Captain John Quilliam RN – a Manx hero

Captain John Quilliam by Henry Barber (Manx Museum)

 Captain John Quilliam RN was a Royal Navy officer who served as First Lieutenant on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.  The Isle of Man has a strong tradition of service in the Royal Navy and Quilliam is one of the best known local heroes.  In trying to come up with a Manx hero for my next book, the story of Quilliam seems like a good place to begin my reading.

Captain John Quilliam RN was born in Marown on the island on 29 September 1771 and died in Michael at the age of 58 after a long and distinguished career.  His parents, John Quilliam and Christian Clucas were farmers at Ballakelly and the young John was apprenticed to a stonemason and then worked as a labourer when he was picked up by a press gang in 1794 at the age of 23.

During the Napoleonic wars the press gang operated a number of times on the Isle of Man.  The Duke of Atholl was known to have offered financial incentives for men to volunteer for the navy in the island but there were still not enough recruits and Manx sailors were considered particularly valuable by the navy to such an extent that the press gang received an extra bonus for any Manxman taken.

The island was dependant upon its fishing industry and at times it was disrupted as the fleet did not dare to put to see for fear of being apprehended by warships looking for men.  In 1798 forty men were impressed in Port Erin bay despite protests from the Governor and the House of Keys to the Admiralty.  Another raid in 1811 by the warship Maria took twenty fishermen and a number of men of the Manx Volunteers in a violent attack.

In theory the press gang were only allowed to take those with seafaring experience between the ages of 18 and 55.  In times of severe shortage however these rules were relaxed and any man was at risk.  In 1810 the press gang invaded Onchan Parish School on the island, terrifying the children who fled from the school.  A boy of around 14 was seized by the gang but they were obliged to release him when a group of local women pelted them with stones.  On other occasion the gang would seized labourers, farm workers and shop boys on their way home and once aboard ship they listened to no excuse having heard a wide variety of them over the years.  Local young men would run for cover when the press gang was scouring the area and there were specially constructed shelters in the hills.  Apparently, a field next to Jurby Parish School called Ballaconney which was thickly covered in gorse was a popular refuge for local youths dodging impressment.  It is hard to blame them given that those taken would often not return for many years.

Once taken into service, a pressed man would usually be given the option of becoming a volunteer for which he would be paid a bonus.  If he chose not to do so his freedom would be very limited.  Desertion rates in the navy were so high that even volunteers were seldom allowed shore leave when in port.  Food, drink and women were ferried out to the ships to try to avoid losing half the crew every time the ship was in port.

In theory, landsmen and ‘gentlemen’ were exempt from impressment.  In practice this was sometimes ignored.  If a warship was particularly short handed, with the prospect of battle looming, it was not uncommon for a captain to turn a deaf ear to a pressed man claiming exemption from impressment.  Unlike in the army where there was a term of service, even when that was for life, sailors signed on to a ship for a particular campaign and once that was over they were discharged although they could sign on again.  Obviously during wartime, a campaign or commission could last for years, so for a pressed man without any way of returning to shore and his previous life, it might well have seemed best to make the most of his time at sea.

The hero of An Unconventional Officer, Paul van Daan, was the son of a gentleman, a wealthy ship owner, who was almost fifteen when he was pressed into the Royal Navy.  The circumstances were unusual.  The ship on which he had been serving an apprenticeship had gone down in a storm and Paul and a few of the crew had made it to shore on Antigua when a press gang picked them up.  In the middle of a group of sailors, the young Paul would have looked no different and an unscrupulous press gang with a quota to fill did not care.  Back in England with the formal process of magistrates and paperwork it is unlikely that Paul’s naval service would have lasted much beyond a few days but the exigencies of war in far flung places and the desperation of some captains to crew their ships meant that it was convenient occasionally to turn a deaf ear to protests.

Captain John Quilliam RN was another man who should not have been eligible for impressment as a farmer and labourer, although we do not know very much about his early life or the circumstances of his impressment.  Many Manxmen with land based jobs were also part time fishermen and there is no reason to suppose that Quilliam had no experience at sea when he was seized; he might well have been an experienced sailor.  With only vague details about the circumstances of his joining the navy, it is not certain if he was pressed or volunteered although local legend is in favour of the impressment story.

Certainly both Quilliam and my fictional character, unlike most impressed sailors, decided to make the most of their chances in the navy.  Paul van Daan only served for two years before his wealthy father realised he was alive and brought him home but in that time he had risen to be a petty officer, the naval equivalent of an NCO in the army.  John Quilliam served for longer and rose rapidly.  He is first recorded in 1797 when he would have been twenty six and three years at sea and he was made a Lieutenant at the Battle of Camperdown by Admiral Duncan.

