I was born and grew up in Llanelli, on the coast of south-west Wales. Despite being best known as an industrial town and rugby hotbed, Llanelli was an active port for centuries. Its treacherous coast was notorious for shipwrecks; one of these did for the young niece of Napoleon’s Josephine, who lies in a local churchyard. Coming from such a place, it’s probably not surprising that the sea has always exerted a strong pull on my life. Quite a lot of my childhood was spent around Llanelli’s old docks and exploring the coast of south Wales, thanks to supportive parents and grandparents with a degree of wanderlust! My fascination with warships and naval history can probably be dated to a family holiday in Portsmouth when I was nine years old (the first of many), and when I began my teaching career at the end of the 1970s, it was probably inevitable that I would end up somewhere like the north coast of Cornwall, where quiet, tourist-free weekends in autumn and winter could be spent exploring the remarkable maritime heritage of the area. It was there, too, that my academic interest in the seventeenth century navy began to develop. I would often go over to Plymouth on Saturdays, and on some of the (many) days when the west country weather was too bad to be out and about, I’d sometimes visit the superb naval section of Plymouth’s public library at Mount Wise. The seventeenth century had been my favourite period of history since schooldays, and one day, I thought I would see what had been written about the naval side of that period. To my surprise, I found that very little had been published about the seventeenth century navy since the 1920s, and that most of the books that did exist seemed to side unthinkingly with Samuel Pepys, accepting uncritically his opinions and evidence about the issues of the time. (A rare exception was Great Ships, a brilliant study of Charles II’s battlefleet by Frank Fox, which demonstrated the potential for fresh research in the period.) Very soon, the idea of returning to Oxford to begin a doctorate on the subject began to develop, and from 1982 to 1985 I worked full time on the thesis which was eventually published in modified form to become my first book, Gentlemen and Tarpaulins.
In 1987 my career took me to Bedford Modern School. It’s the sort of place where the staff are expecting to throw themselves into all sorts of activities; my Welsh background supposedly made me an obvious choice to coach the Under-15 B rugby team, despite my complete lack of ability as a rugby player in my younger days. Similarly, my naval interests led me into the Combined Cadet Force, becoming a Sub-Lieutenant RNR (CCF) in 1988 and serving as such until 1994. This proved to be a seminal experience for me. For one thing, the navy provided me with the opportunity to learn to sail. For another, taking cadets to sea on passages from Gibraltar to Portsmouth (aboard the school’s affiliated ship, a certain HMS Jupiter…) and on training cruises in the Clyde, Forth and Solent, as well as acting as divisional officer for a number of shore-based courses, gave me a first-hand insight into the mores and traditions of the Royal Navy that I had previously lacked. (I’ve blogged about my time in the CCF – including how I once nearly found myself caught up in the beginnings of World War III – in two posts on this site, here and here.)
Promotion led ultimately to a deputy headship. A change in personal circumstances meant that I was able to step down from this in 2005 to pursue first a part-time and then a full-time writing career. My partner, Wendy Berliner, was at the heart of this change of direction. One of Britain’s foremost education journalists (and the mother of award-winning film producer Michael Berliner), Wendy gave me the confidence and support to try my hand at fiction, and her editorial skills have proved invaluable in honing my work. We live in Bedfordshire; until recently, she was Head of Editorial for all of The Guardian’s online professional networks. Fortunately her confidence in my first novel, Gentleman Captain, was shared by Peter Buckman of the Ampersand Agency, who became my agent in 2007.