The adventures of Angry White Duck have been a regular feature on my Twitter feed for quite some time. During the working week, I tend to take Oscar out on a local walk every day and we often walk past the local duck ponds. There is a collection of ducks who inhabit these two small areas of water, and most of them are peaceful creatures who spend their time swimming about, gobbling up bread from the local kids and cleaning their feathers.
Then there is Angry White Duck. A photograph of Angry White Duck doesn’t really do this chap justice and I’ve never managed a successful video of him in action. This is because it’s hard to take a video with a lively Labrador on a lead, and Angry White Duck only kicks off when he sees a dog. He hates dogs. This must be exhausting for him, because the pond is in the middle of a busy estate where dogs go past all the time.
I’m assuming that at some point in his life, Angry White Duck had a bad experience with a dog. That dog was not my dog. Oscar is angelic around ducks and I can walk him right past them on the lead and he doesn’t even bark. By now all the other ducks on the pond are used to him and don’t even bother to jump back in the water as we pass. This is Oscar, they seem to say, and Oscar is all right. Oscar likes to watch the ducks and if it’s not too cold we sit on our favourite bench for a bit to observe that all is well in duck world. But the moment Angry White Duck sees Oscar, all hell breaks loose. That duck has the loudest quack I have ever heard, and it’s incredibly aggressive. The minute he sees a dog he will swim backwards and forwards or sometimes perch on Duck Island, quacking furiously until somebody takes the four-legged fiend away. Often, we can still hear him yelling after us into the distance.
During a recent discussion on Twitter, my friends came up with a number of theories about why Angry White Duck is so furious. Given that this is Napoleonic Twitter, where literally anything can happen, it quickly became established that Angry White Duck was probably a duck reincarnation of Sir Home Riggs Popham who wants to vent about the unfair treatment he gets from the other ducks and how they don’t appreciate his genius. Since then, Angry White Duck has been formally renamed Popham.
A few weeks ago, Oscar and I went out later than usual It was dusk when we reached the pond. Popham was sitting on one of the two little islands in the middle of the main pond, looking important. It was too cold to sit, so we made our way past, grateful that in the fading light, Popham did not seem to be able to see us. For once he was quiet, cleaning his feathers and preening himself. There was nobody about and it was a pretty evening.
Suddenly, without warning, there was an almighty noise of barking, followed by a great deal of ineffectual screeching. Something very fast went past us, and then there was an enormous splash. A woman ran past shrieking:
Nero appeared to be a fairly young and very large dog who had pulled away from his owner and dived into the pond. Dogs aren’t allowed in the duck pond, but Nero didn’t care about that. Nero had seen the ducks and he had a plan. Clearly he was a naval chap, and he was swimming strongly towards the ducks. In the background, his owner screeched a lot and waved her arms in the air.
The ducks weren’t happy. They all kicked off. For once, it wasn’t just Popham expressing his views. There was a lot of quacking. Popham the Angry but Aggressively Handsome and Resourceful Duck stood atop Duck Island, louder than any of the other ducks in his squadron. But the other ducks quickly realised it was time to retreat. They left the islands and began to swim towards the opposite shore. Pretty damned fast.
Popham Duck was horrified. The cowards! It was just like the Red Sea all over again. Only, you know, different obviously. By now, it was clear that Nero the Dog was in the employ of Lord St Vincent, Popham’s arch enemy. Popham Duck stood his ground, quacking even louder. He was not going to retreat.
At this point, I was beginning to think that Popham Duck might be about to join his long-departed namesake in the history hall of fame. But there was a new hero.
Oscar had been staring at the chaos in stunned silence up to this point, but he suddenly discovered his inner policeman. Oscar knows that there are places you swim and there are places you don’t. And the duck pond is one of the latter. Oscar began to bark furiously, something he very seldom does, and it was clear that in dog language, he was yelling:
“Get out of that pond, you numpty.”
Nero took no notice at all. His eyes were on the prize and he was getting closer to Popham Duck. At this point, Oscar realised he needed to intervene personally. After all, Popham Duck might be annoying, but a trusty Labrador can’t stand by and see him murdered. He took off at speed. Oscar has never done this before, and it turns out he’s a lot stronger than I am. I let go. It was better than being dragged into the pond.
Oscar ran into the pond and then stopped and barked at Nero. Nero turned in some surprise. Oscar barked again. To my amazement, Nero abandoned his assault on Duck Island, changed direction and swam back to join Oscar. Both dogs trotted out onto the bank and had a good sniff at each other. I retrieved Oscar and Nero’s sobbing owner retrieved him with heaps of thanks. I don’t know why, I didn’t do a thing. I just smiled.
Popham Duck stood alone on his island glaring at the other ducks. You could see that he was thinking that they weren’t getting a share of the prize money (bread) as they’d done nothing to earn it. As Nero left, he quacked a few more times then settled down for a snooze. Oscar and I walked home, and I gave him a treat for saving Popham Duck even if he didn’t deserve it.
Continuing with the Popham theme, and in conversation with our Popham expert, Dr Jacqueline Reiter, we have come up with the theory that if Angry White Duck is Popham in this scenario, and Nero was clearly hired by Lord St Vincent to make this cowardly attack on our hero, then is it possible that Popham Duck sees Oscar as Lord Melville, his long-time patron. This would make perfect sense, if all that aggressive quacking were not Popham complaining about Oscar, but Popham complaining TO Oscar, giving him a long list of problems that need solving.
Presumably, after this traumatic event, Popham Duck went off to compose a lengthy explanatory memorandum about the incident which he recited to Oscar next time we’re passing. To me, this sounded like a highly aggressive version of:
But according to Dr Reiter, who knows about this stuff, it really means:
“When I was totally minding my own business doing something great and secret (see attached letter from Lord Grenville, which is totally unrelated but shows how much trusted I have been by high-ranking people who can crush my enemies like a gnat, especially savage dogs with no manners), an agent of Lord St Vincent came charging at me and it was only by the skin of my beak that I survived at all. Now, sirs, let me continue at great length about how persecuted I have been by…etc, etc, etc.”
We didn’t see Popham Duck for about a week after that and I was a bit worried, although reassured by the expert that he’d probably just popped off to mount an illegal invasion of South America and would be back on Thursday. This proved to be the case. Popham Duck shows no gratitude to his brave rescuer and still recites a long list of complaints every time we walk past.
