NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week

NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week has gone better than I ever expected. There’s something very motivating about sitting down each day knowing that you’re not going to give up until you’ve at least come close to your word count.

As I’ve said before, I discovered when I came back to this book that I’d written more than I realised, although it was a bit all over the place, with a series of unconnected scenes. They weren’t all bad though. In fact I was really happy with some of them. Others were interesting but just not right for this book. I quickly realised that the first two chapters were probably the reason I found it so difficult to progress when I first started to work on this book last year. They slowed the book down unbearably from the beginning and kept impinging on the action later on as I had to justify their existence by keeping those narratives going. I’ve scrapped them completely and rewritten the following chapters to fit in and I’m now very happy with the start of this book.

Including the remaining excerpts which will either be scrapped or incorporated into the book when I get to them, I’ve now got seventy-nine thousand words, which is probably more than half the book. It’s going incredibly well. I’ve sent the first four chapters to my editor, just to read through, and she loves it, so I think I’m on the right track. To complete a first draft before the end of May I need to write an average of three to four thousand words a day, and I think I can probably manage that. After that will be a major edit, but I’m hopeful this book will be out before the end of the year, which makes me very happy after the disasters of the previous two years.

I love writing about Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell but in order to be able to tell the full story of the siege of Tarragona I needed men on the ground. As with the storming of Castro Urdiales in An Unmerciful Incursion, the British army wasn’t involved in this campaign. In that book, I solved the problem by giving some of my regular characters a reason to be in the town at the time of the siege. At Tarragona, I found that there were several published narratives written by men on the ground. Both General Suchet and General Contreras wrote their own accounts of what happened at Tarragona giving me some excellent source material to put alongside the account of Captain Codrington of the Royal Navy. 

Accordingly, this will be the first outing for the French Captain Gabriel Bonnet of the 30th légère who later makes an appearance in An Indomitable Brigade. From the Spanish side, I’ve introduced a brand new character who is presenting me with an interesting challenge. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez, ADC to General Contreras who commanded the Spanish garrison in Tarragona is a complex individual who is not  always likeable and not easy to write. I’ll be interested to see how this one goes.

It’s the start of a new week. I’ll keep you updated on progress on my Facebook page, so keep an eye out for posts there. I’m very excited to see where this book takes me next.

Oscar and Alfie are excited as well, as you can see…

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the early part of the voyage to Tarragona. Enjoy.

Hugh turned his attention to his sextant. It was a bright clear day, making the readings easy. Beside him Manby worked out his latitude in a small notebook and there was silence over the group of observers who were suddenly intent on their work. When the master had finished, he walked aft to where Lieutenant Pryce, the officer of the watch waited. Pryce accepted his report of noon along with the degrees and minutes of the latitude observed.

Hugh watched, hiding his smile, as Pryce approached him to make the same report. Manby had needed to walk past him to reach Pryce, but it would not have occurred to the master to report directly to Hugh and Hugh would not have asked him to do so. The daily rituals of shipboard life were important, not because of routine days such as this when Hugh was present and available, but for the one day when he would not be, and a crisis might occur.

Pryce saluted, announced that it was twelve o’clock and gave the latitude which Hugh already knew. Hugh nodded.

“Make it twelve, Mr Pryce.”

“Aye, sir.” Pryce raised his voice to the mate of the watch. “Make it twelve, Sanders.”

“Aye, sir.” Petty Officer Sanders turned to the waiting quarter-master. “Sound eight bells.”

The quarter-master stepped onto the ladder and called below. “Turn the glass and strike the bell.”

As the first stroke of the bell rang out, Pryce turned to where Geordie Armstrong waited, his whistle ready. “Pipe to dinner, Bosun.”

Hugh stood watching as officers and men dispersed. The officers dined in the wardroom at one o’clock and then Hugh dined an hour later, theoretically in solitary splendour. In practice, if he had no other guests, Hugh dined with his first lieutenant. He knew that one or two of his other officers during the past few years had looked askance at his close friendship with Durrell. There had been mutterings of favouritism, particularly after Walcheren when Hugh had stood by Durrell against all attempts to put him on half-pay.

Hugh could see Durrell now, his long form leaning against a grating. He was demonstrating something in a notebook to two of the midshipmen, waving his pencil in the air as he explained. Hugh had no idea what he was teaching them, but he knew it would be accurate, very well-explained and incredibly detailed. Hugh had received many such lectures from his junior and at times they had driven him mad, but he had also learned a great deal. He stood waiting for Durrell to finish, watching the midshipmen. Mr Clarke was staring into space, looking as though he would rather be somewhere else. His companion, one of the new boys by the name of Holland, was scribbling frantically in his own notebook, looking up every now and again with something like hero-worship at Durrell’s oblivious form. Hugh made a mental note to spend some time with Mr Holland and came forward.

“Mr Durrell. As it’s our first day at sea, I’ve invited the other officers to join us for dinner.”

Durrell smiled. “We’re very grateful, sir.”

“I’m sure you’ll be willing to act as my second host. And I’d be grateful if you’d do the same tomorrow when I’m hosting the midshipmen. I may need help with that.”

Durrell laughed aloud. “I’d be delighted, sir. I’m sure the young gentlemen will be on their best behaviour.”

“They’d better be.” Hugh surveyed Durrell’s two pupils. “Mr Clarke, I hope you’re studying hard. Mr Holland, you’re new to us. How are you enjoying your lessons?”

“Very much, Captain.”

“Excellent. You were taking notes there.”

“Yes, sir. Mr Durrell was explaining the difference between various instruments when making calculations and how they…” Holland stopped suddenly and blushed scarlet. “It was very interesting,” he said lamely.

“It’s fascinating,” Hugh said, amused. “I applaud your ability to rein in your enthusiasm but don’t do it with me, you’re exactly the kind of young officer I’m looking for. I’d like to get to know you better, you’ll sit beside me tomorrow at dinner. Now go and get your own dinner before your messmates eat it all.”

He watched as the younger men raced away to their meal then turned to Durrell. “Are you sure you’re ready to help me at this dinner tomorrow?”

“Of course I am, sir. There are one or two very promising men among the new midshipmen, but Mr Holland is my favourite so far.”

“I can see why. If he’s as good as he seems, why don’t you find him some extra duties that will give you a chance to work with him?”

Hugh saw his first lieutenant’s eyes light up. “Thank you, sir. I’d like that.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you at dinner. As my clerk is struck down with sea-sickness, I intend to spend the next hour setting out my accounts book.”

Hugh heard the gloom in his own voice. Durrell laughed. “Would you like me to do it, sir?”

“Yes, but you’re not going to, you take on far too many duties that are not yours, including schooling the midshipmen. I…”

Hugh broke off at the sound of raised voices from the gangway. Before he could move, Durrell was ahead of him. Hugh watched as his first lieutenant crossed the deck and barked an order. Three boys scrambled up onto the deck and lined up before him and Durrell looked them over unsmiling.

“Mr Oakley, Mr Bristow. Can you explain to me why you’re brawling with Lewis when you should be on your way to dinner?”

“Not a brawl, sir. Just joking around.”

Durrell said nothing. He let the silence lengthen until the boys were shuffling their feet. Hugh could feel their discomfort and he did not blame them. Durrell’s withering expression was enough to discompose even the liveliest midshipman.

Eventually, Durrell moved his gaze to the third boy. Teddy Lewis was a wiry ex-pickpocket from Southwark who had been pressed as a landsman and had chosen to remain as a volunteer, acting as Durrell’s servant. He was sixteen and smaller than most of the boys but made up for it with a belligerent willingness to fight even the biggest of them. Durrell glared at Lewis for a full minute then looked back at the other two boys.

“Aboard a Royal Navy vessel, a midshipman is considered a young gentleman. I happen to know that you both qualify by birth if not behaviour. Repeatedly picking on one who is both smaller and below you in rank because you think he cannot fight back is not the act of a gentleman or a future officer, it is the act of a snivelling coward. Please do not be under the misapprehension that because you joined this ship as midshipman, you will necessarily remain so. If you persist in bullying the other boys I will have you broken to common seaman, and you’ll find that below decks the men will be unimpressed with your status. Now get to your dinner. I will see you at four o’clock after the watch is called and we will spend some time improving your mathematics.”

“But sir, study time is over then,” Bristow said in appalled tones.

“Not for you, Mr Bristow, since it appears that you struggle to find constructive ways to spend your leisure. Dismissed. Not you, Lewis.”

When the other boys had gone, Durrell regarded his servant thoughtfully. “Are you hurt?”

“No, sir.”

“Did they take anything?”

Lewis hesitated and Hugh could see him considering whether he could get away with a lie.

“I will find out, Lewis, and you will regret it.”

“My lesson book, sir.”

“Did you get it back?”

“It’s spoiled, sir. In the animal pen, it’s covered in shit…I mean dung, sir.”

Durrell did not speak for a moment. When he did, his voice was pleasant and even. Hugh could tell that he was furious.

“Go to the purser after dinner and get another one, with my authorisation. When you’re not using it, you have my permission to keep it in my cabin. The money will be deducted from their pay. In the meantime, Lewis, in addition to practicing your reading and penmanship, I would like you to practice walking away. If you spend your time defending every inch of your dignity you’ll never rise above able seaman and that would be a shame, because you are more intelligent than either of them. Now go and get your dinner.”

NaNoWriMo with Labradors: Introduction

NaNoWriMo with Labradors: Introduction

NaNoWriMo with Labradors appeared in my brain when I was trying to get back to sleep at 3.45am. I often struggle with sleep due to back problems, but I do try not to actually think when I’m awake. Thinking is fatal as I have the kind of brain which, once it’s fired up, sets off a series of ideas like a row of fireworks going off. This is really useful when creating fictional plots but a complete pain in the early hours of the morning. Let’s just say I’m going to be tired today.

Those of you who have grown old waiting for the release of An Indomitable Brigade will know that I’ve been struggling to be productive since the beginning of the pandemic. I was absolutely delighted to finally publish book seven of the Peninsular War Saga and even more pleased at how well it’s been received so far. This has given me a really good push to get on with the next book.

 

This Bloody Shore is book three in the Manxman series and is centred around the Siege of Tarragona in 1811. I started to write this book immediately after the publication of An Unmerciful Incursion in July 2020 and made a good start, but after a while I stalled and simply couldn’t get moving with it. Eventually I decided to set it aside and move back to the 110th in Spain. Hugh and Durrell have waited ever since, fairly patiently for them, until last week when I hauled them off half-pay and back aboard the Iris, setting sail for the Mediterranean.

 

I realised I’d written a lot more of this book than I thought, which was excellent news. Even better, most of it is very good with the exception of the first two chapters which were utterly superfluous to requirements and probably explain why I struggled with this book first time around. I’ve come up with some new ideas, done some more research, invented a useful new character (with major links to the other series, incidentally) and am ready to go.

That’s when I came up with this mad idea. I’ve never seriously done NaNoWriMo. Partly it’s because I write all the time anyway and have never felt the need to do a particular push like that. Partly it’s because the allocated month is November and that’s not generally the best time for me to be going all out on a novel. I’ve always quite liked the idea of a determined push like that, though, and as I’d really like to get another book out this year, it occurred to me that I could do my very own NaNoWriMo to try to get at least the first draft of this book finished.

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month which usually takes place every November. Writers can register on the website and log their daily word count, as well as receiving encouragement and finding writing buddies. It’s a great resource and I suspect an amazing way to get people started. I’ve made a couple of half-hearted attempts at it, but the timing has just never been right for me.