In 1799 Quilliam took part in the capture of the Spanish treasure ship Thetis and received prize money of over £5000.  He fought at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 as First Lieutenant on HMS Amazon.  The design of the Amazon meant she was able to get close under the shore batteries, an important but very hazardous undertaking which led to every one of the higher-ranking officers beingkilled leaving Quilliam in command of the badly damaged ship.  His gallantry and calmness under fire and the way he took command was rewarded with being made First Lieutenant on HMS Victory by Horatio Nelson.

HMSVictory (photo by Ballista)

Captain John Quilliam RN was a talented and accomplished officer during his time on the Victory and helped to steer her into action at Trafalgar. A contemporary report stated:

“Just as she (the Victory) had got about 500 yards of the larboard beam of the Bucentaure the Victory’s mizzen-topmast was shot away, about two-thirds up. A shot also struck and knocked to pieces the wheel; and the ship was obliged to be steered from the gun room, the First Lieutenant John Quilliam and master Thomas Atkinson, relieving each other at the duty.” (James’s Naval History of Great Britain)

The Battle of Trafalgar by Turner

After Trafalgar,  Quilliam was promoted to Captain and placed in command of HMS Ildefonso, a Spanish ship which needed refitting at Gibraltar.  He did not arrive back in England until 1806.  In 1808 he captained Admiral Stopford’s flagship, HMS Spencer and then in 1812 he was captain of HMS Crescent on the Newfoundland Station and remained there until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.  His exploits included the capture of the 14 gun American privateer schooner the Elbridge Gerry together with her crew of 66 men.

Quilliam was elected to a seat in the Manx Parliament, the House of Keys in 1807 even though he was then still an active serving officer.  At the end of the war he returned to the Isle of Man, investing his considerable wealth in  properties, including the Balcony House in Castletown which was built for him as a town house and continuing his career in politics.  He was re-elected a Member of the House of Keys in 1817, and on December 21 of that year he married Margaret Stevenson at Castletown.  The couple had no children.

Balcony House Castletown (photo by Richard Hoare)

In 1826 Captain Quilliam was instrumental along with Sir William Hillary in the formation on the Isle of Man of a District Association of the Royal National Institution of the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck.  He also served as Chairman of the Committee for Shipwrecked Seamen.

Captain John Qulliam RN died on October 10, 1829. He was buried in the Stevenson family vault in the graveyard at Kirk Arbory with the following inscription on his tombstone.

Tomb of Captain John Quilliam (Photo by Kevin Rothwell)

“Sacred to the memory of John Quilliam, Esq., Captain in the Royal Navy. In his early service he was appointed by Adml. Lord Duncan to act as lieutenant at the Battle of Camperdown; after the victory was achieved, this appointment was confirmed. His gallantry and professional skill at the Battle of Copenhagen attracted the notice of Lord Nelson, who subsequently sought for his services on board his own ship, and as his lordship’s first lieut. he steered the Victory into action at the Battle of Trafalgar. By the example of Duncan and Nelson he learned to conquer. By his own merit he rose to command: above all this he was an honest man, the noblest work of God. After many years of honourable and distinguished professional service, he retired to this land of his affectionate solicitude and birth, where in his public station as a member of the House of Keys, and in private life, he was in arduous times the uncompromising defender of the rights and privileges of his countrymen, and the zealous and able supporter of every measure tending to promote the welfare and the best interests of his country. He departed this life on 10 October 1829 in the 59th year of his age. This monument is erected by Margaret C. Quilliam to the memory of her beloved husband.”

In looking at a Manx hero as the subject of a new book, John Quilliam’s story is an inspiration.  He is an example of a man who might have lived a fairly undistinguished life as a stonemason, a farmer or a fisherman.  Taken by force from his family and his home he was thrown into an unfamiliar life, and he seized it with both hands and more than made the best of it.

Captain John Quilliam RN and Petty Officer Paul van Daan were contemporaries and served in the navy at the same time although Quilliam was ten years older than my fictional hero and remained with the navy while Paul moved on to the army.  By the time Paul was pressed in Antigua in 1796, Quilliam was about to receive his first commission.  I’m looking forward to a new area of research and finding out more about the navy and the Manx role within it.

Watch this space…

 

Tynwald Day- the Manx national day

Tynwald Day: the Manx National Day
Tynwald Day

Tynwald Day, the Manx national day, is held each year on July 5th and is a celebration of Manx independence and Manx culture. I wrote this post last year and am re-sharing it along with a free promotion of my most recent book, An Unwilling Alliance, which is set on the Isle of Man and in Denmark in 1806-7 and features a Manx hero and heroine.

