This week’s Inheritance Books are from David Ebsworth. Hi David, welcome to Inheritance Books. Would you like piece of simnel cake? The marzipan balls…er… rolled off… but there’s still the cake.
So, tell us a bit about yourself.
Hello Rhoda and thanks for inviting me along. I was born in Liverpool in 1949. My father hadn’t long been de-mobbed after 25 years in the Royal Navy and my mother had suffered badly in the blitz – she lost her home and every single possession three times in little more than a single year. So the war had left scars on them both and they seemed to agree on very little. Except that their kids (three of us) should all have the best education they could manage.
My dad was self-educated and he’d developed a passion for pocket-sized versions of Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse and many others during his time at sea – which meant that we had more bookcases than a modest terrace should reasonably be expected to hold.
So I grew up in Liverpool during the ’Sixties, studied Spanish, French and English, and became a huge fan of historical fiction – greatly influenced back then by Rosemary Sutcliff, C.S. Forester and Georgette Heyer.
I’d begun to play with typewriters when I was very young, hammering out stories for my own amusement, then flirting with poetry as a teenager. I thought often about writing more seriously but life always intervened. I spent ten years as a textile factory worker, joined the Transport & General Workers’ Union, and finally ended up working full-time for the union from 1980 until 2008.
In 1980 I also moved to Wrexham, in North wales, and have been there ever since – with my wife, Ann, and some of our four kids and nine grand-children. In fact, we’ve just been blessed with our first great-grandchild, Archie.
Meanwhile, retirement gave me the chance to re-visit the writing ambition so that, over the past few years, I’ve been able to publish four historical novels – The Jacobites’ Apprentice (2012); The Assassin’s Mark (2013); The Kraals of Ulundi (2014); and, in January this year, The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour.
Which book have you inherited from a generation above? Why is it special?
Well, to be honest, there’s a whole batch of them. I already mentioned that my father picked up books whenever he was able, during his time in the Navy. But I think the one which most influenced me – and which I still possess – is called Fifty Great Disasters And Tragedies That Shocked The World. It’s still in remarkably good condition, despite its age. I must have pored over the pages a thousand times, from long before I could properly understand the text, gazing at pen and ink illustrations of the Death of Gordon, the Black Hole of Calcutta and the Loss of the R101.
And, once I could read it properly, I began to develop a keen sense of the way that one person’s military glory is another’s meaningless sacrifice (Charge of the Light Brigade); that the most civilised of states can sometimes be guilty of astonishing acts of brutality (the Dreyfus Affair); that the “facts” of history rest purely in the eye of the beholder and usually look entirely different from the other side (Boxer Rebellion and Opium Wars); and that history’s greatest disasters are usually simple yet cruel twists of fate that defy any logic (the Paisley Cinema Fire).
I’ve never actually written about any of the stories in the book, but I could have done. Because in later life I started looking for novels about these familiar tales. And I very often discovered that many of them have been entirely neglected by historical fiction writers. It made me want to start “filling some of the gaps” – to write stories that I wished somebody else had already written for me but which, in practice, didn’t yet exist. That’s the path upon which I was set, all those years ago, by Fifty Great Disasters And Tragedies That Shook The World.
Which book would you leave to your grandchildren or Archie? Why?
For a legacy of morality, it would be Great Expectations. For imagination, Frank Herbert’s Dune. For scale, quality and grandeur (despite the views of the Nobel Prize Committee), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But for the simple joy of reading, I’d leave Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset. I must have read it a dozen times over the past fifty years and it never ceases to reveal something new about Sutcliff’s writing. She evokes Dark Ages Britain in a way that’s never really been bettered, in my view. Archaeological evidence may now have moved us to a whole new assessment of the period, but her poetic descriptions of those lonely and haunted landscapes, her imaginings of the people and their way of life, are all superb. Most days when I write, I think about Sword at Sunset and try in vain to reach the benchmark it sets. But, above all, my battered old copy is cherished and loved. I hope that some of that emotion has rubbed off onto the pages each time I’ve turned them and that, one day, another teenager of the family will open the book and sense my presence there beside them.
Hmm… that’s a lot of books. I think that might be cheating! Tell you what, we’ll say you chose Sword at Sunset and leave it at that. Lovely book it is too!
Thank you for sharing you Inheritance Books with us, David. All the best with your books. Let’s hope you get round to writing about those neglected events in history soon.