Lockdown with Oscar: the End

Lockdown with Oscar: the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just coming, Oscar.”

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

“Yep.”

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

“That’s right, Oscar.”

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

“Come on then, I’ll get your lead.”

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean my typing?”

“Yes. So noisy.”

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

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

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

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

“Mum. I’m bored.”

“When does your new reading list come out?”

“This week, I think.”

“Why don’t you e-mail them?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

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

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

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

“I know, love.”

“Bet you’re ready for that too…”

“Mmmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

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

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

“This is actually not bad.”

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

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

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

“People are worried about catching Covid, Oscar.”

“You’re not wearing one.”

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

“Why is that dog wearing a muzzle?”

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

“Ugh. Can I paddle in the river?”

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

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

“Mum, can we go to the beach?”

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

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

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

“Mum! A DOOOOOG! Can I go and play?”

“I think so, Oscar. Off you go.”

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

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

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

“Can I run and play over there?”

“NO! Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

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

“Ugh. What did you do?”

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

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

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

“Are you tired, Oscar?”

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

“Almost, baby boy.”

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

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

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

Lockdown plus point number 5: We have the glens

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Three

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Three

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

Today was Shopping Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daffodils.

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

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

“You like flowers, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did, Oscar.”

“Do we still have them?”

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

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

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

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

“He doesn’t like anybody, Oscar.”

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

 

 

 

“Isn’t the sky pretty, Mum?”

“Beautiful, Oscar. Are you hungry?”

“Starving. Did you buy my favourite food?”

“I did.”

“Did you wear your muzzle?”

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

“What a good girl.”

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

Lockdown minus point 4: Muzzles

Lockdown plus point 4: Daffodils

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 2

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 2

Today was meant to be a Shopping and Errand Day. With this in mind, I set up shop in the kitchen, so that I could use the table to sort out my overflowing admin file and work out what needed to be done. This is always a job I have to do early in January. I have the sort of brain that has to make admin a project. I’ve been trying for my entire adult life to deal with paperwork as it comes in and not let it pile up, but I now understand that I am never going to be that person. Over any busy period, such as Christmas, I am never going to deal with admin on a daily basis, so I’ve trained myself to keep a proper file so that when I do get around to doing it, I’ve got everything in one place and I don’t have to search for vital pieces of paper stashed in odd drawers and on shelves.

I didn’t do badly with the admin and as a reward, I allowed myself to sit and write for a bit. Three hours later, I am willing to acknowledge that Shopping and Errand Day might not happen today. We’ve got enough to manage…

Essay writing is going well, I think, but as it’s happening in a different room today, I’m not quite so involved. Occasionally the laptop is thrust under my nose and I get to learn new and interesting facts about seventeenth century government finance, but mostly life is peaceful. Even my afternoon walk with Oscar didn’t happen today, as he was stolen by my son’s girlfriend, who is on a fitness kick. Oscar bounded out the door with huge excitement, and returned an hour later full of beans.

“OMG, Mum, I went on a walk with Rachael!”

“I know you did, Oscar. Did you enjoy it?”

“It was brilliant. We’re going to do it again! We saw loads of people again. Some of them were wearing muzzles again!”

“Masks, Oscar.”

“Whatever. It stops them from biting each other, which is good. Anyway, I’m just off to tell Rachael how much I love her again.”

I leave Oscar to it, listening to the shrieks from Rachael as Oscar leaps onto her as she’s sitting on the sofa and tries to climb onto her head. I’m sure she’ll be fine…

Eventually, worn out with so much love, Oscar comes back to the kitchen. We’ve moved his favourite bed next to my chair so he can be nice and close, and it’s clear the walk has worn him out.

“Mum. Is it dinner time?”

“No, you’ve got a couple of hours yet, Oscar. Have a snooze.”

Ten minutes pass.

“Mum. As we didn’t get a walk today, do you think we could go down the glen this evening, to see the lights?”

“If it’s not raining, Oscar.”

“It’s not going to rain. I can feel it in my tail. What’s for dinner?”

“Dog food, Oscar.”

“What else?”

“We’re having take away, it’s Friday.”

“Mmm. That sounds interesting. I might go and see Jon, he’s talking to the computer again.”

“Oh no you don’t. He’s on a zoom call with work.”

“Oh. Don’t you think they’d like to meet me?”

“Maybe later. Settle down, baby boy.”

Another ten minutes.

“Mum. I like lockdown.”