Tynwald is the Parliament of the Isle of Man and no other parliament in the world has such a long unbroken record.  It has been going since Viking times, more than 1000 years and governs a tiny island in the Irish sea.  I had never heard the word Tynwald until I moved to the island fifteen years ago and I’m not sure I had really grasped the fact that the Isle of Man is an independent country with it’s own laws and its own Parliament.  The island is not part of the United Kingdom, but a Crown Dependency with the Queen acknowledged as Lord of Mann.

The ceremony held at St John’s on Tynwald Day has changed in the details but has basically been going on for more than 1000 years.  Back then the island was a collection of Viking settlements and an annual sitting of their Parliament was held around midsummer where people gathered to hear their laws proclaimed aloud, to seek justice and to air their grievances.

The Vikings or Norsemen first came to Mann around the year 800AD, and ruled the Island for four-and-a-half centuries before finally ceding it to the King of Scotland in 1266. By then they had firmly imposed their own administrative system, which continued even while the Island’s ownership passed between Scotland and England, to the Stanley family of Lancashire (Lords of Mann from 1405-1736), and to their kin the Dukes of Atholl, who held it until it was re-vested in the British Crown in 1765.  The custom of Tynwald Day has continued throughout all these changes.

On Tynwald Day, Tynwald meets at St John’s instead of the usual parliament building in Douglas, partly in the Royal Chapel of St John the Baptist and partly in the open air on Tynwald Hill, a small artificial hill nearby.  The meeting is known as Midsummer Court and is attended by both branches of Tynwald, the House of Keys and the Legislative Council.  The Lieutenant Governor presides as the representative of the Lord of Mann, unless the Queen or another member of the Royal Family is present.

All bills which have received the Royal Assent are promulgated on Tynwald day and if this does not happen within 18 months of passing the bill it ceases to have effect.  Other proceedings can include the presentation of petitions and the swearing in of public officials.  There is a formal procession which includes the Lieutenant Governor, Members of the House of Keys and of the Legislative Council, the Deemsters who are the highest judicial officers, any guests of honour from other nations, clergymen, leaders of local governments and any other state officials of the Isle of Man.  Members of the general public attend the ceremony as do local constabulary and military.  It is a highly formal affair.

Before Tynwald sits, the individual presiding inspects the guard of honour and lays a wreath at the National War Memorial.  There is a religious service in the chapel at 11am and then Tynwald proceeds to the adjacent Tynwald Hill. The path is strewn with rushes following the celtic custom of pleasing the sea god Mannanan with bundles of rushes on Midsummer’s Eve. The path is lined with flagpoles, which fly the national flag and the parliamentary flag.  The laws are proclaimed from Tynwald Hill which has existed from at least the end of the 14th century.  Once this is done, Tynwald reconvenes in the Chapel and quill pens are used to sign certificates documenting the promulgation of the laws.

Once the captioning of the acts has concluded, the Lieutenant Governor and the Legislative Council withdraw, leaving members of the House of Keys for a session of their house.  Once Tynwald Day is over there are three more sittings of Tynwald before the government adjourns for the summer until October.

Traditionally, Tynwald Day was marked by a fair and market; these customs still continue with stalls, demonstrations, music and dance throughout the day and on into the evening.  The village of St John’s is packed with people and the following week, known as Manx National Week, usually hosts a series of concerts, displays and other events related to Manx culture.

For the first few years we were on the island it was an annual event to go to Tynwald Day.  I admit I was fascinated by the history, the idea that this ceremony, in some form or another, has been going for so long.  It is very different to the British opening of Parliament and Queen’s speech which is very much a Parliamentary event.  This is an event for the people, and the tradition of people bringing their grievances before Tynwald on this day really happens, I know people who have done it.  This year, as an example, several Manx women staged a silent protest dressed in Handmaid’s Tale type red cloaks and bonnets to show their support for reform of the island’s highly outdated abortion laws.  Democracy moves slowly at times, but it does move and Tynwald Day is a traditional forum for protests like this.

The actual reading of the laws is long and boring and I’m not sure how many people really listen.  But it’s an important part of the day.  The officials are in full robes and wigs and there’s a real sense of ceremony and national pride.

I’ve not been to Tynwald Day for years now.  It’s the day after my daughter’s birthday so it’s often difficult.  But I think I’d like to do it again at some point.  In the past, when the children were younger it was all about the fair and the activities and the market stalls.  But I think I’d like to attend from the point of view of a historian, to read about the ceremonies of the past and feel the sense of continuity which shines through the day.  The island is a small nation but has a deep sense of pride and community which I’ve a suspicion we could all learn something from.

Many thanks to Heather Paisley for use of her photographs.