So, my plan is, starting tomorrow, to write between four and five thousand words a day between now and the end of May. That’s probably going to be quite variable, because life will get in the way, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll post regularly giving my word count and to let you all know how I’m getting on.

My notebook is ready, my laptop is fired up and the desk army and navy are ready to offer support. This book is happening people…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar and Alfie are excited about this new initiative at Writing With Labradors, as long as it doesn’t interfere with walks, playtime and mealtimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Bloody Shore: Book 3 of the Manxman series.

It is 1811.

A desperate struggle takes place on the Eastern coast of Spain. The French are threatening the coastal town of Tarragona and Bonaparte holds out the glittering prize of a Marshal’s baton if General Suchet can capture the town.

Far from Wellington’s theatre of war, the town is held by Spanish forces under the Marquis of Campoverde. Supporting them is a small Royal Navy squadron, including the 74-gun third rater, HMS Iris.

After the frustration and political wrangling of the Walcheren campaign, Captain Hugh Kelly is missing Roseen but is relieved to be back at sea under the command of a man he trusts even though the situation in Tarragona is more complicated than it appears. Lieutenant Alfred Durrell is keen to put his family troubles behind him, but an unexpected encounter in London has left him feeling unsettled.

On shore, two very different men face each other across the walls of Tarragona. Captain Gabriel Bonnet, a scarred cynical veteran  discovers a surprising sympathy for one particular victim of war. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez is a former Spanish Bonapartist but the atrocities he has seen have turned him into an implacable enemy of the French.

Meanwhile in England, Faith Collingwood’s long months of banishment are ended by an event which will change her life forever.

As Suchet’s troops creep ever closer to the walls, the armies, the navy and the townspeople are swept up in a brutal conflict which ends on the bloody shores of Tarragona.

 

 

 

Here comes 2022

Here comes 2022 at Writing with Labradors, though it’s arriving a little late. Many apologies, and Happy New Year to you all. In many ways, though, the fact that I’m late with my usual New Year’s greeting is in keeping with the whole of the past year. I had such big plans for 2021 and very few of them came to fruition. Mired down in the misery of restrictions, and beset by family difficulties, it’s been a slow year here at Writing with Labradors and at times, I’ve felt like a complete disaster. Still, things are steadily improving and it’s good to look back because it reminds me there have been some highs as well as lows during this year.

#Low. Restrictions didn’t go away. Instead, we had more lockdowns and vaccine passports

#High. Vaccines mostly work.

#Low. My sister became very ill after her vaccine, and I couldn’t go to see her.

#High. She’s slowly improving, and I’ve seen her now.

#Low. Three of the five members of my family had covid at different times despite being vaccinated.

#High. None of them were really ill.

#Low. All my planned research trips were cancelled due to restrictions.

#High. Once I could travel to the UK, I organised my very own writer’s retreat which was absolutely brilliant and improved everything.

#Low. I didn’t manage to publish a book last year, for the first time since I began publishing.

 

#High. I finished book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga and it’s currently with my editor, so will be out very soon.

#Low. Writing this year has been difficult.

#High. I published my usual three free short stories this year, plus a bonus one in the spring. For Valentine’s Day, we had A Winter in Cadiz, a romance set during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz in the winter of 1812-13. My spring story was The Pressed Man, a story of the fourteen-year-old Paul van Daan’s impressment into the Royal Navy. For Halloween, there was an Inescapable Justice, a ghostly tale of bloody mutiny set aboard a Royal Navy frigate. And for Christmas, a favourite Peninsular War Saga character discovers a new responsibility and the merest hint of a future romance, in The Gift.

#Low. I’ve been struggling with chronic pain due to arthritis, and in the current situation, there isn’t a chance of any treatment.

#High. For the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is a collection of ghost stories by writers from the Historical Writers Forum and came out for Halloween last year. (Yes, I did have to come up with two ghost stories in one year. Don’t judge me.) My offering, An Unquiet Dream, is a spooky tale set in an army hospital in Elvas in 1812 and features a regular minor character from the Peninsular War Saga.

 

 

 

#High. I was also asked to be part of an anthology of short stories edited by Tom Williams (author of the Burke novels and the Williamson books) which will be published this year. The story is called The Recruit and is set in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion. (I see my regulars with their ears pricking up there. “Really? Who could that be about?”)

#High. My immediate family are great and doing very well. My son and his girlfriend are settled in their jobs and looking to move out soon. My daughter is in her final year studying history at the University of York and is getting firsts so far.

#High. Alfie. After a long period of Oscar holding the fort alone at Writing with Labradors and doing a splendid job, we welcomed our new baby into the family in May, and despite his well-deserved nickname of the Chaos Demon, he has proved to be a valued and much adored member of staff.

#High. I had a great time with the Historical Writers Forum last year, including taking part in a panel to talk about writing battles in historical fiction.

 

#High. Oscar. Still my baby, and possibly the most well-behaved Labrador in the country.

#High. You see, this is why it’s really good to actually write out a list of highs and lows of the past year. Because I ran out of lows, which pretty much proved that despite everything, my life is good.

There’s one very big low that I’ve not included as part of the list because it would be crass to do so. In August, after several years of watching them struggle and a year of frantic anxiety during Covid restrictions, we finally managed to persuade my in-laws to move to the Isle of Man on a trial basis.

Sadly, it didn’t go as we’d hoped. They’d left it too late, and it was very quickly clear that my mother-in-law’s dementia had got significantly worse, while my father-in-law was very unwell. Malcolm died suddenly on 30th October, of a massive heart attack, and after a difficult period, Irene returned to London to go into a care home near her daughter. The funeral was held just two weeks before Christmas.

I miss Malcolm. He was only here for a few months, but I got very used to him being around. From the earliest days of my relationship with Richard, almost thirty years ago now, Malcolm and I had a special bond. He shared my enthusiasm for history, and years ago, before I’d ever published, he bought me my first biography of Wellington, the Longford one, from a second-hand book shop. He got on well with my parents, although they didn’t meet that often, and he adored his grandchildren. He loved books and music and was interested in current affairs. He also loved technology, especially cars, and when he was younger, he could fix anything. Before I was even married, he took me for a day out to Silverstone, to watch a Formula One Grand Prix, and we had a fabulous time.

Malcolm was kind and funny and was unbelievably proud to have a daughter-in-law who was an author. One of his last acts was to blag a free copy of An Unconventional Officer for a doctor at Nobles Hospital who had been good to him during a recent stay. His favourite spot, when visiting, was my reading corner in my study. He loved the armchair and would sneak in when he got the chance and take an afternoon nap or browse through one of my books while I was working.

Richard and I went to London with a van to collect some of their possessions when we still thought they might make a go of living over here. I rather fell in love with a beautiful collection of wooden boats that Malcolm had in his study and mentioned how much I liked them as we were unpacking. To my surprise and delight, he insisted on giving them to me, to go with my wooden model of the Victory in my study. They look beautiful, and I feel as though there’s a little part of him sharing my workspace still. I’m working on a proper obituary for Malcolm. He had an interesting life, and I’d love to share it with people.

The end of the year was sad, and it wasn’t helped with two family members having covid over Christmas, though neither had anything more than cold symptoms. By New Year’s Eve, both were clear, which meant we could host what is rapidly becoming our traditional young people’s New Year Party. The kids all had a great time and we drank a toast to Malcolm at midnight.

And now it’s 2022 and we’re still struggling to sort out care homes and financial matters for Richard’s mum, which is even harder long distance. I’m trying to look ahead into 2022 and be hopeful, but I think I’m a lot more cautious than I was at the beginning of 2021. I think back then, with the vaccine in the offing, I was naively hopeful that the world would begin to calm down. This year, I’m less sanguine. The wounds left by the past few years are going to take a while to heal but heal they will. History suggests they always do eventually.

I’m hopeful for myself, though. I feel as though I’ve got my enthusiasm back for my writing, and my brain is teeming with ideas. I’m looking forward to Tom’s anthology coming out, and I’m excited for the publication of An Indomitable Brigade. Currently I’m finishing the edits for the rest of the paperbacks, and then I’m returning to This Bloody Shore, which is book three in the Manxman series.

At the beginning of last year, I had a long list of things I wanted to achieve during the year. This year, I’m reluctant to come up with a list, and yet looking at this blog post, although I didn’t manage to get the book out, I was very close, and I did manage quite a lot in very difficult circumstances.

So here goes. This year, I’d like to finish the paperback edits once and for all. I’ve got An Indomitable Brigade coming out very soon, and Tom’s anthology, and I’m determined to finish This Bloody Shore by the end of the year. I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories, and I’ve been asked to write another episode from Paul van Daan’s boyhood, which I’d love to do. I also have an invitation to write a story for another anthology which is completely out of my period and out of my comfort zone. It will be a challenge, but I’d quite like to give it a go, so we’ll see if it comes off.

I’d like to travel again. I dream of going to Castro Urdiales or Tarragona or Santander or Gibraltar, but I’m not prepared to book until I’m very confident I won’t be caught up in some last-minute lockdown. This year I suspect I’ll confine my travels to the UK, and possibly Ireland. After the restrictions of the last two years, even that will seem like a blessing.

In the meantime, Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors. I know all of you will have had your highs and lows this year, and many will be a lot worse than mine. Thank you all so much for your support and enthusiasm and your sheer love of the books, the characters and the history. Let’s hope things improve steadily through 2022.

A Writer’s Retreat

A Writer’s Retreat

Trying to write in the middle of a busy household with a couple of Labradors and an over-developed sense of responsibility, I’ve often dreamed of going on a Writer’s Retreat. I’m sure many of my fellow writers feel the same way. After yet another week where writing plans have sunk without trace in a round of supermarket shopping, dealing with elderly relatives, proofreading essays and cleaning the dogs’ ears, I love the idea of a few days of peace and quiet in lovely surroundings with nothing to do but write. I’ve never done it though.

I’ve come close a few times. I used to volunteer to cat-sit for my sister, who lives in a very beautiful place, and I certainly took the opportunity to catch up on work while I was there. Somehow though, it was still never the haven I dreamed about. I’ve taken off on research trips on my own many times, but those tend to be a frantic round of getting to the places I wanted, taking photographs and making notes. It would almost have felt too self-indulgent to spend the day sitting doing nothing but writing.

Organised writers’ retreats look very appealing, but many of them seem very expensive. Besides which, they generally include other writers. I know myself too well, and the opportunity to sit and talk writing, history and general nonsense with a group of like-minded people would be irresistible. They’d be a lot of fun, but I’d get nothing done.

The second half of 2021 was hard for me. It is well recorded elsewhere on this blog that I didn’t do well with lockdown and restrictions, and although I would have loved to book a research trip somewhere in Europe, I didn’t trust that these wouldn’t be reinstated at a moment’s notice. Richard managed a couple of cycling trips to the UK, and we had some friends to stay the moment restrictions lifted enough, but I was miserable. The only trips I made to the UK were necessary family visits and none of them were particularly restful. We had been having a lot of problems with my elderly in-laws who had recently moved to the island and I felt as though my life had become one long round of hospital visits and troubleshooting phone calls.

2021 was also the first year since I began publishing that I didn’t manage to get a book out. Back in October, it seemed as though I wasn’t even going to get close to it. I knew what I needed to do, and the book was going well, but I couldn’t get enough time to work on it. I was frazzled and seriously burned out and I needed a break, but I had no idea where I wanted to go or what was practical in the post-Covid world.

