A quick scan of my virtual Britain - Dennis Hamley

Here's another stage in the Great Virtual British Blog Tour to follow John's and Roz's.  I volunteered - nay, asked - to do this, so I've no-one to blame but myself for this attempt to define and account for my Britishness or otherwise.

I've no camera here at the moment, so I can assure you with complete confidence that I am following to the letter John Logan's dress code for going on this tour.

Where were you born and where do you live now?

I was born in Kent in 1935 but my first home was in Oxted, Surrey.  Now I live in Oxford.  Only as I write this have I
Dennis Hamley
noticed a certain symmetry here.  Such a progress from one Ox to another doesn't suggest much of a wanderlust and indeed I can't claim long sojourns in Turkestan or Bolivia, as most people worth their salt seem to be able.  No, I was born a soft Southerner and that's how I shall die - and proud of it.  I suppose my greatest deviations from the norm were the four years I spent in Stockport and the three in Wakefield.   They didn't even send me abroad when I was doing my National Service in the RAF. 

Has this made me inward-looking and parochial?  I hope not.  I detest the concept of 'the little Englander.'   Is there an order of preference in my catalogue of identifications.  Well, I'm English.  I can't help that.  And I love England.  I love its countryside, its literature, art and music. I like its relative stability. I like how, by and large it is (or was) - and I don't want to romanticise it - a tolerant and welcoming  country where a troop of uniformed men goose-stepping down a street would probably make people laugh.  That these qualities seem to be changing in present-day society gives me much distress.

I'm British.  Yes, I do believe in the Union - and I suspect that Scottish independence in the long run won't destroy it completely.  The three most important women in my life have been Welsh, Irish and now Kiwi.  To me, that's three varieties of Britishness, even though they might (no, would) all bridle at the very thought.   It may be dangerous to imply a generalisation from that tiny fact but I'm still going to do it.

I'm European.   I value that very much.  Churchill's dream (yes, he thought of it first) of a United States of Europe might make many of my countrymen - mainly and ironically those who revere his memory the most - splutter over their brandy and choke on their cigars. I think that's a bit rich coming from a land which has fought in every major war in Europe (except the Franco-Prussian) over the last thousand years.

Any other identities?  Yes, I think of myself as a citizen of the English-speaking world.   Vague but real.  And now the big one.  Am I a 'citizen of the world'?  I would love to think so.  But I remember, back in the 50s when my generation was finding out who and what it was,  a sort of idealism which told us that the world was perfectable after all  and we were the people to make it so.   Though I was only ten when it happened, I remember so well the feeling of hope which Ken Loach depicts in his 1945 film, that at last society meant something, could be cohesive and fair after all, that health was now a right and not a privilege, that a working-class lad like me could have a secondary education (the first ever in my family) and go to university - and have a scholarship which meant I could enjoy my time there without going into impossible debt.   However, I also realised that this was, unlike the NHS, not a right but a privilege and I had to make the best I could of it.   I'm not necessarily making a political point when I say that I bitterly regret that such a spirit has almost disappeared in a sea of cynicism and citizenship of the world is a concept which now only gets hollow laughter.

Everyone else seems to have answered this first question in about two lines.  Sorry about that.

Have you always lived in Britain or are you based elsewhere?

Always in Britain.   I didn't have enough experience of other countries to feel confident enough to set stories there, although I have made a few plot-driven fleeting virtual visits to them.  But in the last six years I've travelled much more - and indeed have come to see New Zealand as a second home, so this may change.

Have you highlighted or showcased any particular part of Britain in your  books?  A town or city: a country, a monument, well-known place or event?

Well, sort of, but seldom places as they are now.  When I’ve written books set in the present day I’ve fought shy of setting them in a real contemporary location.  Though I have them in mind, I want to be free to deviate from actuality (or, some might say, ‘frightened of getting it wrong’).  But I do love interpreting them as I think they once were.  In The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay, London, Oxford, Coventry and Hereford are four cities which I tried to recreate as they were in the middle ages, as I also did with Wakefield (or Dunfield as, after George Gissing, I renamed it) in my very first novel.

