Lockdown with Oscar: the End

Lockdown with Oscar: the End

When I began these posts I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue them all the way through lockdown. I didn’t really have a plan when I started, I was just trying to cheer myself – and any readers – up a bit. It did work to begin with, but after a few days I experienced a bit of a lockdown slump, and that is definitely not something I wanted to share with my poor readers.

I wanted to come back to this though, now that it’s over. We’re back to where we were before as from today, with life returning to normal in our lovely little bubble, apart from closed borders and even more stringent quarantine restrictions for anybody who leaves and wants to return. And the vaccine of course, which is being rolled out gradually, and which we hope one day will allow us to make choices about our own lives again.

At least daily walks with Oscar should get easier. After a few days of experimenting with the best way of walking Oscar in lockdown, I decided that driving to somewhere a bit less busy is a good idea. Usually in the week I just walk him from our front door, but the streets have been much more crowded through lockdown with people getting their daily exercise. Some of the pavements and footpaths are very narrow, and some people are more nervous than others. Add dogs into that mix and it’s just good to find some space. Accordingly my daughter and I have been taking him to the beach or down to St Michael’s Isle where it’s relatively empty and he can run around, swim and jump in puddles without upsetting anybody.

It’s been a joy to have my daughter on our daily walks and I’m going to miss her dreadfully when she goes back to University, which she’s decided to do this weekend. There will be on online teaching of course, and the library is still closed, but now that she can travel, she wants to be back in her student house with her friends, even if they can’t see anybody else. She’s already left home in her head and these weeks of uncertainty and not knowing when she can go back have been miserable. I’ll miss her, but I understand.

Covid rules do odd things to people. I heard a story from somebody I know  about being yelled at for not wearing a mask in the street. From the other side of the road. Needless to say there were no rules about wearing masks out on a walk, and there is no way to know if somebody has a good reason for not doing so anyway. It’s extraordinary how this crisis brings out the best in so many people and the worst in others.

I’ve set myself some difficult writing goals for this year, but since I’m unlikely to be interrupted very much by inconvenient holidays or family visits, I’ve decided to go for it. I’m currently four chapters in to book three of the Manxman series, which is called This Bloody Shore and it’s going very well. I struggled this time to decide which book to write next. Technically, it should be the Manxman, as I tend to alternate the two series, but when I finished An Unmerciful Incursion I was so immersed in the world of the 110th that I began book seven straight away.  For a few weeks I worked on both, then Hugh and Durrell began to demand my attention and point out that it was their turn.

For the first time in a few years, I’m aiming to get two books out this year. Both of these are already well planned out, and as the subject of book seven is relatively easy to research (although the plotline is difficult) I think I might well manage it. Certainly it will keep me very busy and that’s a good thing. I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I love so much that I can completely immerse myself in it. I am not convinced that life in 1811 would have been much fun, but writing about it is a wonderful way of removing myself from the current situation.

It’s good to know that we have a measure of freedom again, although I think I’m very aware of how fragile that can be. I really hope that my friends elsewhere in the world can achieve the same thing soon. I miss you all very much.

I miss travel and libraries and seeing my sister. I miss planning research trips and going to conferences. I miss big things like my holidays and I miss silly things like watching football on the TV and seeing real fans at Old Trafford. I miss my daughter being able to come and go from Uni freely, without worrying. I miss new films at the cinema, and shows coming over from the UK at the theatre and being able to look ahead and plan. I think we all miss different things, and I don’t think we should feel guilty about it. Whatever the awfulness in the world, it’s natural and normal to miss things that have been taken away from us. The key is to try to find other things to make us happy.

In the meantime, some lessons from Lockdown with Oscar: the End.

  1. I really hate lockdown
  2. Oscar really loves lockdown. “All my people are here!!!”
  3. Reading the news in lockdown is a form of self-harm
  4. So is talking to people about lockdown, Covid or Brexit
  5. Talking to people about history is great
  6. Also dogs
  7. I’m not good at rules
  8. Or being locked up
  9. Given 7 and 8, probably best not to take to a life of crime
  10. Dogs don’t understand social distancing
  11. Sensible creatures
  12. I love my study and my own desk with a deep and abiding passion
  13. I’m incredibly lucky
  14. The Isle of Man is pretty good at working together when it has a common aim
  15. Even if the aim is to go out and get blind drunk in the pubs on Saturday night
  16. I’m sort of proud of us
  17. Did I mention I hate lockdown?
  18. The phrases “covidiot” “stay safe” and “new normal” cause actual psychic trauma by now every time I read or hear them
  19. I’m pretty odd though
  20. My family are great and I adore them
  21. My friends, both local and online are also great and keep me sane
  22. So I need them all to stay safe. 
  23. Can’t believe I just said that.
  24. I want this to be over for everybody.

“Mum. Mum. What are you going on about, you said this would be a short post and then we’d go out.”

“Just coming, Oscar.”

“Is it true I can play with all my friends again?”

“Yep.”

“And their humans won’t be wearing muzzles?”

“That’s right, Oscar.”

“That sounds great to me. Let’s go to Derbyhaven Beach.”

“Come on then, I’ll get your lead.”

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

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After a very successful walk yesterday, it’s both raining and blowing a gale outside. Oscar has made a few forays into the garden to do the needful, and a quick trip up the road, but apart from that, he has decided against the outside world today.

When he doesn’t want to go for a walk, Oscar actually drags his paws. You wouldn’t think a Labrador could do that, but in fact this is the second one I’ve had. Joey, our old yella fella, would stride out in any weather regardless but Toby, our first black Labrador would get to the end of the driveway and freeze in position if he didn’t like the look of the weather. Nothing shifted him. I tried bribery, training, yelling and tugging on the lead. Toby would do his business against the gate post then turn back towards the house in a purposeful manner.

I don’t bother to argue with Oscar. He’s so active that the odd day without a long walk doesn’t hurt him. I’m not so keen myself today either. I had a poor night last night and after a reasonably productive day work wise I hit a serious afternoon slump at about ten to four. I’ve officially given up now and I’ve lit the fire and am dozing on the sofa with Oscar as I’m not cooking tonight.

One of the good points of my son working from home and being unable to go out with his friends is that he’s almost always willing to cook. He’s an excellent cook who can produce restaurant quality food and it’s quite a nice break for me. Steak is happening in the kitchen and it smells good.

I’ve almost finished chapter two today. I don’t yet have a sense of how long this book is likely to be. My last couple were fairly long, but the Tarragona campaign itself was very short. Still, there are several plotlines running through it. More to the point, I will actually get to spend a bit more time at sea during this book. Both my previous naval books have been joint campaigns featuring both the army and the navy, but this one is purely from the naval point of view, so I’m doing a lot of background reading. Oscar is doing less background reading and more snoring, but he seems happy.

“I’d be a lot happier if you’d move that laptop, Mum. That clicking is disturbing me.”

“You mean my typing?”

“Yes. So noisy.”

“I do apologise, your Lordship. I was trying to do some work.”

Lockdown is odd, because my own routine doesn’t really change that much, but because my family is all at home all the time, my schedule is very disrupted. I quite like them all being around though, it’s very social. Oscar adores it and spends the day going from one workplace to another so that none of us feels left out.

The Man I Married is a bit obsessed with the news at the moment. Mostly, I try to avoid it, but when we meet up for lunch, I get my daily rundown of the latest from the USA. It’s like watching a really weird version of the West Wing but without a lot of the witty remarks. Still, it does take your mind off the UK.

My daughter has finished her essay. The pain is over. The trauma is gone.

“Mum. I’m bored.”

“When does your new reading list come out?”

“This week, I think.”

“Why don’t you e-mail them?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Not permanently, love. Just until you’ve got something else to do…”

In the middle of all this, I find myself thinking about people with kids who are both working and trying to home school during this chaos. I remember how I was when the kids were young, and I was utterly devoted to them both and couldn’t wait to get them out the door to school or nursery. They needed the stimulation of mixing with other kids and adults and I needed some time away from them. It’s much the same now.

“Mum. I’m so ready to go back to York.”

“I know, love.”

“Bet you’re ready for that too…”

“Mmmm.”

Evenings are nice, though. Generally, we have a tendency to drift off to do our own thing, but without the social aspect of work or seeing friends, our youngsters are more inclined to hang around the kitchen or living room watching TV, playing games or just listening to music. I’ve heard a few parents with teenage or adult kids saying the same. Ours are quite lovely generally, but very busy, so this is a bit of an oasis.

I’m also very happy that my son’s girlfriend has chosen to isolate with us again, and grateful that her poor mother doesn’t mind. She’s a joy to have and I don’t know how either of them would have coped apart. It does make me think about all the couples who weren’t at the point of living together who must have struggled with very tough choices through this.

We’re lucky. We’re lucky to be able to be together, even though we can’t all be where we really want to be. We’re lucky that so far we’ve had no job losses or financial disasters because of this mess. I’m so conscious of those who have, that I almost feel guilty. It’s a fragile security, but sometimes that has to be enough.