Burnout is one thing, but the annual Halloween short story was due, and I had an idea for a story set during Captain Hugh Kelly’s younger days, when he was newly promoted to captain of a frigate. My research so far has all been based around the 74-gun Iris, but I wanted information about one of the smaller, faster ships which made stars of the navy captains. A quick spell of internet research introduced me to HMS Trincomalee, the oldest warship still afloat in Europe.

The Trincomalee looked gorgeous and was located in the Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, something I didn’t even know existed. I did a bit of research and decided that I absolutely wanted to go there, and sooner rather than later. I was actually very excited. It’s been two years since there was a very real prospect of me travelling anywhere to do something just for myself, and the sheer joy I felt, made me realise how badly I needed a break. I checked dates with Richard then went searching for accommodation.

I was determined not to stay with family or friends. This time I wanted to be completely on my own agenda. I didn’t want to stay in Hartlepool, but somewhere pretty, within easy driving distance. North Yorkshire looked good, and I love that area. No self-catering. I do enough cooking at home. I typed in my requirements, to be listed by cost for a week, lowest first.

The first thing that popped up was a room at the Duke of Wellington Inn, in Danby. I swear to God, people, I’d booked it within ten minutes. Sometimes it’s obviously a sign.

The Duke of Wellington Inn is an ivy-clad traditional eighteenth century inn located in the tiny village of Danby in the North York Moors, about fifteen miles inland from Whitby. Until I found the place, I hadn’t decided that my trip was going to be my very own personalised writer’s retreat, but a bit of research made me realise it was perfect. Danby really is small, although very pretty. The Moors National Park Centre is just at the edge of the village, and there’s a tiny bakery with a café just behind the Duke of Wellington. Other than that, there’s not even a shop in the village. For somebody wanting uninterrupted writing time, it couldn’t have been better.

I checked with the owner whether there was a suitable table in my room for working. The single rooms were fairly small, but he assured me there was a guests’ sitting room with a desk in it and I’d be very welcome to work there as it was seldom used. When I arrived and saw it, I couldn’t quite believe my luck. For a week, I effectively had my own personal study. It was completely lovely.

The Duke of Wellington Inn was built in 1732 and was originally known as the Red Briar. It was used as a recruiting post during the Napoleonic Wars and was apparently known as either the Wellington Arms or the Lord Wellington during this period. I haven’t yet been able to find out when the name was changed to the Duke of Wellington – my first thought was that it must have been after 1815 to commemorate the victory at Waterloo, but I discovered that when Canon Atkinson arrived in 1847 to take up his post as Vicar of Danby, the inn was still called the Wellington Arms so the transition must have come later. At that point, the inn was kept by two sisters known as Martha and Mary.

A cast iron plaque of the Duke was unearthed during restoration work and can be seen on the wall as you go up the stairs. The inn is not large and is very obviously old – floors are uneven and the furniture is very traditional. Impressively, though, all the essential things for a comfortable stay work really well – the bed was comfortable, the bathroom modern and heating and hot water were spot on. I’d booked bed and breakfast, but after a look at the dinner menu, decided I’d eat there in the evening as well. It was standard pub food, but well-cooked and sensibly priced, and I never object to sitting by an open fire in a traditional country pub to eat. In addition, the staff were absolutely amazing. Nothing was too much trouble and they treated my invasion of the guest sitting room as though it was the most normal thing in the world. Thank you so much guys.

I’m pleased to say I stood by my resolution to treat this week as a writer’s retreat. Apart from my one excursion to Hartlepool, I remained in and around the village. The weather was beautiful, crisp and cold but with only one rainy day. I ordered breakfast early then went for a walk every morning before sitting down to work. Lunch was soup and sandwiches from the Stonehouse Bakery, with some excellent cake for afternoon tea, and then I’d go for another walk before dinner. It was often almost dark by the time I got back, and the sunsets were gorgeous.

During the day I took over the desk and worked solidly on book seven, An Indomitable Brigade. I found, to my joy, that I’d been right about the book. There was nothing wrong with either plotting or the research I’d done. I just needed time, and peace and quiet to get on with it. I kept in touch with my family during the evening, but firmly refused to take calls during the day. I was helped by the fact that the wi-fi was variable. It worked very well in my room, and down in the bar areas but in the study it was patchy, which removed the temptation to chat on Twitter or Facebook. After the first day, I was completely absorbed in the world of the 110th and the battle of Vitoria.

I enjoyed my day out at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, and the Trincomalee was everything I hoped for and more. The museum is set up around a historic quayside restored to look like an eighteenth century seaport and its beautiful waterside setting. The various buildings are set up to show tradesmen like tailors, printers and instrument makers with stories about the Royal Navy and the men and women associated with it. It’s a great place for kids, with an adventure play ship and loads of activities, and because I was there during half term, there were demonstrations of gunnery and swordsmanship and various talks scheduled through the day. I went to everything, even though most of this wasn’t new to me. It was a great atmosphere, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interactive Fighting Sail exhibition, though the kids commentary around me probably entertained me as much as the displays.

The Trincomalee was perfect, one of two surviving British frigates of her era. The other, HMS Unicorn is a museum ship in Dundee and I’m going to get there when I can. The Trincomalee was commissioned in 1812 to be built in India using teak, due to the shortage of oak in Britain after the intensive shipbuilding of the Napoleonic wars. Work did not begin until 1816 so by the time the ship was finished the following year, the wars were over and Trincomalee was put to other uses.

On the advice of one of the guides, I waited until the kids were completely absorbed in learning how to form a boarding party on the quayside using foam swords and cutlasses before boarding the ship. It was completely empty and I was able to take photographs, absorb the atmosphere and write stories in my head to my hearts content. The Trincomalee quickly morphed into the fictional Herne in my imagination, Hugh Kelly’s first post-command, and the story was finished. I’ll definitely come back to it though, I’d like to write a lot more of Hugh’s earlier adventures in the navy.

Rush hour in Danby

Back at my borrowed desk, I had a blissful few days of writing, walking on the moors and falling in love both with Yorkshire and with my fictional world all over again. By the time I set off for the ferry at the end of the week, the book was back on track, and I was fairly sure I’d have it written, even if not edited and published, before the end of the year. I had also forgiven myself for my inability to work as well as usual during the past two years. There are probably writers out there who made the most of the restrictions of lockdown and emerged ahead of the game. I suffered, and emotionally it was hard to put myself into the heads of my characters when my own head was so full of confusion. I think on those long, winter walks over the moors I’ve worked out how to be kinder to myself and how to keep a distance when the world feels an alien and unfamiliar place.

I’ve concluded that a writer’s retreat means different things to different people. For some, it’s about learning, and they’re looking for lectures and workshops and the ability to try something new. For others, it’s about connecting with other writers to share ideas and stories and to feel part of a community for a while, in this very solitary job that we do. For me, it’s definitely a retreat, a place of quiet and solitude and some beauty, where I can throw myself back into what I do best without any nagging sense of all the other things on my to do list.

Of course, it also helps to have an eighteenth century Napoleonic recruiting inn and an early nineteenth century frigate thrown in for good measure.

 

Something Wicked by Tom Williams

Something Wicked by Tom Williams

Having really enjoyed Tom Williams previous foray into contemporary fantasy, ‘Dark Magic’, I was looking forward to the publication of ‘Something Wicked’ and I wasn’t disappointed. ‘Dark Magic’ was fun, although as a novella felt a bit rushed at times. ‘Something Wicked’ feels like a writer who has really got into his stride with this genre.

‘Something Wicked’ is set in London with Chief Inspector John Galbraith being called to the rather unusual murder scene of Lord Christopher Penrith. There are few leads apart from a link to a Tango club. So far the book looks like a standard, well-written police procedural.

Everything changes with the arrival of Chief Inspector Pole. Pole works for ‘Department S’ which Galbraith has never heard of. He also, it turns out, is a five hundred year old vampire, responsible for policing – and covering up for – the vampire community.

So begins a cleverly-conceived, well-written and excellently plotted novel about murder, policing, vampires, and Tango. There is a nod to various genres in this book, yet it manages to remain fresh, original, and hugely entertaining.

I particularly liked the two main characters in this book, with the difference between Galbraith’s down-to-earth copper and Pole’s more fantastical approach being well developed. Both characters were likeable and the development in their relationship was believable. Tom Williams’ descriptions of the London he knows and loves and the Tango community that he is an enthusiastic member of, help to bring the book alive.

Tom Williams is best known for his two historical series, the lively Burke novels about a Napoleonic agent and the more thoughtful Williamson books set in the days of Empire. I’m hoping we see more contemporary fiction as well from this author. An entertaining, clever piece of fiction.

An Interview with Tovi from the Sons of the Wolf Saga

Drawing by Rob Bayliss. This is how Tovi may have looked as an adolescent boy.

We have a guest post today on Writing With Labradors, an interview with Tovi from the Sons of the Wolf  Saga, who has travelled all the way from the eleventh century to join us, with the help of author Paula Lofting.

Tovi is one of the younger sons of Wulfhere and his story, along with that of his family is told in Sons of the Wolf, Paula’s series of novels set in the years leading up to the Battle of Hastings. I’ve read and reviewed both books previously, so it’s a great honour to have a chat with Tovi himself…

 

 

 

Good afternoon, Tovi, how are you?

Hello Lynn, thank you for being willing to talk with me.

I know that recently you had an interview with Stephanie, which my readers can find here. I read it and it was really interesting. I’ve got some different questions for you, but because some of my readers won’t know who you are, could you just tell me a little bit about yourself and your family, just to introduce yourself?

An aerial view of Regia Anglorum’s long hall, Wychurst, in Kent, which I have loosely modelled Horstede on.

Of course. So I have just entered into my fourteenth winter and it is 1059. I am the son of Wulfhere who is the thegn of Horstede, a village in the land of the South Saxons. We have a large family – I have three younger sisters and one older. I also have two older brothers – twins – and they are terrible. I also have another half sister. But we don’t talk about her. Not all of my siblings are still alive but I won’t say which, for my scop (author) said I should not give too much of my story away.

No, we must not spoil the story for those who have not read the first books.

My father works for the king but he is also commended to Earl Harold. He spends 2 months at a time at court. And whilst he is away things can go very awry

Yes, I have read about some of the things that have gone wrong. Have you met the King. Can you tell me something about him and his relationship with your family?

Hastings by Matt Bunker

My father never spoke much about King Edward, but I remember when I was very young, that there was a time when my father had to make a choice between supporting Earl Godwin – who was my Lord Harold’s father and lord before Harold in Sussex – and the king. I remember listening when I should have been asleep, to my father and his friends talking about the situation where King Edward and Earl Godwin had fallen out. My father and his friends had ridden to a meeting with the Godwinsons, and the king had demanded that Earl Godwin hand over all of the king’s thegns who had been commended to him, which was the king’s right to do. My Father and his friends did not want to abandon the Earl but in the end, Earl Godwin told them to go, because it was their duty to serve the king before him and my father was quite angry and upset about this, because from what I could make out, the trouble had not been of Godwin’s making.

So I don’t think that Father liked the king very much, but we must keep this quiet, because my father would lose his land and possibly his life if anyone were to find out. My father holds  his land from the King and so therefore he is a king’s thegn and owes military service to the king in return.

I have met the Earl Harold who everyone thinks is more important than the King.

