Author of the Sturmtaucher Trilogy

Tag: Writing influences

Workshop tales

Or, The Cabinetmaker

From an early age, I watched my dad tinker with woodworking, and would always visit my grandpa’s workshop in Rose Street Foundry when we were on holiday in Inverness, where he was a pattern-maker, crafting full size templates in wood that would be used to cast the iron for anything from large engines or pumps to the chairs that hold rails onto railway sleepers. It instilled a fascination for carpentry in my young mind that has never left me.

Rose Street Foundry, Inverness

On the other side of my family, my inspirational Granny Stephen was an unlikely collector of antiques, despite living in a high rise flat in the notorious Red Road estate in Glasgow. It gave me an appreciation for well made furniture.

Original GKN Nettlefold box of screws, c 1960, inherited from my dad

It wasn’t until I got married, and we moved into our first home, that I had the chance to start making and restoring our own furniture. I made a simple bed, and a coffee table, but they were cruder than I would have liked, with some questionable construction elements (the table had about a hundred screws holding it together, which could only be seen from underneath, fortunately.) On the positive side, I used reclaimed wood whenever I could, whether it was from a local skip, or donated as part of a piece of unwanted furniture.

We lived in a small village in south-west Wales and, once a month, there was a sale of furniture and bric-a-brac in the village hall, mostly from house-clearances of larger houses whose occupants had down sized, and I purchase a wardrobe and a dressing table for four pounds, only to discover that it had been sent to the sale by our next-door neighbour. All that lugging about hadn’t really been necessary, but it made a nice Welsh dresser once it had been converted.

Welsh dresser, 1985

Since then, I’ve gradually tackled more difficult projects, helped by the fact that in 1990, when I started up my veterinary practice, I had a spare shed next door to the surgery which I turned into a proper workshop, installing a second-hand crosscut saw, and making long benches which I still use today.

When I started writing, my love of woodworking and playing football became the backdrop to my first crime novel, The Cabinetmaker. I’d have loved to have been the master craftsman he was!

The Cabinetmaker
A little nod to our Street Cabinetmaking at Bloody Scotland!

I retired last year when I was 60, and in doing so, I lost my workshop beside the surgery. Since then, I’ve been searching for a building to use as a workroom but could find nothing close to suitable. A chance conversation with a friend of mine led to me renting a barn he had surplus to requirements and, after the final edits of The Turn of the Tide had been completed, and I waited for the proofs to come back from the printers, I threw myself into converting the empty shell into a suitable workshop. I was to have half the barn downstairs, but I could see that it was probably enough for my requirements and, anyway, I’d spotted a solution to the additional storage I’d need for all my reclaimed wood and salvaged pieces of furniture.

There was a large roof space, and it was ideal as a wood storage loft, but the rafters were unsupported, and would not have taken the weight. Steel beams and pillars were ordered to support a floor, and erected with some difficulty, with the help of a local agricultural contractor and his tele-handler.

In the year since I’d retired, I’d been spending 12-14 hours a day sitting at my desk, writing, editing, making video trailers and designing covers, and this sedentary lifestyle had led to me being the heaviest I’d ever been, so it was good to be doing some physical labour, lifting and laying forty plywood sheets for the loft floor, and dwanging all the beams (a Scottish term for infilling the beams to support the joints in the flooring). Climbing up and down ladders all day was a great workout, and I lost around a stone, and felt the better for it.

Beams, flooring and dwangs

There were no lights, and only two sockets at the supply board, so I rewired the whole barn, upstairs and down. An electrician checked the final connections, just to be safe, and we were up and running with light and power.

It was cold, working in the barn over the winter, but Lia, one of my beta-readers, took pity on me and crocheted a wonderful pair of fingerless gloves, with a hat to match. Despite protesting that they were far to good to use in the workshop, she insisted. They do make quite a difference!

Essential PPE

I installed the benches and the crosscut saw from my old workshop, and a swathe of racking I’d picked up at a reasonable price on Gumtree. I’d hoped to pick up a staircase somewhere as well, but with nothing coming up, I set about making one. Never having tackled it before, it took me a while to get my head around the angles but, with a home-made router jig, I cut out the rebates on the stringers and cut the steps to suit. With a bit of trepidation, I hoisted it up into position. Amazingly, with only a few minor tweaks, it fitted, with one small compromise.  Due to the size of the ‘hatch’ in the loft floor, you have to duck to get up the stairs. Still, it is far better than the ladder I was using before!

