Friday 23 October 2015

A picture that could inspire half-a-dozen novels

Like everybody who writes novels I’m frequently asked “Where do you get the ideas from?”

There’s no easy answer and I suspect that the process varies considerably between writers. One is usually drawing on a very wide knowledge and interest in a wide range of topics, and frequently the inspiration comes from what may be an all but subconscious asking of “What if…” Given a reasonable familiarity with the events, personalities, beliefs and politics of a given time it’s not too difficult to visualise the scenery within which a story can be set. What brings the story to life however is identification of the main characters and the challenge they must face. What are their strengths, their weaknesses, their drivers, their loyalties, their priorities, their moral compasses? When we meet them at the beginning of a novel they’re already living, breathing personalities, each with his or her own back-story that makes them what they are at this moment. That back-story may be hinted at – and in some cases main events in it may be briefly sketched – but as often as not it does not require extensive detailing in the current story. The reader does not to know all the details, but the writer must. Unless he or she knows what had brought a character to the point of their appearance on Page 1 or Page 25 or Page 100 then they can never be credible.

This train of though was initiated when I recently stumbled across an 1882 drawing from the Illustrated London News from  entitled “Recruits”. It shows a recruiting sergeant with a small group who have just enlisted by “taking the Queen’s shilling”. They’re on their way to the regimental depot – since it’s in London it may be one of the Household Regiments – and they’re leaving their civilian life behind. And so too perhaps memories, histories, responsibilities and failures they might like to put behind them, but which may prove hard to forget.

For me this drawing crystallises so much about some aspects of the Late-Victorian period and it’s easy to imagine a back-story for each of the characters. It could represent “Act 1, Scene1”, the point of departure for a half-dozen linked stories. So let’s look in more detail.

First the setting. It’s London, spring or early summer judging by the clothing. The Houses of Parliament in the background hint at the confidence and power of Empire. A newsvendor has some news about The Queen – we can’t see what it is, but it might or might not be significant for the story that follows. We glimpse the driver of a Hansom cab in the background, and a fashionably dressed man, but the central group have turned away from this normality and are heading for another.

It’s on the group at the centre upon which attention focusses and from the reaction of the lady with the little boy, and of the dog in the foreground, there’s a hint that they’re already men apart who are heading off into the unknowable.  So what could be the backstory of each of them?

The recruiting sergeant is a trusted and proven man – otherwise he would not be in this job. A decade before he might have been like any one of these men, but his whole demeanour tells of an identity that he has adopted fully and that he is proud of. It’s 1882, so there’s a good chance he may have served in the Ashanti and Zulu Wars, and perhaps has seen action on India’s North-West Frontier with Afghanistan. Whatever his story was when he enlisted he’s now at ease with his military identity and he has the confidence to draw others with him into the same path.

There are five recruits behind him.

On the extreme left is a “gentleman”, certainly from a “good family” and well educated. But he’s a waster – his financial and moral credit has run out through drink or women or gambling, or perhaps all three. He’s deep in debt and close to penniless. His parents are dead and his brothers and brothers-in-law, all solid and respected professionals, have finally given up on him. He has the choice between a leap off a bridge over the Thames and enlistment in the Army. He’ll give the Army a try - at least he won't starve. As a “gentleman ranker” he’s going to find it hard, not just the discipline but the company of the barrack room. In a year or two’s time he may put a muzzle in his mouth and push a trigger with his toe. But there’s another chance, a slim one, but not impossible. He may make the best of it, may distinguish himself in action – and there’s always plenty of it around in this period - and he may be given the choice between a medal and an officer’s commission. There’s hope, but he doesn’t see to at this moment. It’s interesting that his eyes are cast down, perhaps in shame. But it’s perhaps also to avoid the gaze of the lady who is hurrying past and pulling a little boy with her. She may have recognised him as her brother or her husband.