“Why’s that, Oscar?”

“You’re all here.”

“That’s a fair point, Oscar. Want to come into the garden and play?”

“Yes, please! Now, who shall I bring? Red snake hasn’t been out for a while.”

Sometimes, I think Oscar is a very wise dog. Maybe there are some good points to lockdown after all.

Lockdown plus point 3: We’re all together.

Lockdown minus point 3: I will need to wear my muzzle in the supermarket and the post office when I go tomorrow. Still, at least it will stop me biting anybody…

 

 

 

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 1

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 1

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

It’s raining.

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

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

“Mum, listen to my opening paragraph.”

“Have you changed it since last night?”

“No, but I’m about to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty minutes goes by.

“Mum. You need to see this.”

“You want me to read another paragraph?”

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

“Maybe it’s lunch time.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oscar, sit. Stay. Let them go past.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I stroke your dog?”

“No…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And dinner. Is it dinner time, Mum?”

“Another hour, Oscar.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sir Edward Codrington

When I decided to write a post on Sir Edward Codrington for the latest Historical Writers Forum blog hop, I can honestly say that I hadn’t really taken on board, that the title of the blog hop was going to be “My favourite historical character” or I might have chosen somebody else. Codrington is by no means my favourite. Anybody who has read my books will know that the Duke of Wellington tops my list, with honourable mentions for General Robert Craufurd and General Charles Alten. However, I’ve already written blog posts on all of these, and I wanted to do somebody different.

I introduced Codrington and his wife in This Blighted Expedition, and he is going to be an important character in the next book in the Manxman series, This Bloody Shore, which will be out during the second half of next year. And having spent some time reading his published memoirs, as well as looking into his career, I admit, that while Codrington isn’t my favourite, I do like him. So what’s the problem?

The problem, dear reader, is that Edward Codrington was a slave owner. But we’ll come back to that later.

 

Edward Codrington was born in 1770, a youngest son in an aristocratic family. His mother died the same year, possibly giving birth to him, and his father died when he was five, leaving him to the care of an uncle by the name of Bethell. He was educated at Harrow for a short time and entered the Royal Navy in 1783 at the age of thirteen.

Codrington served in the Mediterranean, off the United States and in home waters, until 1793 when he was promoted to lieutenant. By this time, he seems to have been under the patronage of Lord Howe, who was possibly an acquaintance of his uncle, and he was chosen as signal lieutenant in the Channel fleet and served on HMS Queen Charlotte in the battle of the Glorious First of June. Having distinguished himself during the battle, he was promoted to commander in October 1794 and then post-captain in April 1795 at the age of 25. He commanded HMS Babet and then HMS Druid in the Channel and off Portugal, and took part in the capture of a French vessel carrying troops to assist the rebels in Ireland in 1797.

This was followed by a period on land and on half-pay. This was not unusual as there were always more captains than ships to command. Patronage was vitally important and Lord Howe, Codrington’s patron, died at his home in London in 1799. Codrington did not waste his time on land, however, and was married in 1802 to Jane Hall, a young woman from Kingston, Jamaica. The Codringtons had three sons and two daughters and appear to have been a devoted couple. In 1810, Codrington wrote to his wife:

“To be a hero one needs not to be a bad husband, most certainly; but I fear that, in order to obtain the lofty situation from which heroism can be adopted practically, in the mode of external warfare to which the sons of England are subject in these times, a man must possess none of those yearnings after his wife and children which interfere with all my official proceedings. And therefore, my dear Jane, never expect that your weak, loving husband will become a hero, a Nelson, until some other Lady Hamilton shall, by her wicked influence, utterly quench those feelings of father and husband which are now his pride and his consolation. My only resource will be, if ever I should become an admiral and Commander – in – chief, to petition that my wife may be allowed to accompany me as my secretary; – and therefore prepare yourself for this contingency!”

Pocock, Nicholas; The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: End of the Action; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-battle-of-trafalgar-21-october-1805-end-of-the-action-175342

In 1803 the Peace of Amiens ended and England was once more at war with France. Codrington was back at sea, initially in a series of small frigates, and finally in 1805,  in HMS Orion, a ship of the line. Codrington fought at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October. The Orion attacked the French ship, the Swiftsure, forcing her to surrender, made an unsuccessful attack on the Spanish flagship and then attacked the Intrepide along with several other English ships.