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Creating a book – an interview with Sarah Hendy on Manx radio

Manx Radio on Douglas Head (Photo by Nigel Williams)

I had a lovely time today recording a radio interview for Manx radio with the fabulous Sarah Hendy whom I used to work with at the Sayle Gallery in Douglas.  Sarah now presents Spotlight, the stations weekly arts programme and asked me to come for a chat about my books and in particular the latest

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

release, An Unconventional Officer.

It took me right back to my first ever post when I wrote about how difficult it was for me to ‘come out’ and admit that I write historical novels and consider myself to be an author.  I was writing when I was working with Sarah but we didn’t talk about it because at that stage only my closest friends and family knew that I wrote at all.  I’m not sure why, looking back on it, except that it is a slightly unusual hobby.  A lot of people put reading or hiking or cycling at a hobby on their CV but writing tends to raise eyebrows.

I enjoyed the interview.  It helps a lot to know the person interviewing you and Sarah and I know each other very well.  But I also enjoyed some of the questions, in particular the one about the process of creating the story.

I don’t know how other authors put together their novels.  Do they start by typing chapter one and then write through in a logical order until the end?  I’ve never been very good at doing that.  I tend to write a selection of scenes involving my characters and then string them together.  Once I’ve got a fair chunk of the book, I can go back and fill in the gaps, and a lot of rewriting is done then.

It sounds like a slightly mad way of doing things, but my books are very character driven.  One of the comments made by Sarah today was that it sounds at times as if my characters get away from me.  It’s really hard to explain it, but they do.  Sometimes they seem to behave in ways that I find very difficult to understand.  Heroes behave like idiots, heroines lose their marbles at an unexpected moment and a villain who up until now has been completely dislikable will step up and do something good which I then have to deal with.

That’s why writing individual scenes often works well for me.  I can throw a collection of people together in a situation and see how they behave.  Sometimes it works really well and I will incorporate the scene into the book and at other times I decide I don’t want to use it.  But even the unused scenes have developed relationships between my characters and I think that makes the scenes I do use a lot stronger.

The exception to this slightly off beat way of writing has been the Peninsular War Saga.  Initially I began with the same approach but once I got to grips with the research, it was obvious I needed to focus a bit better or the whole thing was going nowhere.  Lord Wellington did not hang about during the war and my poor characters are constantly on the move, constantly busy.  Scenes I particularly wanted to include needed to be ruthlessly adapted to fit in with what the commander in chief wanted.

I didn’t mind.  Wellington was giving the orders here, it’s our job just to get on with it.  In many ways it makes the whole situation more realistic.  The number of times one of my characters needs to march out to battle just as a crisis occurs at home is numerous but completely real.  It must have happened in real life, which is probably why Wellington didn’t really like his officers and men to be married at all, and if they were, preferred their families to be left at home.  He needed his army to focus and became annoyed very quickly at requests for leave to deal with family crises, romantic interludes or personal bereavement.

Wellington remained in the field for the whole of the war apart from the one occasion right at the start when he was recalled with the other commanders to answer for the fiasco of the Convention of Sintra.  While he was away Sir John Moore marched into Spain, a disastrous campaign which ended with his death at Corunna.  I rather suspect that didn’t help with Wellington’s conviction that everything tended to go wrong if he wasn’t there to personally take charge.

With the Peninsular books I now have my characters, and a fairly fixed timeline, and all I need to do is work out what happens to them during that time period.  It’s fairly obvious where Paul needs to be.  Battle follows battle and he’s going to be involved in them.  Occasionally there’s a short break during winter quarters, but I tend to find him a job elsewhere during those periods.  He doesn’t like to be bored.

I’d like to thank Sarah and Manx Radio for letting me ramble on about my books.  It’s something I love to do.  The programme is aired on Wednesday 7th June at 5.30pm.

 

Writing with Labradors… An Unconventional Officer, The Reluctant Debutante and Hilary Mantel

Lynn Bryant and Writing with Labradors
Local news story on Writing with Labradors

Writing with Labradors, and Blogging with Labradors came about as something of a joke when I was first setting up my website.  It’s proved popular and I’ve stayed with it…hence the presence of Toby and Joey in our local newspaper this week.

Anybody looking at this post is going to work out from the title that I’ve a few things on my mind this morning.  One of them is recovering from my birthday yesterday.  Not, as you might think, a wild night out on the town, but a rather lovely meal at home (main course courtesy of my son and his girlfriend, cake courtesy of my daughter) followed by Prosecco and Trivial Pursuits.  You can tell that I know how to live…

I spent some time thinking about publicity yesterday now that An Unconventional Officer has been published.  There was a nice article in our local paper the Isle of Man Examiner about the release and I’ve been asked to do Manx Radio as well.