I’m in two minds as to the motives behind Oscar’s rescue mission. It’s possible that he just snapped because Popham was getting on his nerves and he wanted him to shut up, or maybe he really did feel obliged to help. Myself, I think there was a policeman element to it.
“Now then, my lad, you can’t go around scaring the ducks in this pond, it’s just not on. I know that one’s irritating, but you just have to learn to ignore him.” Probably the real Lord Melville felt the same way about the real Popham.
With Popham Duck back in his rightful place, things have continued as usual on our walks and up on the duck pond until today. With this blog post in mind, I wanted to try to get a couple of photos of Popham Duck, so I stopped off on the way back from the post office and Oscar wasn’t with me. Just as well, as it turns out, because the policeman in him would certainly have objected to THIS.
Clearly, after the failure of Nero to deal with the most irritating duck in the world, Lord St Vincent found a new and far more subtle agent. Assassin Cat strolled out of the bushes just as I was snapping a few sneaky photos of Popham, gave me a swish of the tail, then sauntered down to the water’s edge.
Astonishingly, Assassin Cat seemed to have no fear of the water. He paddled daintily in the shallows and had a drink. I could tell that this was a ploy to throw our hero off his guard and I’m sorry to say that it worked a treat. Popham Duck clearly thought that compared to Nero, this was a negligible threat, and made straight for the intruder, quacking furiously. He wasn’t the only one. Once again, all the other ducks (the ones with brains) swam AWAY from Assassin Cat, quacking loudly. I don’t speak duck, but even I could translate this.
“What are you doing? Popham, you bleeding idiot, come away from there! He’s a cat, he’s not going to jump in and swim, but DON’T GET OUT OF THE WATER!!!”
Popham ignored them. He always does. He swam closer and closer, and Assassin Cat pretended not to look. I wasn’t fooled. That cat had his orders, and he was prepared to carry them out. I wasn’t sure who I was worried about. Popham is a good sized duck, and that cat wasn’t very big. One thing was certain though. Somebody was going to get hurt unless I intervened.
Before Popham got to the edge, I went to stroke Assassin Cat. Being a typical feline, it wasn’t hard to distract him. A few compliments and a tickle under the chin, and he was following me back up the bank. Behind me, I could hear Popham’s enraged quacking.
“Come back here, you furry coward! I’m not afraid of you. You’re looking at the duck who once guided the entire navy through treacherous waters into the safety of a place that they weren’t supposed to be. You don’t scare me.”
I am hoping that with Assassin Cat out of the way, the ducks of Popham’s squadron will manage to explain to him that when you’ve got an advantage, you don’t squander it by making an unnecessary attack. If they don’t, sooner or later, that duck is going to get himself into a situation he can’t get out of. Who knows what will happen then, possibly an unwelcome posting to India or the West Indies.
In the meantime, I think Oscar has become so used to Angry White Popham Duck, that he quite enjoys his regular rants. He looks over at the pond as we go past, knowing that at any moment, the litany of complaints are going to begin.
“Maybe we should bring him some bread tomorrow, see if it will cheer him up. And a treat for me, of course.”
“Why not. You’re a very good boy, Oscar.”
“Thanks, Mum. You’re a good girl, too.”
My thanks to John Haines who came up with the original identification of Angry White Duck as Popham and Jacqui Reiter who contributed to the rest of the story. Maybe we’ve all been in lockdown for too long…
Popham and Wellington’s Christmas Carol was written as a Christmas gift to my very good friends Jacqueline Reiter and Kristine Hughes Patrone, but I know they’ll be very happy to share it. It’s very silly, but it probably does reflect something of the way I see and write these two characters in fiction. I hope you enjoy it. Grateful thanks to Charles Dickens whose work I have shamelessly used.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you.
Sir Home Popham
It is Christmas, and Captain Sir Home Popham, the well-known genius of navigation, cartography, communications, amphibious operations and driving people up the wall, is settling down in his London lodgings for the night under the supervision of Able Seaman Glossop (aka Gloomy Glossop) his trusty valet.
“Well, well, well, Glossop, Christmas tomorrow, eh? It’s a shame I didn’t make it home to be with my wife and the children, but I had so much to do here. I’m sure she’ll understand. I wrote her a long letter explaining the circumstances.”
“I’m sure you did, sir.”
“Although she’s not replied yet.”
“She’s probably still reading it, sir.”
“Yes, yes. Very probably. And did I tell you I received an invitation to dine with several City gentlemen tomorrow? They are still very grateful about the excellent work I did in South America, and…”
Glossop backs up hastily. “Very good, sir. Goodnight.”
For a long time, nothing can be heard in the room but the sound of Popham snoring. He is in the middle of a very satisfying dream about the Admiralty burning down with most of its occupants and any incriminating paperwork pertaining to himself, when a strange noise awakes him. The room is filled with a peculiar light, and at the foot of the bed, a woman in an old-fashioned gown.
“Who the devil are you, ma’am? And why on earth are you dressed up like that? Have you lost your way home from the Victuallers Fancy Dress Ball?”
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“I don’t care who you’re meant to be, you’re in the wrong room. Bugger off.”
“I am not in fancy dress, I am the REAL ghost of Christmas Past, and I’m here to see YOU Sir Home Popham. Your activities have displeased the Powers That Be, and you need to mend your ways. You will be visited by three spirits…”
Popham gets out of bed and reaches for his robe) “This is outrageous! I knew I was being persecuted by the Admiralty, but to send a message with fresh accusations on Christmas Eve, and via a female who has clearly strayed from a Masquerade Ball is too much! I shall write a letter of complaint in the morning, worded in the strongest terms, and if this is about the business in the Red Sea again, I have irrefutable proof that I wasn’t even there!”
“The Admiralty? What on earth has this to do with the Admiralty?”
“Well you said the Powers That Be, and I hardly think you’re here from His Majesty, you wouldn’t get past the gates dressed like that. They’ve no standards at the Admiralty, so…”
“Oh for God’s sake, will you stop talking, this is going to take all night and we’ve two more ghosts to get through yet! Look, I’ll break it down for you, Dumbhead. I’m a ghost. We’re going on a trip to show you what you’ve been doing wrong in the past. Hopefully, you’ll repent. Got it?”
