16 April 2019

Tuesday Talk: Enjoying the Dream


I had an email from Kate the other day, a childhood, well, I guess early teenage really, friend. We were at senior secondary school together and, as it happened, she lived in the street next to mine. We were, what, 12 years old, through to when we left school at 16, although I think we had drifted apart at 15 when we went into different classes to study for our GCSE 'O' levels.

That would be Wellington Avenue Secondary School for Girls in Chingford, and I was Helen Turner back then. Looking back, many of us were regarded as not very bright - after all, we'd failed the 11-plus. We were destined, back in the latter half of the 60s, for secretaries, hairdressers, shop assistants, housewives... in other words, not much was expected of us. I remember the geography mistress was usually asleep during lessons, history was droned from a boring book, maths I was terrified of (I still can't function with figures because of my phobia of numbers caused by poor to dreadful teaching). I hated sports and games because I couldn't catch or hit balls, was gawky and self-conscious - I mean we did P.E. in vest and knickers... at 13 with the boys' school right next door. Embarrassment isn't the word for it! (Do you get the impression that I hated school? Quite right. I did.)

cover photo, No photo description available.
Wellington Avenue
I was always somewhat envious of Kate, but as it turns out, she was envious of me, which I find to be hilarious! Envious? Of me? Whatever for!? We didn't have much in common as I recall, apart from we both wanted a pony. Kate was confident and mature and pretty. I wasn't. Her dad had a huge collection of Beswick china horses - gosh I envied her those horses - utterly appalling that we used to play with them (I mean these were china!) building showjumping courses and jumping them round... it's amazing that only one of mine suffered a broken leg! 
Beswick Brown Gloss Swish Tail Horse
One of my precious Beswicks
In her email, Kate said: "Looking at your photos  [on Facebook] made me think of us as children; the games we played & dreams we had of riding horses (& marrying Paul McCartney). It was at your house that I first heard the Rubber Soul album & it was at your house we played show jumping games with our horses. I used to carry my china Beswick horses in an old leather satchel. My father would have had a fit if he had known. He used to buy them for me in the vain hope that I would grow out of wanting my own horse! All of this made me think of how many of our dreams we have realised, you in particular. I remember Mrs Llewelyn reading the ‘Golden Road to Samarkand’ & your passion for books by Rosemary Sutcliff."

Which in turn made me think of writing this article. As a teenager, I was shy totally lacking in self-esteem and confidence. Had no real friends. My world was that of books, I was always reading, The characters in the stories I read were my friends: they didn't laugh at you, call you names, make you feel awkward and useless. The only thing I enjoyed about school was English with Mrs Llewelyn. She was strict - a real Welsh Dragon, but she showed me how to write. Because of her, I discovered good books to read - and how to write good stories. I read and wrote pony stories back then - I so wanted a pony! We couldn't afford one, so I did what I thought everyone did: made one up and wrote about our adventures together. It came as a bit of a shock to me to discover that no one else in my class did this! 

My dream was to own my own horse, a dream I fulfilled when leaving school to become a library assistant. I was still writing, but had moved on to fantasy and science fiction (this was the age of Star Wars first time around! )

Then I rediscovered Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Stewart and King Arthur and my dream to one day write a novel turned to a determination to get on and write it and have it published.

So I was still writing. At every chance, I was scribbling (and this was pre-computer!) Even while at work, supposedly doing official work in the library office - if I was on my own I was either writing or researching about MY version of Arthur, set in the post-Roman era of the 4-500s.

I was laughed at at school for being a book worm. No one during my 20's believed that I would write a novel. Actually, I'd given up, but in my early 30s, now married and with a daughter, I started again and went back to my epic Arthur attempt. It took me ten years.

launch day of my first novel 1994
Well, twenty-six years ago this week, a week after my 40th birthday, I discovered that what would become The Kingmaking and the first half of Pendragon's Banner was accepted by William Heinemann for publication. I am now writing my 16th book.



Was it just a dream, or dogged determination that kept me going? The latter two, I suspect.
As for the other dreams of childhood, I now live in an old farmhouse in the heart of the North Devon countryside, a dream I've had since those uncomfortable town-dwelling days at school. We have ponies (Exmoors - another dream, I'd always wanted an Exmor) I'm a relatively successful author, I've a wonderful family ... and actually not that bothered that I didn't marry Paul McCartney after all. What about you Kate? *laugh*

My 18th century farmhouse
The Exmoors
But do you know, one of the nicest things is that I'm still friends with Kate, even though she is now in Australia. A slight regret is that we weren't firmer friends back then in our school days, because I think if we hadn't both been so busy being envious of each other we'd have enjoyed sharing - and achieving - those childhood dreams of ours together.
Here's to achieving dreams!
Salute!

9 April 2019

TuesdayTalk THE SHARPE NOVELS OF BERNARD CORNWELL

by Richard Tearle
(previously published on Discovering Diamonds


Richard Sharpe. There can't be many who don't get an immediate visual image of Sean Bean in torn uniform, dark powder marks on his cheeks and then stopping to look behind him as he rides from one victory and on to another adventure.