I can remember one of the first posts I wrote on this blog talked about my concerns regarding publicity.  I’ve never been much of a self-publicist and I honestly thought I’d struggle more than I have, but I’ve made myself do it because once I had taken the plunge and published the books it seemed pointless just to let them sit there and take their chances.  And I’ve actually quite enjoyed it.  For anybody interested in psychology, marketing and reaching the right audience is a nice little challenge.  I’m still learning but I think I’m getting better.

It helps that the books are selling – not in their thousands, but steadily.  It also helps that I’ve had one or two nice reviews and some four and five star ratings on places like Goodreads and Amazon.  There’s something very encouraging about knowing that people are reading and enjoying the books enough to review them.  All my reviews are from complete strangers, I hope they have some idea how much it makes me smile.

One of the interesting things I’m learning is what people like.  I grew up with Regency novels and loved them, and I’ve read a few more recent ones.  The Reluctant Debutante was my tribute to those and I’ve been astonished at how popular it’s been.  I had already thought I would write another Regency just because they’re so much fun, but I’m already planning it.

An Unconventional Officer is also set in Regency times and although it’s a far cry from the London Season of Cordelia and Giles, it is about the war which affected everything during those years.  It’s a longer book than any of the others and is the first in a series which follows the men and women of a fictional regiment through the years of the Peninsular War.  I loved working on this book; it’s a bigger canvas with a large cast of characters and the best part is that I don’t have to say goodbye to them at the end of the book.

I’ve done a lot of research for these books.  Earlier I saw an article in the Guardian which caught my attention about the relationship between academic historians and historical novelists which I found really interesting.  I’m sure there are a lot of academics who dislike historical novels, particularly where they take very obvious liberties with history.  Equally there are non-academics who don’t like them much either.  And there are people who like science fiction and chick lit and thrillers and even, so I’m told, those who love Fifty Shades of Grey.  It takes all sorts.

I think I can understand the frustration of an academic historian.  After publishing a book which took years of painstaking research, gained excellent academic reviews and sold very few copies it must be infuriating to see a novelist selling thousands of books which claim to be based on history but which to a serious historian could seem poorly researched, wildly inaccurate and full of mistakes.

I do have a history degree so I’ve a little understanding of both sides of this argument.  The truth is that some historical novelists are not trying to be accurate, they’re just trying to entertain, putting characters in old fashioned clothing but not caring about period detail or anachronisms or accurate timelines.  It doesn’t mean people don’t or shouldn’t enjoy their books.  It just means that they’re not intended to teach people anything about history.

I’ve read some of these and personally they drive me up the wall.  I can cope with honest mistakes but in some cases I think writers might do better to turn to fantasy where anything goes.  Still, I refuse to be a snob about it.  There are also some very well respected historical novelists whose work is clearly painstakingly researched but I just don’t enjoy their style.  Many people do, it’s a matter of personal taste.

I’ve recently come across an author called Jacqueline Reiter, who has written both a biography and a historical novel about the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, the elder brother of the Younger Pitt who spent much of his life in the shade of his more famous father and sibling.  I’ve now read both, and it’s confirmed what I’ve always suspected that it’s very possible to be both and excellent historian and an entertaining historical novelist.  I would defy anybody on either side of this debate to be snobbish about Earl of Shadows which is the novel or to complain that the biography the Late Lord is anything other than a well-written and very scholarly work.  Both historians and novelists could learn a lot from this writer and I hope she goes on to write a lot more.

The books I’ve written so far are period specific and most of them include some real historical characters alongside my fictional ones.  I try to research as well as I can.  For A Respectable Woman I used a lot of primary sources and for “An Unconventional Officer” I read endless accounts of the war written by the men who fought it.  The problem with these is that they are frequently contradictory in themselves; they were written years after the war and people forget.

Wellington’s letters and despatches are a goldmine of information for the Peninsular War books although they’ve obviously been edited for publication.  Even so, given the immense stress Wellington must have been under during those years, did even he remember everything?

In the end, it only matters if you want it to matter.  I love reading history, both novels and non-fiction, as long as it’s well written and enjoyable to read.  I can sift through either and find what I want and the very obvious disagreements between academics over the interpretation of events means that I don’t feel guilty about putting forward my own interpretation in a novel.  My characters might well have their own views about why something happened which contradict modern historians’ thinking, but then they’re not modern historians, sifting the evidence, they’re supposed to be ordinary people living their lives in a different time and like us they’re entitled to their opinions.

I think I’ve done enough musing about marketing and the meaning of life for a while.  Now it’s back to the writing, which in the end is what I love doing most and the reason that all this is happening.

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The Isle of Man TT 2018

The e vents of this week reminded me of this blog post I wrote about the TT this time last year. I wanted to share it, as it gives a bit of a flavour of what it’s like to be living in the middle of this madness.