There is an illusion – or myth if you wish – about British people that I would like you to discuss.  Many see the British as ‘stiff upper lip’.  Is that correct?

Actually, I wish I knew what it meant.  Have you ever physically tried to hold your upper lip stiff?  To make sure, I’ve just done it.  It’s really quite difficult and didn’t seem to me to connect with any recognisable emotional state or code of behaviour.  I suppose it means the British are cold and reserved with their feelings all buttoned up and afraid to express themselves.   A better interpretation may be that they are stoical.  I can’t say I know many British people falling into either category.  The first interpretation  may have been true once, especially in the days of Empire in which other nations only met Victorian ex-public schoolboys  as colonial administrators who had ‘played up and played the game’ on the playing fields of Eton.  I hope, and believe, that this is an outdated model.  Still, to adapt George Orwell, it's 'stoical' good,‘stiff upper lip’ bad, I suppose.  I hope I’d be stoical in the face of real adversity but I reject the upper lip accusation.   I find national stereotypes (as opposed to racial slurs which I abominate) funny and for me they express a sort of affection.  But they should have no place in fiction except perhaps in satire.  For example,I think  'Irish' jokes are funny (and so did my Irish wife), on a par with the 'stiff upper lip' of the English, but it's not the function of the novel to tell them.

Do any of the characters in your books carry the ‘stiff upper lip’?  Or are they all ‘British Bulldog’ types and unique in their own way?

First of all, I don’t see how ‘British Bulldog’ types can be unique.  'Types', by definition, aren't.  If I thought any of  my characters needed to embody either quality then I’d try to give it to them.  Offhand, I can’t remember any who did.  I try to depict characters whose influence on the story may be benign, may be malign, but that’s only because they are flawed like the rest of us, without necessarily themselves having benign or malignant personalities.  If in my books the British come off best, it’s because in a novel about the two world wars it’s a historical necessity.  I’ve read several dystopic second world war novels in which the Nazis win, from Giles Cooper’s The Other Man to Owen Sheers’s Resistance.  I thought they were brilliant but disturbing.  I admired – even envied – them  but I don’t want to tackle the difficult alternative history genre of ‘what might have been’. 

What are you currently working on?

I have three projects on the go and perhaps this blog may be the spur to stop faffing around and getting on with them. The first is to complete something I’ve been working on for some time.  I’m writing what's intended to be a trilogy for 11-14 year-olds set in 1803 in Nelson’s navy.  The overall title for the trilogy is Bright Sea, Dark Graves (and the British win, though that’s not the main point).  I was promised a contract for the first with an option on the others some years ago by a publisher which immediately had some big personnel changes which meant the offer was withdrawn.  That’s yet another reason why I’m on this blog.  I’ve taken advice from the seafaring Electric Authors, Julia Jones and Jan Needle, who’ve kindly pointed out some howlers in my inadequate understanding of what it’s like actually to sail  boats yourself, so I’m rewriting the first, have a first draft of the second and more or less know what’s going to happen in the third.  The second project is to rewrite a failed novel which was deservedly rejected a few years ago in which the main character was the real Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  It needs a complete recasting and I think I’ve now got the central concept.  We’re going to Sicily next week and I’m going to have a good look at Syracuse and try to retrace some of STC’s footsteps round it, because something happened to him there which is the mainspring of the whole book.  It’s now called The Second Person From Porlock.  And then I must finish the third book in the Ellen trilogy.  Ellen’s People, set in the First World War, and its sequel Divided Loyalties, set in the Second, were published by Walker in 2006 and 2008 respectively.  They work as separate books, though both deliberately end on a hook to start a next – but Walker didn’t seem to like the idea of a trilogy.  The third, without even a working title, is about one-third of the way through and I will publish it as an Indie along with reissues of the other two.