“Dumbhead? Did you just call me Dumbhead? Well, I must say…wait, where are we going?????”
After a blur and a flash of light, Popham opens his eyes and looks around him. After a moment, his expression brightens.
“Ahhh, the good old Etrusco. I’d know her anywhere. What a fine ship.”
“I’m glad you recognise her, Sir Home.”
“Of course I do. But what on earth are we doing here? I thought this was about things I’d done wrong.”
“Sir Home, you seem to have forgotten a few things. During your time with the Etrusco, you were accused of carrying contraband and infringing the East India Company’s monopoly. Both were illegal. People suffered because of you. People got into trouble. People lost money…”
“What do you mean, ahem?”
“I was trying to attract your attention.”
“You’re supposed to be repenting.”
“Well of course, I’d like to oblige. But in this case, you’ve been misinformed. As it happens, I wasn’t even aboard the Etrusco…”
“Yes, you were. The Powers That Be can see all…”
“Well before they make a final decision, The Powers That Be need to read this.”
“What is it – a book?”
“No. Although I did pay to have it professionally published. It is a memorandum, explaining very briefly, over two hundred concise pages, why all the accusations against me with regard to the Etrusco were complete and utter nonsense.”
The ghost looks confused. “Nonsense?”
“Absolute balderdash. That document proves it.”
“I see. Well I’ll have to take this back…”
“Do so immediately.”
“Aha! You’re trying to get rid of me! I see through you, Sir Home Riggs Popham!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re the ghost, not me. What next?”
“Right. Hold on to your hat. We are going to…..”
“Ahhhh – Buenos Aires. Now those were the days!”
“So you admit it. Those were the days when you took off from Cape Town to effect an entirely illegal and unauthorised invasion of South America which completely failed.”
“I was exonerated.”
“No you weren’t. You were court martialled, found guilty and…”
“And then what?”
“You were censured.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Well…they said you’d been bad.”
“Oh boo, hoo hoo. As if that meant anything. Being censured is the same as being given a slap on the back and told to hide the bodies better next time. I did nothing wrong. Do you seriously think I’d be daft enough to do something like that without a nod or a wink from a Man who Knows?”
“It’s clear you’re not a politician, my good woman. Anyway, just in case you’re in any doubt, read this.”
“What is this?”
“A three hundred-and-eighty-six page document which I had privately published, proving that I did nothing wrong in South America. The Powers That Be need to read it. It’s riveting. Now, is there anything else?”
“Well…errr…there was some dodgy stuff at Walcheren.”
“Take this. A hundred and eighty pages.”
“Well what about when you were in Russia, then?”
“Two-hundred and twenty pages. With personal recommendations and footnotes. Do you need any help carrying those?”
“No. I should be getting back, since it’s clear that the Powers That Be will need a bit of time to study all this.”
Popham waves his hand airily. “Oh, tell them to take all the time they need, ma’am. No hurry. Now you said something about some other ghosts?”
“Yes. Shortly, you will be visited by the ghost of Christmas present.”
“Right. Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll get some sleep while I’m waiting. Busy day tomorrow, you know.”
Back in his bed, Popham is dreaming about Lord St Vincent being disgraced over an embarrassing incident with a chamber maid when he is once again rudely awoken. This time, an enormous man in a green cloak, with an impressive beard and a holly wreath on his head is standing at the foot of the bed.
“Sir Home Riggs Popham, I am the ghost of Christmas present, and I have come to show you…”
“Dear Lord, it’s difficult to get any sleep at all. I feel like the Earl of Chatham when his valet mistook the time and brought him breakfast at ten minutes to noon. Well, what is it this time?”
“I have come to show you the effects of your actions in the present day.”
“Get on with it then. Where first?”
There is a flash of light and Popham finds himself in an elegant drawing room. There is a reception in progress and the room is ablaze with candles, and filled with elegant people. A middle aged couple stand at the end of the room greeting their guests. She looks drawn and a little tired, but is very well dressed, and is talking to two officers in red coats. He is engaged in an enthusiastic conversation about hunting.
“Do you recognise this man, Sir Home?”
“Of course I do. It’s the Earl of Chatham. And that’s his wife. She’s been very ill, but I’d heard she was a little better. Where is this?”
“They are at home, entertaining some family and friends for the Christmas season, Sir Home. Of course had you not deliberately lied at the Walcheren inquiry, wrecking both his military and political career, he might have been serving his country overseas.”
“Two things. Firstly, take this. It is a three hundred page document demonstrating without any shadow of a doubt, that I was wholly innocent of any wrongdoing at Walcheren. I was merely the Captain of the Venerable. Hardly involved at all. Secondly, look at them. Don’t they look happy? She’s been ill for years. Now she’s having a brief spell of better health. If he was overseas, he’d be missing it, and it might cause her to deteriorate again. Even if I was involved in the destruction of his career, which of course I wasn’t, wouldn’t you say this is good for them in a way?”
“Errr….I don’t know. Three hundred pages, you say?”
“Give or take. Right, what’s next?”
“Very well. Do you recognise this man?”
“Of course I do. It’s Lord Melville. Now, I’m glad to see him, because I wanted to speak to him about…”
“Lord Melville no longer holds office, Sir Home. But when he did, you persecuted him.”
“I did not. Lord Melville and I were on the best of terms. I wrote him many letters…”
“Do you see the boxes before him. Those are your letters, Sir Home. Dozens and dozens of them. Even after he left office, you did not cease.”
Popham looks happy. “Well. I am glad to see he’s kept them all, I must say. Right, who else?”
“We could visit your wife, who is alone without you this Christmas.”
“Oh, nonsense, she has the children, she’s perfectly happy.”
“That’s true actually, I checked on her earlier.”
“You see? Who can you find, in this present day, who has actually been harmed by me. I mean, seriously harmed.”
“Pooh. They need to toughen up, man, they’re only letters. Right, if that’s it, I’m going back to bed. I’m going to be shattered tomorrow.”
Popham was deep in dreamless sleep when the third and final ghost appeared, a faceless figure in a dark cloak which actually managed to make him jump when he awoke to find it standing at the end of his bed.
