Then and Now By Jan Needle

Sailing, not riding

Oh as I  was a riding  along,                                         
In the heighth of my glory.
Oh as I was  a-riding along,                                          
Oh come hear my sad story.                                        
Oh a fair and handsome maiden I did see,               
And I asked her if she’d come along with me         
Some pleasure and some pastime to see                 
As we’re riding down to Portsmouth

As you might be able to guess from that, I've just finished my second novella based on the life of Nelson. Nelson rode down to Portsmouth several times in his naval life, although I don't know if any of his odd relationships with women was quite as disastrous as this one.

Nelson came from Norfolk, and I'm writing this in a Travel Lodge in Gorleston, not far from his beginnings. I've come to attend a funeral tomorrow morning (Friday), and the drive from Manchester was long, hot, and uncomfortable. Nelson, at the age of 12, went by coach from Burnham Thorpe, his home, to London, and from thence to Chatham on the Medway.

When he arrived, not knowing anyone and not having been met despite the fact that it was his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, who had secured him a place on his ship, the poor lad was forced to hang about in the coaching inn yard hoping that somebody would take pity on him.

Finally, an unknown officer approached him, offered him some food, possibly a bed for the night (history is an incomplete thing sometimes), and hired a boat to take him out to his uncle's ship, where again no one was expecting him. His Uncle Suckling turned up on board four or five days later. Quite normal behaviour, apparently. Talk about breeding them tough.

What set me thinking was the journey itself. This is the 21st-century, for God's sake, and oop north we have little things called motorways. My AA Route planner told me the journey would take four hours 38 minutes (no halves or quarters you notice, no shilly-shallying), and included about 14 miles on the M1. The rest was what they called A-roads, and God forgive them if they weren't joking. Bit of dual carriageway came to seem like a raving luxury. The most interesting thing about the route was that the only landmarks are church spires. (And roadworks, natch.)

Got to the Travel Lodge just short of six hours later. Average speed 37 mph – hard travellin’, eh? After he picked up his first ship at the age of 12, Nelson sailed across the Atlantic twice, up to the Arctic Circle where he claimed to have tried to kill a polar bear, then to India for 2 1/2 years, during which time he caught malaria. Several times in his short and active life this recurring disease got very close to killing him, and this first time he was shipped home from India as a matter of extreme urgency (let’s say a couple of months!) to live or die. By the time he returned, incidentally, he was still only in his mid teens. And here I am whining about some crappy roads.

I was down here for the funeral of Auntie Eryl, who lived until she was 96, happily. Nelson only made it to 47, during which time he lost an eye and an arm, had recurrent seasickness, dysentery, was struck down frequently by the mosquito-borne curse, and surely should have died a great deal earlier.

Try as I might to get inside his skin, he remains a fascinating mystery. He was clearly charismatic, much ‘loved’ by his seamen (whom he led into the most ridiculous danger, sometimes very foolishly but always from the front), but was quite clearly (which, in terms of writing history, probably means sod all) a hopeless prig and an unattractive boaster. There was also the ‘woman thing’.

Nelson’s mother died when he was nine, and you don’t have to be Doctor Freud to suspect it might have done him an awful lot of damage. His father was a country parson, successful apparently only in fathering children (nine in all) and Uncle Suckling spotted Horatio as the only one worth throwing money and help at, although he did leave the others a bit of cash. And lo, the others achieved not a lot. There was even alcoholism, gambling, and an illegitimate child (or pregnancy; there’s no record of the outcome.)

As an adult Horace, as he originally called himself, had problems. He fell in love at the drop of a hat, and was rebuffed a couple of times. He was, in the words of J Peasemold Gruntfuttock ‘looking for someone to love,’ and he was desperate for children. He married a widow with a child, but they never managed another one. What he did for sex is politely shaded by history, although young naval officers in exotic locations were very keen on local mistresses, and if they were black or ‘native’ it apparently did not count as adultery or promiscuity. Useful, eh?

He had – and boasted about, although not to his wife – an opera singer mistress in Leghorn, and finally Lady Hamilton, with her husband’s apparent connivance. They had a daughter at last, and Nelson denied forever that Horatia was his. Given that the name was something of a giveaway, he must have been an optimist as well as a prig.

