A Night on the Town by Jan Needle

Weird thing being a writer, I've always thought. Two things have happened in the last couple of days that made me think of synchronicity (among other things). Firstly, out of the blue, a comment popped into my inbox about Wild Wood, my comic subversion of Mr Grahame's mighty masterpiece. It was appended to a review in Awfully Big Blog Adventure from last April, by a man I don't know. Easiest thing to do is to reproduce it:

On January 1st, 2015 I decided to reread The Wind in the Willows sixty years after first having it read in class at school and then reading it myself. Later, and by chance I decided to see if any books with the work of William Rushton were available on ebay. What a joy to find Wild Wood. It compliments 'The Willows' wonderfully, and it was published to encourage children to read!

That was good enough in itself, but the synchronicity comes in this wise: the same morning, I trundled down from Manchester to Oxford – with the middle section done by bus – to Dennis Hamley’s relaunch of his marvellous story Spirit of the Place, where I purchased number nine of a limited edition of 100.

'Marvellous story,' I hear you say – 'but isn't Jan an old mucker, who undoubtedly got a comfy bed for the night for his pains – he would say that, wouldn't he!' But it wasn't me what said it, honest guv, it was Philip Pullman.  I'll quote him, too, from the back cover of this lovely volume:

'It's a marvellous story, put together with great ingenuity. Dennis Hamley seems to have got right inside the eighteenth-century (one of my own favourite places to visit), heroic couplets and all. It made me want to go out at once and build a Grotto in the garden.'

Third part of the synchronicity is even odder. My dear departed friend Jan Mark loved Wild Wood dearly, and told me that she wished she'd written it herself. She was also a friend of both Dennis and Philip, naturally – if only because they were/are all part of what a cynic might call the Oxford Mafia. And while I didn't know he'd be at the launch, for some reason I slipped a copy into my bag, with  some inchoate thought of Jan swirling around the back of my mind.

Lo and behold, the man was there, we exchanged hellos and pleasantries and had the age-old conversation 'what are you working on now?', and he accepted my copy with apparent pleasure. I felt Jan’s ghost approvingly at my shoulder. (As approvingly as she ever was, that is – through the cigarette smoke!) It was a good part of an extremely pleasant night.

Then back to Dennis and Kay's flat with another Oxford friend of theirs called Robert Lipscombe, writer of the fascinating The English Project, and we fell to talking politics and history. Well you do, don't you? And the subject of Napoleon came up, because I've just finished writing a novella about that extraordinary genius, despot and sex-bomb!

Just because I can't think of any other way to round this off, I'm going to give you one more quote, which is the sort of preface to the book, which is (sort of) called Napoleon – The Escape. It's not just us who live in fascinating times…

"St. Helena! The very idea fills me with horror. To be relegated for life to an island within the tropics, at a vast distance from any continent, cut off from all communication with the world, and from all that it holds that is dear to my heart. That is worse than the iron cage of Tamerlane."

The Emperor Napoleon was possibly the greatest general who ever lived – even the Duke of Wellington insisted on that – so it was imperative he should never go free again when he was finally imprisoned. With consummate cruelty, the British exiled him to a tiny volcanic outcrop 1200 miles from the nearest land, to rot his life away. But Napoleon, like many a dictator before and since, was revered almost as a god. Before he even reached St Helena in 1815 his ship Bellerophon was harried by a privateer, and rescue plots were being hatched in several countries. His brother Joseph, now living in America, pledged thirty million francs to set him free, and when the Times announced he had escaped, dancing was reported in the streets of London. The French Revolution had, after all, found a popular new use for lamp-posts – hanging aristocrats.

Strangest of all, given England’s official hatred for him, great men and patriots flocked to the cause. Lord Cochrane, the brilliant frigate captain known as the Sea Wolf (and model for Jack Aubrey in the O’Brien books) joined forces with the dictator of Peru to spring Napoleon to found a new Empire of South America, while innovators and men of science were keen to help as well. Robert Fulton, builder of the world’s first working submarine, collaborated with an Irishman called Tom Johnson, who aimed to pluck Napoleon from the island and spirit him away beneath the Atlantic waves. The dictator, whose wife had point-blank refused to share his exile, would leave an unknown number of illegitimate children behind.

Life on the island was a hotbed of treachery and intrigue. One of the dictator’s  mistresses was the wife of the Marquis de Montholon, who had been appointed by France to look after Napoleon’s welfare. His personal physician, an Irishman called O’Meara, might very well have poisoned him with arsenic. The governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, hated him so passionately he finally refused to meet or talk to him, and when Napoleon was thought to have died, refused to mark his grave. Although he insisted, naturally, that the body in it was indeed Napoleon’s.

The truth of that has never been confirmed. But when the grave beside it – which was meant to contain the bones of his servant Jean-Baptiste Cipriani – was opened some years later, it was empty. And Cipriani, incidentally, was a man reputed to be Napoleon’s double. Or even, possibly, his half-brother.

You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Synchronicity PS. Main drain blocked. Too deep for man with short arms and wrist injury. One of my many long-armed sons turns up from London and 'volunteers' to go headfirst into the sewer. Job done! Thanks Matti...





Dennis Hamley said…
Yea, Jan, it was indeed a great, great evening and our conversation back at home with Robert afterwards was memorable. The launch was memorable too. The ghost of Jan Mark obviously hovered in the air: I remembered in my talk that it was she who first recommended Possession to me, saying, 'Dennis, it's your sort of book'and, as usual, she was right. I can't find my spare copy of Robert's newspaper edition of The English Project. It's a great idea and the novel fits nicely into the format. Blank Page Press, when it finally (!) gets under way, is going to republish his first novel The Salamander Tree, first published in 1991 by Hamish Hamilton, but now in the version which he actually wrote. Constant interference by editors and publishers made him sack his agent and become an indie author. Would we have had such courage?
Lydia Bennet said…
So much going on in this post as in your life, obviously! Napoleon, eh, I'm not surprised about Cochrane, the officers at that time who were official enemies often seem to have got on pretty well, especially at sea where they had a common enemy to fight! However I don't think it's that cruel to exile a guy who tried to lead an invasion of this country resulting in a war with many dying horribly from wounds caused by cannon balls etc - and leaving behind all those children, Nappy was clearly far from rotting his life away!
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, I should have said that Robert will send me another copy and I'll send it on to you. Can't say fairer than that, can I?

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