Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was a software designer. I’d just signed off on my biggest and most fraught project. As I sank exhausted into an armchair, my wife thrust a large tumbler of whisky into my hand and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘Sweetheart,’ she said, ‘get a life!’ Her suggestion: that I write. And about the sea...
Once I’d overcome the initial shock and decided to give it a go, I realised there was a lot of sense in what she said. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been bewitched by the sea. Going to a decent grammar school was wasted on me; on the school bus I’d gaze out across the Channel at the low, grey shapes slipping away over the horizon on voyages to who knows where, taking my imagination with them. As a young boy I remember the thrilling drama of the Flying Enterprise, when Captain Kurt Carlsen refused to leave his sinking ship and, with First Mate Dancy of the ocean salvage tug Turmoil, heroically fought to bring her within sight of port before she tragically sank. Then, too, London Pool was packed with ships flying the red ensign, and it was also the time of the very last of the square riggers: theoretically, you could still sign up outward-bound on a commercial voyage.
The only member of my family to have any connection with the sea was a distant relative we called Uncle Tom. A gentle, quietly spoken old man, he’d been around the Horn in square sail, and whenever I could I would sit spellbound and listen to him talk about life before the mast on the seven seas.
My father thought he’d knock all this sea nonsense out of me, and sent me to a tough sea-training school at the tender age of 14. It didn’t work; there was no contest – Latin and algebra or splicing and boat-handling! So at age 15, I joined the Royal Navy, eventually becoming a petty officer and later a lieutenant commander. And 40 years later, I sat down to write about the sea.
I’m ‘Old Navy’ with a deep respect and admiration for the service, so it had to be the Navy I’d write about. I chose Nelson’s time, the great climax of the age of sail and a magnificent canvas for sea tales. This was an era when the sea was respected and wooed by men who didn’t confront the sea with steam engines and brute force. I also wanted to bring the sea itself into a more prominent role, but was, as yet, unsure how to achieve this.
I soon realised that there were things from my time in the Navy that I wanted to bring to my writing; small things, but so evocative – a shimmering moonpath glittering on the water, the sound of voices from invisible night watchkeepers, the startling rich stink of the land after months at sea, the comfort of a still hammock when the ship rolls about it, the unreal beauty of an uninhabited tropical island in the South Seas.
There were the darker memories, too. Savage storms at sea when you feel the presence of nature like a wild beast out of a cage; close inshore in a gale when you wonder if a mistake at the helm will end with those black rocks suddenly bursting in. I was duty watch in the carrier Melbourne that night when we collided with and sank Voyager – there from the seaboat I saw men’s courage at work while 80 sailors drowned.
To achieve that more prominent role for the sea, it seemed logical to take the perspective of the men who actually did the job out there on the yardarm, serving the great cannon or crowding aboard an enemy deck, rather than of those shouting orders from behind. So the lower deck it was – and then I came across some amazing statistics. In the bitter French wars at the end of the 18th century, there were, out of the several hundred thousand seamen in the Navy over that time, only around 200, who by their own courage, resolution and brute tenacity made the awe inspiring journey from the fo’c’sle as common seaman to King’s officer on the quarterdeck. This meant of course that they changed from common folk to the gentry; they became – gentlemen. And that was no mean thing in the 18th century.
And of those 200, a total of possibly 16 became captains of their own ship – and a miraculous half dozen to Admiral! Yet not one left any kind of record of their odyssey, how they must have felt, what impelled them to the top – and so there I had my story! They would be the basis for my central character; I’d write the story of how he endured from the level of press‑gang victim to hoisting his own flag as Admiral.
I’d deliberately take the perspective of the common seaman as my point of view, instead of the more usual officer shouting orders from behind on the quarterdeck. This would mean I could pit my hero first hand against the reality of the sea, and let him taste the salt spray in his teeth, the fear of serving one of the great cannons on the gundeck, the courage needed to work aloft on madly flogging canvas.
In fact I soon realised my book would be a series.
My initial conception of the length of the series, eleven books, (which at the time seemed almost impossibly daunting) has now been revised considerably, upwards. The more I delved into the historical record the more I found to inspire the creative juices! My twelfth book CONQUEST is just out and I am working on book 13 to be published next June. A further eight are planned.