Bernard Cornwell, who among his many other achievements is President of the HWA, added one more accolade to his list at the Harrogate History Festival when he received our Lifetime Achievement Award. Author and HWA committee member Rob Low, who made the speech on the night, writes here about meeting his lifetime hero.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a good sense must be in want of a hero to worship.
It is axiomatic that the acolyte be kneeling at the feet of someone older and still alive – so it is with a sense of wonder, when there are stones younger than me, that my hero is older than I am – and still alive.
I have not consciously sought to emulate Bernard Cornwell, but we do have our parallel tracks.
He is a writer of historical fiction, as am I. He has a beard. He is a product of a Protestantism, a sort of Calvinistic Caliphate of the sort which infects these islands and is probably the reason so many are now atheists, pagans or Druids. So am I.
He is not actually a product of the north – but it’s in his blood as I shall reveal later. I, of course, am from Glasgow – which is not the capital of Scotland despite what certain well-appointed headlines claim. That honour beliong to Edinburgh. The difference between the two is that, when you hear a gun go off in Edinburgh, it is only one o’clock.
You laugh – I hope Bernard does, too.
Points of comparison
He has every right to be jovial. By any measure, he is one of the most prolific and successful writers working today. His new book, Waterloo, published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the battle and his books have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
As well as the 24 books in his Sharpe series, Bernard has written four books about the American Civil War, three about Arthur’s Britain, three about the Hundred Years’ War, five contemporary thrillers and five stand-alone historical novels. Death of Kings is his sixth novel set in the Saxon period. Waterloo is his first factual history.
He is, as I say, older than me. At that age when men with tanned complexions and trim figures get called ‘sprightly’. Happily, our track diverges at this point. I will never be called “sprightly.” I am told Bernard recently completed an Iron Man marathon and he is to be commended for that – watching all three of those dreadful films back to back deserves an award.
Women and work ethic
He has a blissfully happy marriage, spends his summers in Chatham, Massachusetts, where they have two homes, and his winters in Charleston, South Carolina, where they own a third property in the historic quarter.
You’d think he would be easing off, but to listen to him tell it, writing these searing — and bestselling — novels is about as challenging as walking in the park.
“I think I’m as lazy as hell. What I’m doing is not very difficult. I mean, I’m not Sebastian Faulks, right? I’m not Jane Smiley. I’m not writing books about the human condition. I’m telling stories. Adventure stories. And having a lot of fun doing it.”
Not everyone is a Cornwell fan – I know, whisper it. I read a review of an evening he did at the University of Manchester a few years back. The reviewer had never read a Cornwell book, but went along to the event anyway and later wrote sniffily about how Bernard referred to the French as ‘the frogs’ and his wife as ‘the blonde’. Not on, said reviewer opined. I imagine he was Gallic. Or Scottish, which is almost the same thing to a man who claims the secret of his succes is ‘you can do anything you like to the English – as long as you let them win’.
I embraced that wholeheartedly with the Scots. Forgetting, of course, that out strength lies in glorious defeats, mainly because we never won a bloody thing save Bannockburn.
Philosophy and politics
Bernard’s philosophy and politics are on both sleeves. He owns a 27-foot Cornish crabber The Royalist – there is a clue is in the name. He bought her in Falmouth and had her shipped over in a Pickford’s container 25 years ago – rather than sell her to a Frenchman.
He has a King Charles Spaniel called Whiskey. I daresay he has a whisky called King Charles. He fears that “we’re going through a period when the Puritans rule…the Roundheads always win because the Cavaliers get pissed while the Roundheads sit around sober making plans.”
He says that he used to start work at 6.30 or 7am but now he walks Whiskey and doesn’t sit down at his desk until around eight. Now, he concedes, he now writes one book a year rather than two.
What a slacker. But he’s not lacking inspiration. ‘The inspiration is enjoying it,” he says. “You write for yourself first. You write what you want to read.”
“I thought, ‘Oh I’d love to read Hornblower on dry land’ and literally looked for it for years, went to bookshops hoping somebody had written this. And then thought to write it himself – the result was Sharpe.
Writing his way out of joblessness
The thing that kick-started his writing career, however, was necessity. Divorced and father of a young daughter, in the late 1970s he met Judy, now his wife, quit the BBC and moved to New Jersey, where Judy had three children from her first marriage. He was refused a green card and, unable to take a job, wrote Sharpe. A London literary agent he approached rejected the manuscript on the grounds that “no one wants to read about the British Army”.
But a chance meeting with the agent Toby Eady at a Macy’s parade in New York led to a lunch the following day at Grand Central Station and, very soon, a seven-book deal with Collins. Cornwell has, he likes to say, had the same wife, agent and publisher for the subsequent 33 years.
His origins are the stuff of nightmares, which he covers with an air of easy bonhommie. He was the product of a brief liaison between “a very pretty East End blonde in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and this wealthy middle class Canadian airman” in 1943.
Subsequently, he was adopted by the Peculiar People, aka Joe and Marjorie Wiggins, members of a now-extinct Protestant fundamentalist sect based in Essex. “Joe was angry,” says Cornwell. “He was not a sadist. He genuinely thought he could beat God into me.”
When he was seven, Marjorie told him she wish she had never adopted him. “She loved babies. She didn’t much like them when they got older. She hated me. I felt the same way. She was a very, very unhappy woman.