Yesterday, in practice, we lost Dan Kneen, a local rider from Onchan who looked very much on the verge of a breakthrough this year in terms of podium places. Steve Mercer, another favourite, has been taken to Liverpool in critical condition. I feel unbelievably sad about it, but it doesn’t stop me going out to watch the racing, which is difficult for many people to understand. I wondered about sharing this again, but I decided I would, because I still feel the same way about this event. It is part of the island, part of my home and over the past sixteen years has become part of who I am.

Dan Kneen’s father issued a statement after his son’s death, and this quote says it all for a lot of the riders and their families.

“Dan would want us to be strong and for the Tyco team to crack on, they have my full backing. Let’s think of the happy times with Dan and smile when you think of him. Thanks to the marshals and medics and everyone involved. Thinking of Steve Mercer as well. Best wishes for all the other TT competitors. The TT show will go on.”

I’m really hoping the rest of TT 2018 is a safe one. In the meantime, this is my post from last year.

With the excitement of launching my books onto an unsuspecting world, having pneumonia and surviving GCSEs and AS levels with two teenagers, the arrival of the Isle of Man TT 2017 has rather crept up on me this year.  It wasn’t until I spoke to somebody in a government office yesterday and heard the familiar cautious words “well it might be ready, but you know it’s TT” that I remembered that for the next two weeks normal life is going to stop.  Welcome to the Isle of Man TT 2017 – a spectacle like no other but a bit of a distraction when you’re trying to live a normal life.

Isle of Man TT
Isle of Man TT

The Isle of Man TT 2017 has nothing to do with writing historical novels but living where we do it will certainly impact on my ability to concentrate.  Sitting at my desk looking out of the window I can actually see the TT course through the trees and when practice and racing are on it gets noisy.  When we first moved into this house Toby the Labrador took exception to the bikes and kicked off every time they came past but fortunately he’s got very deaf now.  This is difficult when calling him for any reason, but it does make race days easier.

In addition to the actual racing, we’re very close to the historic grandstand which means that every single biker who comes over for TT will, at some point, be clogging up the traffic at the end of our road.  During road closures we can’t get out at all so we park one of the cars around a back road since there is a pathway which we can walk through.

Traffic during the TT festival is hideous, and gives us locals something new to moan about although to a woman who grew up in London, I was baffled when I first arrived here.  I’ve absorbed a bit of Manxness in the past fifteen years and now find the heavier traffic just as horrendous as everybody else since we’re not used to it.

Despite all this, I actually like the TT.  We used to entertain every year with a houseful of enthusiastic bike fans and every night was party night.  These days we’re very sedate.  House guests don’t work with two exam stressed teenagers, and because the exam timetable is set in the UK where this half term is different to ours, the kids are actually doing exams during TT week which would be tough with visitors.  It’s tough anyway, their school is on the course so they are sometimes sitting there trying to do simultaneous equations with the deafening sounds of bikes screaming past.

I still like to go out to watch the racing.  There’s a social feel to watching the TT.  Given that Richard is a brilliant photographer and particularly good at motor sport shots, we like to go to a variety of places, some easier to get to than others.  Personally I love the popular spots like Braddan Bridge and Union Mills church where you get get a cup of tea and there are proper toilets.  Must be a sign of age.  Richard is far more intrepid and I’ve climbed fences, scrambled up hills and sat on a mountain in freezing fog waiting for it to lift so that the racing can start.  Last year I ended up half crippled after pulling a muscle climbing over a fence, a reminder that I’m fifty four not twenty four and I really need to think about what I’m doing a bit more.

We’ve met some great people watching the racing, both local and from the rest of the world.  Everybody chats, everybody is friendly and it’s the best atmosphere ever.

And sometimes people die.

Every now and then, I come up against that fact and it shocks me.  It doesn’t shock me because it happens.  It shocks me that after fifteen years of doing this, I’m not shocked by it.  I’m saddened.  On one or two occasions it’s been someone I’ve met personally.  It’s often people I know a lot about.  People come to the TT year after year.  It’s like an addiction for the riders, passed down through the generations, and a death in the family doesn’t stop them.  The Dunlops have lost two family members to road racing, but Michael and William Dunlop will be out there again next week.  They risk their lives for a passion and we watch them do it.

Every year, magazines and news articles talk about the death toll and speculate on whether something so dangerous should be allowed to continue. I can understand why they say it.  For people with no love of the sport, and there are many even on the island, it must seem completely incomprehensible, in these days of enforced safety in so many areas, that every year a group of people go out and race around country roads, within centimetres of stone walls and lamp posts at speeds well in excess of a hundred miles per hour.  Even being a spectator in these conditions is potentially dangerous.