Lockdown minus point 6: When it’s raining there’s nowhere indoors to go.

Lockdown plus point 6: Apart from home, which is a pretty nice place to be.

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

It’s Sunday, and after a wild night of compulsory Beer Pong with some of the younger members of the household, neither Oscar and I are up for an early start.

The Essay from Hell is almost done. We’re at that stage where Girl Child is studying it, and saying in dispassionate tones:

“This is actually not bad.”

Given that at various stages, this was the worst essay ever written and she was going to fail her entire degree because of it, that probably means she’ll get a first. All I have to do now is proofread, admire and leave her to it. Phew.

It’s quite a nice afternoon, so Oscar and I take the car and head up to Groudle Glen. I was hoping it would be quiet, but it turns out that on a dry afternoon in lockdown, the glen is the place to be. Some of the paths are very narrow, so there’s a lot of stopping and stepping to one side to let people pass. It’s all very amiable though. We meet a few dogs including an alarmingly cute pair of dachshunds.

“Mum, this is fun. Why are some people wearing their muzzles?”

“People are worried about catching Covid, Oscar.”

“You’re not wearing one.”

“You don’t have to, out here, only in shops or indoor places. We’re not getting close to people, I’m not worried about catching it here.”

“Why is that dog wearing a muzzle?”

“That’s got nothing to do with Covid, Oscar. Probably she bites.”

“Ugh. Can I paddle in the river?”

“A bit further down. Once we get past the water wheel.”

It’s the first time I’ve been down the glen since the old Victorian water wheel was back in place. It was removed for restoration, and it’s lovely to see it back, looking splendid. Oscar was very interested, but the water is very fast here, with a series of rapids, so we moved on to shallower parts before I let him off the lead to play in the water. He loves it, and will just run up and down in the river for the sheer joy of it.

“Mum, can we go to the beach?”

“If it’s not too busy, Oscar. There are a lot of children about today.”

“I won’t chase the children, I promise. I just want to SWIM!!!

The beach was fairly deserted apart from one family group and a woman with a teenaged daughter and their dog.

“Mum! A DOOOOOG! Can I go and play?”

“I think so, Oscar. Off you go.”

Meet Moz. I didn’t get too many details about him, as we had to socially distance, but he was lovely. His owners and I took turns to throw sticks in the water and Oscar and Moz chased them. It was a lot of fun. At one point they were actually swimming while holding the stick between them, which reminded me of Toby and Joey. I wish I’d got better photos, but they didn’t keep still for long enough.

“Mum, that was GREAT! Where shall we go tomorrow?”

“I don’t know, Oscar, let’s see what the weather is doing then decide.”

“Can I run and play over there?”

“NO! Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“Because that area is pure bog, and if you run into it, you might get stuck. When Toby was young, before we even had Joey, he took a flying leap into there thinking it was solid ground, and couldn’t get out.”

“Ugh. What did you do?”

“I waded in to rescue him. Above my knees in black, smelly mud. It wasn’t good.”

“I’m glad you told me. I’ll give that a miss.”

Back at home, the essay is over and Girl Child is finishing the referencing. I head out to start cooking dinner and there’s no sign of Oscar. After a while, I go to check.

“Are you tired, Oscar?”

“Very tired, Mum. Is it dinner time yet?”

“Almost, baby boy.”

“Think I’ll stay here with Anya until it’s ready. She says I’m a big help…”

“It looks as though you are, Oscar. Sweet dreams.”

Lockdown minus point number 5: Playing hide and seek on narrow paths through the glen.

Lockdown plus point number 5: We have the glens

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Three

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Three

Today was the day. The big day. The day I’ve been putting off.

Today was Shopping Day.

For those of you who feel that my reaction to shopping in lockdown is somewhat over-dramatic, it’s clear there are some things you don’t know about me. One of them, is that this response is only slightly more dramatic than my usual reaction to a weekly food shop. I loathe supermarket shopping with a passion that’s hard to describe. Spending more than five minutes in a supermarket hurts my soul.

To avoid this traumatic event, I tend to be a daily shopper. Working from home, and living only ten minutes from Shoprite, it’s relatively easy to nip out to buy a few things for today’s dinner, and as long as I have a Plan, I can be in and out of the place in about fifteen minutes. Or I’ll be in town to use the library or go to the bookshop and I can nip into Marks and Spencer’s food hall. It’s like pretending that food shopping isn’t really happening.

Of course that means I never buy items like baked beans, tomato ketchup and toilet roll. Those go on the Big Shopping List. Eventually the day comes when I can’t put it off any longer. We’re down to our last tin of tomato soup and there are no bin bags and Big Shopping has to happen. Members of my family always know when that day comes. The fuss I make about it, half the island probably knows when that day comes, and plans to be somewhere else. And this is in normal life.

Now we have lockdown, ffs. Not only do I have to do The Big Shop, but I have to do it sensibly. With social distancing, Knobs Panic Buying and the strong chance that Mother Nature, who has a funny sense of humour, will throw in a gale so the boat can’t go, I can’t rely on daily Pretend Shopping. Also there’s Brexit. I still can’t really take that seriously, but ever since I read that Northern Ireland might be deprived of Percy Pigs if Boris, Merkel and Macron can’t get their act together, maybe I should at least wave to it.

I could barely speak this morning as I gathered my shopping bags, packed my hand sanitiser, wipes and muzzle, and prepared to leave. The family hung around looking awkward, and telling me occasionally how much they loved me. I can’t decide if this was in the nature of a last farewell in case I didn’t come back, a burst of gratitude for my self-sacrifice or an act of self-preservation in case I lost the plot and lobbed a half bottle of Carex anti-bacterial wash at their heads. I wasn’t happy but I was slightly mollified. It’s always good to be a hero.

Arriving at Shoprite was a bit of an anti-climax. Earlier in the year, the social distancing queue often ran round the back of the shop. Today there was nothing apart from a masked security guard, looking a bit like the Lone Ranger, checking that we were all muzzled-up before entering the shop. I grabbed my trolley and advanced, keeping an eye out for enemy skirmishers.

As it turned out, the enemy had retreated. In fact, the whole thing was very simple. Shelves were mostly full, people were generally socially distancing, and the whole thing wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the muzzle.

It’s not my first experience of having to wear a mask in shops. I did it earlier in the year when I was in the UK with my daughter. I was very responsible about it, didn’t make a fuss and just got on with it. That’s the grown-up thing to do.

Who am I kidding? It is absolutely f**king foul and I loathe every minute of it. I don’t moan, but that’s only because there’s nobody to moan to who can do a darned thing about it. But inside my head, there is a constant toddler whine going on. “I hate this. It’s so hot. It’s so nasty. I can’t see so I have to take my glasses off. Now I can’t see, because I don’t have my glasses on. I can’t breathe. My nose is running. I’m sweating. I’m feeling very weird…

Actually, I am feeling weird. Realising it stops me in my tracks, and I’m outside, abandoning my trolley for a few minutes, gulping in fresh air. Claustrophobia is the most illogical thing in the world, but no amount of talking sense to myself makes it any better, so I give it another minute then get myself back in there before somebody removes my trolley and I have to do the whole thing over again.

I emerge at the end victorious but with one or two things still to do. I need to go to Boots, so park in M & S carpark which is virtually empty. Once I’ve been to the chemist, I decide I might feel brave enough to see if I can get the final few items on my list. Donning my muzzle, to prevent me biting anybody who gets between me and the last cauliflower, I enter the fray.

The first thing I see at the entrance to the food hall is the florist section, and right at the front, a bucket of green stemmed, tightly closed up flowers. I stop and stare, my heart doing a funny little jump.

Daffodils.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this. Generally speaking, after the fun of Christmas is over, the first daffodils arrive in the shops and my spirits are automatically lifted. Daffodils are a family talisman. My mother adored them, my sister and I feel the same and they are, unsurprisingly, my daughter’s favourite flowers. I’ve planted a ton in my new garden, and they’re already starting to come up although they won’t flower for a while.  Daffodils in vases around the house, along with a pot of hyacinths in the living room and kitchen, are a symbol of hope, of the ending of the long winter months, a promise of spring and a brighter future. If ever I needed daffodils it is now, and here they are.

As if it was a good omen, I find my cauliflower and the few other items I needed. I load up the small trolley and head to the checkout. The lad studies my shopping on the conveyer. I can’t tell if he’s smiling, as they’ve had to muzzle the staff as well in the post-Christmas rage, but I try desperately to convey an air of good cheer through the thick black gag over my face and hope he gets the point. The shopping goes through. It mostly consists of daffodils.

“You like flowers, then?”

I see. A sense of humour. I try to look deadpan, then remember he can’t see my face properly anyway. 

“Panic buying daffodils. Thank God you’ve not rationed them yet.”

He makes a funny noise. It might be laughter at my wit or possibly the muzzle is choking him. I choose to believe the former.

