Heroes - the writer's rationale

Growing up on the wrong side of the class divide in Britain's biggest and most venerable naval port and dockyard just after World War II - son of a former deckhand, nephew of one decorated Arctic convoy hero and one conscientious objector - it's probably not surprising that naval history became my passion. But the history books, and then Hornblower and his ilk, showed me a far different picture from the one painted by Uncle Ron (the thrice-torpedoed hero), and Uncle Les, who wouldn't fight at all.

Firstly, attitudes. Ron insisted that Les was the braver man by far - and, at home on leave, would fight anyone who dared say otherwise! My father built Spitfires, and in his "spare time" - ye gods! - delivered supplies to Navy vessels with the Fleet Auxiliary and doused bombed buildings in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Ron was a stoker (third class), my father merely a "civilian," and Les a "dirty conchie." One way and another, they did not rate very highly in the scheme of things. They all, sadly and I'm sure unfairly, held officers - with almost no exceptions - in deep contempt.

As my reading grew, it seemed to me the truth was deeply complex. Some officers in real life were contemptible, certainly, but many were brave, compassionate, extraordinary. Some men were decorated, some struggled to the top - but most were quite invisible, they were a mass, undifferentiated. And as the body of historic navy fiction grew - in the last few years a veritable bandwagon - the myth became destructive. The officers became like gods, the men were "extras", stage Irishmen, fodder. They spoke in funny accents; they had silly names. As human beings, in short, they did not exist.

But they did. In the eighteenth century, the British Navy carved out with blood and violence a huge portion of the known and unknown world. The losses were enormous - but not from warfare, mainly. Firstly came disease, then accident, the peril of the sea. The chief medical supply on Navy ships was rupture-trusses, but limbs were broken, heads were smashed, and there was no way back from overboard. The men were held as prisoners, and kept under control by violence and murderous quantities of alcoholic liquor.

Yet they were heroes (some of them), both officers and men. What I felt, and feel, the need to do is display them as the sort of people that they must have been. The women too. My sad and feisty heroine Deb Tomelty, for example, who ran away from the Stockport hatting trade on a wing and a praver. My God, look where it got her! Like young Miss Emma Hart - although without, I guess, the luck to be another Lady Hamilton - she set out into an unknown world, to an unguessable future, because she felt she had no viable alternative.

By today's standards, that is extraordinary - because she could not have had an end in sight - and it is true for my other characters as well. Having set them off, some in hope, some in the face of hard necessity, I find I have to follow them, to see where they will lead. And I remember Ron and Les, and my father Jim.

They are forgotten now, or more accurately were never known beyond their friends and families. But they were surely heroes, too?

Jan Needle