As far as one can tell, it was a genuine love affair, and he even famously left Emma to the nation to look after. The nation – plus ca change – ignored the bequest, and she died in Calais, desperately in debt. To be fair, Emma had never been much good with cash, except in screwing it off men. That’s not a sexist criticism: if I’d been born in a starvation-level rural slum in Cheshire I hope I would have been as successful at it. I doubt I’ve got the looks.

Ms Hart was a startlingly beautiful young woman, intensely charismatic, intensely talented, and already had one illegitimate daughter when she met Nelson. When she did meet him, as far as one can tell, she was a plump and comfy woman, and their letters absolutely reek of sensuality. In those days, also, being a prostitute early on in life was no bar to later respectability, and indeed, respect. You had to survive. How you did it was perhaps your business.

Tragic, really. Nelson courted violent death almost manically. When it came, Emma was waiting faithfully for him at home in the country, his wife and mother all rolled into one. Everything he’d always wanted, except glory.

And he’d already got the glory.

Black Jake, Elaine and Tina. Singing in the Cross Keys. Licensed before Nelson was born

A couple of PSs (that can’t be the plural, surely?). My first Nelson, with Endeavour Press, is called Nelson: The Poisoned River, and this one will probably be called Nelson: The Dreadful Havoc.

Thanks to everyone who came to one of my three launches of Wild Wood (London, Manchester, Uppermill). Sold lots of books, had enormous fun, and didn’t even have a hangover! If anyone who’s got it on Kindle can bear to do a couple of lines of review I’m offering big wet kisses all round (whoops – I’m not Emma Hamilton am I? We’ve established that already.) Thanks to those who’ve already reviewed it. All fives, too!

Thanks to Julia Jones for publishing it, and Matti Gardner and Kate Fox for their brilliant design.

Last PS. Down in Suffolk I had my first pint of Adnams bitter in twenty years. Adnam is one of the characters in Wild Wood, and the bitter is even more wonderful than I remembered it. My eyes moisten as I write this…

Really last PS. Thanks to Rose Prince who devoted her column in the Telegraph to Daisy Ferret’s Toad in the Hole. She did wonders for the spelling wot Daisy writ in the book. Somebody had to!

Nelson: The Poisoned River

Wild Wood: From Golden Duck, or course, or from Amazon. Proper book:


madwippitt said…
Fascinating stuff ... but you look way too relaxed in that first photo. Shouldn't you be scrambling around splicing your mainbraces or something? Or was this taken after the rum ration was doled out? Sorry, the Adnams. :-)
Dennis Hamley said…
Ah, Adnams. The very name tickles my taste buds. I had two pints of another bitter from Norfolk with my son in the Eagle and Child on Friday night. I forget the name (the beer's, not my son's)and I must go in later today to make a note of it. It was superb.
Dennis Hamley said…
OMG, done it again and don't know how to get rid of the extra ones
Lydia Bennet said…
that's a lot of Adnams, Dennis, no wonder you are seeing triple! Jan my first commissioned stage play was about Collingwood and I tend to support him against his showier pal Nelson, but those times and the lives on board ship are fascinating, and Nelson and Coll were very brave in battle and storm alike. Nelson had an almost modern genius for PR which Collingwood didn't! he may also have had 'small man' syndrome though being small would be quite useful on board cramped ships with low beams. I already have your first Nelson oeuvre and look forward to this one.
Jan Needle said…
landlord, i want a pint of whatever hamley's on! i'm in the south of france now. like i said, sorry horace! lydia, the pr point fascinates me more and more, history even seems to have swallowed the polar bear nonsense. our hero...
Dennis Hamley said…
You're rats, all of you! But thanks for removing the egg from my face. I'll be buying the new Nelson. I haven't reviewed the brilliant Poisoned River yet, but I will, I will. I agree that Collingwood has had a raw deal. But they both had railway engines named after them, so they can't grumble.
Lydia Bennet said…
I read that Hardy was about 6'4 so he and titchy Nelson must have made a funny sight as they paced the quarterdeck together: Hardy must have been in a constant state of either back pain or concussion!
julia jones said…
Am missing you Jan

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