“Good God, you might have knocked. For a moment, I thought that Gloomy Glossop had been off on one of his drinking spells and was waking me up to cry about the girl he left in Middelburg. I’m guessing you’re ghost number three, then? The ghost of Christmas future?”
The ghost nods without speaking. This is supposed to be terrifying, but for Popham, it is a gift.
“Not much of a talker, eh? Never mind. Right, where are we off to now? I must say, I’m excited. I’ve been wanting to know what happens next in my fabulous career. Obviously, I’m off to Spain shortly, where I’m sure I’ll be invaluable to Lord Wellington and to the Spanish guerrillas. After that, I imagine they will finally see sense and offer me a position at the Admiralty. If it hadn’t been for St Vincent constantly blocking me, I’d have been there years ago. Now in case you need any information about the constant persecution I’ve endured from that man and his acolytes at the Admiralty, I’ve a four hundred-and-twenty-one page document here giving full details. Please take it. Right, good man. What’s next?”
In a swirl of light, Popham is transported to a quayside. A hot sun beats down on him, and up on the hillside, there is a sombre little procession. Popham observes it for some minutes.
“A funeral, eh? Well, where is this place? Nothing to do with my life so far. Is this a future posting? Hold on, I’ll find out. I say, my good man, let me see that notice you’re holding if you please? A sale to be held in…oh. Oh, I see. Jamaica.” Popham looks at the ghost. “So I’m at the Jamaica Station. Commander in Chief? Yes. Good. Well that’s an honour, of course. But still – an unhealthy place, the Indies.”
There is a long period of quiet, as Popham follows the funeral procession up to the graveyard. The ghost waits in silence. After a while, Popham returns.
“There is another grave up there, Ghost.”
The ghost nods.
“My son and my daughter. Both died out here.”
The ghost nods again.
“That’s hard. That’s very hard. I love my children very much. My wife…I saw my wife up there. It broke her heart.”
The ghost nods again.
“And what about me? Do I also succumb to the unhealthy climate of this place? Do I make it home again?”
There is another flash of light, and Popham finds himself in a small churchyard, in front of a monument. Popham looks around.
“The church of St Michael and All Angels. Is this where I’m buried? And this is my grave. My monument.”
There is a long pause.
“It’s very big. I mean, pleasingly big. I must say I’d hoped to live longer than 57 years, I suppose it was that dreadful last posting. I wonder who at the Admiralty suggested that for me? I have my suspicions, they were always out to get me. All the same, I’m pleased to see that I’ve been remembered. Several of my finest portraits scattered about, and I discover that on Twitter, there is an entire community dedicated to talking about me. There is a fine biography by a family member, and another being written by a young woman whom I am personally supervising. Plenty of people will be able to read about me, me, me, me. On the whole, despite my early death, I am not displeased, Spirit.
“Now, have you finished? I have an important dinner engagement tomorrow, and a large number of letters to write. For all you tell me what my future is to be, I say it is nonsense. I have friends in high places, they would not allow me to be sent off to some ghastly posting in the Indies, they could not possibly manage without me. Why don’t you pop off now, and visit somebody else? There must be somebody needing some spiritual guidance. What about Lord St Vincent? He’s probably a little bored these days…”
The following morning, Popham awakes as Gloomy Glossop brings his tea into the room. He puts it down and retreats fast, but doesn’t make it out of the door in time.
“Good morning, Glossop, and what a fine one it is by the look of it. A very Merry Christmas to you, although by your expression, I should say that isn’t very likely. Tell me, did anything odd happen during the night?”
“Like what, sir?”
“No disturbances in the house. Nobody tried to break in?”
“Not that I’m aware of, sir. You were talking in your sleep when I passed earlier, but there’s nothing unusual in that, you generally talk all night.”
“And all morning.”
“And all afternoon and evening. But nothing unusual.”
“Just as I thought. The whole thing was nothing but a foolish nightmare, and I shall knock off the cheese board at dinner and think no more of it. Now before I go out, I must write to Lord Melville.”
“Yes, sir. Er – why?”
“Well, it’s Christmas Day, Glossop, it will cheer him up to get a letter from his old friend. It may have been a dream, but it made me realise how much he must value all those letters I sent him over the years. That will be all, Glossop.”
The Duke of Wellington
It is Christmas, 1835 and the Duke of Wellington is sleeping peacefully at his London home, when he is awoken by a strange sound. A woman in old-fashioned dress is standing at the foot of his bed.
“Who the devil are you? Did I send for you, Madam?”
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past, your Grace.”
“Utter nonsense. I don’t believe in ghosts. What are you doing here?”
“I am here to take you to scenes of your past life, to teach you things you need to learn.”
“Can you not just send a memorandum? I am in need of sleep, I am dining with my brother’s family tomorrow, which is always exhausting.”
“The Powers That Be do not send memoranda, your Grace.”
“Poppycock, they send them all the time, most of them complete drivel, not worth my time. Very well, if you insist, I shall accompany you. But do not be all night about it, if you please, I am a busy man.”
There is a flash of light, and Wellington finds himself in a brilliantly lit ballroom, watching a dance in progress. A young couple are dancing in the middle of the set, laughing and whispering every time they come together. Wellington watches them for a while.
“Do you know where you are, your Grace?”
“Of course I do. Dublin. Kitty Pakenham. I had forgotten how pretty she was when I first met her.”
“You did not always think her pretty.”
“She did not always think me kind, and we were both right. Although at the end, I found that I felt very close to her again. She was the mother of my sons, and I realise now that has more meaning than any fleeting encounter. And she was a good woman.”
“You remember her fondly then.”
“Naturally. Just as I remember all the times I was not kind to her. Is that what this is intended to teach me? If it is, you are wasting your time. I was a poor husband, ma’am. What next?”
In another swirl of light, Wellington is transported to a sunny room overlooking a harbour. Several men are seated around a long table, talking, looking over a document.
“Do you recognise this, your Grace?”
“You seem to think I have succumbed to senility, ma’am. It is the palace at Cintra. Dalrymple and Burrard. And myself, of course. We were discussing the peace terms with the French.”
“The Convention of Cintra. A shameful peace. Which you signed.”