I was going to come on to Earl Harold next. 

Earl Harold and my father used to be good friends and grew up together. But lately, my father is not happy with him

Tell me more about Earl Harold, then. What is he like and why has your father fallen out with him?

I first met Earl Harold when I was just ten summers old and he came to my father’s homestead with his family and I thought he was magnificent. He looked like a god, tall and handsome. I was in awe. Around this time my eldest sister Freya’s started sneaking off to meet Edgar who was the son of Helghi, my father’s enemy. We children knew that it was forbidden to speak with any of that family, but we did not know why. Freyda didn’t care. She has fallen in love with Edgar and one night the pair of them hid in Helghi’s barn and caused a fire to start that burned almost all of their buildings! There was hell to pay and Lord Harold insisted that the in order for the feud to end between our families, Freyda and Edgar should be allowed to marry. Well Father was forced to agree, but eventually he found another suitor for Freyda and married her elsewhere. The feud had started long ago but until now had been quiet. This just made it begin all over again and Lord Harold was not best pleased and made my father promise to give my other sister in marriage to Helghi’s son when she is old enough. So my father is no longer happy with the Earl.

I can see why.

Aye. My mother was furious

Is it usual for a lord such as Harold to intervene in the marriage plans of his thegns families?

He is the king’s representative as the Earl of Wessex and therefore he has the right. I think it’s common for blood feuds to spill out into the wider communities- you only have to look to the northern provinces of England to see what turmoil they have caused there. So I suppose he wanted to stop that from happening.

Did Harold hope the marriage would end the feud then? I can see why he might have wanted that. Do you have any idea why the feud began?

Yes that’s exactly why, and marriage alliances are a god way of doing this. And no, we children don’t know, but we think it started with my father’s father and Helghi’s father. And there has also been mention of what happened to Edgar’s leg.

What happened to Edgar’s leg? Was this all part of the feud?

Edgar has a limp. I thought he fell out of a tree, but I heard some people talking and they said my father sold Helghi a badly shod horse for Edgar when he was a child and he fell off the horse and my father got the blame. But I know my father would never do that. He is an honest man. Then because my Father refused to pay compensation, Helghi burnt his stables and killed some of his horses! I also think there was a woman involved but I don’t know the full story

That’s how feuds continue, sometimes for generations. Do you think the marriage between your eldest sister and Edgar might have put an end to it? Did they love each other?

I think Edgar did. Freyda obviously didn’t love him enough because although she refused at first, she grew to like Aemund and soon forgot Edgar. I think she just wanted to rebel against our mother and father. Poor Edgar. I really liked him. He was kind to me. He was always at the homestead and would do anything for anyone. I think it was my mother who bullied father into finding a way out of the oath. They hate Helghi because he is a ceorl and therefore of lower status. Mother was furious that father gave in to the Earl. Edgar was heartbroken. He actually set a trap for a Freyda and kidnapped her.

What about the sister who is now supposed to marry into that family, how does she feel about it?

Well I’m not sure because I’m not at home at the moment. I was banished from home by my parents so I’m not sure what’s going on there. But I think that if I know Winflaed she will want to make things all right. So she might just agree to it.

Where are you living at present, Tovi?

I’m in a collegiate in Waltham. It’s where Earl Harold resides with his wife Eadgyth. He started a school to train boys to become priests for his new church. I hate it. It’s quite a long way from home in the lands of the East Saxons

Are you homesick?

Yes I am homesick. I didn’t want to go but they made me. I miss my sister Winflaed. I miss my father even and Father Paul our priest, and Aelfstan the blacksmith and Sigfrith our maid.

Do you miss your brothers, the twins? And what about your mother?

I hate my brothers. And I love my mother but in hate her too. It’s the same with my father too. I will never forgive them for making me go away

Why do they want you to become a priest? What would you rather be, if not a priest?

I always thought I was destined to be a warrior like my father. But my mother- it’s hard to speak of…. She wanted me to go because she was scared I would tell my father something she did and she couldn’t bear to look at me. I tried to tell her I wouldn’t tell, but she made him send me away anyway and Father did not fight for me.

Do you think that might change one day? That your father will want you back?

I hope so.

What are you learning at Waltham? What kind of education are you getting?

Greek, Latin, Frankish. Mathematics, and I am learning to read and write and to recite mass amongst a number of things.

Can all of your family read and write?

My sisters can read but they never learned to write. Father can also read and write. The twins know to read and write also. My youngest sister is simple so she hasn’t learned. Oh and my mother speaks French and she and my oldest sister Freyda can recite poetry

So quite a well educated family then.

Most of our social class can at least read and write

Tovi, I don’t know much about how things work among your people, and probably my readers don’t either. As a younger son, would you have inherited any of your father’s property? Or would you have been expected to go out into service with another lord and make your own way in the world? As a warrior, perhaps?

Yes I can. But it depends on what he puts in his will. It’s always up to one’s father at the end of the day. If he doesn’t like you, he may not leave you anything. And there’s no law of primogeniture here yet. Many young men go into service for a lord or someone if they are landless. In the hope that their lord will be good to them and reward them.

Do you think that’s something you might still be able to do when you are older, if you don’t wish to become a priest?

Oh I’m not going to be a priest.

I had a feeling you might say that…

I’ll kill myself before I do that. I will run away. I’ve done that before when I was younger and they kept bringing me back and beat me till I stopped doing it. But I’m older now. If I have to run away I will make sure they don’t find me again.

How long have you been at Waltham now?

Two and a half years

Have you been home during that time?

No never, but I have a feeling I will soon

Who would you say you are more like, in your family, your mother or your father? And who would you wish to be like? What do you admire about them, and what do you dislike?

Apparently I look more like my mother. But I don’t think I’m like either of them. Father lost his back bone and can’t stand up for himself with her. I think I do stand up for myself. And I’m not like mother, because I don’t think I am selfish like she is. If I had to be like anyone, I’d be like Earl Harold. No matter how hard I try not to show it, I think I have a boy crush on the man

Al Camacho (Len Howell)

That was going to be one of my next questions – who is your hero? But I think you’ve answered that for me. What do you admire about Earl Harold?

I’m not certain but I think there is something that draws people to him. He makes you feel good about yourself. He is very self effacing. He is kind, fair and he takes notice of you. And people love him. Who doesn’t want to be loved? I suppose it’s his confidence I like as well.

If you could make your dreams for the future come true, would they include being in service to Earl Harold?

Absolutely. But we have a saying. “Wyrd bid araed.”

Wyrd bid araed? What does that mean?

It means fate is inexorable…you cannot escape your destiny. You never know what threads the spinners will spin for you. I find it hard now to wish for anything because it is too painful if it doesn’t happen.

You must have dreams though? A hall of your own one day? A wife and children, maybe? Have you met a girl you like yet, Tovi, or have you not had a chance among the priests?

I do have dreams of one day being a great warrior. And as for girls or having a wife and children I’ve not really seen anything that makes me think having all that is a great idea. My mother and father hate each other and they hurt their children. Why would I want to do that myself?

Maybe you’ll do it differently, Tovi. Maybe you’ll learn from your parents’ mistakes and create a happy family. I hope so.

Perhaps I will. There is a girl I like.

Can you tell me about her?

Well you have to promise not to tell anyone.

I won’t mention it to anybody you know…

Because the priests tell me her father would cut my balls off if he found out

Oh my goodness, we can’t have that. Who is she?

Her name is  Gytha. She is the Earl’s daughter

Earl Harold’s daughter?

Aye! She has been really kind to me whilst  I’ve been here. We sometimes meet secretly, but just to talk. Nothing else, she is only eleven. She reminds me of my sister Winflaed and it feels nice

Being friends is a very good start and it has probably helped with your homesickness

Yes indeed. She was there for me.

Tovi, it’s been really good to talk to you today, and I feel as though I’ve got to know you a lot better. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in the series. I have asked your author to send me some information about herself and the books for my readers, but I would also like to ask you – if you were talking to my readers about your books, what would you say to make them want to read them?

Tovi pauses to think very carefully.

Long Hall Feast by Alison Offer of Regia Anglorum

I would say that the era in which I lived is of great importance to our country. What happened in 1066 was a huge turning point for us English. It wasn’t just a case of out with the old and in with the new. Our people suffered greatly by the take over. The flower of our English youth – it has been said – was lost that day in battle. They were fighting for their families, their homes, their lands, their customs and the right to be free. The enemy was fighting to take that away from us. Our nobility was virtually decimated, and thousands of people died through famine and slaughter.

Very often our ancestors, the ordinary people, not the great and powerful are forgotten and what my people lost and how they suffered should be remembered. People I often speak with don’t understand what happened before that day in 1066 and my story – not just mine but that of my family and friends, explains the whys, the wherefores, and the whats. It was no simple case of a crown being promised to a man and then taken by a usurper. It was far more complex than that, and our story reflects that through the eyes of a wide range of classes of English folk.

The story is told in such a way that you will laugh, cry, and fight with us. You will want the good to succeed and the bad to fall foul. You will live among us, eat, feast, and love with us. You will know what it was like to smell the smoky halls and fill your belly with stew from the huge cooking pot as it hangs from the rafters. You’ll hear the wolves howling at night as we listen to tales of times gone by during hearth time, feeling the fire warm you, as you experience all the good and bad life has to give. And when all is said and done, you will know the joy of winning and the horror of losing just as we will.

Sons of the Wolf is an epic tale that will touch you like no other.

Author Biography

Paula Lofting started her writing career much later than she would have liked to. As a little girl, she had dreams of being an author but had to wait until she was in her forties to publish her first book Sons of the Wolf, which she first did in 2012 with Silverwoods books. In 2016 she rereleased it herself with Longship and then shortly after the second book in the series was published, The Wolf Banner.

 

 

Book Three in the series, coming soon…

She is now working on the third in the series which is set in the Eleventh Century in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and promises to be an epic saga that will cover the Battle if Hastings and the rebellions after.

 

 

 

 

 

You can find out more about Paula and her work here:

Website –    1066:The Road to Hastings and Other Stories

Email –        contact@paulalofting.com

Facebook –  Paula Lofting Facebook Page

Blogger –    paulaperuses.blogspot.com

Twitter –      http://twitter.com/paulalofting

The first two books in the series are available here:

                     

Sons of the Wolf                                    Wolf Banner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021

Castletown Fireworks from Energy FM site

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021

I generally do a short post at the beginning of each year, but for some reason this year I feel moved to do it at the end. This is probably to do with the extraordinary nature of 2020, where the world turned upside down for so many people. The internet is full of memes and jokes about how happy we’ll all be to see the end of 2020, and it’s certainly a year that very few of us will forget in a hurry.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter or read my blog posts, will know that with very few exceptions, I stay firmly out of contemporary politics. This doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of what is going on around me, it just means that I find the climate of political debate both toxic and pointless at times. There are people out there who can have a rational discussion on a public forum, but they’re few and far between. Overall, I prefer to keep conversations about the rights and wrongs of Brexit, Lockdown and the teaching of Black History in schools to my close family and friends.

This year it’s been harder than ever to do that, watching the flood of information and misinformation rushing through both traditional and social media. It has felt at times as though the whole world has gone mad, and the values of tolerance, acceptance and understanding that I was raised with have got lost in the compulsive collective need to prove a point, put down other people and above all, to be right. But it isn’t all doom and gloom.

What 2020 has confirmed for me is that there are people out there whom I’ve met both online and in person, who are simply great. They come together both online and in person, drawn by a love of reading, writing, history and good fun. They’re excited by new books, new ideas and photographs of cuddly Labradors. They speak to each other with respect and affection and acknowledge their differences with humour and tolerance. They are not all the same. Some are highly educated and well-respected in their field. Others are self-educated and come to the discussion full of questions, often bringing new ideas. The thing that they all have in common is an enthusiasm for learning about people both fictional and in real life. They are entertaining, they are generous with their time and knowledge and they are kind.

A lot of you will recognize yourselves in this, and you are all my people. While there are people like you in the world, the madness will never win. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done in 2020. Every review, every humorous comment, every mad exchange on Twitter and every time you’ve answered a call for information with more than I could ever have hoped for, you prove the pessimists and the doomsayers wrong. Let’s all keep doing it.

Groudle Beach

For me, 2020 has been a very mixed year. The pandemic has closed down the world and left me marooned on this little island in the middle of the Irish Sea, with none of the freedom to travel that I used to enjoy. At the same time, it’s made me appreciate where I live more than ever before. Watching how the people of the Isle of Man have dealt with this chaos makes me proud of my adopted homeland.

In family matters, it’s been a happy year. My son is very settled with his lovely girlfriend, who has become a member of our family. If all goes well, I doubt he’ll still be living here this time next year, a thought which makes me happy and a little sad. My daughter has embarked on her second year in York with great panache, coming out with firsts so far and treating quarantine and lockdowns as a minor inconvenience. The man I married has utterly failed to miss travelling to London for work and is becoming more Manx by the day.

“You’re going all the way to Peel for the evening? Are you staying over, then?”

It’s seven miles.

It took a long time to adjust to the loss of Joey, and it still catches me every now and again. Oscar has proved a worthy successor to my two old fellas, and when we can find a suitable puppy, we’ll be bringing in reinforcements for him on the staff of Writing with Labradors. I can’t wait.

Professionally, it’s been my most successful year to date, although the stress of the first lockdown and the pandemic generally definitely slowed my writing down a lot. Sales have been good, and reviews have been excellent. For the second year in a row, I had a book shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research fiction prize, this year with This Blighted Expedition. I was invited to take part in the amazing Waterloo Remembered online celebrations earlier this year, and I’ve been interviewed on various podcasts and blogs through the year.

 

 

I completed and published book six of the Peninsular War Saga, An Unmerciful Incursion. I’ve begun research and planning for two new books. I also found a new editor, who is oddly enough an old friend of mine, and who is working out brilliantly so far.

Things I didn’t manage to achieve. Well obviously, my annual research trip was cancelled this year, as were all the conferences and historical events I hoped to attend. I didn’t manage to finish getting the books out in paperback, for which I apologise. The work is still ongoing, and it will happen, I promise you.

I have big plans for 2021. Next year I aim to publish two books at least. One will be This Bloody Shore which is book three in the Manxman series, and the other is An Indomitable Brigade, which is book seven of the Peninsular War Saga. I’m currently working on both and still haven’t completely decided which is going to come out first. I’ll let you know when I’m certain.

I also aim to get all the books edited and available in paperback, and I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories for Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas, with a possible extra one in the summer. And if the current two books go well, I would love to get off book three of the Manxman as well, although that might be asking a bit too much. We’ll see.

When I’ve finished this, I am off to organise the house for the New Year’s Party we’re hosting this evening for our young people. I’m so conscious of how privileged I am to be doing this, at this moment in time, when other people are buckling down for another lockdown and more restrictions. Even tomorrow’s clear up won’t seem so bad this year, as I’ll feel lucky to be doing it.

Well, maybe not that lucky.

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021. I hope you’ll all manage to celebrate in whatever way you can, and I look forward to hearing a lot more from you all in the coming year.

With love from the Isle of Man.

Lynn and Oscar

The Last Sentry

Welcome to the Last Sentry, my ghost story for Halloween 2020 and I hope you enjoy it. As always it’s free, so please share as much as you like. This year, in addition to being available to read online, I’ve included a link to a pdf.

As usual, the story is based around the world of the Peninsular War Saga, with its mixture of real and fictional characters. Readers of the books will have heard mention of Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Norton in book six, and I imagine you’ll meet him again at some point. There is one character in this story who is definitely not fictional, and I suspect you’ll know him when you meet him.

If you enjoy this, please take a look at my other free short stories.

While I have your attention, can a give a shameless plug to an excellent website for those interested in learning more about the Napoleonic Wars. You’ll find huge amounts of information there. I also recommend Zack White’s excellent podcast, the Napoleonicist,  and not just because he interviewed me on it.

Happy Halloween, (or Hop tu Naa to all my Manx friends and followers), and I sincerely hope things start to look up very soon. In the meantime, reading can be a great escape…

***

The Last Sentry

The journey from England to Spain was beset with problems and delays, and on arrival in Oporto, when it became obvious that due to a particularly unpleasant voyage, the officers’ horses would not be fit to travel for some days, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Norton listened with half an ear to the complaints of the other five officers who had arrived with the Sally-Anne and acknowledged that he was relieved. A week of almost constant sickness had left him feeling weak and exhausted, and he found himself a comfortable inn, ensured that his groom, his valet and his horses were well-cared for and went to bed.

Philip was on his way to take up a new command, in charge of the first battalion of the 115th. He should have joined the regiment during the previous year, but within days of the confirmation of his promotion and transfer to a new regiment, his personal life had fallen apart with terrifying speed, leaving Philip  floundering in the midst of the chaos of his deceased father’s affairs. He had written to his new brigade commander, horribly aware that Lord Wellington’s army would be marching into Spain without him, and had dreaded the response. It had been kinder than he had expected and had given him a good impression of the commander of the third brigade of the light division, making him all the more eager to settle his affairs and get back to his job.

Settling his affairs had taken some time. The death of the Honourable Thomas Norton had come as a shock, though not a grief, to his only son. Norton had died as he had lived, half-drunk and throwing his horse over a fence on the hunting field. Philip was in London, making arrangements for his journey to Portugal while awaiting the birth of his third child. Emma had been well through the pregnancy, and was her usual placid self when Philip apologetically told her that he would need to post down to Hampshire to be with his mother and sister, and to help arrange the funeral.

“Go, Phil. If the baby comes, it comes, it isn’t as though this is the first time I’ve done this. I’m sorry I can’t come with you, since I know it will be hard for you, but I shouldn’t travel this close to my time.”

Philip kissed her warmly. “I’m so sorry, Em, and you’re an angel. I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise.”

Emma was dead before Philip reached his family estate, having gone into early labour the day he left. The child died with her, leaving Philip alone to manage his two small sons, his mother who was apparently prostrated with grief over a husband who had never been faithful to her, and a sister of twenty trying to conceal her fears for the future.

Mrs Norton raised herself from her bed at the news of the death of her daughter-in-law and made her pronouncement.

“Dearest, it is terribly sad, of course, but it is not as though it was a love-match, after all. Indeed, I have never understood why…however, your duty is now clear. With your father gone, and your two little boys motherless, you will naturally sell out and come home. Nobody would expect anything else.”

Philip bit his tongue and took himself from the room. He knew that she was right, and that the army would fully understand and support his decision to sell out. His father’s affairs were in disarray, and he had no idea how his wife’s money was settled. He had married Emma in full understanding that she was looking for a place in society that her late father’s situation could not provide. In return, she had agreed to pay his family’s debts and purchase his promotions.

Philip respected his wife’s clear-sighted practicality and insisted that she settle her considerable fortune on their sons when they were born, with a dowry set aside for his sister, Amelia, and a comfortable jointure for his mother should she be widowed. He had asked the lawyers, during the negotiation of the marriage settlement, to ensure that Emma’s personal fortune remain with her, well out of reach of his feckless father and grasping mother. Philip had made a marriage of convenience to secure his future, but he was not greedy and he had no wish to watch his family bleeding his wife dry.

Emma’s will was a shock, and brought with it a fresh flood of grief, as Philip listened to the lawyer’s dry tones and understood that alongside the agreed provisions, she had left him a wealthy man. He cried bitter tears alone in his room, hoping that she had known how much she had come to mean to him. Philip had hoped for friendship in this unlikely marriage, but instead, they had fallen in love, and he read, in those brief lines of her final testament, her firm and abiding affection and trust.

It made his job much easier, although no less tedious and painful. Philip told neither his mother or his sister of his unexpected prosperity, merely assuring them that there was money to support them. Amelia, as he had expected, was relieved and grateful, while his mother was visibly discontented. She was furious at Philip’s announcement that he intended to rent out the London house for the foreseeable future, and even more so, when he informed her that when his sister was ready to return to town for another Season, she would do so under the care of her aunt.

“I hope you’re happy with that, Ammie. I know you didn’t much enjoy London last year. I’d hoped that once the baby was born, you could try again with Emma, but…”

“So did I, Philip. Please don’t worry, I’m thankful. I’ve no wish to do the round of balls and parties just now, I couldn’t think of it. Ignore Mama, she would be angry whatever you did.”

“I can’t give her free rein to run through Emma’s money in London.”

“You should not, she is very comfortably provided for. At present, I am happier at Hanley. And you, dear brother, will be happier back in the army.”

“I will. My new commander has been very generous with my furlough, which makes me all the more determined that I will get back as soon as I have sorted out the chaos of my father’s affairs and paid his debts. I am trusting you to look after Tom and Ned for me, they’ll have Miss Carling and Nurse, but they’re going to miss Emma so much, she was…”

“She was the best mother ever, and I envied them. I’ll do everything I can for them, Phil. Just don’t do anything foolish. I know how much you loved her, I couldn’t bear it if…”

“I give you my word. As far as any soldier can. Take care of yourself, Ammie.”

After the turmoil of family drama, it was bliss to don his uniform and to think only of transport and kit and billets. Even the misery of the voyage gave Philip something to think about other than Emma. It was eleven months since her death and Philip had begun to believe that he was recovering, but away from England’s shores, he missed, all over again, the weekly routine of writing to her.

From Oporto, Philip joined a supply convoy travelling towards army headquarters on the Portuguese-Spanish border. His fellow officers were all veterans of the Peninsula, having been home either on furlough or sick leave. Along with the wagon train of weapons and medical supplies, there were a hundred and eighty reinforcements for the 43rd and 112th, so the officers travelled at marching pace. To Philip, suddenly eager to join his battalion, it felt painfully slow, and he was not at all surprised when they reached the commissary office in Pinhel to discover that Lord Wellington had marched his army into Spain three days earlier.

“There’s a supply depot in Ciudad Rodrigo, sir,” Captain Jones said helpfully. “Only a day’s march from here. Lord Wellington sent instructions that all reinforcements and supply wagons are to be sent on to there, where he’ll have left orders for them.”

Ciudad Rodrigo was a small cathedral town situated at the top of a rocky rise on the right bank of the River Agueda. Philip knew it was one of the key fortresses along the Portuguese-Spanish border, and two of his companions had been present when Lord Wellington’s army had stormed the town at the beginning of the previous year in a bloody engagement. Philip and the other officers were greeted by Colonel Muir, a depressed-looking Scot in his fifties, who commanded the district supply depot and looked as though he would rather be somewhere else.

“Aye, I’ve orders for you, I’ve got details of the quickest and safest route for you to follow to catch up with the light division, it seems you’re expected.”

“I have been for some time,” Philip admitted. “Will the supply column be taking the same route?”

“ The supply column is my problem now, Colonel Norton, don’t worry your head about them. The reinforcements, now – that’s another matter. You’ll be staying a few days to rest the horses, I’m guessing?”

Philip eyed him suspiciously, sensing an unwelcome request. “One or two, maybe, but I don’t want to delay longer than I have to, sir. My brigade commander has been incredibly generous in granting extensions to my furlough to sort out my late father’s affairs, I don’t want him to think I’m taking the long way round.”

“That’ll be Van Daan, will it? He’s not in my good books just now, since he poached two of my best officers on his way out, blast him. He doesn’t deserve that I do him a favour, the thieving bastard, but I’m going to. I’m asking if you’ll wait a few more days, Norton. We’re expecting another draft of reinforcements for the 110th within the week.”

“Can’t they follow when they arrive?”

“The thing is, Colonel, we’ve been having a lot of problems with discipline among troops making their way back to their regiments. Half the time, they either don’t have an officer with them at all, or the officers are young and inexperienced, or from a different regiment and don’t really give a damn about looting the local population. Wellington’s furious about attacks on Portuguese and Spanish farms and villages. You’ve got a few officers with these drafts for the 43rd and 112th, but they’re all very junior, and they tend to take a casual attitude to their duties on the march. If they’ve a colonel of the 115th  to supervise them, it’s very unlikely any of the men will try sloping off to raid a wine cellar or rape the farmer’s wife.”

“Jesus, is it as bad as that?”

“On occasion.” Muir eyed Philip thoughtfully. “And not just among the enlisted men. I don’t know if the gossip has reached you yet, Colonel Norton, but…”

“If you’re referring to the murder of Major Vane, I received a very full letter from Major-General van Daan,” Philip said. “A terrible business.”

“Aye, it was. Did you know him?”

“Never met the man in my life, I’m new to the 115th, I transferred in for promotion. And I believe Vane did the same. I’d never wish a man dead, Colonel, but I find myself thankful that I don’t have to manage an officer like that in my battalion.”

“Aye, his conduct wasn’t right, that’s for sure. All the same, a lot of the officers I’ve spoken to, don’t think it’s right that his murderer escaped the death penalty. Sets a bad example to the men.”

Philip did not particularly want to get into a pointless argument with a senior officer, so he said:

“So you’d like me to wait until the rest of the light division reinforcements arrive and march them up to the lines?”

“I think your brigade commander would appreciate it, Colonel. We can make you comfortable here, you can join our mess.”

Philip could see the sense of it, and firmly quashed his frustration at yet another delay. Now that he was formally, if temporarily in command of the new troops, he went to inspect their bivouac outside the city walls, gave strict instructions to the NCOs about leave passes and behaviour and rounded up the few junior officers who would be marching with him, to remind them of their obligations. His duty done, he decided to make the most of his enforced leisure to see something of the town and the surrounding area.

Ciudad Rodrigo was a walled city, dominated by its solid medieval cathedral. Narrow streets opened up into wide squares with houses and churches built in mellow local stone, and although there were still many signs of the destruction of the previous year, the citizens had already made good progress with rebuilding damaged houses and there was scaffolding up at several of the fine churches. Philip could see damage to the walls and tower of the cathedral caused by artillery, and the Spanish garrison of the town were out daily to supervise work parties who were close to completing the repairs to the town walls, where Wellington’s guns had blown two enormous breaches in the ancient stonework.

It was hot during the day, and Philip rode out with one or two of the Spanish officers to shoot game in the countryside. Neither of them had been present during the siege, and seemed more interested in complaining about delayed pay and poor leadership in the Spanish army than talking about the recent history of the town. Muir, when applied to, was more helpful, and provided Philip with Sergeant Griffith from his department. Griffith had lost an arm and an eye during the storming and proved a willing guide, walking out to the Greater and Lesser Teson with Philip, to explain the placement of Wellington’s troops and the direction taken by the storming parties.

Dinner was a protracted affair, with a good deal of wine and brandy, and afterwards Philip developed a habit of going for an evening walk through the pretty cobbled streets of the town and up onto the walls. The sentries along the walls were all Spanish, and Philip thought that they seemed to take a relaxed attitude to their duties, although he supposed that with the French a long way off, they probably had little to do other than drink, smoke and complain. He spoke Spanish fairly well from his time in South America, and he stopped to chat to them, listening to their stories of battles fought and friends lost and wives and families left behind.

Philip lingered late one evening, watching the sun go down from the Citadel, colouring the slate roofs of the outlying villages with a dazzling palette of rose gold and brilliant orange. He had drunk a little too much wine in the company of some Spanish officers in Colonel Muir’s cosy dining room and realised it was becoming a habit. It was too comfortable here, and felt a long way from the war. Philip walked around the walls to clear his head, pausing to look out over the old Roman bridge and smiled at himself as he realised he was willing the new troops to march in over the bridge, leaving him free to do his job.

Further around the walls, he climbed down a flight of steep stone steps and stood looking up at the repaired section of wall where the men of the light division had fought and died on that bloody night in January. The different colour brickwork reminded Philip of a scar, and he realised that he felt a connection standing here, even though he had not been present and his new battalion had not even been part of the light division at that point.

Walking back along the walls to his billet, Philip noticed that the sentries were out of position again. He had observed it several times, and although they were not his men, and the town was in no danger of attack, it irritated him as a breach of discipline. Four or five men were grouped together, a lazy spiral of cigarillo smoke rising into the air, while only one man, dressed in a dark cloak, stood in position above the breach. Philip paused to watch him, standing completely immobile looking out over the countryside. He did not appear to have his musket with him, and Philip wondered if he should go back and speak to the man, but decided against it.

Philip remembered the incident the following afternoon at the dinner table. He was seated beside Colonel Ramirez, determinedly avoiding a third glass of port, when Colonel Muir said:

“Are you still having trouble with the men on the northern wall, Ramirez?”

Ramirez rolled his eyes expressively. “Always, Colonel. Only last week, I have two men on a charge for deserting their post. I tell them that if Lord Wellington comes back, he will have them shot for their cowardice. I hope to make an example of them, so that we have no more problems.”

“Cowardice?” Philip said, surprised. “Surely it can’t be that, they’re miles from the French lines with the whole of Lord Wellington’s army in between. Perhaps they’ve just got sloppy, sir. I admit I walk the walls most evenings, and they’re often not in position, particularly along that wall. They tend to gather together in groups, smoking and talking. I suppose they’re bored, but you’re right, it’s poor discipline.”

“They are not afraid of the French, Colonel Norton, they are afraid of the ghosts.”

Philip spluttered on the last of his port and set his glass down. It was immediately refilled. “Ghosts? Surely you’re not serious?”

“I am not serious, Colonel,” Ramirez said. “Me, I do not believe in ghosts. But my officers tell me that the men complain that sometimes they hear things up there after dark. Screams and cries and the echoes of guns that have not fired since that night.

Muir snorted, reaching for the bottle. “Drunken bastards. If they’re hearing things that aren’t there, they’re coming from the bottom of a bottle, if you ask me.”

“I have told my officers to search them for drink, Colonel, and they assure me they go on duty sober.”

“Over-imaginative, then. A lot of you Spaniards are, I believe.”

Philip blinked at what felt like an astonishing lapse in good manners. He shot an apologetic look at Ramirez, and was relieved that the Spanish colonel seemed amused rather than offended. He winked at Philip, then said smoothly:

“It is possible, I suppose, Colonel, but we do not pay them to feed their imagination with ghostly tales. I will tell my officers to make frequent inspections again.”

“There was one man up there last night,” Philip said. “You’re right, sir, the others were all huddled further round by the steps, but one brave soul didn’t mind the ghosts, he was standing right above the breach. Although it looked as though he’d forgotten his musket, I couldn’t see it.”

“On sentry duty without his weapon?” Muir said scathingly. “Wouldn’t catch an English sentry doing that.”

Philip wished he had not spoken. “He probably had it, sir, he might have just leaned it against the wall while he was having a smoke and forgotten to pick it up. Look, why don’t I take a walk around there after dinner and have a chat with the men? They might speak more freely to me, given that I’m not their commanding officer.”

Ramirez studied him thoughtfully for a moment, then gave his charming smile. “Thank you, Colonel, it is a kind offer. I fear, if they do not improve, I will be obliged to take more drastic action against them.”

It was pleasantly cool as Philip began his nightly circuit of the walls. The Spanish sentries had grown used to the sight of him by now, and greeted him cheerfully, although without the formal salutes and springing to attention he would have expected from an English garrison. Philip took his time, stopping to chat. One group on the eastern wall offered him a drink from a bottle concealed in a coat pocket, and Philip took a swig, then reminded them pleasantly that their own officers might not be so tolerant.

It was beginning to grow dark as he approached the section of the northern wall above the lesser breach, and Philip could neither see nor hear the sentries. He paused, listening, peering ahead into the dim light. This entire section of the wall appeared to be unguarded, and Philip quickened his step. He had been inclined to take a light-hearted view of the Spanish garrison’s dislike of manning this section of the wall at night, but to find no guards at all was beyond a joke.

It was cooler now that darkness was falling, and there was a faint summer mist. Staring ahead in search of the missing guard, Philip caught his foot on a jutting piece of masonry and stumbled a little, catching the edge of the wall to steady himself. The fall brought him up short. The ramparts were not high, and it would be easy for a man to tumble over the edge. Philip made his way forward again, but more cautiously.

The sound of footsteps made him pause again. Clearly somebody was up here after all, although Philip still could not see him. He wondered if it was the lone sentry once more, the stocky figure who seemed the only member of the garrison willing to patrol this part of the wall. Philip waited, as the footsteps came towards him, puzzled by his inability to see the man. The steps were firm and confident, and were growing very close. It was not yet fully dark, and Philip could easily see through the mist, but there was no sign of the Spanish sentry.

A sudden breeze ruffled the feather in Philip’s hat, and he felt it, cool on his face. The footsteps were inexplicably fading again, as though a man had walked briskly past him and onwards down the walkway, but there was nobody there. For a moment, a shiver ran through Philip, then he heard voices from below. Going to the inside edge of the walkway, he peered over, and thought he understood. The foot of the wall was paved all the way up to the next bastion, and the footsteps must have been below him, the sounds distorted by an echo in the quiet evening air. Philip grinned at his momentary superstitious folly and ran lightly down the bastion steps, surprising the Spanish guards who were huddled in the shelter of the small tower passing a bottle between them. They turned in surprise at Philip’s abrupt descent from above, and one put the bottle behind his back. Philip was suddenly angry.

“To attention!” he barked, in Spanish. “Give me that bottle, that you’re so pointlessly trying to hide. Why aren’t you at your posts?”

There was a scramble into  line, and Philip held out his hand and took the bottle. “You have deserted your posts,” he said. “I am not your officer, is not my job to walk the wall and ensure you do your duty, but I am here to tell you that Colonel Ramirez is well aware that you are not where you should be. He has declared that it is enough, and your officers will be checking on you each night. If you continue this way, you are going to be disciplined, possibly flogged. I will not be here to see it, I will be leaving in a few days, but it is sad that I leave with such a poor impression of Spanish troops. You – step forward. What is your name?”

“Garcia, sir.”

“What’s going on, Garcia?”

The Spaniard threw out his hands in a dramatic gesture. “It is not our fault, Colonel. Time and again we tell the officers that we cannot be on that part of the wall at night. All other places, we will guard. From this bastion to the further tower only. But they will not change the location of the sentry posts.”

“Why can’t you be on that wall?”

“Because of what we see and hear, Colonel. That place belongs to the ghosts, it is not for men.”

“Nonsense,” Philip said firmly. “At least one of your men has been up there, I’ve seen him twice now, the man in the dark blue cloak. Clearly it holds no fears for him.”

There was a long, awkward silence. Then Garcia said:

“He is not one of our men, Colonel, and he has no reason to fear a ghost.”

The tone of his voice brought a momentary chill to Philip, but he mentally brushed it aside. “Well, if he isn’t one of yours, it must be one of the townspeople,” he said. “Either way, it isn’t a ghost.”

“How do you know it is not, Colonel?”

“Because I don’t believe in ghosts, Garcia. And a ghost isn’t a good enough reason for you to shirk your duty. I’m going to talk to Colonel Ramirez, but I’m warning you, you’ll need to improve your behaviour if you don’t want to get into trouble. For tonight, get yourselves back up there. One picket at the top of this bastion, the other along the wall at the further tower.”

Garcia sprang to attention and gave a dramatic salute. “Yes, Colonel. That, we can do.”

Philip watched them go, not sure whether to laugh or be irritated, but the Spanish garrison was not really his problem. He walked back to his billet, giving the bottle to a surprised old man who was smoking on his doorstep, and grinned at the extravagant thanks and blessings that followed him up the narrow lane as the man realised it was more than half full.

A message arrived as Philip was writing a letter to his brigade commander the following day, to say that the new troops had arrived. Philip finished and sealed the letter quickly, and sent his groom to add it to the daily post, then took himself out to the bivouac by the Agueda, to ensure that the new men had set up camp properly and had rations. There were six junior officers from various regiments who would join him on the march to Wellington’s lines, and Philip ran an experienced eye over the camp, spoke to one or two of the NCOs and decided that it would be a fairly easy command. Most of these men were new recruits, and although there would be the usual sprinkling of troublemakers, either criminals who had come through the courts into the army, or simply men who found it hard to learn discipline, there would be no time for idleness on the march. Philip gave orders to his juniors to make regular inspections of the camp, ordered a forty-eight hour rest period before the march and went to see the quartermaster to make sure that rations would be issued. Once he was on the move, Philip wanted to reach the army as quickly as possible.

Philip dined with Colonel Muir and some of the Spanish officers, who drank enthusiastic toasts to his journey and his new posting. Going outside into the warm evening air, he hesitated. Knowing he would be on the road in two days, he had asked both his valet and his groom to check his kit and his horses, and to let him know if he needed to make any last minute purchases. He wrote to his brigade commander informing him of the date of his departure, and wrote a dutiful letter home to his mother and his sister, and missed once again, the writing of a long letter to Emma, filled with army news and gossip and the trivia of his daily life. For the first time since arriving in Ciudad Rodrigo, Philip felt lonely, and he realised he was longing to reach his new battalion, to get to know his fellow officers and to make friends with the easy facility which was an asset in the shifting relationships of army life. Philip recognised the importance of this extended journey, as a pause between his old life and his new, but it had gone on for too long and he wanted it done with.

Almost without thinking, Philip passed his billet and walked down into the Plaza Mayor, where lanterns hung outside every shop and tavern and the people of Ciudad Rodrigo went about their business as though no war had ever touched them. Philip knew that after the bloody fighting in the breaches, the English and Portuguese troops had run wild for a while, looting the town and terrorising its inhabitants. Returning the smiles of men and women at the sight of his red coat, he marvelled at their resilience and their forgiveness.

Philip was approaching the cathedral, when the sight of another red coat made him pause. No leave passes had been granted to the English troops, as Philip wanted them sober and fit to march. The officers were free to wander through the town unless they were on duty, but this was not an officer. Philip stopped and surveyed the man. He was of medium height and compact build, with curly dark hair, and the insignia on his coat told Philip that he was a sergeant.

Philip stood watching with considerable interest, laced with admiration, as the sergeant went through the process of bartering with the elderly Spaniard selling wine from a market trestle. It was clear that the sergeant spoke Spanish fairly well, and it was equally clear that this was not the first time he had done this. Most of the newly arrived troops were raw recruits, but there was a sprinkling of old hands returning from sick leave, and after ten minutes, three bottles of wine had been neatly stowed in the battered pack, and Philip was certain that this man was not new to this.

The sergeant seemed in no hurry to return to camp. With his purchases made, he wandered through the market, stopping at a food stall to buy a hot tortilla wrapped in vine leaves, which he ate as he paused to watch a juggler giving a performance outside the convent. Philip stopped too, and looked up at the windows of the house. He was not surprised to see a flutter of white at the window, proving that the novices were not above enjoying a glimpse of the outside world. He also observed that the sergeant looked up as well, noticed the girls, and gave an impudent wave, sending them scuttling away in maidenly confusion, and probably, if they were unsupervised, a fit of irreverent giggles.

Philip realised that he was delaying approaching the sergeant, because he was enjoying watching the man. There was something about him which spoke of happiness, and a sheer love of life, and Philip was reluctant to end his illicit holiday too soon, although he was definitely going to. He kept his distance, shadowing the sergeant through the town, until it was growing very dark. The townspeople were beginning to gather their children and their purchases and head for home, and some of the shopkeepers were putting up their shutters. By now, the sentries on the walls would have changed over and Philip wondered if the deserted stretch of the northern wall was properly manned tonight.

It was clear that the sergeant was in no hurry to get back to camp. He stopped at a tavern and sat outside with a cup of wine for a while, watching the people of Ciudad Rodrigo head home to their beds with a benign expression. Philip hesitated for a moment, then gave in to his baser self, slipped into the tavern, and bought his own cup of wine, then walked outside and approached the sergeant’s bench from behind.

“Lovely evening for it, Sarge, mind if I join you?”

“Not if the next drink’s on you, my dear, it’s good to…”

The sergeant broke off as Philip walked to the bench opposite him and set down his drink. The expression on his thin, pointed face almost made Philip laugh out loud. He scrambled to his feet, tripping over the bench, managed to right himself and stood rigidly to attention, saluting, staring straight ahead, his dark eyes fixed on a point above Philip’s head.

“Sir. Very sorry, sir, I didn’t know it was you. Many apologies.”

“I’d rather guessed that, Sergeant. Sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to see your leave pass. One of the officers clearly didn’t understand my orders about no leave granted, I need to see who signed it.”

The sergeant shifted his gaze to Philip. Philip held out his hand and waited, and the sergeant did not disappoint him. He clapped his hand to his breast pocket, then shoved both hands into coat and trouser pockets, rummaging industriously. Coming up empty, he reached for his pack, opened it, and rustled around inside it, skilfully concealing the clink of bottles. Eventually he looked up, wide-eyed.

“Well I don’t know how I’ve done that, Colonel, but it looks like I’ve lost it,” he said, and his voice was rich and mellow with the rounded vowels of the West Country. “Maybe I left it in my tent, but I don’t think so, I’ve got an excellent memory, and I’m sure I picked it up. Now, I wonder if some thieving brat has picked my pocket for me in this crowd, knowing I’m new here and taking advantage…”

Philip held up his hand. He was enjoying the performance, and recognised in the sergeant a natural comedian, but he did not have all night. “That’s enough, Sergeant, you’ll have me weeping into my wine cup in a minute. Name and rank?”

“Sergeant Nick Coates, sir, 110th second company. Was under Captain Elliott, but I’ve been away for a while now.”

“Wounded?”

“Aye, sir. At Badajoz. Been convalescing ever since.”

“That’s a long convalescence, Sergeant Coates.”

“It was a bad wound, sir. More than one. They bayonetted me in the chest as I reached the top of the ladder, then I broke an arm and a leg when I hit the ground.”

“Christ, you’re lucky to have survived that with all your limbs.”

“We’ve good doctors in the 110th, sir.”

“And now you’re on your way back and thought you’d give yourself a night off as a treat. Don’t start searching for the leave pass again, it never existed. What I do want to know is where you got the money for three bottles of good wine. Have you been looting, Coates?”

“No, sir.” Coates hesitated, then took the plunge. “Not my money, sir. It’s more of a commission.”

“A commission? For whom?”

“A gentleman, sir, new to Spain, and with none of the language. They’ll fleece the youngsters something awful, sir, when they first get here.”

Philip was beginning to understand. “So you did have permission.”

“Informally, sir.”

“Which officer?”

“I don’t rightly know, sir. They’re not my officers, you know, and he didn’t approach me directly. One of the men brought the money and said I could keep the change as an incentive to get a good price. They must have heard I’d been out here before and could speak Spanish.”

Philip shook his head. “I suppose if I asked you to point out the soldier in question…?”

“Not one of my men, sir, I didn’t know him. They all look very much alike, don’t they. I was to put the wine outside the officers’ billet, I was just on my way to do that, sir. Sorry I’m not more help.”

Philip studied Coates for a long moment. “I think you know bloody well who ordered that wine,” he said softly. “Do you think he realised that you could end up flogged and demoted if you got caught?”

Shrewd dark eyes met his. “Oh yes, sir, I expect the young gentleman knew that all right. But I didn’t have to say yes, of course.”

“Why did you, you bloody fool?”

Coates looked around the darkened square, where only the taverns remained well lit, men sharing wine on rough benches outside. “I liked this place. Met a girl here. Army hospitals weren’t that much fun, and it was a bloody awful journey, mopping up puke from the new lads and running out of food on the march because the greenhorns don’t know the ropes. I fancied a night out, sir. Didn’t expect to get caught.”

Philip managed to bite back a grin at the other man’s matter-of-fact tones. Picking up his cup of wine, he sat down. Coates remained standing to attention. Philip waited for at least two minutes.

“All right, Sergeant. Sit down and drink your wine, and then we’ll walk back to camp together, I want to check on them. When I leave, I’ll take those bottles and deliver them personally, with a word or two about using the NCOs as errand boys and hanging them out to dry afterwards. Next time, make the young bleater give you a permission slip and then you’re covered, and it’ll be him that’ll get the bollocking.”

Coates stared at him in astonishment, then lowered his compact form onto the bench with a broad grin. “Thank you very much, sir. Your very good health. I’m guessing this is not your first time out here either, you’re not new at this.”

“By no means, Coates, but not out here. Alexandria, Walcheren, Ireland and Naples, with a spell in South America, which is why I was able to admire your bartering so thoroughly.”

Coates sipped the wine. “It’s good that you’re going to Van Daan’s brigade, sir, you’d get cashiered anywhere else, drinking with the NCOs like this.”

“I don’t usually drink with the NCOs, Sergeant, so don’t get any ideas. It’s my night off. And besides, you looked as though you were enjoying yourself.”

Coates looked up and grinned. “I was, sir. Am I on a charge?”

“Not this time, although you were a bloody idiot. But I’m looking for experienced men to help out on this march, since I seem to have been landed with two hundred and fifty raw recruits and half a dozen officers so wet behind the ears they need a nursemaid. I will do you a deal, Sergeant Coates. I will forget all about this little escapade, and in return, I get your unqualified support in getting these sorry specimens up to Lord Wellington’s army.”

Coates studied him for a moment, then picked up his cup and raised it. “Sir, you have yourself a deal.”

“Excellent. You can start tonight. On the way back to camp, I want to walk via the walls. The Spanish are having trouble with ghosts.”

“Ghosts, sir?” Coates sounded bewildered. “What ghosts?”

Philip explained, and Coates seemed to enjoy the story. They sat late into the evening. Philip was aware that his conduct in drinking with an NCO was reprehensible and would bring at best a stern reprimand and at worst, a conduct charge, but there were few English officers presently in Ciudad Rodrigo, and those would be up in the mess with Colonel Muir. Philip had missed his friends in the regiment badly and Coates, although only a sergeant, was intelligent, very funny and shrewd. Philip was careful to keep some distance, but enjoyed Coates’ colourful account of his entry into the army seven years earlier, through the agency of a magistrate in Truro.

“Smuggling was it, Sergeant?”

“I prefer to call it free trading, sir. It was my job to provide the gentlemen with their port and their brandy and the ladies with their silks and tea.”

“And sugar?”

“No, sir, I didn’t deal in sugar, on account of the slaves. Nasty business, slavery.”

Philip stared in astonishment. “A Cornish smuggler who is an abolitionist? I might need another drink to hear this story, Coates.”

“It’s not a long one, sir, though I’ll happily stand you another drink. I was fifteen and on my father’s boat, running brandy and tea into a cove near Marazion when we picked up a body in the water. Younger than me, he looked, half-starved and beaten bloody, poor little beggar.”

“Oh Christ. Slaver gone down?”

“Not as such. Runaway page boy, caught in Plymouth and sold back to the West Indies. He could remember life on the plantations, preferred to drown himself.”

“He was alive?”

“Yes, sir. Algy, his name was. Crewed that boat with me for nigh on ten years, until we got picked up on a run from Roscoff, and after a spell in gaol found ourselves with the choice of the army, the navy or a trial which could have ended much worse. Algy chose the navy, safer for him. Often wonder how he got on, he was a good mate, was Algy.”

“It sounds as though you were too. Right, come on. Time to earn your parole all over again, Sergeant Coates. Let’s get up there and put the fear of God into those sentries, then I will take the officers’ wine and let them know I want a word with them in the morning.”

“You could always confiscate it, sir. Good wine, that.”

“You were born to be hanged, Coates. Get moving.”

There was no sound or movement along the town walls. This late, the sentries were in position, huddled together for warmth and companionship, the air around them hazy with cigar smoke. Philip paused by each group in turn as they saluted and spoke a few words. It was the last night he would do this, and he hoped he was making enough noise to get the sentries on the northern wall into position so that he could give a favourable report to Colonel Ramirez. They approached by the small bastion, and Philip was pleased to see four men, albeit on the wrong side of the tower, muskets shouldered. They looked grim and miserable, but they were there, and he stopped to compliment them on their fortitude, although he was aware that he could not see the next picket.

The night was very clear, with a full moon, and Philip heard the clink of bottles from Coates’ pack as the sergeant followed him onto the wall above the breach. He wondered suddenly if this place held painful memories for Coates, but the sergeant showed no signs of discomfort.

Further along the wall, Philip caught sight of a lone figure and immediately recognised him. He knew by now that the man was not one of the garrison, but must be a townsman, probably from one of the houses directly below the wall, who came up each night for a breath of fresh air before bed. Philip had not been this close to him before, and as he drew nearer, he realised that what he had thought was a cloak, was actually a dark blue caped great coat. He wore a simple bicorn hat, and Philip wondered if he was in fact an officer, either on sick leave or visiting, although he was surprised he had not met him during his week in the town, as the English officers all knew each other socially.

Behind him, Coates echoing footsteps stopped abruptly. Philip paused and looked round in surprise. The sergeant’s face was clearly illuminated in the moonlight, and his expression chilled Philip to the bone. The thin face wore an expression of utter terror, the dark eyes wide, and Coates was backing up so fast that Philip sprinted to grab him by the arm, worried he might tumble backwards over the low parapet. He realised as he grasped Coates, that the sergeant was shaking violently.

“Sergeant, what the hell is wrong with you? Look stand here for a moment and catch your breath. Are you ill?”

“No. No, no, no, no. It can’t be. He’s not here, he’s not here. He’s dead. He’s bloody dead, I saw them bury him.”

Understanding was slow to dawn, and by the time Philip understood, the brisk footsteps along the walkway were coming close. Suddenly, he was afraid as well, and it took all his courage to turn around to see what had caused the sergeant’s sheer terror. The sight was so ludicrously normal that Philip felt completely disoriented.

For the first time, he could see the face of the stocky man who guarded the lesser breach every evening, and although there was nothing spectral about it, it was formidable. He was not old, possibly in his fifties, with very dark hair under his hat, and a pair of piercing dark eyes under thick, beetling brows. His complexion was swarthy, as though he had spent many days in the saddle under the hot Spanish sun, and he walked with deliberate authority, his sword belt jingling slightly as he moved. There was a sense of power and controlled energy about him, and Philip found himself standing to attention and saluting even before he saw the glimpse of a red jacket beneath the swinging coat. Unquestionably this was a senior officer.

The man turned to look at him as he passed. Dark eyes flickered over Philip, as though to check that he was correctly turned out, and then the officer nodded in approval and saluted. He walked past the shivering sergeant without comment. Philip watched his retreating back, feeling as though he had just passed an inspection from a difficult commanding officer, and turned to Coates.

Coates was white in the pale moonlight, and looked as though he might be sick. Philip took him firmly by the arm. “Come on, Sergeant, let’s get you off this wall before you kill yourself. No, don’t try to speak. We’ll go back to my billet and if necessary, I’ll call the surgeon.”

Philip waited until they were inside his warm little room. He pushed Coates into a chair and went for brandy then realised that he had run out. Making a mental note to send Barlow, his valet, to buy more before the march, Philip went to the sergeant’s pack and removed one of the bottles of wine. He poured for both of them and set a glass down in front of Coates.

“I’m going to get cashiered, drinking with a sergeant twice in one day. If I’d not been with you earlier, Coates, I’d have thought you were half-sprung already, but you’re clearly not. What happened, were you ill?”

Coates was beginning to regain his colour. He drank half a glass of wine without taking breath and set it down, then looked up at Philip.

“Thank you, sir. Sorry. Must have taken a turn. Won’t happen again. I’ll leave the wine here, you can give it to the gentlemen in the morning.”

He made as if to rise, and Philip pushed him firmly back into the chair and refilled his glass. “What happened?”

“Permission not to talk about it, sir?”

“Not granted. What were you on about – he’s dead. Who’s dead, Coates? Was it the breach – did you lose friends up there?”

The sergeant drank more wine and did not reply. Philip sat down and sipped his own wine. “Look, I understand. I know what it can do to you sometimes, although we all pretend it doesn’t affect us. I don’t need the details, Coates, but if this is something…”

“You said you’d served in South America, sir,” Coates said abruptly. “Mind me asking when?”

“I was with Beresford during the first invasion, but I developed fever and was sent home, so I missed the worst of that shambles. What on earth has that to do with anything?”

“Because he was out there afterwards. Major-General Craufurd. But you won’t ever have seen him.”

Understanding flooded through Philip along with a chill of horror. He stared blankly at Coates, not wanting to believe what he was saying. “Don’t be funny, Sergeant, I’m not…”

“Did it look as though I was joking up there, sir?” Coates said furiously. “It was him. I know him, I’ve seen him a thousand times. I served in the 110th and we fought under him at Fuentes d’Onoro and at the Coa, and in a dozen skirmishes out on the border. And before then, I marched in his column during Moore’s retreat. I saw that bastard flog the skin off a starving man’s back for stealing a turnip and then give the same man the remains of his own rations later in the day. I was out there, climbing over dead and dying men into the breach last year and I saw him go down. I was at his burial, at the foot of the wall, in the breach. I know him. It was Craufurd.”

Philip believed him. He sat in silence, drinking wine, shocked and feeling slightly shivery. Neither man spoke until Coates set down his empty glass and got to his feet. He saluted.

“Permission to return to camp, sir.”

“Granted. Don’t go that way again.”

“I’m going nowhere near it, sir.”

“Get your kit and the men organised, Sergeant, and be ready to march out the day after tomorrow. I’m counting on you to make my life easier along the way.”

“My word on it, Colonel.” The Cornishman hesitated. “Sir?”

“What is it?”

“I’d prefer not to speak of this to anyone else, sir.”

Philip gave a small, grim smile. “Not a chance of it, Sergeant. They’d think I was mad. Look – are you absolutely sure? It couldn’t have been another man? A trick of the light, maybe you were thinking about Craufurd up there?”

“I saw him, sir. As clearly as I can see you now.” Coates shook his head. “He was a bloody good general, his men thought the world of him. I’d have been glad to see him again, but he shouldn’t have been there.”

Philip thought about it. “I’m not sure about that, Sergeant. Maybe he should.”

The following day was taken up with preparations for the march, and by dinner time, Philip was fully packed and had inspected the men and the baggage wagons, spoken to the Spanish guide allocated to him and said farewell to his hostess. He dined in the mess as usual, but rose early from the table, as he hoped to be on the road at dawn and did not want to set off with a hangover. Colonel Muir shook his hand and wished him well, and Philip was engulfed in a wave of handshakes and good wishes from both English and Spanish officers.

When Colonel Ramirez shook his hand, he said:

“Did you visit my idle sentries last night, Colonel?”

“I did,” Philip admitted. “I’ve been thinking about it, Colonel, and it’s possible the problem is easier to solve than we thought. It seems there’s one stretch of that wall that they hate to patrol. It’s right above where the breach was, and I’d guess they imagine horrors when they’re up there. Perhaps if you moved the pickets a little further apart to either side of that stretch, they’d be better behaved.”

Ramirez studied him thoughtfully. “It is an interesting idea, Colonel Norton. I will think about it. Goodbye, and good luck.”

Outside the mess, Philip hesitated. He had things to do still, but the wall was there, still and quiet in the sleepy late afternoon air. After a long moment, Philip turned away from his billet and walked down to the small bastion, going up the steps onto the wall. He walked along the stretch between the two small towers, then turned and walked back again. Nobody was there, but it was early, and he would not expect to see a ghost in broad daylight.

The thought made Philip smile, it was so ridiculous. He turned again, to go down the steps, and saw him immediately, the stocky figure in the dark coat and hat, staring out over the countryside to the position where almost eighteen months ago, the light division had formed up, ready to storm the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo.

Philip did not move or speak. After a moment, Major-General Robert Craufurd turned towards him and began his brisk, confident march along the walkway until he reached Philip. As before, he turned his head to look at him, and Philip straightened and saluted. It should have felt ridiculous, saluting a man who was not and could not be there, but Philip did not care. Whatever shadow of Black Bob Craufurd that lingered on in the place where he had fallen, deserved his respect.

Craufurd returned the salute with the same quirk of his lips, and walked past Philip. After a moment, the footsteps could no longer be heard. Philip turned to look, but both the bastion and the walkway were empty once more.

It was barely light when the two hundred and fifty men formed up under their temporary officers and set off at a brisk march around the outside of Ciudad Rodrigo towards the Salamanca road. Philip rode at the head of the small column, with the walls rising to his right, bathed in rose pink and golden rays from the awakening sun. The repaired wall was clearly visible, looking more than ever like a scar, and Philip looked up and was not surprised to see the lone figure standing above it, watching them leave. He reined in to allow the troops to march past him, until he was at the back of the column. Unobserved, he took off his hat, and saluted for a long, silent moment. Then he replaced it and cantered forward to the head of his men, setting his horse and his thoughts firmly towards Wellington’s distant army.

The Last Sentry pdf