For the following few years, in command of HMS Blake, Codrington fought in the Mediterranean alongside the Spanish, commanding a squadron to harry the French along the coast. He was then called to take part in the disastrous Walcheren expedition in 1809, and it was at this point, researching This Blighted Expedition, that I first came across him. Codrington and his wife would have been only a few years older than my fictional navy couple, Hugh and Roseen Kelly, with children of a similar age, and a friendship seemed like a good plot device. In Codrington’s published memoirs is a vivid description of Jane’s terrifying ordeal during the shipwreck of HMS Venerable when she travelled to visit him in Walcheren, and in the novel, Roseen accompanies her.

After Walcheren, Codrington returned to Spain’s eastern seaboard. He was very involved when Tarragona was besieged by the French army, bringing in reinforcements, guiding cannon launches against the enemy and trying to assist the garrison. When the city fell, he performed a daring rescue operation on the beach, under fire from enemy guns and rescued more than 600 people, going to the trouble to personally reunite families who were separated during the evacuation. Codrington also showed a willingness to intervene in political matters when he spoke against the disarming of the local Catalan militia.

Codrington’s distinguished service was rewarded when he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue in 1814, while serving off the coast of North America as Cochrane’s captain of the fleet. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1815, a rear admiral of the Red in 1819, and a vice admiral in 1821. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1822.

Tragedy struck the family some time in 1821 or 1822 when Codrington’s son Edward,  a midshipman aboard Cambrian was drowned in the Mediterranean. He was taking a cutter to Hydra when a squall overturned the boat, drowning Edward, a merchant, and three crewmen.

In 1826, Codrington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and sailed for Greek waters in 1827, with orders to impose a peaceful solution on the chaos of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. Codrington was in command of a combined British, French and Russian fleet, and had been told to find a diplomatic solution. Diplomacy does not seem to have been Codrington’s strong point, and although he appears to have been under the mistaken impression that the Ottomans had broke an agreed truce, I suspect that the suffering of the local population would have been enough to set him off anyway. On 20 October 1827, in an action which very clearly exceeded his orders, Codrington destroyed the Turkish and Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Navarino.

After the battle Codrington went to Malta to refit his ships, then in May 1828, he sailed to join the French and Russian fleets on the coast of the Morea to attempt to force the capitulation of the governor, Ibrahim Pasha, who was employing brutal tactics to suppress rebellion in the area, desolating the countryside and sending thousands of the inhabitants into slavery in Egypt, intending to replace them with Muslim settlers from Africa.

On 22 June, Codrington received the news that he was to be recalled, probably to account for his actions. Before his successor could arrive, however, the three admirals agreed that Codrington should travel to Alexandria to persuade Mehemet Ali to recall Ibrahim Pasha. With typical disregard for the probable terms of his recall, Codrington went, and the evacuation of the Morea was settled in the treaty 6 August 1828. A French expeditionary force landed, and in October 1828 Ibrahim Pasha evacuated the country.

After his return home, Codrington mounted a spirited defence of his actions, and was fully exonerated and rewarded by the grant of the Grand Cross of the Bath, although there is no doubt that the British government was embarrassed by his intervention. It was considered that his action had further weakened the Ottoman Empire, which was seen as a bulwark against the ambitions of Russia.

Codrington spent the rest of his career close to home. He commanded a training squadron in the Channel in 1831 and became a full admiral in 1837. He was an MP between 1832 and 1839, when he became Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth until 1842. His beloved Jane died in 1837.

Codrington died in London on 28 April 1851. He was survived by two sons, both of whom achieved distinction in the British armed forces. Sir William Codrington was a commander in the Crimean War and Sir Henry Codrington  became an Admiral of the Fleet. His daughter Jane, married Sir Thomas Bourchier and was responsible for the publication of Codrington’s memoirs. There was another daughter, Elizabeth, but I’ve not  yet been able to find out much about her, so I’m wondering if she died young.

Codrington was buried in St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square, then in 1954, the remains were reburied at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Plaques to his memory can be found in St Paul’s Cathedral and All Saints Church, Dodington, close to the family home and there is an obelisk dedicated to the memory of Codrington and his officers who fought at Navarino at Pylos, in Greece. Numerous roads are named after him in Greece, and stamps with his image have been issued.

That was Sir Edward Codrington the hero. He was brave, intelligent and not afraid to put his own life and reputation on the line in order to do the right thing. He was well-liked and had many friends. He was a devoted husband, who adored his wife. He was compassionate, as demonstrated by his personal quest to reunite mothers and babies separated during the evacuation of Tarragona.