The Staircase. Remember to duck!

I salvaged some old steel beams and cut them to make a frame for a half ton hoist, my friend and fellow lifeboat crew-member, Luciana, a trainee welder in a shipyard, welded it for me. With its own hatch, it allows me to lift heavy items, including furniture, up to the loft.

With all the excellent storage facilities, I’ve been able, for the first time, to have my workshop organised the way I want it, with all the tools in racks for better access, and everything easy to find and get to, it will be much easier to work in.

A number of years ago, I’d rescued an old table saw from being thrown away – its motor didn’t work, but a few months ago, I managed to find a suitable replacement. With new electrics fitted, it is now up and running, as is the wonderfully named Dominion Elliot Minor, a vintage combination woodworking machine, with planer, thicknesser, morticer and tenoner that I found on Gumtree. I had one or two issues setting it up but it has now been restored to its former operational glory.

The ‘Dominion Elliot Minor’, with table saw behind

With the new machinery, it will be much easier to do the projects which have been on hold for the last five years. This includes a new kitchen for the house, which her indoors has been desperate for, and a conversion of my van into a modular camper van. She has been very patient, bless her. I now have no excuses. 😊

So that’s it. Here’s a gallery of some of my furniture I’ve made, restored and converted over the last forty years.

Bedside Cabinet, Spalted beech
Dining stool, whisky barrel oak & distressed steel
Bookcase (Sacred heart School) and shop drawer chest (old hardware store)

Snooker table, my first attempt at French polishing
Coffee table, reclaimed oak
Wardrobes, beech, with spalted handles

I like to think it is done to a reasonable standard, but when I was asked on my retirement if I was going to take up cabinetmaking as a new career, I had a quiet laugh to myself. I take far too long to make things – any realistic charging for my furniture would be impossible. I admire cabinetmakers who do it for a living – they must work significantly faster than I do!

I have too many interests, I know, and it’s sometimes hard to fit it all in, but each has its own wonderful qualities, and planning a piece of wood, watching the paper thin shavings curl from my grandfather’s old jack plane is still up there with the rest.

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BOOK INFLUENCES: THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS and the remarkable story of ERSKINE CHILDERS

After penning three crime novels, the last of which was incredibly well received, I should have continued writing in the crime genre, one per year perhaps, to capitalise on my growing readership.

But I’m a keen sailor, piloting my 45-year-old yacht around the west coast of Scotland and the Irish Sea and, because writing what you know about always seems a good place to start, I felt compelled to publish a book where sailing played a prominent role. I did consider a murder investigation connected with sailing and the sea, and one day I might come back to that concept, but a germ of an idea had wormed its way into my head, and I couldn’t shake it loose.

I’d read Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands as a teenager, and in a way, it was his description of the very ethereal sailing among the tidal mudflats and low islands of the North Sea coasts of Europe in the creeping disquiet just prior to the First World War that intrigued me, but I’d also read numerous books about the Second World War, including many harrowing stories about the Holocaust, both fact and fiction, and a jumble of ideas swirled around in my head, eventually congealing into the narrative that became the Sturmtaucher Trilogy.

And like Erskine Childers, I used the Frisian Islands in my story, and the islands and sheltered seas of the West coast of Denmark. In homage to Erskine Childers, perhaps, I chose to use a traditional wooden gaff-rigged ketch as the iconic vessel, Der Sturmtaucher (The Shearwater in English), the type of vessel that would have been numerous when he wrote The Riddle of the Sands, and similar to Asgard, the last yacht he owned. They were both , Colin Archer ketches, designed as rescue boats for the fishing fleets of Norway.

But there’s more to it than that. Robert Erskine Childers was a remarkable man, and his story has far greater depth to it than just his writing.

