthen workhouse. Nobody in authority ever got near an actual nocturnal gatebreaking and, even if they had, allowing the rioters an hour to disperse would have given them ample time not only to destroy the tollgate and its associated tollgate house but to smoke a pipe, pass the time of day with their neighbours and amble off!

Still, riots or not, the Rebecca movement has fascinated me ever since I first heard about it as a child growing up in the Teifi Valley. Why, I’d always wondered, were the gatebreakings so little spoken of? Why were they not commemorated, the men who had taken part in them remembered as heroes?

I wrote None So Blind partly to see if I could find some answers those questions. However, though the riots form the backdrop to the novel, they are not the main event. The action takes place seven years after the end of the riots and, in investigating the circumstances of dairymaid Margaret Jones’s death, my central character, Harry Probert-Lloyd, comes to understand why people might no longer want to talk about Rebecca and her doings; why they might prefer to forget that the riots ever happened. To put it in his own words:

As anybody who has lived through a period of insurrection knows, once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately.

How did the indiscriminate wielding of such power lead to dairymaid Margaret Jones’s death? Join Harry and his assistant, John, in None So Blind to find out.

Thank you so much, Alis, I must admit to not having heard of the Rebecca Riots before reading None So Blind but was immediately gripped by the subject and really enjoyed this enlightening guest post.

None So Blind is published by The Dome Press and can be purchased from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Don't forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire. She left to read English at Oxford and has done various things with her life, including bringing up two amazing sons, selling burgers, working with homeless people and helping families to understand their autistic children. And writing, always.
Radio plays (unloved by anybody but her), nonfiction (autism related), plays (commissioned by heritage projects) and of course, novels.
Her current historical crime series featuring blind investigator Harry Probert-Lloyd and his chippy assistant John Davies, is set in her childhood home, the Teifi Valley. As a side effect, instead of making research trips to sunny climes, like some of her writer friends, she just drives up the M4 to see her folks.
Alis speaks Welsh, collects rucksacks and can’t resist an interesting fact.

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