ANTOINE VANNER IS INTERVIEWED BY EVA LAGASSÉ IN APRIL 2013
Q: Why did you come to novel writing at a relatively late age for a first-time author?
A: I’ve been writing off and on for many years but as my business career took off I had to cut back. The impulse to get going again – seriously so – came just before retirement from full-time work when I attended a lecture and book-signing session by Douglas Reeman at a local bookshop. In a calm, dignified and erudite way he conveyed not only vast knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject but the importance of a methodical approach to writing. He provided the inspiration for taking the task really seriously and since then I’ve adopted the Latin motto “Nulla dies sine linea – not a day without a line”. So thank you Douglas Reeman!
Q. Is Britannia’s Wolf the beginning of the Dawlish story for you?
A: Dawlish has been with me for a long time, whether I’ve been writing about him or not, and I’ve been building up an intimate knowledge of his life and setting it out on a time-line. We know when he was born, and when he died, and increasingly more about the years in between. Britannia’s Wolf finds him at an age, 32, when the years of mastering the mechanics of his profession are behind him. He’s now encountering the challenges of command at a level that can have a major impact on national destinies and in the process he has to cope with a lot of moral ambiguity. We know that he’s ambitious, and that he’s been ready to make sacrifices that others of his age are unwilling to make in pursuit of advancement, but now he cannot escape recognition of the price that must be paid by others as well as himself. He is ‘earnest’ – a quality the Victorians prized, and he is a Victorian, with a number of hang-ups, but also some freedoms, that we don’t have today – and he is not a man who will shirk responsibility, whether moral or material. The next Dawlish adventure, by the way, will test him even further in this respect.
Q: So there’s another Dawlish book on the stocks? Where is it set?
A: It’s almost ready to lanch and I’ll be publishing in late-2013. And no – I’m not saying where it’s set, just that Dawlish won’t be having an easy time of it!
Q: Britain’s naval might in the Victorian age is not one that many novelists have been willing to tackle. What made you want to concentrate on this period?
Well the entire Victorian era is interesting because for my generation it’s ‘the day before yesterday’ so to speak. It’s history that you can almost touch. Our grandparents grew up in that period – my grandfather was born in the year of Britannia’s Wolf – and you heard a lot from them about that time. My grandmother could recall seeing Queen Victoria, and my grandmother-in-law saw Paul Kruger, who as a boy had been on the Great Trek in 1835. So much in that period was similar to what we still have and you feel you could live easily in it, and then you hit some aspects – especially those associated with social conventions and attitudes – that make it seem wholly alien. It was a time of change on every front – intellectual, scientific, medical, social, political and technological – and yet people seem to have accommodated to this change very well. Thomas Hardy, slightly older than Dawlish, was inspired by the rural life he saw as a boy which was almost medieval, yet he lived to 1928 and was friends with Lawrence of Arabia. Frank Bourne, the Colour Sergeant at Rorke’s Drift (who was only 25 at the time) re-enlisted during WW1 and died as a Lieutenant Colonel in the year of my birth, 1945. H. G. Wells, a quintessential late-Victorian, despaired about the Atom Bomb before he died in 1946. Bernard Shaw had done much of his best work in Victoria’s reign but was active up to his own death in 1950.
And there’s also a horrible fascination that a period which saw so many improvements which ensured better lives for so many people, and which was imbued with such optimism, yet they never realised that the Armageddon of 1914 was just around the corner. So many lives were to be cut short, so much hope and private happiness to be destroyed, so much turmoil and suffering. Yet nobody foresaw it.
Q. What made you decide to concentrate on the ‘Age of Steam’ when the ‘Age of Sail’ dominates modern naval fiction?
A: On the naval front, as in so many other areas, there was rapid change. The Royal Navy that went to war with Russia in 1854 was essentially Nelson’s sailing navy, with weak steam-engines tacked on for auxiliary power. But within three decades sail had almost completely yielded to steam, electricity was appearing on board, wood and iron were being replaced by steel, armour was not just essential but growing in thickness, ever heavier guns were being carried in barbettes and turrets, the quick-firer and the machine-gun were becoming mature and mines and the torpedo had emerged as major threats. And jump forward another thirty years you’re into WW1, with Dreadnoughts, battle-cruisers, submarines, wireless, the first aircraft carriers, Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. And individual officers – Fisher, Admiral Jackie Fisher, being the most notable – hadn’t just lived through this entire period but had managed the changes.
And all this was against a background of the growth of the British and German Empires, the blundering progress of Russia, the decline of Austro-Hungary, French colonial adventures in Africa, Madagascar and Indo-China, the emergence of Japan as a major industrial, military and naval power, the United States developing, almost unnoticed, into an industrial and economic titan. There was little direct confrontation between these powers, but their rivalries were often played out by proxies, just as the Communist and Western blocks did during the Cold War. And that’s the world Dawlish makes his career in.
Q: Were there any other authors who were an inspiration to you?
A: I guess that like many enthusiasts of naval and military fiction it started with C. S. Forester. My father introduced me to Hornblower when I was 11 – I started in mid-career with Flying Colours – and I was hooked immediately. But he also recommended what’s perhaps Forester’s best book, The Ship, about one day in the life of an Arethusa-Class light cruiser in the Mediterranean in 1941. The last page is one of the most inspirational I’ve ever read and it has stayed with me through life. But Forester didn’t just write about Hornblower – novels like The Gun and Death to the French prefigure Bernard Cornwell and Sharpe, and the spectrum of his other fiction ranges from one of Columbus’s voyages to the Second World War. He set the gold standard for such writing. Bernard Cornwell has also provided me – and my daughters – with vast pleasure also and spurred us as a family to read up a lot on the Napoleonic period. I derived similar delight from Douglas Reeman and his alter ego Alexander Kent, not just the WW2 novels but the Bolitho cycle. And I also enjoyed the wonderfully original Otto Prohaska novels by John Biggins about the Austro-Hungarian Navy in WW1.