Outside, it’s sunny, and I can take the damned muzzle off. I drive home in a much better mood and start unloading the endless shopping. My daughter wanders in, mired in the final stages of her essay. She sees what’s on the worktop.

“Daffodils. Oh my God, I forgot they’d be out!”

The sheer joy in her voice makes me happy. We put away the shopping, playing with Oscar as we do it, then take him outside into the garden to play and inspect our own early stage daffodils.

“Mum. Didn’t Joey and I have daffodils that went on our collars once?”

“You did, Oscar.”

“Do we still have them?”

“I bet we do. I’ll go through your box and find them tomorrow.”

“I’d like that. Reminds me of the old Yella Fella. Can we go to the beach tomorrow?”

“Definitely, Oscar. In the meantime, shall we go and feed the ducks?”

“Good idea, Mum. As long as Angry White Duck isn’t there. He doesn’t like me.”

“He doesn’t like anybody, Oscar.”

On the way back, it’s growing dark and getting very cold.

 

 

 

“Isn’t the sky pretty, Mum?”

“Beautiful, Oscar. Are you hungry?”

“Starving. Did you buy my favourite food?”

“I did.”

“Did you wear your muzzle?”

“All the way round. I didn’t bite anybody at all.”

“What a good girl.”

“Cheeky beggar. Come on, let’s get you fed.”

Lockdown minus point 4: Muzzles

Lockdown plus point 4: Daffodils

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 1

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 1

It’s the first proper day of lockdown on the Isle of Man.

It’s raining.

I awoke with great intentions of getting up early and taking Oscar for a walk, but grey skies and a steady drizzle put paid to this. Oscar got as far as the front gate, sneered a bit, did a wee over the footballing garden gnome as he usually does, then went back inside for breakfast. After that he headed for the sofa with the air of a dog who has seen what the outside world involves and has no further interest in it. We’ll try again later.

We’re working in the living room today, since my son is now working at home for three weeks so I’ve heroically given up my desk to him, as multiple zoom meetings are difficult to manage in the middle of family life. I don’t mind working in the living room, but today it includes my daughter writing an essay discussing whether or not the seventeenth century could be called a century of revolution. My girl is a very vocal worker and likes to share the experience of essay writing with anybody who is willing to listen. Or anybody who would rather not listen. It goes rather like this.

“Mum, listen to my opening paragraph.”

“Have you changed it since last night?”

“No, but I’m about to.”

“Why don’t you rewrite it and then read it to me.”

“Because you’ve probably already forgotten it from yesterday, and I want you to tell me if you think the new one is better or worse.”

“What makes you think I won’t have forgotten it by the time you’ve rewritten it.”

“Don’t be silly, you’re not that demented yet.”

That’s possibly true, but I’m going in the right direction.

One of the things I enjoy about lockdown is how quiet it it. We live fairly close to a main road, and though the traffic here is nothing like the traffic in the UK, we can hear a steady stream of cars when we’re outside in the garden during rush hour. This morning there was nothing, just the pitter patter of raindrops and the sound of a seriously aggravated bird in the Rowan tree. I’ve no idea what upset him this morning, maybe a seagull got to his breakfast first, but it was the most aggressive tweeting I’ve ever heard. Must put bird food out shortly to shut him up.

Going into the kitchen was the first irritation of the day. As my son and his girlfriend cooked last night (delicious stir fry with crispy chicken) I cleared up. It’s good for my mood to come down to a clear kitchen so I religiously loaded the dishwasher and washed all pots and pans. Coming down this morning, I realised that the Phantom Night Chef had been at work. My son has the ability to eat at all hours, and it doesn’t occur to him to make do with a packet of crisps if he wants a snack at midnight. God knows what he cooked, but the smell of garlic is going to keep us safe from vampires for months. Ignored pots and pans and sat down to work.

“Mum. Listen to this and tell me if you think I’ve got two separate arguments in this paragraph.”

Twenty minutes goes by.

“Mum. You need to see this.”

“You want me to read another paragraph?”

“No, I want you to look at this video of polar bears playing in the snow.”

“Maybe it’s lunch time.”

Oscar jumps off the sofa. He understands the word lunch.

I managed to get a good couple of hours in this afternoon and I was pleased with what I’d done. The rain finally stopped so I called Oscar for his walk before it started again. Oscar looked at me. I think he’d decided we weren’t going to do that today. Eventually, grumbling a bit, he heaved himself off the sofa. There was a bit of a discussion in the kitchen about whether we could take Stripy Bunny with us. Getting bored with the tug of war, I gave in. Three minutes up the road, I stooped to pick up Stripy Bunny and put him in my bag. We’ve done this before.

There are some things about the previous lockdown that I rather liked. One of them is the variety of artwork that sprang up on fences and walls around the island. I’m not sure if they were done by bored children or if some of the adults decided to break out a bit during their time off, but they do brighten the place up on a grey afternoon. This one is in the next road to us and I’m very fond of it.

In the same road, I could hear loud music. As I reached the house, the garage door was open and a young couple were on the driveway washing their cars with a hose. It was freezing out, but they were wrapped up in hats and scarves and dancing around to the music as they worked. Spotting us, she grinned and waved, while he looked a bit embarrassed but then waved as well. Oscar was dying to go and say hello but we’re socially distancing so we didn’t.

After half an hour, I remembered the things I love and the things I don’t about lockdown. The lack of traffic is a joy. We have at least one quite awkward road to cross on this route, and it’s bliss just to stroll across. On the other hand, the island is now full of people with bored kids and it’s finally stopped raining. The world, his wife, their entire families including their dogs were out and about, with bikes and scooters. Oscar’s tail was wagging frantically at the sight of ALL THE NEW FRIENDS!!!!! Mine was not.

“Oscar, sit. Stay. Let them go past.”

“But she’s smiling at me, Mum, she wants to play.”

“I know, Oscar, but you can’t. It’s lockdown.”

“Boo. Don’t like…OMG look!!!! It’s a dog!!! He wants to be friends!!!!”

“Oscar, come back. Sit. Stay. We can’t, not today.”

On the footbridge we met a small boy wheeling his bike, probably about eight, whose face lit up.

“Can I stroke your dog?”

“No…”

Too late. Clearly this kid comes from a dog loving family and his arms were around Oscar before I could say any more. Oscar enthusiastically returned the love. I waited a moment, at the length of the lead, then gave a gentle reminder to wait for permission next time,  because of social distancing and because the dog might not be friendly. I got a big gappy grin in return.

“Oh, it’s all right. I could see he was friendly. And you as well.”

Sussed out by an eight year old, we carried on.

Further down the narrow path we met a selection of people with dogs, kids, bikes and scooters. It was a challenge, but we all managed to keep the distance until we came across an older couple with a small dog which was off the lead. I pulled Oscar over to the side yet again, but their dog waddled up to say hello. 

“It’s all right, dear,” the old lady said. I gritted my teeth a bit. It was all right, but she didn’t actually know it was going to be, not knowing my dog, and if they’d got into a spat, we’d have had to get very close to separate them. Dogs are supposed to be on a lead down this path, but usually I wouldn’t care. This week I’m trying to do the right thing.

Almost home, and we met a genuine challenge, The dog was huge, a big black bear of a hound, being walked along the narrowest bit of pavement by a woman. She saw us and paused, looking around. There was nowhere to pull over and it was clear that both dogs wanted nothing more than a play session right here and now. Which would be great on the beach but this was not the time or place. I called Oscar to heel and crossed the road for a minute, out of the way. She passed with a big grateful smile and a wave. Her dog glared at me for spoiling his fun.

“He looked like fun, Mum, why couldn’t we play?”

“Not by a road, Oscar. Cheer up, it was a nice walk and if it’s better weather tomorrow, we’ll take the car and go somewhere I can let you off for a run.”

“Great idea. It’s getting dark now anyway.”

“Here we are. Let’s get your lead off and have a drink.”

“And dinner. Is it dinner time, Mum?”

“Another hour, Oscar.”

“Boring. Might have a nap then. I’ll just settle here by your feet with Owl and Floppy Bunny and Hilda the Sheep.”

“Enjoy your sleep, baby boy. Now where was I? Ah yes, a beach in Norfolk, 1810…”

Lockdown plus number 2: People are so friendly out and about. Although I loathe the phrase with a passion, I have to admit there is a genuine sense that we’re all in this together. Except when I remember the Panic Buyers Without a Brain Cell but as I avoided shops today, I could forget about them.

Lockdown minus number 2: I miss working at my own desk in my own study. I know it makes more sense for my son, but I still miss it.

 

Lockdown with Oscar Day -1

Lockdown with Oscar Day -1 has come about following an announcement from the Chief Minister of our lovely little island, to say that Covid has reared its ugly head in the Manx community again and we’ve all got to stay at home for three weeks. It’s the national equivalent of being sent to the naughty step to think about what you’ve done.