How do you spend your leisure time?

We walk, go to art galleries, concerts and plays, listen to music and travel, round Europe when we can and to New Zealand every year for two months or so.  I often say I must go to more football matches but never seem to get round to it.  But my beloved Pompey have fallen on hard times, though I’ve given money towards the supporters’ bid to take the club over.  Somebody's got to clear out the crooks in charge who've ruined a great club.  Sadly, Portsmouth is a bit far away for just a Saturday afternoon. Oxford United, I fear, don’t seem to hold the same attraction.

Do you write for local audiences or a global audience?

I’ll take my readers from wherever I can find them.  But I've been translated into German, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Thai, Swedish, French  and Serbo-Croat, so somebody likes the books.

Here's the very long link to my Amazon Kindle page which I hope works


And here's a shorter link to my website:


I nominate:

Linda Newbery
Kamal Lathar
Robert Lipscombe
Cherry Mosteshar


Jan Needle said…
m glad you wrote that, Dennis. Now I know you're not just a pretty face! My blog tomorrow plays around with the question of whether being an author is anything to be proud of. Your answer's good enough for me...
Bill Kirton said…
As a contemporary of yours, Dennis, I can relate to every stage you identify here. It's a fascinating read and I share your feelings about the possible layers of cultural identity - English, British, European, The World. And I've just spent a couple of minutes trying to do a stiff upper lip. As you say, it's anatomically impossible.
Lydia Bennet said…
Lovely post Dennis, nailing your colours to the mast in more ways than one! If you read Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels set in the napoleonic wars just after Nelson's death, you can call it research into navy history while enjoying the action-packed stories!
If you want to use shorter links, eg to amazon pages, you can go to bitly.com, where you can put in links and they give you shorter versions, you can use them or customise them to make them even easier to recognise. Handy for your email signature etc. (Or just use the links button on blogger to turn the book title into its own link of course.)
julia jones said…
I think you could (without reserve!) have blown your own trumpet more about Joslin de Lay's peregrination through medieval Britain. Not only were the descriptions of Suffolk, London, Oxford, Coventry, Wales precisely researched and beautifully written in themselves they also managed to add depth to those same area as we know them today.
glitter noir said…
Thanks for this post, Dennis. It was especially meaningful to me because I was born in the U.S....spent a decade in Canada...returned home and set across country, trying to discover my own sense of place--and also what it really meant to be an American. Will look forward to that new trilogy of yours. Cheers.
madwippitt said…
Never mind the wider categorisations: yes, you're English! So am I! And why shouldn't we be able to shout it out loud and clear, just as the Irish, Welsh and Scots proclaim their ancestry? Why should I be made to feel that I should say 'British' instead of 'English'? I'm English, and proud of it! (Sorry, you touched a nerve there ... I'll just step quietly away from the soapbox now ..)
Dennis Hamley said…
Writing a comment a week later isn't much use, but I'm going to just the same now we're back from Sicily with heads full of great memories. Valerie, the whole set of O'Brians is on my shelves, much thumbed. Wonderful. They awed me to start with. I muttered, 'I wish I could write books like those' and then forgot about it. But when I finally saw Master and Commander with Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany I came out of the cinema with head spinning and saying 'I WILL write something like that' and so I had a go. Thanks for the Bitly info. Jan, your blog made me laugh as always - and I recognised so much of it - and you in it! Our first meeting was indeed a long, long time ago but I'd forgotten Bob Marley died the day before. Did he forecast such a mighty epiphany and so expire while he was still at the top? Bill, I'm glad you can't stiffen the upper lip either, I thought it might be just me. Reb, yes, the search for identity is an essential one. We have to redefine it fairly regularly. Madwippitt, yes, nail you colours to the mast and go down fighting. We Englanders are known for it, nearly as much as the Scots.

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