The Joy of Source
I’ve encountered some writers who look upon research as a huge and daunting mountain that they have to climb before they can actually start the fun part, the writing itself. I look on it very differently, probably because I spent many years as a ‘proper’ research historian before I started writing fiction and non-fiction aimed at a general, rather than an academic, audience. Research can be huge fun – the thrill of discovering something previously unknown in some musty archive takes some beating, while actually handling the materials left behind by people from previous generations is often both humbling and moving. In that respect, I’m particularly fortunate that the two main projects I’ve got underway at the moment involve some particularly fascinating research and in some cases a revisiting of old friends. For example, the fourth Quinton novel, The Lion of Midnight, is set in Sweden in 1666. I taught seventeenth-century Swedish history to several generations of sixth formers, and some of them still recall ‘the Swedish question’ with affection. (Choosing such an apparently obscure topic wasn’t just self-indulgence on my part, although it did fit nicely with my ‘must-teach’ topic on the 17th century military and naval revolution; there was a considerable element of cunning strategy involved, as the less frequented topics like Sweden often had ‘easier’ questions set on them, and it was easier for good candidates to stand out in a smaller field.) So delving back into the histories of the Vasa dynasty, of Sweden’s ‘golden age’ and her ‘Gothic fantasy’, of the enigmatic Queen Christina and her successors, has really felt like a happy revisiting of old acquaintances!
The same has been true of my parallel work on the new non-fiction book, Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales. This has really taken me back to my roots, both geographically and in terms of source material. For example, I’ve been revisiting the medieval Welsh chronicles, which I last looked at seriously 30 years ago; my first ever published piece was actually not naval at all but a piece of early medieval history. But I’ve also been discovering all sorts of previously untouched topics and, for me, unfamiliar sources, ranging from articles in journals about Roman archaeology to nineteenth century newspapers and twentieth century pacifist tracts. Over the weekend I was looking at the 1901 census online. I’d used this when compiling my family history, but had never really worked on it systematically, so some of the results were at once interesting and alarming. The census was transcribed by prisoners, a fact that caused some controversy at the time, and although there’s been much discussion of the sometimes bizarre consequences among genealogists over the last decade, it had never really presented me with an issue. However, looking at the transcriptions of the returns for HM ships (as part of a sampling process to estimate the number of Welshmen in the navy at the time) has turned up some unsettling but also hilarious findings. The prize of the day goes to the hapless convict who transcribed the return for the sloop HMS Racoon, lying at Aden. Like many ships on foreign stations, the Racoon had entered a significant number of crewmen locally – listed on her return as ‘seedies’. The ship had a particularly interesting and eclectic mix, including Somalis, Sudanese and Portuguese Goans, but this evidently caused insuperable difficulties for the incarcerated transcriber. Thus ‘Socotra’ was rendered as ‘Scotland’, ‘Comoro Islands’ as ‘Romania’ (!), and my personal favourite, ‘Sierra Leone’ as ‘Sierra, Lancashire’. Conversely, he managed to transform the old Anglicised spelling of Caernarfon, ‘Carnarvon’, into the far more exotic ‘Carnaroon’. I’ll keep a lookout for any more howlers as I continue to work through the returns, but one wonders just how many unsuspecting individuals researching their family history and relying in the first instance on the online transcriptions have been thrown off track by the incompetence (or simple laziness) of inmates who make Norman Stanley Fletcher look like a Nobel Prize winner.