For all that, I love the TT.  The men, and a few women, who come here to race aren’t usually the superstars of sport.  They’re ordinary people, mostly amateurs, who work all year for the chance to compete on these roads.  They know the risks and they know the possible consequences, but like a mountaineer always looking for a higher peak and a bigger challenge, they keep pushing themselves to ride faster, to break lap records and reach that next elusive goal.  It’s an amazing spectacle and I wouldn’t change it.

Despite exams and recovering from pneumonia, I’ll be out there watching again this year.  We’re missing John McGuinness who recently came off at the North-West 200 and is injured.  We should have Guy Martin back this year, definitely one of the characters of the sport.  And there will be the newcomers, learning the course with their eyes on future glory.

I hope it’s a good year, which means that the weather is good, the races on time and everybody stays safe.  There’s nothing like the TT and no place like the Isle of Man and for anybody who likes motorbikes you should come here and see it at least once.

Although it might slow my writing down for a week or two…

For those of you interested in TT photography, have a look at Richard’s flickr site, there are some amazing shots.

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

Not Just the Army…Marines and the Navy in the Peninsular War under Wellington – and a possible Manx connection?

I had one of those very odd little coincidences today which caused me to look at the role of not just the army but also the Marines and the Navy in the Peninsular War under Wellington.

I’ve been thinking about a story, either a short story or a novella, associated with the Peninsular War books but possibly with a Manx connection. I already have a Manxman ready to pop up into the action when the time is right. It was always likely to happen. I don’t know much about Manxmen in the Napoleonic armies, but I do know the navy just loved them. It’s hard not to be good at the sea when you live on an island this small. The most famous of them, a certain Captain John Quilliam RN was a Royal Navy officer and the First Lieutenant on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

When I was researching the young Paul van Daan’s early career in the Royal Navy, I was not sure of my ground. I knew a fair bit about Wellington’s army but the navy was a bit of a mystery. I knew that at fourteen Paul was far too young to be pressed, but I also knew that it happened all the time especially with well grown lads who clearly had seafaring experience. But I wanted Paul’s time in the navy to have some purpose. Those early years are vital, because in the hell below decks in Nelson’s navy fighting skirmishes and then at the battle of the Nile, Paul van Daan grew up. He arrives in the army at 21 not a naive young officer with no experience but as a tough, battle seasoned commander, a petty officer who rose from being a pressed man. He’s been through hell and back, not in the company of officers and gentlemen but alongside the lowest of the low in Nelson’s navy. No wonder he’s often happier down with the men than up in the mess…

But was it possible? Google came to my rescue, and with regard to naval promotion from being a pressed man, the first significant name to pop up was none other than my neighbour from up the road in Marown who was the son of a farmer, an apprentice stonemason until he was picked up by a press gang. From those humble beginnings he rose to be first lieutenant on HMS Victory with a place in history. I could have hugged him. Suddenly, Petty Officer Paul van Daan was not only possible but highly likely.

So when I came to thinking about a Manx connected story I naturally went back to Paul’s navy days. There were a lot of Manxmen in Nelson’s navy and it’s entirely likely that when Wellington asked for the navy and the marines to help with the defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras, one or two of them came along. I’d got my connection, and I’ve already come up with a name. Some research about their role comes next, and as I was working on that from my sickbed, I came across the following story, linked to a JustGiving page for a Royal Marines charity.

The Royal Marines 1664 Global Challenge 2017 – linked to Royal Marine history in Portugal

During the Peninsular War (1810-1812) the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Marine Artillery were deployed in support of Wellington’s defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras.

At Wellington’s request Vice Admiral Berkeley deployed ashore a naval brigade consisting of 500 seamen and 500 marines to guard the left bank of the Tagus, to provide the signalmen along the Lines of Torres Vedras and to provide Marine artillery. The main force worked in co-operation with the flotilla of naval ships in the North part of the River Tagus to ensure that the French troops could not out-flank the British lines and move on Lisbon, while Naval signalmen ensured that messages could pass along the 29 miles of the Lines in 7 minutes.

Marines along with Artillery were landed on the 3 islands to the North in the Tagus where they worked with the British Army on the left bank and the Naval ships to stop French attempts to use the islands to cross. Later a large number of Marines were moved to Fort San Julien to provide protection for the deployment of maritime logistics to Wellington’s force ashore. This area was also the 3rd Line of Torres Vedras and is close to the current site of HQ Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, STRIKFORNATO.

When the Marines were finally returned to the UK in February 1812 the British General in charge of the Army in Lisbon wrote that he “cannot part with the Royal Marine Battalion without expressing the lively concern he feels in being deprived of their service, and requesting their acceptance of his best thanks for their uniform good conduct whilst in his garrison”.

In recognition of this part of Naval and Royal Marine history, the four Royal Marines based in Portugal are aiming to complete a physical challenge that will start with a canoe to the Islands in the Tagus, to run around the Islands before returning to the left bank. They will then cycle along the first line of defence taking in the signal tower overlooking Wellington’s HQ where Naval signalmen worked before turning south and arriving at St Julian Fort a distance of 64 miles.