Those of you who have been following the adventures of Writing with Labradors through this tumultuous year will be aware that on the Isle of Man, we’ve had a lot more normal life than many people. We were in lockdown during March as cases spread, and there were some hospitalisations and sadly some deaths.

At the end of it, our government set out a series of stages towards complete normality. They also closed our borders to pretty much everybody, including, for a time, residents who were unlucky enough to get stuck overseas. The Isle of Man was having nothing to do with Covid, and with a small island, it proved relatively easy to contain the spread of the virus. One minute we were socially distancing and the next minute the pubs, clubs, restaurants and theatres were open and as long as nobody wanted to travel off-island, life was pretty good.

The island’s Covid-free life attracted a fair bit of attention from the media, particularly in relation to some of the methods used to ensure compliance. The two-week quarantine for anybody returning from the UK or abroad was strictly enforced, and several people were gaoled for breaking the rules. It’s reasonable to ask questions about such draconian measures, but it’s also hard to be mad when you live here and they proved so effective for such a long time.

The Manx government said all along that at some point Covid would return, and it appears that after a number of very well contained cases among people self-isolating on return, something went wrong with the system. On a small island, rumours fly around very quickly, and there have been rumblings of community cases all week. At some point during yesterday, the Council of Ministers apparently decided that there were enough to make another outbreak very likely, and decided to lock down. There were no hints or warnings, no Tier system and no gradual progression. We’re going from parties to full lockdown in just over twenty-four hours.

The lockdown has been announced for an initial period of three weeks, presumably to give them the chance to work out just how much this has spread into the community. In three weeks time it should be possible to know in such a small place. It was formally announced at 6pm yesterday and begins at midnight tonight, to give businesses a chance to get things in place. Of course given that this is the Isle of Man, most people knew by midday. I didn’t, being wholly engrossed with finishing chapter one, which is why when I popped to the supermarket at 4.30pm for chicken, potatoes, coriander and bread, I was astonished to see the car park jammed as if it was Christmas and the shelves looking as though a Plague of Locusts had been on speed.

It’s well-known that during the last Manx lockdown, we were starving over here. Boats didn’t travel, supermarkets never stocked their shelves and those who didn’t panic buy eighty-six packets of toilet paper and a jumbo bag of tagliatelli almost didn’t live to tell the tale. Funnily enough, though, nobody knows anybody personally who starved during those weeks, and personally I didn’t see much evidence. Certainly there were queues due to social distancing, the weekly family outing to the supermarket was severely curtailed by restricting shopping to one household member at a time, and the whole thing took a lot longer and was more tedious than ever. Still, we all survived.

The danger must have been real, though, because even before the announcement was made yesterday, they were out in their droves on a frantic quest to ensure that half the island’s population can build a castle from bog roll and bags of flour while the other half can’t buy basic foodstuffs for one meal. I managed all right, by driving between four shops to pick up five items. There was no describing my mood when I finally got home. Dry January will have to wait.

Today being Lockdown Eve, I ventured out again for my last shop without a face mask. There’s still no fresh chicken on the island, but I managed to get enough frozen for two meals along with a few other essentials. At home I got out the shopping list and menu planning notebook we used in the summer and prepared for a major planning session. With five adults, one of whom is veggie, one fussy, one wanting to lose weight and being convinced that too much beef over Christmas gave him gout, the next three weeks should be a joy.

So why this diary? Well, I’m going to be honest with you and say that I’m not that good at lockdown. It’s peculiar, because a lot of the things people miss, I don’t really do that often anyway. I work from home, as does my husband, and we don’t eat out that often apart from special occasions and don’t go to many parties. I don’t even do that much recreational shopping apart from bookshops. You would think that apart from the Plague of Panic Buyers, lockdown wouldn’t really affect me that much. Nevertheless, both during the previous lockdown and my own two week enforced quarantine when I visited the UK to see my sister, my mental health was very poor. I was snappy and irritable with my family, furious with every public figure who pontificated on how we should all Stay Home to Save the Lives of All Lerts and I had to put on headphones during the evening clapping for the NHS in case I disgraced myself by sticking my head out of the window and saying things that shouldn’t be said. While my adorable family quickly came to terms with the new circumstances yesterday evening while they were cooking the chicken I’d taken two hours to buy, I had to shut myself in my room to avoid their relentless positivity and good cheer.

I’ve spent some time analysing why being confined to quarters affects me so badly, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because I’ve never been very good at following orders. I mean, I can do it.  A lot of the rules of civilised living make a lot of sense to me, and when the law tells me to put on a seatbelt or not to bean the annoying woman who is queue-jumping with the bottle of ketchup I’m trying to purchase, I can accept it with good grace. I understand those rules and they make perfect sense to me, so I can override my instinct to kick off and be a grown-up about it. 

The post-Covid world is another matter. Whatever side of the debate you happen to fall on, the message is clear that there is no debate. It’s been decided for us, and our every movement is now subject to control, sometimes at a moment’s notice. The great and the good, along with the experts on social media tell us how we must think and feel as well as what we must do, and that does something to me. If I’m given the information needed, I will almost certainly decide not to set foot outside my front gate while there is even the remotest chance I’ve got asymptomatic Covid, but being ordered to stay there by somebody else, hurts my soul. Not being allowed to express how miserable it makes me because we all have to be saintly in both word and deed, adds to the pain.

Before this, the closest I’ve come to these feelings is when I’m travelling through airport security post 9/11. While officious airport employees scream instructions over the bellow of trapped and miserable humanity being treated like sheep, I stand in line juggling laptops, phones, toiletries and the half-bottle of water I’d forgotten was in my bag, composing a Paul van Daan-style rant in my head. My family, who know me, huddle close around me, saying soothing things and trying to protect those around me from an impending explosion. I have never travelled with Ryanair.  My family don’t trust me to do so.

I know myself. I don’t want a platform to rail against the inevitable, I just want to stop feeling so bad while its going on. My daily walks with Oscar soothe my soul, and it was a very bad moment yesterday when conflicting information seemed to suggest that we were going to be expected to wear a face mask in order to go for a walk. Fortunately, that has now been cleared up, so Oscar and I will be out and about as usual. If we manage to see half a dozen people from a distance on our usual walks, it’s surprising, so I think we’ll stay safe.

There is always a lighter side to any situation, and that’s probably what I need to find. Me being angry and miserable doesn’t help those who have been ill with Covid, or any other disease. It also doesn’t hurt them. It only hurts me. So welcome to Lockdown with Oscar here at Writing With Labradors, as we share our doings and the ups and downs of lockdown life.

Lockdown plus no 1: It’s not even officially started yet, but already my family are jumping in to offer to cook dinner. It’s important to show this kind of appreciation to a wife and mother who might turn Pterodactyl at any moment. I wonder if there’s a way I can translate this into normal life.

Lockdown minus number 1: My son and his girlfriend and my daughter are making rumbling noises about movie nights, quiz nights and other forms of forced family fun. I feel like a deer caught in the headlights.

Oscar’s Contribution. Oscar waited until I had gone to do my Lockdown Eve shopping before throwing up violently all over his bed and the kitchen doormat. Oscar is very seldom sick. I think he was making a point here. Now he is doing his meerkat impersonation in the hope of more food.

 

Major-General Paul van Daan

A sketch of the probable uniform of Paul van Daan of the 110th.

I got the idea of writing a blog post about Major-General Paul van Daan, the leading character in the Peninsular War Saga from the Historical Writers Forum on Facebook. Every week, we do a #FunFursday post, where members are invited to post something related to a particular theme. It can be an excerpt, a picture, a meme or just some random thoughts. Generally, I post an excerpt from one of my books, if I can find something relevant, but on seeing that the theme was Favourite Character, I decided to write about Paul.

I was quite surprised to discover I’ve not written a blog post about Paul before. I mean, he features quite heavily in many other posts, and is obviously the man behind my most popular series, but I don’t appear to ever have written a post about him. My initial reaction when I saw the theme was to wonder if I should maybe choose one of my other characters, but then I decided, no. I have an entire host of favourite characters in all three of my ongoing series, but when I sit down and start to write, the voice that echoes loudest in my brain, the one I know the best, is undoubtedly the overbearing, noisy, over-conscientious commander of the 110th Light Infantry.

Many of you have already met Paul, and some people have read and re-read his adventures so many times that you probably know him almost as well as I do.  This post isn’t written with you in mind, but you’ll all read it, because you’re all waiting for the next book, and anything Van Daan related will do at this point.

For those of you new to the series, we first meet Paul in 1802, at the beginning of An Unconventional Officer, when he has just joined the light company of the 110th infantry in barracks at Melton Mowbray along with his boyhood friend, Carl Swanson. Paul is twenty-one and has joined the army later than a lot of young officers, having spent two years at Oxford first. This might have been seen as a disadvantage against young ensigns of sixteen or even younger, but it is clear right at the start that this new officer has the one quality that could pretty much guarantee a quick rise up the ranks in the early nineteenth century. Paul van Daan has money, and a lot of it. He isn’t embarrassed by it or apologetic about it, and he’s very willing to use it to get where he wants to be.

So who is Paul van Daan?

Obviously, Paul is fictional, and when I decided I wanted to write a series set in the Peninsular War, I had a long hard think. A lot of books have been written in this setting, ever since Bernard Cornwell launched Richard Sharpe on the world back in 1981, and while the setting and the campaigns fascinated me, I was looking for a different kind of hero. Many of the books in this genre that I read, including Sharpe, were based around officers struggling against  the military purchase system. They had little or no fortune, no influence and fought against injustice, trying to make their way against all the odds. I decided that  had been done many times and very well. But what about the man who didn’t have to struggle at all?

In many books of the genre, the wealthy officer, purchasing his way up the ranks as fast as possible, is portrayed as an incompetent, idle amateur, who comes unstuck in the face of the enemy and can’t gain the respect of his men. It seemed to me, that while there may have been some of these, there were also a very large number of good, steady career officers who could afford purchase but still took their jobs very seriously, worked hard, made friends, loved their wives and families and probably got no mention in modern fiction because they just didn’t seem interesting enough.

Enter Paul van Daan.

Paul is the younger son of a very wealthy City businessman, who runs a shipping Empire and has investments all over the world. Franz van Daan was born in Antwerp and spent his youth making a fortune in India, before moving to England and marrying the daughter of a Viscount, which gave him a respectable place in English society. He had two sons, Joshua and Paul and a daughter, Emma. The Van Daan family divided their time between their London house in Curzon Street and the family estate in Leicestershire.

When  Paul was ten, his mother and sister both died in a smallpox epidemic, and Paul’s world changed forever. He had been close to his mother, and after her death his relationship with his father deteriorated. Franz sent him to Eton, where he spent two years before being expelled for throwing the Greek master into a fountain. It was clear that the explosive temper which is to get Paul into trouble all his life was already very much in evidence. With no idea how to deal with his difficult fourteen year old son, Franz took the decision to send him to sea aboard one of his merchantmen, in the hope that it would teach him discipline.

The thought of sending a grieving fourteen year old boy to sea is horrific to modern sensibilities, but during this period it would have been quite common, and many midshipmen in the Royal Navy started their careers at an even younger age. Franz probably hoped that the discipline of shipboard life would bring his wayward son under control, and perhaps thought that Paul might choose a career at sea before joining him in the shipping business. Paul enjoyed his time aboard the merchantman, and it’s possible that his father’s plan might have paid off if disaster hadn’t struck. In a storm off the West Indies, the ship went down. Some of the men made it to shore on Antigua in the ship’s boats, but were immediately picked up by a Royal Navy press gang, and Paul found himself below decks on a man o’war with none of the advantages of wealth or privilege. It took two and a half years before he was able to notify his father that he was still alive, during which time he lived through brutal treatment, flogging, battle at sea and achieved promotion to petty officer.

The story of Paul’s time in the navy will be written one day. In terms of the main storyline, it is the period which defined his adult life. He grew from a boy into a man during those years, and by the time he joined the army in 1802, he had battle experience, had fought and killed men, and had learned something of his own capacity for leadership. He had also learned more than most officers ever knew about living alongside men from the lower orders, in filthy, miserable conditions. He had experienced hunger and flogging and brutality, and his knowledge of that informed his style of leadership when he finally commanded men in the 110th infantry. It is immediately obvious to both his fellow officers and his enlisted men, that Lieutenant van Daan, in terms of the army, is a bit odd…

“He’s the strangest officer I’ve ever served under.”

“You could do worse.”

“Believe me, sir, I have. The seventh company is commanded by a complete arsehole that flogs the men just for a laugh.”

“Tut, tut, Sergeant, that’s no way to speak about Captain Longford. We’ve met. Has he flogged you, Sergeant?”

“More than once, when I first joined. Wonder what your laddie would make of him? Could be good entertainment. I don’t think Mr van Daan gives a shit about seniority somehow.” Michael glanced sideways at Carl. “Or about any other rules.”

Carl shook his head. “Mr van Daan knows every rule in this army, Sergeant, he’s read the training manuals which is more than I have. How closely he’ll stick to them is another matter.”

“He’ll get himself into trouble sooner or later, if he doesn’t, sir.”

“I’m confidently expecting it, Sergeant.”

(An Unconventional Officer)

From his earliest days in the regiment, we follow Paul’s steady rise through the ranks. His progress is made easier through an unlikely, but increasingly close friendship, with the difficult, austere General Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, who first meets Paul on a hillside in India. That friendship is a key element in Paul’s story. The two men are very different, with Wellington’s distant, often cold and unsympathetic personality contrasting with Paul’s warmth and exuberance.

Through the six books (so far) of the Peninsular War Saga, plus an appearance in the first book of the Manxman series, we follow Paul’s career from junior lieutenant, to captain, major, lieutenant-colonel, full colonel and then to major-general in command of a brigade of the light division. We also follow his personal life, through several fleeting relationships, a warm and affectionate first marriage, and finally to a union with the lovely and forthright daughter of a Yorkshire textile baron, who brings her own particular brand of eccentricity to the 110th.

Paul van Daan is an immensely popular character with my readers. From the start, he is both engaging and exasperating. With all the advantages of birth and money, he regularly gets himself into trouble because of his quick temper and his determination to do things his own way. He has very little patience with senior officers he sees as incompetent, and absolutely no tolerance at all with junior officers who don’t do their job properly. He is a talented commander, who can think on his feet and manage his men and he often gets on quite well with officers considered difficult by other people. Wellington is an obvious example, but he also has a good relationship with Black Bob Craufurd, the mercurial, brilliant commander of the light division until his death in 1812, even though the two men definitely had their differences…

“Major van Daan. Yesterday, you disobeyed a direct order.”

Paul van Daan saluted. “Yes, sir. My apologies. I was carried away in the heat of battle.”

Craufurd regarded him fiercely, dark eyes glowering under beetling brows. “Bollocks,” he said shortly. “You made a deliberate decision to disobey me, you arrogant young bastard, and you’re going to regret it.”

There was a short silence. The air was heavy with tension. Evan studied Paul van Daan’s expression and realised that he was holding his breath, silently praying that he would not respond. Craufurd looked him up and down as though he was a sloppily dressed recruit about to fail a dress inspection, but Paul remained silent. Finally, Craufurd made a snorting sound and turned his back contemptuously. Evan let out his breath slowly and he suspected he was not the only one. Craufurd took two steps.

“Actually, sir, I find that I don’t regret it at all,” Paul van Daan said, conversationally.

“Oh shit,” Wheeler breathed, and Craufurd turned.

“How dare you?” he said softly, walking back to stand before the major. “How dare you speak to me like that?”

Van Daan’s blue eyes had been looking straight ahead but now they shifted to Craufurd’s face and their expression made Evan flinch. “Just telling the truth, sir. I don’t regret taking my men up onto that knoll to stop the French slaughtering your division on the bridge, and if you were thinking clearly, you’d agree with me. You’re not stupid and you’re a good general, and I sincerely hope that Lord Wellington believes whatever heavily-edited account of this almighty fuck-up you choose to tell him, and gives you another chance. But don’t ask me to play make-believe along with you, I’ve lost two good officers and a dozen men, with another twenty or so wounded, and I’m not in the mood.”

“That’s enough!” Craufurd roared. “By God, sir, you’ll lose your commission for this, and when I speak to Lord Wellington, I’ll make sure he knows just how his favourite officer conducts himself with his betters. I’ve made allowances for you time and again, but you’re nothing but a mountebank, who thinks he can flout orders and disrespect a senior officer with impunity because he has the favour of the commander-in-chief. No, don’t speak. Not another word. Since your battalion has no divisional attachment, I shall report this straight to Lord Wellington, with a strong recommendation that he send you for court martial, and I understand that it wouldn’t be the first time.”

(An Unnecessary Affray: a story of the Combat on the Coa)

There is another side of Paul, often hidden behind his outbursts of temper, his ruthlessness in battle and his undoubted talent as an officer. Paul is a family man. He adores his wife and children, cares deeply about his friends and has a passionate determination to take care of his men, in an army where that was not always the first concern of an officer. I’ve tried, throughout the books, to balance out the two sides of Paul’s character to make a believable whole.

There have been some complaints in reviews, that in Paul, I’ve created too much of a ‘modern man’. I’m not always sure what this refers to – possibly his attitude to discipline, possibly his readiness to express his emotion or possibly his devotion to his wife. It’s a point open to debate, but I’d actually dispute that there is any one aspect of Paul’s character that isn’t mirrored by somebody I’ve read about in the letters and memoirs of officers during the Peninsular War. Anybody who has read Harry Smith’s open devotion to his young Spanish wife can’t argue that Paul’s feelings for Anne are unrealistic. Anybody who has read of Colonel Mainwaring’s dislike of flogging, or Sir Rowland “Daddy” Hill’s kindness to his soldiers, can’t argue that all officers were indifferent to the hardships of their enlisted men.

