Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Naming Names

Finding a suitable title for a character can be a problem. Unless you are searching for irony, it should bear some resemblance or clue to the person's identity, as well as their class and origin. Care must be taken not to drift too close to someone of prominence or notoriety (unless you intend to depict a fictitious relative, such as the beastly lieutenant Pigot, in The Jackass Frigate), and it is also important that you do not copy any attributes of a person with the same name. Westwood, the marine officer in The Patriot's Face was named after my dentist who, as far as I know, has no special interest in air rifles, and is a far more gentle, and indeed gentile, soul than the obsessive captain. Sometimes a character will begin with one name, only to find the moniker changing as they develop – often several times – and their rank or social standing might also be adjusted at the same time.
The name for one of my first principle characters, Shepherd, captain of HMS Vigilant, was taken from a man I was privileged to know for only a short while. I depicted no physical likeness, and the personality was also very different, but they did share the same rank, as the original Captain Shepherd was also a Royal Navy officer. Let me tell you the story...
It was over twenty years ago, on our first holiday as a family; we had rented the guard room of a castle set on the Somerset / Devon boarder. A splendid place certainly, and steeped in history, although the owner turned out to be every bit as fascinating as any building. We soon discovered a shared interest in the Georgian Navy and Mr Shepherd, as he chose to be known, leant me a copy of A Social History of the Navy, Michael Lewis' seminal work, a first edition of which now sits in my reference library. It was when he was showing me about his private museum that we discovered the common link.

File:Cuthbert Collingwood, Baron Collingwood by Henry Howard.jpg

On the wall was a picture of Collingwood, Nelson's friend, second in command at Trafalgar, successor to him in captaining Badger, and the subject of one of the young admiral's first letters after the loss of his right arm at Tenerife (Dear Coll, do not expect long letters from me...). Collingwood belonged to a small group of men who were particularly conscious of the toll our ships were taking on the oaks of England's forests – up to forty acres to build the frame of a third rate ship of the line. They took it upon themselves to help provide for the next generation by carrying acorns, and scattering them wherever they went. Nowadays such folk would be labelled “green” and probably derided and even in the period they may have suffered a degree of mocking, (although the fact remains that we did not run out of oaks!). Whatever, I mentioned this to Mr Shepherd who agreed, laughed quietly, then brought out a handful of acorns from his own pocket.

I later discovered that, when promoted to post captain rank, and commanding HMS Argonaut he served in the Far East, and saw his ship through several kamikaze attacks, although he spent longer telling me, with evident pleasure, how he had been able to equip the entire cruiser with refrigerators, so that his men could enjoy an almost constant supply of ice cream. Before then, he mentioned briefly, he had been a commander aboard King George V.
When I returned home I sent him one of my most precious books, an early biography of Nelson, to borrow. He returned it with a long letter that I still keep. Written in impeccable copperplate one paragraph begins. “It is blowing a proper sou'westerly at the moment. Reminds me of the time we were limping back to Ireland, desperately short of fuel in KGV after sinking the Bismark.”
I was proud to name my first principle naval captain after him, and since then wherever I go,
whenever I can, I carry acorns.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Shaking Hands with History

Recently, and quite by chance, I found myself speaking to a relative of Adam Duncan; a man I respect greatly. As a bonus he bore a remarkable resemblance, both physical and in personality, to his glorious ancestor, (and was kind enough to buy a copy of True Colours). My day was made.
The following is a short bio I wrote about Duncan, and originally published in Chronicles

Duncan of Camperdown
forgotten man, forgotten battle?

1797 was an eventful year in an eventful war. The Battle of Cape St Vincent had raised morale, and with it a new hero was launched upon the public (although the publicity was to a great extent engineered by the subject). But Nelson was to go on to lose a campaign and an arm, at Tenerife, a few months later, and the year had opened with an attempted invasion of Ireland that was defeated more by the weather, and incompetence on behalf of the French, than any British warship. It was also the time of the Spithead mutiny when men, tired of wages and conditions that had hardly altered in 150 years, and urged on by the recent increase in “intellectual” recruits, raised by the Quota Act, rose up and demanded change.

At this time Adam Duncan, a tall and strikingly charismatic Scotsman, who had served with Rodney and Keppel, had charge of the North Sea Fleet. It was his responsibility to keep the Eastern approaches safe for British shipping, and to blockade and eventually destroy the powerful Dutch fleet that was set to mount an invasion of England. To achieve this he was allowed a motley collection of tired ships, several of which had been converted from merchants, manned by men to whom promises made by a desperate Admiralty following Spithead seemed likely to be broken.