And he was a slave owner.

I’ve spent some time trying to find out more about this aspect of Codrington’s life. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Codringtons, the Bethell and the Hall families were plantation owners, slave owners and an integral part of the high-ranking families who made fortunes from the human misery of slavery in eighteenth century Britain. It’s much harder to establish the actual personal involvement of each individual member of every family to the institution of slavery. From my little outpost on the Isle of Man, especially in the middle of a pandemic, my research facilities are limited. Having said that, thanks to the fantastic website run by The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at UCL, I’ve been able to find out a surprising amount about Sir Edward Codrington’s family, and I’m going to follow this up with another blog post, since that has been a whole different research rabbit hole.

Here’s what I know so far about Sir Edward Codrington and slavery. On 5th October 1835, under the terms of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Codrington was awarded government compensation of £2588 6s 6d for the 190 slaves he had owned at the Rooms plantation on Antigua, and who had been freed under the terms of the act. The plantation was part of an inheritance shared by his siblings, from his uncle, Christopher Bethell in 1797.

Sir Edward’s memoirs and published letters are very quiet on the subject of slavery. Most of the references I could find, concerned his horrified indictment of the Ottoman practice of taking Greek prisoners into slavery in Egypt, but there is no hint in any of his letters that he drew any parallel with the slaves he owned in Antigua. This is probably not surprising, since most of these letters were of a professional and highly public nature and Codrington was fighting for his career after Navarino.

The only reference I could find to plantation slavery, is in a letter to his wife, dated February 1806. It seems that Codrington sent Jane an article from the Edinburgh Review which he hoped she would read.

“As I see no marks whatever, I fancy you did not look over the (article in the Edinburgh Review on) the Examen de l’Esclavage; which I lament, because that brutal publication has called forth from these gentlemen an investigation into the merits of the slave trade, and some reasoning on its merits and consequences, which I think well worthy the consideration of the planters. A new system must take place sooner or later in that part of the world; and I am fully convinced that it would be much better for it to originate with the most interested; and I think also, that they would find their advantage in anticipation, instead of waiting till the necessity of the case runs away with all the credit which might be due to the measure.”

The book to which Codrington refers was “Examen de l’esclavage in général, et particulierement de l’esclavage des Nègres dans les colonies françaises de l’Amérique” which was published in 1802. I’ve not yet managed to read it, given that my French takes a while and a lot of patience, but as far as I am able to judge, it is written from an abolitionist standpoint. Britain was in the process of abolishing the slave trade, if not yet slavery itself, and it is interesting to see that Codrington was engaging with the debate in a way that suggests that he saw abolition as both desirable and inevitable. This was a very different standpoint to his brother, Christopher Bethell-Codrington, who in the same year rejected pressure from constituents to support the abolition of the slave trade, and continued to oppose abolition right to the bitter end.

However, whatever doubts Edward Codrington may have entertained about slavery did not cause him to free the slaves he owned in Antigua. Slaves they remained until emancipation, and Codrington accepted government compensation along with the other slave owners of the British Isles. I find myself wondering if Codrington ever visited the West Indies. There is no mention of it in his published memoirs. Did he ever even see the men, woman and children he owned, or was he, like so many others, an absentee plantation owner, who took the revenue and gave no thought to the misery behind it?

In 2009, the Greek Ambassador unveiled a blue plaque at the former home of Sir Edward Codrington in Brighton, and local newspapers spoke of Codrington as a hero. In 2020, the plaque was removed after local protests, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd.

So who was Edward Codrington – compassionate war hero who risked his life and reputation for the citizens of Tarragona and the freedom of Greece or a man who made money from the misery of black African slaves? The truth is, of course, that he was both

My fictionalised Ned Codrington needs to encompass all aspects of his character as far as I can discover them. I’d no idea what I was taking on when I decided to include him in my novels, but he’s there now. I already have a sense of how he might be, and I’m looking forward to getting to understand him better.

There is undoubtedly more to know about Codrington, and one day I’d like to try to find out. Perhaps lurking in some archive that I don’t currently have access to, there is evidence that he did speak out openly against slavery during his lifetime. Or perhaps there is evidence that he was the opposite, a man actively involved either in the trade or the running of his plantation, greedy for profit and careless of the lives he ruined. Perhaps, and this would be my guess, Codrington didn’t spend much time thinking about it at all. Antigua was a long way away, and it must have been so easy for a man with a burgeoning career and a growing family to make use of that extra income and ignore where the money came from. I’ll let you know if I find out more. What I do know, is researching this blog post has given me an entire raft of new ideas for the future of the Manxman series.