Thinking about Paul van Daan, I realise that I’ve written quite an old-fashioned hero. Paul is a good man, often placed in difficult and painful situations, but who generally does the right thing, even though he messes up from time to time. I think I’ve done that deliberately. In an era when cynicism and the anti-hero are popular, I’ve chosen to write about a man I like. He isn’t always right, and sometimes he is incredibly exasperating, but I can trust him, sooner or later, to come down on the right side. He’s a man of his time, but a good man. He’s funny and affectionate and kind. He’s also angry and arrogant and overbearing and at times I want to slap him. Paul kills people for a living. He also saves them. Sometimes that’s an uncomfortable reality, but that’s the reality of a military man of his time. Luckily, Paul doesn’t suffer from that particular angst. I don’t think many army officers in the early nineteenth century did.

As a writer, I’ve sometimes felt the pressure to write a darker character, with greater moral dilemmas, reflecting some of the difficulties of our modern age. I decided against it. I decided that for a change, I’d write about a dashed good fellow, with a very straightforward view of the world, an imperfect but likeable hero that people could get behind and cheer for, even if sometimes they wanted to smack him. I think many other writers do an excellent job of darkness and angst. I wanted to do something revolutionary in these days, and write about courage, and kindness and integrity.

Look out for more Paul van Daan in book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, An Indomitable Brigade, out next year. Also to follow will be book three of the Manxman series, This Bloody Shore.

 

George William Bryant: a good life

Me and my Dad

George William Bryant: a good life

I wanted to write a post about my Dad on what would have been his birthday, as I wrote one about my Mum, Iris, on hers, but this time I hesitated. I adored both my parents equally, but coming to write this, I’m uncomfortably aware that I don’t know as much about my Dad’s early life as I do about my Mum’s.

I wonder about that. Was it because I was less close, as a child, to his family and therefore didn’t hear all the childhood tales which were part of my growing years in the East End? Or was it simply the difference between them as people, where my Mum talked freely and openly and ALL THE TIME while my Dad was more of an observer, watching the females take the limelight with great affection and appreciation. Afterwards, I decided it was silly anyway. I know loads about my Dad; not necessarily the accurate details about the streets he lived on and the schools he attended, but all the important things about the man he was.

George William Bryant was born on 9th November 1929 in Southwark, the eldest son of George and Elizabeth Bryant. Like Mum’s family, they were very much working class, and living close to the Thames, the occupations on the various birth, marriage and death certificates in the family reflect the importance of the river in their lives. My great-grandfathers were both porters and waterside labourers and my grandfather was a furnace-man in a metal working factory, a relatively well-paid occupation for a young man. It was also lethal, and a lifetime’s exposure to dust, high temperatures, and chemicals left him with damaged lungs which eventually led to his death.

Dad, Bill and Tom, around 1998 I think.

My grandparents lived in Jamaica Road in Bermondsey when my father was born, and never moved far away from there. They always lived in rented flats and raised four sons, George, William, Johnny and Tom, in similar cramped conditions to my Mum’s family across the water.

My Dad’s childhood stories were all about the river. He could remember swimming in the Thames with his brothers, fishing with his Dad and mudlarking along the banks with his friends. The river was special to Dad, and in later life he passed on something of that reverence and affection to my Mum and then to us. The sight of the Thames on a visit to London still touches my heart in a very special way and I know I got that from him.

Like most London children, Dad was evacuated during the war. His father was in the army, and as Tommy was still a very young baby, his mum was able to go with them to a farm in Kent. I don’t know as much detail as I do of my Mum’s evacuation days, but I do know that my father loved living in the country, and it was a love that stayed with him all his life.

Like my Mum, Dad left school at fourteen. I don’t know much about his schooling, apart from the fact that during evacuation, it didn’t really happen at all. For most of his life, Dad was self-conscious about his lack of education. It gave him a determination to make up for it as an adult. Like Mum, he was a voracious reader, and introduced me to all his favourite thrillers and war stories. From his bookshelves, I devoured Alistair Maclean, Neville Shute and Douglas Reeman. He loved military and naval history and through him I discovered CS Forester, Patrick O’Brien and Bernard Cornwell. He also read non-fiction history, especially biographies, and he was utterly devoted to Charles Dickens. Somewhat eccentrically for a working-class boy from Southwark, he had a passion for beautiful looking books as well, and one of his only personal extravagances in later life were several bound sets of his favourite authors, which he would read on a regular basis.

National Service

Dad’s early jobs were in the building trade, interrupted by National Service in the army. When he came out, he went back to building and decorating. He doesn’t seem to have been much of a planner in those days, living at home, paying rent to his parents and the rest of his pay on enjoying himself. He liked going to the pub and going to dances, and had a big group of friends and a love affair that broke his heart. He was still suffering when his best friend, a lad named Bobby Mooney, started trying to get him together with a friend of his fiancee, a girl from the East End who had just come out of the Land Army. My Dad resisted for a long time, but he was best man at Bobby and Violet’s wedding where Iris Taylor was maid of honour, and meeting her changed everything.

George and Iris Bryant

My parents courtship was less straightforward than it should have been, as my Mum was involved in a long-distance relationship with a young German, a former POW who had settled near Cambridge, a story I’ve told elsewhere. She always used to tease my Dad, saying that she eventually chose him for his good looks. Actually I think she may have had a point, he looked like a film star.

With marriage, came the need for more financial security, and my Dad took a job as a railway porter. Eventually, encouraged by my Mum, who had all the confidence in him that he lacked for himself, he applied to what was then the Post Office and later became British Telecom, and trained as a telephone engineer. The money was less to start with, but got better as he obtained more and more qualifications. It was also a very steady job, and made it possible for them to start a family.

Dad with his girls. And yes, I am the little chubby one…

My Dad loved fatherhood. He was the most involved father out of all my friends families. Growing up, I had no idea how unusual he was, in a generation where raising children was still women’s work. He was there at every crucial point of my upbringing, taking turns with nappies, bottle feeding and bathing as if it was the most natural thing in the world. As we grew older, he became an expert in managing shift work so that he could be home early enough to take us to the park, or swimming, or to play tennis. I spent more time with my Dad than any of my friends.

My parents were poor at times, in a way we find difficult to understand now, but they were good managers. They never owned a house, but saved their money and made sure we had everything we needed, and as we grew older, and money became more available, we had holidays and days out and although we never toured the world, I have so many happy memories of exploring castles and climbing rocks and paddling with him.

But there was more to Dad than just a father. He had interests and hobbies and for a shy man, he loved people. A self-taught but talented amateur artist, I can’t remember a time when he didn’t have a sketch book with him, and his paintings and drawings adorned our walls. He was very fit, a powerful swimmer, probably from his boyhood, growing up by the river, and a very good tennis player. I’ve never known where he learned that, but he used to play with my uncle every weekend through the summer.

Dad was also a very spiritual man. I don’t know if church featured much in his childhood, but we were raised in it, and so much of my young days centred around church activities at St Paul’s in Old Ford. Dad was a church warden and a member of a lot of church groups. As a child, singing in the choir and acting in the nativity plays, going to church was so natural to me that I never really gave much thought to Dad’s faith, but as he grew older and moved to different churches and different activities, I had a better understanding of him. His was a gentle faith, which took into account difference. He never argued religion, never really talked much about it at all. It was just part of who he was.

Dad also loved to fish, and as we lived within easy reach of the canal, and several lakes, he spent many happy hours sitting peacefully with his rod. He made friends fishing, especially after his retirement, and when I went home on visits, he would always find an excuse to take a walk along the tow path, especially after I had the children, proud of his family and wanting to show us off to all his friends, including the lock keeper.

Music was another important part of Dad’s life. He never learned to play an instrument, although he could pick out a tune on a piano very well, but he adored classical music, and introduced it to my sister and I from a very early age. We had an enormous old gramophone in a cabinet in our living room, and Dad built up a treasured collection of classical albums. He loved Schubert and Mozart and Chopin, but his absolute favourite was Grieg, and the sound of that piano concerto makes me feel as though I’m in a room with him to this day.

Dad was a devoted husband, who visibly adored my Mum, even while teasing her about her eccentricities. They shared a lot of interests, including history, dancing, and going for long walks. Other pastimes, they did separately, and I’ve always thought it might have been one of the reasons their marriage was so successful that they were never joined at the hip but both had other interests and other friends.

I had no idea how badly my Dad longed for grandchildren, until I presented him with two, quite late on. He was involved from the start, drove me mad during both pregnancies by trying to wrap me in cotton wool, and became a beloved Papa (my son couldn’t say Grandpa, so that became his name) to both of them, babysitting whenever he could, reading endless stories and spending hours drawing and painting with them.

Dad was a very physically fit man, and the news that he had prostate cancer in his seventies, was a shock although we were not especially worried at the start. The disease progressed with horrible speed, and the quality of care received was hampered by his stubborn reluctance to allow my sister and I to get involved until it was too late. For Dad, it was his job to take care of us, not the other way around, and when he finally caved in and agreed to move closer to one of us, he had too little time left.