Sean Bean may be the man who is most associated with the character, but Bernard Cornwall is the man who created him. Set during the Napoleonic wars, Sharpe is a soldier, a rifleman, a sniper and skirmisher in a time when muskets were the preferred weapons and therefore Sharpe is at the very front of the battle.

It's formula writing at its very best: at some point in every book Cornwall has to give a brief explanation of the relationship between Sharpe and his comrades, how he got promoted or his beginnings in the rookeries of London. But more of that bit later. 


Every book produces a bitter enemy, mostly in the opposing camp, such as Guy Loup or Phillipe Leroux, but he has equally deadly foes much closer to home, most notably in the form of Obadiah Hakeswill and Sir Henry Simmerson. And there is always Ducos, the French Intelligence officer.

Almost by accident, Sharpe comes to the notice of Wellington himself (in fact, Sharpe saves his life) and is promoted 'in the field': “You did me a good turn, Sharpe, and now I'm going to do you a damn bad one.” For rising from the ranks was almost unheard of and Sharpe experiences enmity and jealousy from almost all: the officers despise him because he is not 'a gentleman' and the common soldiers because Sharpe is clearly 'above his station'. He is assigned to command a small company of men of the 95th Rifles – a fictional company which is later attached to the equally fictional South Essex Regiment commanded by Simmerson.

The books cover the years 1793 to 1821, enabling Cornwall to place Sharpe at every major battle or event during that period, including both Trafalgar and Waterloo! I believe there is a precedent here, which makes Sharpe one of possibly only two men to have been present at both battles. The books, however, were not written in chronological order – a deliberate decision by the author – yet each one can be read independently without making the reader wonder about the past. Each novel of the 24 (so far) has a snappy two word title of which one of the two words is always 'Sharpe's …'


With the intent of only writing about eight or nine Sharpe stories, enter Sean Bean. There can be no doubt about Bean's ability to play the part: a man's man, tough, ruthless and single-minded. Yet something was wrong! As previously noted, Richard Sharpe was a Londoner, a cockney Londoner in all probability and Sean Bean a confirmed and proud Yorkshireman. I doubt few of us fans would have cared too much about this anomaly, but not so Mr Cornwall: in view of the success of the TV programmes he relocated Richard Sharpe to Yorkshire at the age of about 15. That, I think, illustrates the esteem in which he holds the actor.


So far I have hardly touched on the regular characters n the books. Always beside Sharpe is Patrick Harper. Despite a bad start, the two soon become inseparable and Sharpe presents Harper with his signature six-barrelled Navy gun. Members of Sharpe's company come and go – Isiah Tongue, a bible sprouting man with no known background; Daniel Hagman, ex-poacher from Cheshire, musician and purveyor of home remedies, “Paraffin oil and Best brown paper...” Former teacher, drunk and debtor Harris is the brains of the company – he can  not only read, but read and speak French as well! Young Ben Perkins was a drummer boy, but became a Chosen Man when he shot the man attempting to shoot Sharpe. But one of my favourites is Francis Cooper whose former occupation was 'dealing in other people's  property'. Cooper  has a dry, cynical wit and an answer for everything, but he also delivers one of the best lines in this or any other series: “It's hard to trust a man who wants to borrow your pick-locks ...”



Of course, being the strong, handsome, no nonsense hero that Sharpe is, there is no shortage of women for him. From the feckless and faithless Jane Gibbons to the love of his life, Teresa Moreno, Sharpe's tally of bedpost notches mounts up, including the beautiful Lucille who was the fancy of his friend, the battle scarred 'Sweet' William Frederickson.


The Sharpe stories are not just random adventure tales: the situations may be contrived, but the action is very real, excellently researched and wonderfully told. We really do get the feel of Badajoz, Salamanca and the horrors of Waterloo. Nor are any of the characters weak. Not one of them. Every man and woman has their place, their role to play whether that be to help and support Sharpe or to hinder him and try to engineer his demise. There are far too many to mention in this short appraisal, but amongst the more memorable are Lennox, the inspiration for Sharpe's Eagle, Ross, Nairn and Hogan (Wellington's spy masters who invariably involve Sharpe in their schemes),   William Lawford and so on. Cornwall follows the expected route of incompetent, foppish officers and low life soldiers: “Our army is composed of the scum of the earth...” Yet not all officers are so drawn by the author, nor all common soldiers either. Many, more often in the former category, are portrayed as brave and loyal men, real men with sympathies and passions, a clear sense of duty despite the orders of those who should know better.


So, at the end of the day, we have a massive series of books which can be read individually or in chronological order. We have heroes and villains, rivalries and friendships, great deeds and cowardly acts, love and hatred. Above all we have history and a wonderful insight into what life in the British army was probably like in the very early part of the 19th Century.



And, if we have seen the TV series or the ensuing DVDs, we have John Tams beautiful rendition of an old folk song with its simple but telling line: 

“King George commands and we obey, Over the hills and far away...” 



Mid-Month Extra Previous : Susan Grossey's Constable Sam Plank series