“I was exonerated by the inquiry.”
“I wonder what might have happened if you had not agreed to such generous terms. Would the rest of that long, bloody war even have occurred?”
“Are you perfectly well, ma’am? Do you know, I have been thinking that this was a dream, brought on by some very bad port at the Arbuthnots yesterday, but I see that I was wrong. Even my worst dreams have never been this nonsensical. In the first place, as I was junior to both these men, my agreement was irrelevant. In the second place, how would harsher terms have prevented Bonaparte running rampant through Europe for the next six years? All it might have done would have been to deprive him of some equipment and some men. He would have found more. He always found more, until the end. Nothing I did that day could have prevented that war, and if I was economical with the truth afterwards, what of it? If I had not been given command, we may have ended up with the Earl of Chatham in command in Portugal, and that would have been a very different outcome. Really, if this is intended to make me regret aspects of my younger life, you are doing a very poor job of it. Is there more?”
“One more visit, your Grace.”
Wellington finds himself outside Parliament in London. Members are making their way inside while a noisy crowd of protestors chants and yells insults at them.
“Do you know…?”
“The Reform Act. A poor piece of legislation, in my opinion. But it passed.”
“Against your fervent wishes.”
“I have never denied it.”
“Your stubbornness brought down your premiership.”
“An office to which I was patently unsuited. What lesson, pray, am I expected to learn from this? That a man should sit quietly in a corner and say nothing controversial?”
“Perhaps that a man should pay more attention to the opinions of those he commands?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, one cannot do that in command of an army, nothing would ever get done!”
“Parliament is not an army, and you were not its general, your Grace.”
“What a pity that was, since it would get through a great deal more business with a great deal less fuss. I have had enough of this nonsense and intend to return to my bed.”
“You will be visited by…”
“Pray tell them not to bother. I will tell my housekeeper not to admit them.”
When the ghost of Christmas present arrives an hour later, he is somewhat baffled to find that the Duke is not in his bed. Wandering through the house, he finds him in his study, writing letters by lamplight.
“Ah, there you are. I was beginning to think you had decided not to bother, but I suppose you had committed your forces and could hardly draw back now.”
“You should be asleep, your Grace.”
“So that you could wake me up? As I was awake already, I decided to make use of the time. I hope you have this properly planned, for I can give you no more than half an hour, I wish to finish this letter regarding the next stage of draining the moat at the Tower of London, before…good God, man, what are you wearing? You look like Harry Smith in the Light Division Amateur Theatrical performance back in 1812, and that is a sight I hoped never to see again. Never mind, let us go.”
The scene is a country park. Half a dozen children are playing under the supervision of a governess. Wellington watches them for a while.
“Do they remind you of your own children, your Grace?”
“You know perfectly well that I hardly knew my own children, ma’am, I was never there. These are some of my godchildren. I am very attached to them. Is it your point that I am a poor father as well as a husband? I do not deny that either. Where next?”
“You seem in a great hurry, your Grace.”
“I wish to get this piece of nonsense over with, so that I may return to my desk. I have a great deal to do. So, where next?”
“I was intending to take you to Spain, your Grace, where the country is…”
“The country is engaged in a civil war, which may be seen to negate my achievements during the late war. I am aware of it, no need to travel there. Next?”
“To France, where…”
“Where the Bourbon restoration proved less than satisfactory. I have no wish to go there either. Am I also to be held account for that?”
“Your Grace, I am trying to show you that…”
“All you are showing me is that no one man can be held responsible for the fortunes of the world. He might well, however, be held responsible for the fortunes of his own family. I have done the best I can with both and have had both successes and failures. These journeys are unnecessary and a waste of my time. I intend to return to my desk.”
One hour later, Wellington is still working when a shadow falls over his desk. He looks up to see the cloaked, hooded figure of the ghost of Christmas yet to come.
“You are late. I expected you fifteen minutes ago.”
The figure nods slowly.
“Well, it makes no difference, I suppose. As I told your predecessor, I can spare you only half an hour, so if you have a point to make, make it quickly.”
There is the usual flash of light, and Wellington finds himself in an elegant salon, crowded with people. A very young woman in a white gown stands at the far end, with a gentleman bowing to her.
“Good God, that is me. And not so very far in the future, by the look of it. And is that…it’s little Alexandrina Victoria. So we avoided a regency, did we? Thank God for that.”
Wellington pauses, then looks at the ghost in some alarm. “Wait – I’m not Prime Minister again, am I? No? What a relief, I hated the job. I hope I live for a while longer though. She’s very young, she’ll need an advisor. Very well, let’s move on.”
The next room is very familiar to Wellington. A much older version of himself sits at the head of the table, talking to a group of children.
“The breakfast room at Stratfield Saye. And more children. I don’t recognise…wait. Are these my grandchildren?”
Wellington watches for a while longer. “They seem very happy to be here. Very talkative. Very…very much as I always wished it had been with my own boys. Almost like a second chance. Spirit – this is a good future. I was rather expecting something gloomier. Have you more to show me?”
The scene is in London, and it is clear that a great event is taking place. The streets are crowded with people, and some kind of procession is going past. Wellington finds himself on a balcony overlooking what is obviously a state funeral.
“What in God’s name is this? Oh, don’t tell me the queen died before I did? What was it? Childbirth? An illness? Or…oh, wait…”
The procession moves slowly on. Wellington recognises soldiers from regiments who fought under him, including the green jackets of the rifles. The family are directly behind the impressive funeral carriage, and suddenly, Wellington realises who they are.
“A state funeral? Surely not. Whoever thought that this was a good idea? If they had asked me, I would have told them…I suppose they could not ask me, could they? Damn it, what an infernal waste of time and money.”
The final scene is in a crypt, a dim, quiet room with guardsmen on duty beside an enormous granite tomb. Wellington walks forward and touches the lettering.
“Arthur, Duke of Wellington. What year is it? No – you can’t tell me of course, and I don’t want to know. I saw myself with the children…I looked older there. A long life, then. And this tomb. I loathed all that pomp and ceremony, but this…this feels right. Thank you for bringing me, Spirit. I’ve no idea if this was intended as a lesson, a warning or whether you really are the product of Charles Arbuthnot’s damned bad port. But I’m glad to have seen this.”