He came to the Isle of Man. From the day we first moved here, Dad fell passionately in love with the place, and was on a plane three or four times a year to spend as much time with us as he could. A city boy, he had always yearned to live in the country, and especially by the sea, and I think he would have made the move much sooner if my Mum had not been so firmly devoted to London. We found him an apartment overlooking the sea, and although he had only a few months left to live, it gave him pleasure to sit in the big bay window and watch the waves and the seagulls swooping over. He loved the slower pace of life of the island, and it was a grief to me that he wasn’t able to enjoy it for longer.

Dad died in Nobles Hospital on 13th June 2007, just after the end of TT. I sat with him in his room on the day before he died, watching The Quiet Man with John Wayne. It was one of his favourite old movies, and I’d watched it with him so many times throughout my childhood. I didn’t know then it would be for the last time, but it still made him laugh out loud.

When my sister and I were going through his things after his death, there were so many things that made us laugh and cry, because they were so typical of him. There was a mountain of artwork and artists materials, and my daughter still uses a lovely wooden refillable watercolour set belonging to him. There were more coats than a man could wear in one lifetime. Dad spent his life searching for the perfect coat, and he very clearly never threw one away. There was a huge collection of classical music CDs and old movies on DVD.  We found paperwork, neatly filed, telling the story of several adoptions, including a boy at an orphanage in Burma who still wrote to my Dad, who had funded his schooling and an elephant in a sanctuary in South Africa. After his death, we adopted a koala saved from wildfires in Australia and named it George Bryant in his honour. He’d have liked that.

George William Bryant is buried with my Mum on a windy hillside in Braddan, with horses grazing in the neighbouring field. I go up there regularly to take flowers to them both, and in good weather I sit for a while and enjoy the quiet. Dad would have been happy he was buried near us, he was more interested in people than places, and he wanted to be where we were.

I remember him as a quiet man, who tended to take a back seat in his very noisy family, but a man of principle, who would say what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to express a controversial opinion if he thought it was the right thing to do. A generous man, he would give both time and money to anybody in need. After his death, we received letters from all over the world, and discovered that for years he’d been an active member of a local International Club which was run through his church for overseas students and young people working in London, and he had friends in China, Indonesia and various parts of Africa who cared enough to write expressing their sorrow at his death. He was an animal lover, devoted to his various pets over the years, and supporting wildlife charities. And he was a family man, who loved his wife, his daughters and his grandchildren.

Happy ninety-first birthday Dad. I wish you’d lived long enough to hold my first published book in your hands, you’d have been so proud, but you read enough to know what I was writing and you loved it. You also had a lot to do with why I write what I do. Your life touched so many people, and they remember you as a good man. That’s not a bad epitaph.

The Story of the Peninsular War Saga

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyThe Story of the Peninsular War Saga is based on readers’ questions over the three years since the publication of An Unconventional Officer, the book which launched the series and introduced Paul van Daan to the unsuspecting reading public. I’ve just revisited that book, as I’m in the process of re-editing the whole series for paperback.

This is something I’ve been intending to do for several years, but I’ve continually put it off. Researching and writing the books is much more fun than the boring technical details of formatting and re-editing, and somehow I always delay this job until after the next book. My readers, who are an enthusiastic lot, make this far more difficult by constantly screeching for more in the series. However, after the very successful launch of book six, a number of people contacted me asking when the series would be available in paperback as they wanted to be able to buy them as gifts for friends and family who don’t use kindle. This made a lot of sense.

I also found myself in the unusual position of being unsure whether to move on with book seven or to write book three in my linked Manxman series. It seemed to make sense to do some reading for both, before making a decision, while working with Heather, my editor, to make the books as perfect as possible before launching the paperback editions. It also felt like a good time for me to look back over the past three years at both the story behind the story, and at my own development as a writer.

I get a lot of questions sent to me by e-mail and messenger and I try, if possible, to reply. When I was trying to write this post, I looked back over both questions and answers, and decided this was a good way of structuring the article, so I’ve reproduced some of them here, often with extended answers.

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  1. What made you want to write about the Napoleonic Wars?

I first got interested in the Napoleonic wars at University, although I never actually studied them then. I did a course on the history of South Africa, and was introduced to a larger than life character by the name of Sir Harry Smith. As background reading, I got hold of his autobiography and read about his younger days fighting under Wellington in the Peninsula. That led me on to Georgette Heyer’s fabulous novel about Harry and his Spanish wife Juana, and also to other Peninsular War memoirs like Kincaid.

I was completely hooked. I already had ambitions to write historical novels, and I’d thought of various different periods including the English Civil Wars, which I studied at Uni, or the Anglo-Scottish conflicts in the sixteenth century. I also really wanted to write a novel set in nineteenth century South Africa. But the Napoleonic Wars seemed to me to be an excellent setting for a series.

I messed around with a lot of ideas for all of these over the next few years, but I was also busy getting my degrees, finding jobs and getting on with life. I wrote several books of various types during this time, none of which stood a hope in hell of getting published, and even scribbled down some ideas for the Peninsular War Saga. Then in 1993 a TV series began, starring Sean Bean. That led me to read some of the Sharpe novels, and I decided that with Bernard Cornwell doing it so well, and a lot of other authors publishing similar books off the back of his success, there was no chance that anybody was going to pick up a series by an unknown writer who also happened to be a woman.

2. Was An Unconventional Officer your first book?

Written or published? The answer is no and no. I tried to get an agent and a traditional publishing contract for many years before the advent of Kindle and self-publishing, and I wrote a number of different books on advice from people in the industry. I was usually told that as a woman, I should write romance, and that my best chance was with Mills and Boon, so I tried both historical and contemporary with a lot of very positive comments, but no success.

By the time I decided to publish independently, I was sick of the whole thing. I had four completed historical novels that I was reasonably happy with, none of which, I was told, were ‘marketable’. An Unconventional Officer was one of them. I still really wanted to write the full series, and I was already almost at the end of book two, with two more fully researched and planned out, when I made the decision to go for it, egged on by my husband.

Because the publishing process was new to me, and I had literally NO idea how to market my books, I decided to publish the three ‘standalone’ novels first to see how they went. So I published A Respectable Woman, A Marcher Lord and The Reluctant Debutante fairly close together, before being brave enough to put An Unconventional Officer out there. Later on, I re-edited The Reluctant Debutante, in order to link it in with the Peninsular War Saga and wrote a second Regency to go with it.

3. How did Paul van Daan come about? Is he based on a real historical person?

Paul isn’t based on a real person, although he has characteristics of a number of different people. 

There’s definitely something of Harry Smith in there, and I’ve deliberately included Harry and Juana in the books as minor characters. Smith was a flamboyant character, very full of himself, and a favourite of Wellington’s despite not being of the social class most generally favoured by his Lordship. He also had a much adored young wife who shared all the dangers of life on campaign with him, and I don’t think anybody would believe me if I said that idea didn’t make its way into the Peninsular War Saga.

With regard to Paul’s care for the welfare of his men, I’ve taken some of that from Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill although I can’t really imagine any of Paul’s lot nicknaming him ‘Daddy’. But in terms of his eccentric style of managing his men and his aversion to flogging, I got the idea from a rather fabulous book called The Letters of Private Wheeler.

William Wheeler of the 51st wrote a series of letters which began with his early days in the regiment, shortly before embarking on the disastrous Walcheren campaign in 1809 and run through to 1828. They are an amazing source of information on the life of an infantryman during this period and I use them all the time. They also introduced me to Wheeler’s first commanding officer, an eccentric gentleman by the name of Lt-Colonel Mainwaring. Wheeler gives several different anecdotes about the colonel, but this gives the flavour of the man.

“It is the general custom of most regiments to shut up the gates, and confine the men to Barracks when under orders for Foreign service. Not so with us. Colonel Mainwaring does not approve of this plan. When he received the order, the gates were thrown wide open that the good soldier might make merry and enjoy himself, at the same time adding that if there should be any poltroons in disguise among us they might be off, it was only the good soldiers he wished to take with him. We were going to reap laurels, therefore he should not hinder the good soldier from enjoying himself for the sake of keeping a few good for nothing fellows. If any such had crept into the Corps, they would only cover the regiment with disgrace. The confidence reposed in us was not in one singe instance abused, not one man having deserted.”

With regard to the practice of flogging, Wheeler tells us that:

“Lt-Colonel Mainwaring is a very humane man. He is no advocate for the cat o’nine tails. I have more than once heard it remarked that if he could not stand fire better than witness a flogging, he would be the worst soldier in the army.”

Over the years I have had one or two reviewers complaining that Paul van Daan’s attitude to discipline is unrealistic and could not possibly have existed at this period. Colonel Mainwaring is my answer to that one. He probably wasn’t the only one, but he is certainly my favourite.

