Libraries closed…repositories inaccessible…research trips impossible. OK, let’s keep things in perspective – none of this is remotely as important as people’s lives and wellbeing. But there’s no doubt that the pandemic has played havoc with historians’ and authors’ work, and I really feel for those with deadlines for theses or books and no way of completing essential research. Personally, these strictures haven’t affected me too much as I’m not working on a major non-fiction project with a deadline; my book on the Stepney family, referred to previously in this blog, has been a work in progress for some 20 years so a few more months won’t make too much difference. Instead, I’ve been writing the next Quinton novel, ‘the one with pirates in it’, so the research hurdles have been rather lower. (Having said that, it would have been really nice to do a research trip to the Caribbean and claim it against tax. Thanks, Covid.) Many institutions have gone out of their way to help researchers as much as they can, so, for example, it’s been possible to access the indispensable British History Online for free during the last few months, and I’ve also picked up a lot of invaluable material from the British Library website.
Ultimately, though, I’ve had to depend even more than usual on the resources immediately available on my shelves at home, and fortunately several books have come out over the last year or so which have been absolutely ideal for my purposes. For example, the seaborne action in the new book is set aboard Matthew Quinton’s latest command, a Fourth Rate frigate, so what could be more fortuitous than the appearance of a book that provides chapter and verse on a Fourth frigate of the exact period I’m writing about? The Master Shipwright’s Secrets, the latest title from my old friend Richard Endsor, is a remarkable piece of work, based on the discovery of the mathematical plans used in the construction of the Tyger. The book covers all aspects of the building and fitting out of the ship, with no detail being too small. It’s incredibly well illustrated, combining original artwork from the time with the author’s own work. Some of this will be familiar to long-term readers of this blog (have you got parole yet?), including a full-page colour spread of the painting Richard provided for the cover of the first edition of my first novel, Gentleman Captain – the ship that forms the centrepiece was based on the Tyger, the subject of this new book. Richard also covers the service history of the ship. It’s no wonder that the book has garnered some terrific reviews – indeed, it even appears on Youtube! So whenever I need to visualise what a particular shipboard scene would have been like, I only need to get this book of the shelf.
As mentioned above, the new Quinton novel is set in the West Indies, and one of the storylines centres on a hurricane and its consequences. Now, even though I grew up in a notoriously soggy part of the world, hurricanes are well outside both my experience and that of most Brits, so the timing of the arrival through my letterbox of Eric Jay Dolin’s A Furious Sky: The Five Hundred Year History of America’s Hurricanes was absolutely ideal. Eric, the author of the splendid Leviathan, was one of the very first people to provide complimentary blurb for Gentleman Captain, the first Quinton book, and I was chuffed that he sent me a copy of his new title. Eric certainly grabbed my attention from the outset by starting with a vivid account of the experiences of those who found themselves at the heart of Hurricane Audrey, which struck Louisiana in 1957 – a year which has particular resonance with me! Eric goes on to discuss the origin and nature of hurricanes before describing historical examples that are both riveting and frightening, from Columbus’s first encounters with Hurricanes up to Hurricane Dorian in 2019. He interweaves descriptions of individual hurricanes, such as the catastrophic Galveston hurricane of 1900 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (which caused the destruction, inter alia, of the replica of HMS Bounty) with the lives of individuals who attempted to analyse, understand or cope with them, including Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Morse, and even Ernest Hemingway. All in all, A Furious Sky is a terrific example of how to combine ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ history, examining the impact on real people of colossal forces that are far beyond their control.
Finally, any story set in the West Indies after about 1650 is inevitably going to mention slavery. Quite apart from the linguistic and ‘political correctness’ issues bound up with touching on that issue in this day and age, I needed to be clear about the exact legal status of slavery in England in the period I was writing about. Miranda Kaufman’s Black Tudors was published a while ago but only arrived on my shelves this year, and it’s proved to be ideal for my purposes. (OK, a book called Black Stuarts would have been better still, but you can’t have everything.) The book as a whole is fascinating, casting light on the lives of people who have otherwise been completely overlooked by historians. My favourite character among those unearthed by Kaufman is Jacques Francis, a salvage diver who worked on the wreck of the Mary Rose, and Kaufman’s lively style, founded upon immaculate research, really brings him and all her other examples to life. She amply demonstrates that black people were always present in the British Isles, albeit in small numbers, and local research across the country is bringing to light more and more examples for all pre-Windrush eras. For instance, I grew up thinking that my home town of Llanelli in west Wales was completely monocultural and always had been, but in the early nineteenth century the town had a black barber – a former slave – who was a well respected member of the local community.
So I’ve been lucky in having most of the resources I need for the new Quinton book either on my bookshelves or easily available online. All I’ve got to do now is to get on and finish writing the book!