The following morning, Wellington is still at his desk when a visitor is announced. Wellington rises to greet him.
“Good morning, General van Daan.”
“Morning, sir, and Merry Christmas. I can see you’re throwing yourself into the Christmas spirit as usual. I want a word with young Fraser, I gave him explicit instructions to lock this room for Christmas Day to keep you away from your desk.”
“I know where he hides the key.”
“He needs to hide the ink, then. Are you all right, sir, you look tired?”
“I did not sleep well. I had a ridiculous dream. Really, there must have been something wrong with Charles’ port yesterday.”
“It didn’t affect me, I slept like a baby. What was it about?”
“Ghosts, escorting me on a journey through my life. Past present and future.”
“Where precisely did this journey end?”
“Where you would expect, General. At my tomb.”
“Jesus, no wonder you’re tired. I hope it was a very handsome tomb, sir.”
“It was very appropriate. An utterly ridiculous dream. But I feel oddly comforted.”
“Comforted enough to enjoy dinner with your brother?”
“Good God, are you mad? I would rather undertake a Grand Tour with imaginary spirits than spend an afternoon at Richard’s table. But I am fond of his wife, so I will do my best. I will escape as quickly as possible, so expect me early.”
“We’re looking forward to it, sir. Happy Christmas.”
London, Christmas 1842, Three Spirits Meet…
“So are you ready for tonight? I’m told it’s a tough one. Old Ebenezer Scrooge is the meanest old goat in London.”
“That’s all right. I sent his old partner, Marley, to soften him up a bit. You remember Marley?”
“Any friend of Marley is going to be hard work.”
“Not the worst though.”
“No. Oh no. Which do you think?”
“Wellington. Definitely Wellington. The man had an answer for everything.”
“Rubbish. Do you remember how much Popham talked? And talked and talked and talked…”
“He was convinced Lord St Vincent had sent us. Kept going on and on about being persecuted.”
“And those publications. Pages and pages and pages of drivel about how hard done by he was. The Powers That Be nearly cried.”
“I nearly cried carrying them back. Yes, Popham was definitely the worst. What was that, number three?”
A sepulchral voice emerges from under the dark hood.
“Wellington was by far the most difficult. Do you not remember, number two, that he did not even complete your part of the journey? He informed you that he wanted to go home, and you took him. I do not believe that has ever happened before.”
“No. Well. He just gave the order, and I found myself obeying it. Couldn’t seem to help it.”
“I imagine he had plenty of practice. And of course he is still with us. Enjoying his retirement and spoiling his god-children and his grandchildren. Just as we said.”
“And Popham? I never really felt anything we said made any difference to him.”
“No. That was as we predicted too. But we had to try. And now it is Scrooge’s turn. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll give us as much trouble. Are you ready, number one?”
As the cold winter sun sets over the roofs of London, three spirits move silently through the darkening streets towards the house of Mr Ebenezer Scrooge…
At any given moment, it is possible to find dozens, possibly hundreds of historians who will frantically argue any given point of history. Some of them become very angry about it. Some of them are rude and abusive and call each other rude names. The ones I mix with are lovely and argue like grown-ups.
I’m a historical novelist, not a historian, and certainly not a massively popular BBC TV presenter like Lucy Worsley, but this article made me cross. I don’t have access to her original article in History Revealed without paying for it, and I’m not going to do that, because whatever this article really said, I strongly suspect that Lucy Worsley has written something that’s trying to be controversial about Waterloo and Wellington that isn’t particularly scholarly or particularly accurate.
However, I’m also well aware of how badly things can be misrepresented. I honestly don’t think Lucy Worsley said everything she seems to have said in this article. I do think she was probably paid to write something that would stir people up.
In the novels that I write, the Duke of Wellington, or Lord Wellington as he is in my current place in time, is a major secondary character and I love to write him. When I first saw this article, I thought how funny it would be to write a typically scathing Wellington response to it, something I often do.
The trouble with getting to know a character, is that you can’t unknow them. I couldn’t write the piece I wanted to write, because once I began, my Wellington was angry and also hurt. He remembers sitting down writing the Waterloo Despatch, while news of the death and injury of his friends was still coming in. He remembers the letters he had to write to the family of men who were killed and maimed. He remembers that afterwards, he wishes he’d said things differently, given more praise, listed more men and more regiments of all nationalities who were extraordinary on that day. He remembers that sometimes, he wrote what he knew the politicians in London wanted to hear. He worries about why he did that. He worries that he was human.
I originally started this post just as a laugh for my friends. I’m sorry it wasn’t as funny as I meant it to be. Today, my Wellington did what my characters sometimes do and displayed his humanity when you least expect them to. It’s lucky that I’m only a novelist, and not a serious historian, so very few people are going to read it.
For those that do, know that Wellington is really, really pissed off…
With regard to your recent comments on the victory at Waterloo which were quoted in a publication apparently entitled MailOnline, there appear to be a number of errors which I feel it is my duty to correct!
Let me begin with the headline, which claims, if I have correctly interpreted the somewhat garbled wording, that Waterloo was not a British victory because I made little of the contribution of my allies on the Continent. Nobody should be surprised that I am accused of failing to give due credit in one of my despatches home, since my officers spent the years of the war in the Peninsula complaining about it, but why that should have any effect on the British part in the battle is baffling to me. Of course, it was a British victory! It was also a victory for the Prussians, the Dutch, the Hanoverians, the Brunswickers and any number of other nationalities, including a lone Spaniard, who as usual spent any quiet interval complaining that his stomach was growling and asking about dinner! Every one of the men who risked their lives on that battlefield can claim this victory as their own and I consider it damned impertinent that a tabloid journalist and a popular historian should suggest otherwise!!
You claim that I glossed over the role played by the Prussian army. To quote the article: “Worsley said that Wellington’s first cable back to London all but whitewashed their involvement.” I sincerely hope that the ‘journalist’ (a Mr Elsom, I believe) has misquoted you on this occasion. It is shocking that a man writing for a national newspaper is unaware that the first cable was not laid until 1850, but it would be frankly appalling if a person claiming to be a historian made the same schoolroom error!
