Friday, 20 January 2017

Experts and why I'm not one

Every so often somebody suggests that I should give a talk or write a book about the history behind some of my novels. "You're an expert!" They gush. "You know so much about it!"

It's flattering but it isn't true. Experts are the people that people like me go to when they want to get the facts right for their books. When I was writing about Waterloo I went to a two-day conference at Sandhurst. One of the speakers was an academic who had spent three years studying the fighting in and around a farm in the centre of the battlefield. It's an important part of the battle, but still one tiny part. He didn't talk about Wellington's use of the reverse slope; he didn't talk about the fight for the Ch√Ęteau d'Hougoumont; he didn't discuss the importance of the Prussians or the way in which the British shamefully understated their contribution. He didn't even talk about my favourite element of the battle – the role of the Dutch and Belgian troops. He talked about one farmhouse and its farmyard and the defence put up by the vastly outnumbered troops of the King’s German Legion. And if you want an expert on Waterloo, you want someone like him. (He really was very good.) I’m happy to talk to your history group about the battle. (Really: you can email me at jamesburke.confidentialagent@gmail.com). I can give you an overview (Napoleon lost, but it's not nearly as obvious that Wellington won) and tell you why its importance is overrated (especially given that everyone ignores Quatre Bras two days earlier). But there's an awful lot I can't tell you. If you ask me about the number of dead, I'd have to look it up. Like Winnie the Pooh's Wol, I did know but I've forgotten. I don't want to end up like the man who was asked at the conference how fast the horses would have moved in a cavalry charge and guessed the answer. Not a good move when your guess is spectacularly wrong and you are facing a room full of people who know a lot about Waterloo and, in this context, probably as significantly, many of whom rode. (The answer, if you were wondering, is a lot slower than you’d think, it being a very muddy field.)

Last summer I did give a talk on James Brooke, which went down quite well and suggested that there is a place for talks by well-informed non-experts like me. But you have to be so careful, especially when battles are concerned.

Me, talking about James Brooke. It's funny how people pay attention when you wave a sword at them.


What’s brought on this chain of thought? Well, I’ve just been reading an excellent story set in the Indian Mutiny. One episode deals with the defence of the Delhi Magazine, a little-known incident early in the conflict when a handful of British soldiers held off thousands of rebels for several hours. Once it became obvious that the Magazine, with its huge store of ammunition and powder, was about to fall into enemy hands, the defenders blew it up in an act of suicidal heroism.

The author has based his account on the published story of one of the people who was there. It’s a brilliant re-telling of something that has been largely forgotten and I was really pleased to see it highlighted in the novel. There is even a historical note (and I do appreciate notes at the end of historical novels) that rightly gives credit for the courage shown by Conductor Scully, who lit the fuse to blow the Magazine. What it doesn’t mention is the role of Conductor Buckley, a 43 year old Assistant Commissary of Ordnance who, injured in the battle, nonetheless gave the final order to light the fuse once he was told by the defenders that they could hold out no longer. His heroism at the Magazine was recognised by the award of the Victoria Cross.

Centuries passed and the Ordnance Department was swallowed into other corps until it became part of today’s Royal Logistic Corps, the largest corps in the British Army. The RLC is not famed for its military prowess, though it took a lot of casualties in Afghanistan both because of its role in resupplying Forward Operating Bases and because RLC personnel had a lead role in disarming IEDs. For most RLC officers and men, though, the jibe that they spend wartime “in the rear with the gear” hurts. The RLC is therefore particularly proud of any VCs associated with the Corps. 9 Regiment RLC is a theatre logistic regiment within 101 Logistic Brigade and it is based in the UK at Buckley Barracks. A dinner night is generally held once a year to commemorate Conductor Buckley’s heroism.

RLC flag

I have to admit, at this point, that my son is in the RLC and has served with 9 Regiment in both England and Afghanistan.
The fact that a well-researched novel misses out one tiny (and, to a writer, not particularly important) detail of a fight that hardly anyone has heard of is, in the scheme of things, utterly insignificant. But the writer shouldn’t expect to be invited to dine at 9 Regiment any time soon.

THE PLUG

I write these blogs every week and lots of people seem to enjoy reading them. Unfortunately, they don't all go on to buy my books. So (when I remember) I am trying to highlight things you might want to read if you were interested in this post. This week obviously ties in with my novel of Waterloo, somewhat unimaginatively titled Burke at Waterloo, and my Indian Mutiny book, Cawnpore. I'm particularly proud of Cawnpore and I'd love it if you all went out and bought a copy. (And, yes, both books come with historical notes at the end.)



5 comments:

  1. I bought and read both and thoroughly enjoyed them. As a writer of historical (romantic) fiction I appreciate the importance of accuracy, and enjoy reading authors who care about it. Tom does. If you haven't read either of the above books yet, I'd strongly recommend them as thrilling, moving, and making you feel you're there.

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  2. Thank you so much for that, Jane.

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  3. Great blog. I occasionally fall into the trap of thinking I might be an expert in the stuff I have written about in my historical novels – particularly when speaking to members of the public who are loud, opinionated and wrong – but it's good to be reminded that I'm not. We historical novelists are standing on the shoulders of giants. Now I'm off to buy your book about James Brooke. Don't know anything about him except from reading Flashman's Lady. Cheers, Angus

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  4. I hope you enjoy it. I loved Flashman's Lady.

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