This is part of the Royal Marines 1664 Global Challenge that will see Royal Marines around the world complete 100 challenges in 100 days, raising funds for wounded and injured Naval Service Marines and Sailors.

It made me smile. The lines of Torres Vedras are unheard of to most people in the UK, even if they know a bit about the Peninsular Wars, although having visited them very recently in Portugal I’m aware of how crucial a part of modern Portuguese history they are. Somehow I love the idea that these guys are raising money for charity in the name of that little piece of obscure history. They aren’t going to get the recognition of the lads running around the UK and it doesn’t really matter since it all goes to the same cause, but I still somehow felt a connection. I made a donation because I wanted my name on that page. It has meaning for me.

I’m going to start the story tomorrow, even though I ought to be working on my final revision of ‘An Unconventional Officer’. I love these little obscure bits of history which turn up in the oddest places. I hope you’re as interested as I am. And if you feel like making a donation, this is the link.

Blogging with Labradors: History, Writing and Life

Toby and Joey

Welcome to blogging with labradors – my very first post.

I’ve read so many times about how daunting it is to be faced with a blank page.  That’s probably very true for normal people, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been normal.

From a fairly young age a blank page has always been a challenge for me. I can fill it with ease; with stories, with doodles, with information, with ideas.  Writing things down has always come more easily to me than speaking the words, although having said that, I quite like to talk as well.

So Blogging with Labradors is my author website and blog.  Wow, that sounds mad.  It means that after years of prevaricating and making excuses and sending endless manuscripts and sample chapters I am finally going to take matters into my own hands and publish what I’ve written.

As I said, the writing was never the problem.  I’ve always written.  The business side of writing, the risk of putting my ideas out there and letting people read them hasn’t come as easily to me.  It’s not that I’m shy.  I’m actually not.  It’s just that it feels slightly arrogant, slightly conceited to assume that just because I’ve written something people will want to read it.  I don’t even tell most people that I write.  It’s been like a guilty secret for most of my life, draft after draft of novels and stories hidden away.  I used to write in exercise books and then on an old manual typewriter.  Now I have laptops and Word and Scrivener.  It doesn’t matter what you use to write with.  What matters is finding the courage to let people read it.

The world of publishing has changed beyond recognition.  Self-publishing used to be called vanity publishing and involved paying a large sum of money to print a book which might never sell.  These days we can all do it online, and somehow it seems to have less of a stigma attached. But there’s a bit of me that still wishes I’d found an agent or a publisher.  I did try, although not as hard as I might have done since I lack the patience to wait four months every time.  I’ve entered competitions and done quite well.  I’ve joined new writers schemes and tried Mills and Boon because at least I know they read the stuff.

I’ve had some great comments.  To summarise all of them, I have learned that I don’t write pure romance and I don’t write literary historical.  They don’t fit the Mills and Boon mould.  I can write, and people seem to like my characters.  My research is excellent and my books are apparently easy to read.  But they don’t fit.  They’re not currently marketable.  They’re not particularly strange or wild or unusual.  They’re just not part of a current trend.

That might be true.  If it is, I don’t really mind any more.  I’m putting them out there into the world of e-publishing and I hope some people find them and enjoy them.  I’ve realised, at this advanced age, that I’m not going to stop writing.  I love what I do and perhaps some other people will enjoy it too.  If not, I’ve lost nothing but the time it took to create them, and since it was a joy that’s no loss at all.

Lurking in the bowels of my computer I’ve found three standalone novels which I’m going to publish first after some revision, more as a test run than anything else, although I’m fond of them.  I’ve also been working on a series of novels set during the Napoleonic wars which I’m going to revise and start publishing.

My late onset of publishing bravery has taken me into a whole new world of technology.  It’s never been my strong point, and I’m lucky that the man I married is a software developer and resident genius, although if he has a fault it’s his passion for finding out every single feature of literally everything before writing a single word.  I owe him so much for all the work he’s put in on this website and on helping me work out how to publish the books.  More impressively he’s even read one of them, came up with several intelligent ideas on improving it, and genuinely appeared to enjoy it.  Blogging with Labradors, and it’s website, Writing with Labradors, is written by me but would never have existed without his help and patience.

I’m intending to upload the first book within the next week and I hope people will read it.  If you like it please review it and recommend it.  If you hate it, feel free to review it anyway.  I’ll be upset because I’m human but I might learn something from it, this whole thing is a learning process.  So far it’s a process I’m enjoying.  I hope some of my readers enjoy it too.

Toby, Joey and I welcome you all to Blogging with Labradors.