As to the claim itself, I refer you to the following direct quotations from the despatch I sent to London immediately following the battle. Unfortunately, I was unable to send it by cable, as it had not yet been invented, but my ADC, the Honourable Henry Percy carried it, along with the captured French eagles. He must have been exhausted, poor fellow, I would not have wished to make that journey myself at that moment and at such speed.
“The Prussian army maintained their position with their usual gallantry and perseverance against a great disparity of numbers, as the 4th corps of their army, under General Bülow, had not joined; and I was not able to assist them as I wished, as I was attacked myself, and the troops, the cavalry in particular, which had a long distance to march, had not arrived.”
“I should not do justice to my own feelings, or to Marshal Blücher and the Prussian army, if I did not attribute the successful result of this arduous day to the cordial and timely assistance, I received from them. The operation of General Bülow upon the enemy’s flank was a most decisive one; and, even if I had not found myself in a situation to make the attack which produced the final result, it would have forced the enemy to retire if his attacks should have failed, and would have prevented him from taking advantage of them if they should unfortunately have succeeded.”
In the same letter, I believe I made reference to many of the other leaders of our Allies. I am also very sure there were many I left out. I felt that it was urgent to send the news of our victory to London, but had not yet even comprehended the manner of it myself. There were many names, many regiments and parts of the army, British and Continental, who might have had cause to complain that they had not received the praise they so richly deserved. At that time, the news of those I had lost to death and serious injury was still coming in, and if I was at all capable of writing all that had happened with any degree of accuracy, I would be very surprised!
Still, there is one point in the ‘article’ which is indisputable. The Battle of Waterloo is called the Battle of Waterloo because I wished it so. Several representations were made from our allies that it should be named “La Belle Alliance” after one of the other villages in the area, and I declined. I spoke of it then, as I speak of it now, as Waterloo, and since I was there at the head of my army – an Allied army, it is true, but still at that moment, my army – I ask no permission to call it whatever I like! I also urge those who dislike it to do the same. Why should they not? If you visit the site of my great victory at Salamanca, you will find that my Spanish allies refer to is as Los Arapiles, after a small village in the area, and I applaud their choice! If you do not like the name I give to something, do not carp and complain about it, call it something else, we are not sheep!
With regard to the appallingly inaccurate statement that Britain was “badly bruised during the Napoleonic Wars and badly needed a national victory” I have very little to say. The British Army, firstly under Sir John Moore and then myself, fought in Spain and Portugal from 1808 onwards, alongside our Spanish and Portuguese allies, pushing forwards with victory after victory until we crossed the French border. Elsewhere, Bonaparte was opposed by Austria, Russia and Prussia at different times, but it is not arrogance to point out that Britain was never invaded. We were no more bruised than anybody else and far less than some poor souls!
I can barely bring myself to comment upon Siborne’s ridiculous model of the battle in 1830. He tried to depict every stage of the battle at once, it was overcrowded, badly conceived and made no sense. There were indeed too many Prussians on the battlefield, there was too much of everything on the battlefield. Utter nonsense!
The final sentence in this article is almost too dreadful to write.
“His downfall signalled the end of the hundred years war between the English and the French.”
The Hundred Years War between England and France took place between 1337 and 1453. I am unable to comment further on this, as neither Bonaparte or myself were present.
In conclusion, Ms Worsley, without access to your original article, I hope that this appalling piece of nonsense does not actually reflect either your views or your knowledge of the Battle of Waterloo.
I personally was always willing to sacrifice popularity for my personal beliefs, however wrong-headed they may seem to later generations. While I did not always get things right, and hindsight and history are both marvellous things, I maintained my sense of personal integrity to the end of my days. I sincerely hope, when you are grey-haired and your grandchildren are reading or watching those things you put your name to, you will feel no embarrassment.
And if you have been wholly misquoted and misrepresented by this charlatan, you have my sympathy, it happened to me often, and has continued down the years. I have an immense respect for intelligent women and recommend you follow my example and tell these fools to publish and be damned!!!!!!!!!
Quietly, the door opens.
“Sir, are you all right?”
“I am perfectly well, General van Daan. Why?”
“You were shouting, sir, and you’re alone in the room.”
“My dog is here.”
“Yes. I was temporarily angry.”
“Nothing of importance. An opinion, from somebody I do not know, and who does not know me.”
“Waterloo. They look at the politics and I see the dead.”
“We all see the dead, sir. Those of us who were there. Leave it alone, they’re entitled to their opinions.”
“They complain about the letter I wrote. To London.”
“They’re complaining about the Waterloo despatch?”
“Bloody hell, sir, they can’t have read the rest of your letters. Do you remember the one you wrote to the officers after Burgos?”
“Now that was wholly necessary.”
“What about the one you wrote to the Spanish government in 1812?”
“I needed to make my position clear!”
“Sir, I’ve even got a letter from you complaining about a delay in laundering your shirts.”
“Get out of here, General. I will see you at dinner.”
No actual history was harmed during the writing of this post…
Wellington on Tinder came about as the result of a recent conversation on Twitter about how the Iron Duke would have coped with modern dating apps, and follows on from my entirely frivolous look at Wellington on Twitter. My thanks to Andrew Bamford, Tansy Kelly Robson and Rohan Gandhy for giving me the idea. You’re all to blame.
No actual history was harmed, or indeed involved, in the writing of this post.
Freneida, Portugal, 1813
“Ah, Fitzroy, come in. Where the devil have you been?”
“Working, my Lord. You gave me…”
“Never mind, never mind. I require your help with something of a personal nature.”
“With a few months in one place, I am in need of relaxation, Fitzroy. I have my hunting of course, and dinners with my ADCs and staff members, and there are plenty of social events, most of which I would gladly avoid. But I require more. Something of a more intimate nature. In short, I am in need of…I would like…I wish for…”
“Are you looking for a girl, sir?”
“Possibly. I mean, yes. Definitely. I am aware that a number of my young officers, you included, have had some success on Tinder.”
“You want to set up a Tinder profile, my Lord?”
“If that is what it is called.” Pause. “You have an expression on your face, Fitzroy.”
“Do I, my Lord?”
“Yes. Explain it or remove it.”