I wonder what Codrington would have thought of the removal of that blue plaque, if he could somehow see it? I think he might have been surprised that it was there in the first place, Codrington didn’t strike me as a man chasing fame. But he was a man who valued his good name and I think he’d have been sad that a hundred and sixty-nine years after his death, his reputation seems to have been tarnished not by active cruelty but by indifference. 

Sources

The Memoir of the Life of Edward Codrington vols 1 and 2, edited by Lady Jane Bourchier available online here.

The Centre for the Studies of the Legacies of British Slave Ownership at UCL available online here.

The History of Parliament Online, a work in progress, but available here.

Historic Hansard available here.

Don’t forget to watch out for the rest of the Historical Writers Forum October Blog Hop. Author Jen Wilson is up next with her take on Mary, Queen of Scots on Tuesday October 13th.

You can buy the first two books in the Manxman series on Kindle or in paperback over on Amazon.

An Unwilling Alliance: the story of the Copenhagen campaign of 1807

This Blighted Expedition: the story of the Walcheren campaign of 1809

Book three of the series, This Bloody Shore will be published in 2021.

If you have any comments or questions or just want to say hello, please feel free to join me on facebook, twitter or instagram, I always love to talk to readers.

The Story of the Peninsular War Saga

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

2. Was An Unconventional Officer your first book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Why is Paul half Dutch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. What made you start writing the Manxman series?

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

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

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

14. Why did you decide to publish independently?

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

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

15. What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?

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

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

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

17. Will you write any more Regency romances?

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

18. Will any of your other books have sequels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Summerhill Glen #OscarWalks

Summerhill Glen #OscarWalks is the first post Oscar and I have done for some time. We’ve been out for walks, of course, but I’ve been away a few times and Oscar had his little operation, which meant we’ve not been out and about around the island as much as we’d have liked. Needless to say, we’re going to be a bit limited for a while, but even close to home, there are some interesting places to go, and one of our favourite places for a daily walk is Summerhill Glen, which is only five minutes from our front door.

 

“Are we going down Summerhill Glen today, Mum? I love Summerhill Glen.”

“We are, Oscar, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to play with any other dogs at the moment. I doubt there will be many about.”

“No, it’s very quiet. I like the quiet, though. Not so many scary cars and lorries on the road. Easier to cross.”

Summerhill Glen has two entrances.  The top entrance is on Victoria Road near Governor’s Bridge, and the main entrance is on Summerhill, just up from Douglas Prom. It was apparently originally named Glen Crutchery. The water from the river was used to provide power to a snuff mill on Strathallan Crescent, but the mill burned to the ground in the late eighteenth century. The road became known as Burnt Mill Hill, and then later, Summerhill from a mansion house at the bottom of Blackberry Lane.

In 1833, the glen was purchased by Douglas Waterworks to provide water for the first Douglas reservoir. The reservoir was still in use in the 1970s, to provide water for washing down the prom, but after a fatal accident, the reservoir was filled in although it is still possible to see where it was. The glen as we know it today was developed in 1932-1933 by young men aged between 18 and 22 on a ‘work for the workless” scheme.  It was then leased by Douglas Corporation. Initially, there was a proposal to call it Waterworks Glen but this was rejected in favour of Summerhill Glen, which I personally think was a good decision.

Summerhill Glen is a beautiful little oasis close to the centre of Douglas, with a series of paths leading between trees and shrubs, alongside a stream with a little waterfall. In the 1980s a fairy grotto was created, and this has been upgraded several times since then, with carved wooden seats and illuminations during the summer season and at Christmas and Halloween.

“I didn’t like the Halloween lights, Mum. That dog.”

“You mean the Moddey Dhoo, Oscar? You got used to him.”

“I know. I don’t mind him now, but when I first saw him, with all that fog around the marsh, and that howling noise, he frightened the life out of me. Now, I just think he reminds me of old Toby.”

“Toby and Joey both loved this glen.”

“And who wouldn’t? There are trees and flowers and bushes and mud and water and ALL THE SMELLS!!!!!”

“There are also a lot of steps and it’s quite steep, Oscar, stop pulling.”

