Once upon a time I was a software systems designer. I’d just signed off on my biggest and most fraught project. As I sank into an armchair, my wife Kathy thrust a large tumbler of whisky into my hand and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘Sweetheart,’ she said, ‘get a life!’ Her suggestion: that I write. And about the sea...
She’s a former magazine editor, and although she had no evidence of any Julian Stockwin writing skills at that time she persuaded me to give it a go.
Once I’d overcome the initial shock, I realised there was a lot of sense in what she said. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been bewitched by the sea. Going to a decent grammar school was wasted on me; on the school bus I’d gaze out across the Channel at the low, grey shapes slipping away over the horizon on voyages to who knows where, taking my imagination with them. In the late 1950s, the sea seemed to be much more a part of our shared consciousness. As a young boy I remember the thrilling drama of the Flying Enterprise, when Captain Kurt Carlsen refused to leave his sinking ship and, with First Mate Dancy of the ocean salvage tug Turmoil, heroically fought to bring her within sight of port before she tragically sank. Then, too, London Pool was packed with ships flying the red ensign, and it was also the time of the very last of the square riggers. Theoretically, you could still sign up outward-bound on a commercial voyage.
The only member of my family to have any connection with the sea was a distant relative we called Uncle Tom. A gentle, quietly spoken old man, he’d been around the Horn in square sail, and whenever I could I would sit spellbound and listen to him talk about life before the mast on the seven seas.
My father thought he’d knock all this nonsense out of me, and sent me to a tough sea-training school at the tender age of 14. It didn’t work; there was no contest – Latin and algebra or splicing and boat-handling! So at age 15, I joined the Royal Navy.
I’m ‘Old Navy’ with a deep respect and admiration for the service, so it had to be the Navy I’d write about. I chose Nelson’s time, the great climax of the age of sail and a magnificent canvas for sea tales. This was an era when the sea was respected and wooed by men who didn’t have steam engines and brute force. I also wanted to bring the sea itself into a more prominent role, but was as yet unsure how to achieve this.
I soon realised that there were things from my time in the Navy that I wanted to bring to my writing; small things, but evocative even to this day – a shimmering moonpath glittering on the water, the sound of voices from invisible night watchkeepers, the startling rich stink of the land after months at sea, the comfort of a still hammock when the ship rolls about it, the unreal beauty of an uninhabited tropical island in the South Seas.
There were the darker memories, too. Savage storms at sea when you feel the presence of nature like a wild beast out of a cage; close inshore in a gale when you wonder if a mistake at the helm will end with those black rocks suddenly bursting in. I was duty watch in the carrier Melbourne that night when we collided with and sank the Voyager – there from the seaboat I saw men’s courage at work while 80 sailors lost their lives.
But to achieve that more prominent role for the sea, it seemed logical to take the perspective of the men who actually did the job out there on the yardarm, serving the great cannon or crowding aboard an enemy deck, rather than of those shouting orders from behind. So the lower deck it was – and then I came across some surprising statistics.
Unlike the army, where commissions were bought, all naval officers had to qualify professionally, and scattered among these were no more than a hundred or so common seamen who made the awesome journey from the fo’c’sle to the quarterdeck, thereby turning themselves into gentlemen. Around a score became captains of their own ships; remarkably, some victims of the press-gang even became admirals. How could it be so? Just what kind of men were they?
I realised that I did not just have enough material for one book, it could be a series!
When I first began writing Kathy gave me an excellent piece of advice: write the book you yourself want to read. I have followed this since then, but with a twist. I write the book I want to read, but I write it to Kathy. There is quite a deal of sea technical information in my books, which of course greatly appeals to the Old Salts, but I am conscious that many of my readers do not share their very detailed knowledge. Kathy has grown to share my fascination for the sea and the skills of the eighteenth century seamen, but she is by no means a sailor! Capturing and retaining her interest in my writing is my way of bringing Tom Kydd’s world to a broad readership. And it has been very gratifying to hear from readers from all walks of life – ages thirteen to eighty, and of both sexes – that they are greatly enjoying the books.
Probably the happiest day of my life was April 3rd, 2001. That was when I stood before over 100 guests at the launch party for Kydd. It was held in the historic Admiralty House in London, which had been the official residence of the First Lord of the Admiralty from 1788 to 1964 – there certainly could be no more splendid venue to honour a novel set in the Great Age of Sail! As I stuttered my speech of thanks, around me I could feel the ghosts of all the great sea heroes of the past that noble building had seen.
Naively, as I walked out in a daze into the night, I thought I would now just return to my writing. But then it all started – interviews on radio, television and with print media journalists. Literary festivals. Book signings. My feet hardly touched the ground for the six weeks after the launch. By nature I am somewhat reticent, especially when answering questions about myself, but a strange thing happened – I found that when I started talking about the world of Thomas Kydd my inhibitions disappeared. I have a huge respect for the eighteenth century seamen – and I take particular pleasure when people can share with me the challenges and fascination of their hard world.
The events to which I have been invited have taken me all over the world, from press lunches in Manhattan to English venues ranging from a 900-year-old Minster in Nottinghamshire to the seaside resort of Southwold, and on to Hay-on-Wye, the tiny market town in the Welsh Marches that hosts probably the world’s most prestigious literary festival.
Initially I envisioned the series might run to a dozen titles. That figure seemed incredibly daunting then but as I’ve delved deeper into the historical record over the course of writing the series I’ve had to review this number upwards, to some 20 or more titles.
Julian Stockwin is the author of the ongoing Kydd Series. The latest title is Pasha. He has also written Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany and a historical stand-alone, The Silk Tree, set in the time of Emperor Justinian. Learn more about him at www.julianstockwin.com. Follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/julian.stockwin and Twitter @julianstockwin
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