“Well…Tinder is a dating app, my Lord. And it occurs to me that you are…well, I mean, you have a…”
“Who is not here, Fitzroy, nor likely to be. Do not tell me that every one of my officers who have been hooking up with the local beauties through Tinder is a single man. I happen to know for a fact…”
“Don’t tell me, my Lord.”
“If it’s the story about Colonel Cadogan, I’ve already heard it once, and I don’t need to think about it again.”
“As for Lieutenant-Colonel Barnard…”
“He isn’t married, my Lord.”
“Just as well. If even half those stories are true, he would not have the energy for a wife. Anyway, how do I go about meeting an attractive female on Tinder?”
“Well…first you have to set up your profile. Are you sure I’m the best person to help you with this, my Lord? I wondered if General van Daan…”
“Certainly not. He is definitely a married man in every sense of the word, and has no reason to know anything about Tinder or any other way of meeting women, it would be most inappropriate! What do I need for a profile?”
“Well, you need an image. More than one is best.”
“Hmm. There are very few satisfactory portraits of me, but I suppose I could use the Goya sketch, although it makes me look somewhat wooden.”
“It’s generally considered best to have a picture where you’re smiling, my Lord.”
“Yes, my Lord. I read in GQ that it makes you look more friendly and approachable.”
“Fitzroy, are you feeling quite well?”
“That’s a very good point, my Lord. Let’s just work with what we have.”
“What other advice about portraits?”
“I seem to remember reading that it is not a good idea to take your shirt off.”
“TAKE MY SHIRT OFF? Have these people gone completely mad?”
“Well, as I said, my Lord, best not to. The thing to do in images on Tinder is always to be yourself.”
“Who else am I supposed to be, in God’s name? This is nonsense, Fitzroy. Let’s get on with this.”
“Yes, my Lord. Right, I think that will do. Now, I’ve been told that it is often a winning strategy with the ladies to show your softer side. Are there any portraits with children, or animals?”
“I have several on horseback.”
“I was thinking of more sweet, cuddly animals, my Lord.”
“So not Copenhagen, then?”
“Best not, I think. Why don’t we move on to your bio? Now the article I read said to keep it short and to the point.”
“Like my correspondence?”
“Perhaps not exactly like that. What would you like the ladies to know about you?”
“My name. My station. Possibly my titles, although we should leave out the tedious Spanish ones, they go on for ever.”
“What about your interests, my Lord? What do you enjoy?”
“I have no time for anything else, I command an army. What else do they need to know?”
“What do you look for in a woman, my Lord?”
“Attractiveness, intelligence and availability.”
“Right. Possibly we won’t include that. We could put in something about your family.”
“The marital history of my family would make them run for the hills, Fitzroy, it has the same effect on me from time to time. And we can hardly mention my wife. Let us leave it at that.”
“Very good, my Lord. After that, it is simple. You can look at the profiles of girls on the app and if you like them, swipe this way. If not, swipe the opposite way.”
“Women will do the same. If two of you swipe right, you have a match, and you can send them a message.”
“That sounds very simple. Thank you, Fitzroy. I have a number of letters to write, and I have a meeting with Dr McGrigor and then I shall try my fortune. I will let you know how I get on.”
Later that day…
“So how did you get on with Tinder, my Lord?”
“Utterly ridiculous process, Fitzroy, I intend to delete the app.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, my Lord. Did you not get any matches?”
“On the contrary, I was inundated. That was not the problem.”
“The first one was a French actress, currently touring Europe. She was definitely enthusiastic, and not at all worried about my reticence concerning my previous connections. A very attractive woman.”
“But not local, sir.”
“Oh, I have a feeling she might be at some point, Fitzroy. She, however, was not at all reticent, naming several previous lovers, including Napoleon Bonaparte. She is either deluded or highly problematic.”
“Then there was a pretty girl called Maria. She was very happy to converse and seemed genuinely interested in my views on the Spanish government, but it would appear that to enjoy her company I would need to be willing to rescue her from the convent in which she is currently incarcerated. I suspect her motives.”
“Interesting, my Lord.”
“There were a number of other brief conversations, which convinced me that the women who frequent this app have no grasp of reality, are afflicted with melancholy or in some cases, actually insane. Finally, as I was about to give up, I struck up a conversation with a young woman who lives in Ciudad Rodrigo. She seemed a delightful person. Attractive, if her portrait is to be believed, intelligent, and understanding. I confessed that I was married, and she admitted that she was in a similar condition, although her husband deserted her many years ago.”
“That sounds ideal, my Lord. What went wrong?”
“She is far too sensitive. We were engaged in a conversation about horse-riding, when a letter arrived from the Duke of York regarding my provisional battalions. I read it while still talking to her, and it infuriated me. He has no understanding of the difficulties I face out here, and writes utter nonsense about the integrity of the regimental system, going so far to suggest that it is my own understanding that is at fault. Naturally I was obliged to end the conversation in order to write to him, to correct his impression that he is dealing with an imbecile. I was perfectly polite about it.”
“What did she say, my Lord.”
“I will read it to you. Wait – here it is. ‘Oh but surely you can talk a little longer. What can be more important than flirting with me?’ There are then rows of emojis, very few of which seemed relevant to the conversation. I replied, and she has unmatched me.”
“What did you reply, my Lord?”
“Nothing offensive. Should I read it to you?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Forgive my bluntness, ma’am, but a large number of things are more important, and if we are to develop a romantic attachment, it is vitally important that you understand that from the beginning. I am in the middle of reorganising my army, after the most appalling end to the previous campaign. I need to secure my supplies, obtain reinforcements and bully London into providing me with enough money to pay my army. The generals they send me are frequently incompetent, and in at least one case, completely mad. The Portuguese have no money and the Spanish do not seem able to get themselves organised, and in the middle of it all, I have the Commander-in-Chief in London trying to take large numbers of my veteran troops and replace them with raw recruits, as though there was no difference in quality. I am sorry if I cannot always be available to pay you compliments, but you will need to understand that my work comes first. I will message you again when I have time to arrange a meeting. Yours, in haste, Wellington.”
“And that caused her to un-match you? I’m shocked, my Lord.”
“Exactly. I cannot have a female with such unrealistic expectations. I shall delete the app and resign myself to a single life until I have more time. Now, enough of this nonsense. Pass me the letter from Hill, I need to reply immediately.”