Q: From your account of Dawlish’s actions in Britannia’s Wolf it is obvious that you have a detailed knowledge of the technology of the day. What aspects of your background gave you this insight?
A: My university degrees were in Engineering Science and I worked for 36 years in the international Oil and Gas business, the first half in project management and in technology development, the second half at senior executive levels that involved managing large enterprises and integration of a wide range of technical, economic, legal, political and ‘soft‘ disciplines. So I’ve come to know that technology alone isn’t what matters, but how it’s integrated into a larger system, and how technological innovations only make a major impact when their social, political and economic implications have been recognised and managed. The Royal Navy in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods is a good example of this and Britain was lucky enough to have leaders who were prepared to back innovation, judiciously, not uncritically. Given my background I’ve found it easy to understand – and enjoy – the complexities of nineteenth-century technologies and I continue to be astonished by the sophistication of their solutions.
Q: Britannia’s Wolf draws on your knowledge of Turkish society and the political machinations of the late Ottoman Empire – how did this come about?
A: I was lucky enough to work and live in Turkey in the mid-1990s and to get to know and respect the Turks as a people. I was fascinated by the cultural and political transformation masterminded and led by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s and 30s. He was one of the great leaders of the 20th century – up there with Churchill and Roosevelt – and indeed his portrait hangs in my library today as a reminder that anything is possible. He created modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and it was the only defeated nation of WW1 which was to establish such a stable and successful society in its aftermath. Turks are rightly proud of what they achieved and I proceeded to read all I could on the subject. In the process I was also fascinated to learn that Ataturk followed a line of previously unsuccessful reformers which stretched back to the 1820s. A particularly interesting period was the 1870s, when the Ottoman Empire briefly had a democratic constitution – and that’s also the time featured in Britannia’s Wolf. My being on the ground in Turkey allowed visits to sites of historical interest, both ancient and modern, and one particularly interesting one was the Naval Museum in Istanbul. I guess that this familiarity with the country, and my own affection for the Turks, shows up in my writing.
Q: Were there any aspects of your obviously meticulous research that presented problems?
A: With modern communications so easy it’s hard to get your head around the idea that once a ship sailed off over the horizon before the invention of radio it became a world on its own. The captain had nobody to turn to for advice, no way of knowing whether his decisions in unexpected situations would be backed by his superiors, no way of calling on assistance in times of crisis. And it’s conveying this sense of the loneliness of command that’s a challenge. Decisions by military and naval commanders in our own time have been equally hard, equally demanding – and they still carry ultimate responsibility – but at least there’s often an opportunity for consultation and for calling for support. It’s equally difficult to imagine how blind military and naval forces were before the invention of the aeroplane. When visiting the Gettysburg battlefield I was struck by how two enormous armies has essentially blundered into each other without realising they were there. It wasn’t until August 1914, when RFC aircraft detected the movements of the German offensive’s right wing swinging through Belgium, that this long era of semi-blindness ended. So for my own research, thinking myself back into this period of limited communications and absence of air reconnaissance has been perhaps the greatest challenge.
Q: Did you gain knowledge of all the places featured in the Dawlish Chronicles through travel as well as research?
A: I’ve already mentioned Turkey and the next Dawlish book is also set in a part of the world I know well. I’m widely travelled – and more importantly I’ve lived long-term, in many countries and, quite coincidentally, Dawlish also seems to have had assignments in many of them! I’ve always been a history buff and I’ve always read up extensively on where I’ve been. It’s quite remarkable the extent to which the European Great Powers, and not just Britain only, were involved in remote corners of the world in the Victorian era. Did you know, for example, that in the 1880s a Cossack adventurer called Ashinov tried to establish a colony called New Moscow in modern-day Djibouti and was in due course evicted by the French? Or that Nietzsche’s sister tried to set up a German colony in Paraguay in the same period? Or that a small German naval force was engaged in a short but vicious battle with shore-batteries at the entrance to Lake Maracaibo, in Venezuela, in 1903? Following up these leads is often just as rewarding as reading about major events.
Q: How do you see yourself as qualified to write on aspects of warfare and strife as described so vividly in Britannia’s Wolf?
A: Naval and military novels inevitably involve suffering and death and it’s important not to trivialise it. I tend to be very critical of books – and even more so of movies – that sanitise misery. I spent a major portion of my adult life in Africa and saw more violence, both casual and deliberate, more death and more suffering there than I want to remember. Elsewhere I saw cruelty and callousness on a scale that shames humanity. In Britannia’s Wolf I’ve tried not to shy away from the horrors inflicted on civilan populations but one has to be careful. On the one hand there’s writing that blandly draws a veil over such pain and on the other there’s a danger of indulging in an orgy of violence. Finding the mean between these extremes is critical and I hope I do that.
Q: Can we look forward to any further Dawlish adventures in other reaches of the British Empire during its heyday?
A: You’ll notice that in Britannia’s Wolf Dawlish already has important links to that shadowy figure, Admiral Sir Richard Topcliffe, who has recognised his ambition and has exploited it without conscience. Topcliffe was instrumental in sending Dawlish to Turkey and I’ve little doubt he’s got further assignments in mind for him – and none are likely to be easy. I’m also well informed on how Topcliffe first selected Dawlish – but that will feature in a later book!