Thursday, 11 March 2010

Passion and coincidence

In her comment on my previous posting, Sandie suggested that she ‘sensed a passion’ in the way I was writing about this project and I realise that she’s right. But I’m not sure whether it’s a writer’s passion for the specific work or a passion constructed of something else. Whatever it is, it was generated while I was writing The Figurehead.

First, as a background, there are the personal connections with shipping and shipbuilding. I was born and brought up in Plymouth but I’ve spent most of my life in Aberdeen, both major UK ports. My maternal and paternal grandfathers were both shipwrights and many of the men in my extended family were/are seamen.

But it’s more specific than that. As I was researching the book, I had lots of help from the people at the terrific Aberdeen Maritime Museum. At one point I remember the ship at the centre of the novel being completed and then wondering how the hell they hoisted the huge masts onto it at a time when there weren’t the giant cranes we have nowadays. So I just asked and, after expressing initial ignorance herself, the librarian looked out a couple of books and there was the answer.

I was also given access to the original documentation relating to shipbuilding and ship-owning around the 1840s and that’s where I came across the first coincidence. One of the great ship-owning dynasties through all those years was the Duthie family and I saw letters from them to shipwrights, etc. The librarian then told me they were still in contact with the remaining member of the family, a woman, and that her sister had died a few years before. A little bell rang in my head. I asked if the sister who’d died was called Enid. She was. Bingo. Enid L. Duthie was my PhD supervisor. I knew she’d originally come from Scotland but I had no idea she was a member of this particular family. So that was the first spooky link that emerged.

Next came The Scottish Maid (that’s my model of her in the picture). She was a two-masted topsail schooner and she’s famous for being the first sailing ship to be built with the ‘Aberdeen Bow’, which is the design used for all the famous clipper ships later in the century. She’s an important development in shipbuilding and she was designed and built by the Hall brothers in Aberdeen and launched exactly one hundred years to the day before I was born. So I share a birthday with her.

But I was aware of those coincidences when I was writing The Figurehead, so why talk about them now? Well, I have no idea where the notion of using a troupe of actors came from, but …

… the PhD thesis I mentioned, the one supervised by Dr Duthie (with great patience, sensitivity and scholarship), was on the theatre of Victor Hugo. His major plays were nearly all written between 1829 and 1843, which is exactly the period in which these novels are set. So there’s another personal link for me and I can draw on what I remember of the thesis for local colour. (And anyway how can you resist plays in which the hero tells the heroine ‘being away from you is like having darkness in my eyes, an empty heart. It’s like dying a little more each day, locked in the blackest cell, lost in a night without stars. It’s not living, not thinking, not knowing anything.’? And she's equally intense, telling him ‘If I had to choose between you and Paradise, I’d choose you’.)

But the final thing which makes Sandie’s choice of the word ‘passion’ so apt is a video I watched last week. I wanted a quick reminder of the whole theatrical moment of those times, so I watched (again) the wonderful Marcel Carné film Les Enfants du Paradis. It’s a brilliant recreation of the real personalities, energies, passions, extremes and moral context of the world of popular theatre in 1840s Paris and, despite a sad ending, it’s an entirely life-affirming experience.

So now, after all that, no excuses. Let writing commence.


  1. Go to it, young man. Let the stars light your way. May your heart be filled and passion push your pen. (Izzat Hugo-esque enough for ya?)

  2. Michael, with your words to guide me, no power on earth or in the heavens can withstand the creative fire that will lift me to the Matterhorn peak of transcendence and scream my burning defiance at the ... (och, I cannae be airsed).

  3. The whole concept keeps getting better, Bill. And with such coincidences steering your way, it's a book which surely must be written. Your captive audience awaits...

  4. Hmmm, Rosemary. I don't suppose a haiku or a sonnet would do instead.

  5. I found some shipwrights in my own family in my father's home state of Maryland, which may be why I've always been fascinated with ships of any kind. And why I'm anxious to read The Figurehead and its sequel. Coincidentally, my blog post of the week is about cruise ships and how they've evolved since 1818.


  6. I'll rush over to your blog now, Jean. I usually do anyway and this time it's another good excuse to do some more 'research' and put off that first page. (Although I've had a couple of ideas about the opening and another theme which seem quite exciting.)

  7. Sounds like it's really coming together, Bill. Now, get to it! There's where the joy is.

  8. I will, Marley. I promise. Just two more (very specific) bits of research I need to do and I'll be able to put the pieces together (using the software you told me about) and, now that I know what it's going to be, I'm looking forward to writing the opening scene.