4. Why is Paul half Dutch?

I’m amazed this question hasn’t been asked more often. The answer is very simple and has nothing to do with the Peninsular War Saga. As I mentioned above, before I wrote An Unconventional Officer, I wrote another book which was set in South Africa in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The main character was a young Boer from an Anglicised family who was partly educated in England, and who served under Sir Harry Smith, and one of the themes of the book was his struggle to come to terms with the conflicting parts of his heritage. The character’s name was Paul van Daan. At a certain point it became clear that book was never going to be published for a number of reasons, but I rather fell in love with him, so I decided to transport him back in time to the Peninsular War. I had every intention of changing the surname and making him English, but it just didn’t work, he was too well established in my head. So I gave him a Dutch father instead.

5. How did you come up with Anne’s character and is she based on anybody real?

Anne isn’t really based on any one person. I wanted my heroine to be able to fit into the period and into army life, so I gave her a background which I thought made that possible. I wanted a hard-headed, practical woman who was very intelligent, and very adaptable. The daughter of a Yorkshire mill owner sounded down-to-earth, but because I also wanted her to have the social skills to shine at headquarters, I gave her a well-born stepmother who taught her to ride and to manage a large household. I also deliberately made her quite young, to give her that adaptability. 

When I first wrote the books, Anne was not traditionally beautiful. I re-thought that, and decided that it would be more of a contrast for a girl with the wow-factor to turn out to be more interested in keeping accounts and learning how to sew up battle wounds than she is in fashion and parties. I also wanted Anne to have her own friendship with Wellington, to bring out his softer side, so she needed to combine both beauty and brains.

6. A lot of heroes in other books, like Sharpe, are known for moving from one woman to another? Why did you decide to give your hero a wife and a steady family life?

I thought it would be more interesting. Partly it was the Harry and Juana factor, but mostly it was because I wanted to be able to write from both a male and a female perspective, and the only way I could really do that was by giving my leading man a leading lady.

7. How much research do you do for each book?

How long is a piece of string? I do an enormous amount of reading. I know the period details fairly well by now, so I don’t have to keep checking things like uniform and commanding officers every five minutes, but I do need to do detailed research into every campaign, and I also like to find contemporary accounts like Wheeler’s as they are a fabulous source of anecdotes that I can weave into my fictional storyline. I wrote a post about my research and note taking for anybody who is interested in learning more.

8. Who are your favourite real characters in the books?

Wellington has to be top of the list, he is the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve spent so much time reading his correspondence by now, I feel as though I know him really well. Of course that’s just my personal version of Wellington, but it is based on a lot of research.

I really like both the Light Division commanders, Craufurd and Alten. They are totally different personalities, but I’ve given each of them their own character in the books and I love their different relationships with Paul. Harry and Juana Smith are favourites, of course, and because of Heyer’s book, The Spanish Bride, so many of my readers recognise them. And I’m a little in love with Colonel Andrew Barnard, a man who genuinely knew how to enjoy himself in the middle of a campaign.

 

9. Do you already know which characters are going to make it through the war?

Some. Not all. I’ve made no secret of the fact that Paul and Anne make it, and there are a few spoilers scattered through my short stories and the Regency romances. But there are some names you won’t hear mentioned in those.

10. Are you going to write the books all the way through Waterloo, as Bernard Cornwell did?

If I don’t get run over by a bus, I promise I am. I’m about halfway through now, maybe a little more, as I’ve not yet decided how I’m going to split up the Pyrenees campaigns, they’re terribly all over the place.

11. Are you going to write any more books after Waterloo? Will they be about Paul van Daan?

I’m going to write until I can’t write any more. Whether that will follow Paul, or pick up some other characters in other campaigns, or even take a look at his children, I don’t know yet. I just hope I live a long time, I’ve got so many ideas.

12. What made you start writing the Manxman series?

Local pressure. I live on the Isle of Man and I was always being asked in local interviews, if I would ever write a book set on the island. The Isle of Man was more suited to a book about the navy than the army, so I began An Unwilling Alliance as a standalone novel. Then I remembered that Paul van Daan had been at Copenhagen and thought I could give him a small cameo role. Then he took over a third of the book. Then I realised I needed to know what happened to Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell next.

13. Will Hugh Kelly and Paul meet again during the war?

I think so. Almost certainly. I know where Hugh will be for the next couple of books, but there’s a book after that which could very easily bring the two series together, and I think I’ll write it.

14. Why did you decide to publish independently?

I couldn’t get a publisher for the stories I was writing because I was told nobody wanted to read that kind of book any more. I couldn’t stop writing, and it proved impossible to swap genres, I just couldn’t manage it. I resisted for a long time, because I felt as though it was ‘vanity publishing’. But eventually, I figured that even if only a few people read them, it was better than having half a dozen completed books sitting on my laptop doing nothing.

It turned out that the agents and publishers were wrong, and there was very definitely a market for this series.

15. What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?

Don’t wait as long as I did. By all means try the traditional route, and keep doing so if that’s what you want. But if you’ve written something you’re proud of, make it as good as you know how, take all the advice you can, and then go for it. If nobody buys it, all it has cost you is some time.

16. Have you ever written any non-fiction or contemporary fiction?

I’ve written some articles and blog posts for people. And I made a couple of attempts at writing contemporary romances for Mills and Boon. They were pretty awful.

17. Will you write any more Regency romances?

A Regrettable Reputation (Book Two of the Light Division Romances)I’m sure I will. Before I started the Manxman series, my intention was to intersperse the Peninsular books with the Regency series. But I’ve decided that I can’t manage three series on the go, plus regular short stories. Besides, writing books set after the war meant that I was at risk of introducing too many spoilers. I will go back to them, however.

18. Will any of your other books have sequels?

Well as I just said, I think I’ll continue the Regency series. And I have ideas for sequels to both A Respectable Woman and A Marcher Lord. 

In A Marcher Lord, I’d like to follow up the story of Jenny’s cousin. And I’d also like to take the characters forward into the period of Mary, Queen of Scots reign. I think that would be fascinating.

I actually started writing a sequel to A Respectable Woman, following the fortunes of Kit and Philippa’s grown up children. Their adopted son Alex is definitely an army man, and I suspect one of their daughters to be a bit of a radical politically. I think I will come back to that.

19. What are your plans for future books?  How many are you going to write in both series?

The Peninsular War Saga will go through to Waterloo, and I quite fancy doing a book set during the period of the Army of Occupation. I also have a real yen to write a novel set during the Congress of Vienna, but that will not feature Paul, as I am not taking him into the middle of a pack of diplomats, it would end in murder.

The navy books will probably continue beyond the war, and I’d like to feature the war of 1812 with the USA. I might even do some of the land battles featuring the second battalion. There are a few other campaigns like Bergen op Zoom that I wouldn’t mind looking at.

20. How long does it take you to write a book?

Six months to a year, depending on how much research and what else is going on in my life. This year has been tricky, with the pandemic, it’s been hard to concentrate and I’ve had a house full of people working at home, but once these paperbacks are up and running, I’d like to try to speed up a bit.

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And there we have it – the story behind the Peninsular War Saga in twenty questions. Thanks so much to all of you who have written to me over the years to find out more about the books and my writing. Keep the questions coming, I love hearing from you, and I’d be very happy to make contact on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram or you can e-mail me at info@lynnbryant.co.uk or leave a comment below.

Lord Wellington sings Gilbert and Sullivan

Lord Wellington sings Gilbert and Sullivan follows on directly from my previous post, where Sir Home Popham got the Major-General treatment and came about because of a request from a friend who demanded why Popham got a song and not Wellington. Luckily, this song is very adaptable. This is a reminder of how the original sounds.  I hope Wellington fans enjoy it…

 

Lord Wellington sings Gilbert and Sullivan

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Sabugal, in order categorical
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters that are tactical,
I understand all strategy both theory and practical
On managing in line and square I’m teeming with a lot o’ news
While skirmishing light infantry I’m known to have a lot of views
I’m very good at reading ground and knowing where to put my troops
And baffling the enemy no matter how well he regroups
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know about intelligence and how to plan a great campaign
I’m good at march and counter-march and knowing to retreat again
Political manoeuvring is something that I’m noted for
And when I write a letter it is something that they can’t ignore
I never let my generals believe that they can get away,
With too much independence, I prefer they do it all my way
And if they don’t obey my orders, I’m prepared to let them know
I know it might upset them but that’s just the way it has to go
I don’t mind riding roughshod over those who don’t agree with me
I know what I am doing and I’m sure in time they’ll come to see
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by “please apply some tact”
When I can show artillery officers some more respect
When I can treat the HQ staff as if they have intelligence
And give the Horse Guards officers some credit for a little sense
When I can learn to trust the men who’ve showed me they can do the job
When I can accept talent and remember not to be a snob
When I stop writing letters without thinking about how they sound
And try to think how my remarks affect the people on the ground
For my military knowledge, though it’s up there with the best of them
My habit of making rude remarks is one that I should overcome
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.