An agricultural labourer in a smock and gaiters also follows the sergeant, somebody straight from the pages of Thomas Hardy. He looks pensive and realises the full enormity of what he’s doing, but he’s accepting it manfully. But what is he escaping? It seems more likely to be poverty rather than family responsibilities, but how did he find himself in Central London rather than enlisting at some Wessex market town? There’s a mystery there. He’s likely to be good soldier. The life he’s heading to may well be less harsh than what he has left behind and he’s at least assured of three meals a day and a dry bed in barracks when he’s not on campaign. He’ll accept discipline easily, will prove reliable in all circumstances, may well be an NCO himself in the next decade. He’ll serve in the Sudan, the Boer War, in several minor Indian and African campaigns. He’ll be retired from the Army and working as a trusted warehouse supervisor in 1914 and he’ll return to the colours to help train Kitchener’s “First Hundred Thousand.”   His son – also a regular – will be killed at Mons and his grandson will be a Second Lieutenant at El Alamein and a successful accountant thereafter.

The young man on the right, with cane and pipe, is probably a clerk, somebody from one of H.G.Wells’ turgid novels such as Kipps or Mr. Polly. He’s flashily dressed – more so than he can afford on his thirty-shillings per week. He may have joined up because he’s been embezzling and he knows that his employers are all but on to him. He has almost certainly enlisted under a false name and though he’s putting on an air of swagger he’s deeply worried about what’s to come. The Army will make or break him very quickly. He’ll probably resent the discipline and, at least initially, will be somewhat of a “barrack-room lawyer” until he realises that it will get him nowhere. He may quite soon be involved in misappropriations of some type and he may be cunning enough to carry it off for a long time. And yet there’s a small chance that he’ll take to the life, that he’ll do well in action, that he too could be a recruiting sergeant ten years from now – he’ll be glib enough with the patter that will entice others like him. Given a good NCO to take him in hand, he has possibilities.

The individual behind him in the “scotch bonnet” and half-mast trousers, is possibly a much nastier piece of work. It’s because of him that a policeman is bringing up the rear because if a close eye isn’t kept on him he’ll disappear He’s had numerous runs-in with law before now – nothing big or violent, but sly and underhand – but it’s never been possible to hang anything on him. The magistrates have had enough – they’ve finally got him for something and to save the rate-payer the expense of his incarceration he’s been given to option of joining the Army. He’ll keep his head done initially but he’ll be running a racket of some type as soon as he knows the system. He’ll cheat on cards if he can and he’ll be a regular on the VD list. But he’ll be a survivor, in the short term at least, and when better men are holding their ground to the last he’ll have weaselled some way of avoiding any action at all. He’ll come to an unpleasant end however, not in the line of fire, but from a knife in the ribs from some pimp he has fallen out with.

A good man to have on your side.
It's two years on. Which of the five is it?
And finally, the young man at the back on the left. He’s naïve, has probably read stirring accounts of military life in the popular press. He’s got some basic education – he’s risen from office boy to very junior clerk, but he’s got a romantic streak and he thinks his soul isn’t fettered to an office stool. Girls don’t take him seriously and he’s had more than one disappointment in that line. He’s probably cannon-fodder. In a badly-conceived story he’ll be a type that’s a cliché in movies – the simple but decent young man who’ll be taken under the wing of the country bumpkin and may well die in his arms, probably clutching a picture of his mother. But he too, if given a good NCO to guide him, may well turn out well.  He may end up doing excellent work in transport and supply rather than front-line combat, and he’ll be trustworthy and honest too. But in the meanwhile, while  he’s chatting to the well-meaning policeman, who’s probably sorry for him, he’s giving the shifty type an opportunity to scarper.

So there we have it – one picture worth a lot more than a thousand words and possibly worth a series of novels.  It’s 1882. Britain has very colourful and dramatic decades ahead and the Army will be in the thick of it. The possibilities are endless. Five men – six including the recruiting sergeant – are heading into the future.

Would anybody like to take up the challenge?


Britannia’s Reach

In 1880, on a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. It is laden with troops, horses and artillery, intent on conquest and revenge.  Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so.

But as brutal land and river battles mark its progress upriver, and as both sides inflict and endure ever greater suffering, stalemate threatens.

And Nicholas Dawlish, the ambitious British naval officer, first introduced in Britannia’s Wolf, finds himself forced to make a terrible ethical choice if he is to return to Britain with some shreds of integrity remaining…

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