“I always remember as a child that if there were arguments between them you knew that you were going to get it and it would be taken out probably on me.”
Cornwell read theology at London University because “I wanted to equip myself to fight them” and became a convinced atheist. I suspect God won’t mind because God is jealous – He only wrote one book and had at least 12 co-authors. Now I know where Pattinson got the idea.
Television was banned during his childhood so, after a spell teaching Tudor history, he was naturally drawn to the BBC.
“Bernard Cornwell” was only a pen name until he changed it by deed poll from Bernard Wiggins once his adoptive father Joe died. “I was unwilling to change names while he was alive because it would have seemed so such a slap in the face and he didn’t deserve that,” says Cornwell.
The Peculiars did, however, give him a “mental wish list – wine, women, song, tobacco”. In addition, they were pacifists and young Bernard developed an abiding interest in all things military. His myopia meant he could not join the Army but the seeds of rebellion were already sown.
Rebellion (for me as well as Bernard)
I can relate to this. I’ve combined a bit of religion and a bit of atheism, and came to my own conclusions, which are not dissimilar to Bernard’s. Perhaps God created the world, but then he pissed of. He’s God – it’s a big universe, he’s got to have more than one property.
So we have the place to ourselves – an empty! Like good “empties” it’s got a bit out of control … we’ve got terrorism, greed, the lot. Perhaps God’ll come back one day and go “look at the state of the place! Everybody out!”
Then you’ll see world leaders and corrupt bankers, politicians and paedophile activists all shuffling out the door saying “sorry – we never thought you were coming back, mate”
The one person who gets to stay – has a room to himself with hot and cold running apostles is Bernard Cornwell. Haw, Judas – go and get us a pack of cigars, mate, all right? Not the little whiffs either. Proper cigars you can chew on.
A homecoming, and a family history
Bernard’s real father William Oughtred, also widowed but remarried, was in Victoria, Canada and Bernard found him, eventually. “I liked him enormously and it was something very familiar.”
Suddenly, Cornwell had six half-brothers and a half-sister. “For the first time in my life I was with people who snorted when they laughed and had the same way of walking.”
It turned out that the name Oughtred could be traced back to 6th Century Britain. “It goes all the way back to Eider the Flamebearer, one of the Saxon invaders of Northern England. Remember me saying the north was in his blood?”
He was the guy who took what is now Bamburgh Castle. The family became incredibly powerful in the north and were kings of Bernicia, the kingdom of lowland Scotland and northern England which got subsumed into Northumbria.
“Although the Danes took everything in northern England and East Anglia, they never took Bamburgh and it stayed in the Oughtred family right up until 1016 when the then Oughtred fell out with Canute and got murdered.”
To his chagrin, Cornwell discovered that an Oughtred had been a hero of the Battle of Crecy, which he had written about in his novel Harlequin. The family did, however, give him the character and story of Uhtred for his Saxon series, including Death of Kings.
The little story and the big
Nearly all historical novels, Cornwell explains, have a big story and a little story. “The big story goes into the background. The little story goes into he foreground. I always wanted to tell the big story, the creation of England, because nobody knows has a goddamned clue about it. I had the big story but not the little story.”
Discovering he was a member of the Canadian branch of the Oughtreds of Northumbria gave him that little story.
Although often compared to Patrick O’Brian, whose Aubrey-Maturin novels are set in the Napoleonic period, Cornwell laughs that O’Brian is seen as much more respectable because of the fastidious historical detail he includes. O’Brian once said that the trouble with Forester and Cornwell was that there was “too much plot, not enough lifestyle”.
Cornwell took it as a compliment. “I was being bracketed with Forester. I know exactly what he means. When Patrick O’Brian was at his best he wass absolutely, untouchably brilliant. But there are other books where there’s all that stuff and the plot is lost entirely.
“On the other hand, there’s no shame in being seen to read a Patrick O’Brian. If you’re readings Sharpe’s Tiger, you take a dust jacket from an O’Brian and slip it on.”
For Cornwell, “all the work in writing is working out the plot”. He has described it as putting doors into blind alleys, that bit where Sharpe is trapped, his sword is broken, the rifle unloaded and his men all fled.
The enemy facing him are sure Sharpe is doomed. So is the reader – but then a door appears in the story and he leaps through to safety. So what, you say, they were doing that in RKO serials in the Thirties.
The trick with Bernhard is that, if you go back five chapters, you will find the blind alley, complete with the door you never realised was integral to the future plot.
“A lot of my life,” Bernard says, “is spent putting doors into alleys and blank-walled rooms.”
The first draft of every Cornwell book is all about plot, but “the rewrite is just pure fun. You can rewrite a book in 10 days. Once you have the first draft then the fun begins. You can go in and put in the trim and varnish it.”
He describes his books as “lad-lit in a way,” and confesses he’s not very good at writing about romance. But he has a large readership of females. “My heroes like women, they’re good to women. Women like men who like women. The women are strong in my books.”
I’ve seen whole threads discussing how to write realistic battle scenes, especially as it relates to close up, in-your-face combat. I recommend people stop looking for answers on all the forums devoted to Romans and Medievals and Norse and start reading more Bernard Cornwell.
I commend Bernard Cornwell to this House – and can think of no better recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award.