On the 12th of May the inevitable happened; the Nore rose up in revolt; the North Sea Fleet refused to sail, and England was left undefended. In his own flagship Duncan had met with a rebellious crew, although his understanding, reassurance and pure strength of character proved sufficient to quell an outright rebellion. It was left to him to maintain the watch over the Dutch base with only his flagship Adamant (74) and the smaller Venerable (50) plus an assortment of lighter craft, while the rest of his ships lay at anchor, under the command of Richard Parker's “Floating Republic”. Not for the first, or last, time Britain was open to invasion.

The Dutch fleet was a powerful one, mainly consisting of line of battleships specifically designed with a low draft, for the shallow waters off their coast. In addition there were several powerful frigates, and over one hundred transport vessels and supply ships ready to carry the mighty French army based nearby. The two British warships supported by a handful of smaller craft were no match for such a force. However Duncan was able to fool the enemy into thinking his ships were just the inshore squadron of a far superior fleet.

Anchoring his flagship outside the Dutch harbour, he began to signal to a non existent battle-fleet that was seemingly sailing just out of sight of land, while his supporting vessels sailed to and fro, carrying “messages”, and alternating their appearance and colours to bolster the ruse. For a few desperate days all shipping, including small craft and fishing vessels, were prevented from sailing, Duncan being well aware that firm news of Britain’s vulnerable state would see the enemy fleet at sea, and wiping his scant squadron away without a thought.

In time the situation on shore stared to ease; the first British ships rejoined Duncan on June 4th. with more following on the 9th. By October the fleet was back under full control, although the men were still disturbed by the events of the previous months. Then, on October 9th, news arrived that the Dutch battle-fleet had finally sailed.

Duncan went to meet them with eleven sail, seven of which were crewed by men who, only months before, had been mutineers. The Dutch force consisted of sixteen line of battleships, five frigates and five brigs. Duncan’s fleet was soon reinforced but still remained outnumbered.

The action took place to the south of the Texel. The Dutch, conforming to conventional tactics, formed a line of battle. Duncan had no preformed plan, although he trusted his officers in the same way that Nelson would later in the wars. By 12.30 the British were bearing down on the Dutch in a two column formation that anticipated Trafalgar by several years. Despite the poorer quality of his ships, the men of the North Sea Fleet were eager to prove their loyalty and fought well; one man, John Crawford of the Venerable, achieving immortality by literally nailing the colours to the mast, after they had been shot away.

The battle that ensued was one of the bloodiest of the wars. Both navies were highly professional, and the British, although fewer in number, and equipped in the main with worn out ships, were clearly in the underdogs. One of the more interesting aspects of the action was the mutual respect shown by each force, and it is significant to note that the two opposing admirals survived the battle, and remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Now, more than two centuries later, the memory of Duncan has fallen into decline. On the bi-centennial of the battle, Dundee City Council published a volume of essays about the man and his times. This included an excellent appraisal by Brian Lavery, although the title is now out of print. Neil Duncan also produced a biography in 1995 which has suffered a similar fate. Christopher Lloyd brought out St Vincent and Camperdown, a study of the two actions, in 1963 and two other biographies were written, one in 1898 and one in 1900. Considering the plethora of Nelson related volumes that have appeared on the market recently (one figure quoted is 40 biographies in the last ten years), it seems unfair that such a fascinating character who achieved so much should not be better remembered.

Alaric Bond's novel True Colours is a fictionalised account of the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, and covers Adam Duncan's heroic defence of Great Britain, and the pivotal Battle of Camperdown.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Turn a Blind Eye: Research

My sixth book, Turn a Blind Eye was released on August 1st. Although not in the Fighting Sail series - I have new characters, and am basing this one in a revenue cutter - it does include fighting (and indeed, sail!). Last winter I spent an interesting day at the Tide Mills, Newhaven carrying out research. The Tide Mills, which are one of the locations featured in the novel, were in operation from the middle of the eighteenth century and were set almost on the beach to the East of Newhaven harbour. At their peak sixteen mill wheels were being turned for up to ten hours in any tide, and over a hundred workers employed, many living on the site. All that is left of a very green form of energy is foundations, and a few remaining walls, although it is still possible to trace many of the buildings.

William Catt 1776 - 1853

William Catt was responsible for the expansion of the site, and was clearly quite a character. He laid in wait for any workers returning to the village from the nearby inn 'The Buckle', and was reasonably successful in growing fruit trees and vegetables in an area that at best can only be called bleak. It was strangely satisfying to find his house and stand in what would have been his kitchen.

A contemporary map of the area.

Turn a Blind Eye is certainly nautical, but it would have been too long a stretch to include it in the Fighting Sail series. I have wanted to write about the fast and fragile cutters for some while. They waged their own private war on smugglers during the French wars, and there is certainly no shortage of action. The Fighting Sail series, with many of the established characters, will return once this project is completed.

Some photographs taken during my visit are shown below: