About Attack Ships on Fire

(EDIT: Since writing this post the book title has changed to The Fireships of Gerontas)

In this, my second tome, I have continued the story of actual historical events directly from the end of my first book: that one concluded with the first battle to preserve the Greek island of Samos from Turk invasion on 17th August 1824. This story describes the great sea battle of 10th September in the Bay of Gerontas which finally thwarted Ottoman efforts to capture Samos; it ends with the hurricane which struck Britain on 22nd November.

In this second, factually-based story in my own series I have endeavoured to endow it with a trifle more of Patrick O’Brian’s essential and complex essence; I have strived to attain his rich eloquence, customarily replete with diverse linguistic faux pas and rife with humorous conversational and other ambiguities together with his remarkable ability to fascinate with an infinity of detail.  The reader will be the judge of whether I have succeeded.

There are a great many books about historical conflicts, both factual and fiction. As an extreme generalisation, it is true to say that few of them examine in any depth the deleterious effects on the men at the sharp end: those determined, brave souls who experience close combat, many of whom become wounded in doing so or experience the loss of dear comrades. These are men (and women) who, for the most part, must and do continue to persevere with considerable bravery throughout the very worst of life’s experiences, both during and after the traumatic events they encounter. This story, though fiction, strives to touch upon this oft neglected issue of warfare and the painful burdens of the enduring aftermath.

This book is dedicated to all those who served in the 1982 war in the South Atlantic, to everyone on both sides of that bleak, wintry conflict.


About The Massacre of Innocents

Adding to the treasure trove of actual events that the historical novelist is blessed with are the real people of those times, many of whom grace this book. It is particularly pleasing to develop this rich mother lode into brief but colourful appearances within the story, the places and timing of which, if not the actualité, accord with the known detail of their lives. Lord Byron is one such person, and the author has taken the liberty of including a few words (in Chapter 5, for 22nd November 1823) of simple yet sublime prose which Byron himself wrote within his journal for the 17th October 1823 describing his quietude in Cephalonia some weeks before he departed for his destiny in Missolonghi.

A selected verse of Byron’s famous poem (within a poem) The Isles of Greece (within Canto III of Don Juan) precedes each chapter, the first verse being on the front title page. Lord Milton’s stirring address to the formative London Greek Committee on 3rd May 1823 is similarly reproduced verbatim. The reader may also perceive the influence of that engaging wit Mark Twain gracing a few of these pages.

Notwithstanding that this is a work of fiction the author has strived for the inclusion of many real historical events throughout the story. It is little realised, for example, that the phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, now in commonplace use, actually originated from Lord Byron. The capture of Byron’s companion, Count Gamba, by the Turks, which is described in Chapter Six of this book, was a real event, and there surely cannot be anything stranger in fiction than the true tale of the Turk captain fortuitously recognising his Greek captive counterpart, his own former rescuer, after an interval of fully fifteen years.

This first book is dedicated to all those who have served in the Royal Navy, past and present: to whom; lest we forget, our debt is immeasurable.


In my Series

These historical novels are founded upon the continuing voyages of HMS Surprise – not, please note, the 28-gun ship of 1796 in Patrick O’Brian’s marvellous, fictional series (a ship design based on the captured French ship Unité), but the later 38-gun, Leda-class frigate of 1812 (also a design based on another captured French frigate, Hebé). This latter Surprise, though a relatively young ship, lay at Plymouth Dock in 1822 about to be reduced to a prison hulk. In these stories her fate takes its fictional turn for the better. Her sister ships, Trincomalee and Unicorn, to our good fortune, remain preserved in Hartlepool and Dundee respectively.

For any novelist the writing of historical seafaring tales set in the early 19th century is to follow in the footsteps of and to strive for the literary heights reached by the author so appropriately described as “the greatest historical novelist of all time”. It most certainly represents a challenge of the very first order. With no prospect (sadly) of any further historical novels from Patrick O’Brian and missing his characters so much myself, I decided I must write a sequel series, so as to bring them back, to enjoy their company all over again. However, after writing the first draft and by then in a dialogue with his estate, I was made aware of Patrick O’Brian’s wish that no sequels to his series should be published, and hence a different course was subsequently plotted; the finished result being no longer a faithful reproduction of his ingredients but books with different characters, though ones which still draw their inspiration of form and flavour from his genius.

Who would honestly conceive that there could be two writers of his ilk? Certainly not I, and so these books could never have become ones that read as if written by the master himself, and I make no claim of attaining his glorious pinnacle: it would plainly be an unrealistic aspiration. Consequently, the reader must be content with historically detailed, seafaring tales of adventure; stories of battle and fascinating exchanges between all aboard ship; tales which chronologically follow the enthralling Aubrey & Maturin novels, and hence stories which might well have been conceived by O’Brian had he been blessed with more time to continue his superb series.

To use the metaphor of flavour, soused hog’s face and a capital sea pie are greatly different dishes, but I am sure Jack enjoyed one as much as the other. In any event, the writing of these books brings to my own mind considerable pleasure when I observe that the barky is afloat once more upon the literary waves, with her crew of many fascinating individuals; interesting characters all and generously bestowed with a well-distributed sprinkling of many of those familiar traits reminiscent of our old friends Aubrey and Maturin. I do hope that it brings similar satisfaction to many other O’Brian fans.

The officers of the early nineteenth-century Royal Navy were drawn from every part of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (including the present Republic). It has been estimated that one in eight officers were Irish (though Catholics were not accepted) and that Scots represented a higher per capita ratio of officers to population origin than the Irish. The author therefore feels perfectly justified in enlisting a Scot as first lieutenant to serve alongside his Irish captain. Similarly, Scots were well represented as ships’ surgeons in those times, and another has come aboard for these stories.

The Origins of this Series

I fondly imagined for years that the many fans of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring tales of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin sorely lamented, as did I, the end of his wonderful, utterly exceptional stories and hugely missed those two warm and intensely fascinating individuals; characters always of the most engaging interest while possessed of the most human of personalities; for that surely was O’Brian’s gift: Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin never resembled superheroes, rather in their warmth and fallibility they endeared themselves to us as any current personality might well do, and the gulf of two hundred years between their (fictional) lives and ours simply faded away.

Whilst contemplating writing my first book in this series a few years ago I was abstractedly mindful of that famous quote of the Earl of St Vincent: “I do not say the French will not come, only that they will not come by sea”. It’s quite a witty quip and may conceivably in its delightful hauteur, no doubt born of justifiable great confidence, have provided an element of inspiration for the quotations of another First Lord of the Admiralty and conceivably Britain’s most charismatic Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, over a century later when in the early 1940’s Britain faced another megalomaniacal peril. In my own rambling contemplations (I had undoubtedly been enjoying my grog ration) the splendid quote transmuted to become relevant to my own musings on the sublime sea stories of Patrick O’Brian: “I do not think there will be no further tales of HMS Surprise, only that they will not be written by Patrick O’Brian” and that rather silly mental trifling in a very minor way helped shape my own conviction that I should to the best of my own modest abilities (being a first time author) endeavour to perpetuate his literary magic myself, for surely there were other like-minded souls sorely lamenting the end of his exquisite series.

It was my son, Alastair, who managed to prise me away from prevarication disguised as continuing research for these books with a wholly appropriate ‘Just get on with it!’

In striving to do so, I was always conscious that it was “Mission Impossible”, for O’Brian’s stories of HMS Surprise were so far ahead in quality in comparison to everything else that I had ever read in fiction that I held few illusions that I would succeed. I say few but not quite none at all (the second half of that grog ration no doubt), and hence in a flight of wholly reckless optimism I set aside my reasoned and well-founded hesitations and embarked upon the voyage. Perhaps I should better say the cruise for it has certainly been most enjoyable.