“Sorry. Got a bit excited. What’s that?”

“It’s a waterfall, Oscar.”

One of the advantages of the glen for us, is that we can walk down to the prom and the beach from home. It’s possible, during the summer months, to take the horse drawn tram from the bottom of the glen right down into town, which is a picturesque, if not particularly speedy way to get to the shops. Alternatively, we can just walk along the prom, or take Oscar onto the beach.

 

 

Spring is particularly lovely in the glen, with daffodils and wild flowers forming splashes of colour in the middle of the dense green of the vegetation. The main path is very good, although some of the side paths can get a bit boggy and slippery which can be an issue with an over enthusiastic labrador. Oscar has got so good on the lead now, though, that I don’t have to worry about him.

 

Oscar’s first visit to the cannon at Summerhill Glen. He’s grown a bit since then…

“What are those?”

“Cannon.”

“I’ve seen cannon somewhere else, haven’t I?”

“You have. There were some in the little fort on St Michael’s Isle. I believe these are here because there used to be some kind of fortification here as well, to defend this part of the island.”

“It’s a shame you can’t use them against this virus-thing.”

“Isn’t it just, Oscar? Right, are you ready to walk back up?”

Look at these ones, Mum, they’re quite high. I suppose fairies can fly, though…

“Yes. Can we look at the fairy doors?”

“We can. We should get two with Toby and Joey’s name on one day.”

“And mine?”

“Why not?”

“I like it down here at night, when it’s all lit up. Will that happen this year, Mum?”

“I don’t know, Oscar. It’s a bit different this year, they might not have the summer illuminations. But I think we’ll be back on for Halloween and Christmas.”

“Christmas was my favourite, it was like magic. I’m sure some of those lights looked like fairies.”

“They really did, Oscar. You tried to chase the moving ones. Beautiful. We’ll keep an eye out for the summer though, they might be back on around August time.”

The fairy doors throughout the glen were created by local schools, play groups and other organisations, and they give a real sense of magic to the glen. It’s a favourite activity for  local children to run through the glen spotting new doors and reading out the names on them. Oscar always gives the ones he can reach a good sniff, but he takes them in his stride, unlike my old fella Toby, who always took exception to ANYTHING NEW on one of his regular walks. Over the years, in addition to the fairy doors, he was know to lose it with such disparate items as new rubbish bins, a new bus shelter, a statue of a pig in somebody’s front garden and a Christmas tree on the quay. Toby didn’t like change, whereas I think Oscar has a sense of adventure.

You find fairy doors in the strangest places in Summerhill Glen, those fairies get everywhere
Oscar checking out some of the fairy doors in the glen
Fabulous tree carving at the top of the glen

“Look Mum, it’s the big wooden thing.”

“You mean the tree carving, Oscar. Yes, it’s lovely, isn’t it?”

“I remember coming here when I was a puppy. I loved this tree, there are so many different carvings on it.”

“You were a lot smaller then, Oscar. You couldn’t get up onto this seat back then. Want to have a sit down?”

 

 

Oscar is enjoying having a sit down on the seat which is part of the tree carving.

“Yes. This is such a cool seat. What’s that?”

“It’s an owl.”

“Really? Let me see. I like owls. I got an owl toy for my birthday, didn’t I? I love my owl. Let me see this one close up.”

 

Oscar investigating the owl carving
He really likes this owl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are there any more owls round this side?

“Right, let’s get home, Oscar. I need to get some work done.”

“Will Jon be there?”

“Yes.”

“And Anya?”

“Yes.”

“And Dad and Rachael?”

“Everybody’s working at home for a while, Oscar, they’ll all be there.”

“That’s great. You know, it’s a shame we can’t go far, Mum, but this lockdown isn’t all bad, you know… I think I’ll cuddle my owl when I get home and have a nap.”

“Sounds like a plan, Oscar.”

Oscar and I will be keeping closer to home for a while, but we’re looking forward to the challenge of finding some interesting places for #OscarWalks to investigate nearby. 

Don’t forget that there are eight short historical fiction stories available here, which will give you a flavour of my writing and give you something to do during lockdown.

 

If you enjoyed Summerhill Glen #OscarWalks and want to hear more from Writing with Labradors, or find out about my books, why not follow me on Facebook, Twitter,  Instagram or  Medium?

 

Oscar has grown a bit since this early photo beside the tree carving at the top of the glen
Definitely Larger.