Childers was born in London, in 1870, to a well to do family, but his father died when he was six years old from Tuberculosis, and his mother passed away six years later. He was sent to his mother’s family on their estate in County Wicklow, Ireland, and along with his four siblings, was treated kindly and grew up loving the countryside of Ireland, as part of the privileged protestant ruling class. He was admitted to Cambridge university on finishing school, and edited the Cambridge Review. Although his cousin, Hugh Childers, worked tirelessly for Irish home rule as a member of the British cabinet, at this point Childers argued vehemently against it in the college debating society.

On leaving university, he became a parliamentary official, with the intention of one day following his cousin into the house as a member of parliament. A sciatic injury sustained as a teenager precluded him from most sports, so he took up sailing, and bought a little yacht, Shulah, which he sailed alone in and around the Thames Estuary, but he sold her, and over the next years, the yachts he owned and sailed grew a little larger and more capable, until he purchased Vixen, a 30-foot cutter in 1897 and sailed her across the North sea to the Frisian Islands, in Holland and Northern Germany, which he repeated over the following few years. It was these voyages that became the inspiration for The Riddle of the Sands.

His sailing was interrupted in 1898 when he joined up to fight in the Boer War, where he was involved in a few significant engagements, but was evacuated from the front line with severe trench foot, and spent a few weeks in hospital in the company of a group of soldiers from Cork, who had enthusiastically signed up to fight with the British, and who were firmly against the growing calls for home rule.

He began writing The Riddle of The Sands in 1901, and it was published in 1903, almost immediately becoming a best-seller. It was largely based on his sailing experiences around the Frisian Islands and predicted the war with Germany and urged that Britain should prepare. It was an influential book – Churchill later claimed that it was a major factor in the British Navy expanding its naval bases in Scotland, at Scapa Flow, Invergordon, and Rosyth.

On a trip to America after the book’s publication, he met American heiress, Molly Osgood, a well read woman with Republican leanings. When they married in 1904, the bride’s father had a 28-yacht, Asgard, built as a wedding present for the couple, and again they cruised to the Frisian Islands. Gradually, Molly’s influence wore down his belief in Britain’s imperial policies, especially in Ireland and South Africa.

Childers was critical of British tactics in the Boer war in a volume of The Times History of the War in South Africa, and he was also scathing about the outdated strategy of the British Army, with the threat of war with Germany looming. It brought him unfavourable attention from the British military establishment. In retrospect, his criticisms were insightful and General Haig’s rejection of them ultimately added to the carnage of WW1.

By 1910, the Erskines had three children, although Henry, their second son, died before his first birthday. By then, his political stance with regard to Ireland had almost completely reversed, and he became a staunch advocate for Irish home rule, writing a book setting out its framework in 1911. The growing power of Ulster Unionism and its unwillingness to even consider home rule for the much wealthier and industrialised northern counties of Ireland made this an almost impossible ambition, and Childers became increasingly frustrated, especially when the Liberal Party, which he’d joined because of its support for Irish home rule, began to backtrack, with talk of excluding some or all of Ulster from their plans.

In response to the Ulster Unionists arming themselves with rifles, Childers’ support for Irish Home Rule dramatically deepened, and he used Asgard, his last and most famous yacht, to smuggle guns to nationalist fighters in Ireland. The vessel is now exhibited at The National Museum of Ireland.

Asgard

A bill passed to enable home rule in 1914 was shelved for the duration of the 194-18 war and, despite his support for Irish Nationalism, he volunteered and fought for Britain during the war, earing a Distinguished Flying Cross. A violent crushing of the Irish Easter Rebellion in 1916 hardened Childers attitude to the British Government and, on being demobbed in 1919, convalescing from a severe attack of influenza, he met with the Sinn Féin leadership in Dublin. In 1921 he was elected as a Sinn Féin member to the Irish Dáil, but lost his seat in the 1922 General Election.

When negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty returned a watered down home rule, Ireland was plunged into a civil war, intensified when Michael Collins, the Sinn Féin leader, was assassinated. Childers held various posts with in the Irish Republican movement but was never fully trusted, and was eventually marginalised. He disagreed vehemently with the Treaty’s insistence that the new Irish parliament should pledge allegience to the British King.

During the Irish civil war, he was arrested by the new Irish State he’d campaigned tirelessly for and tried for possession of a firearm, ironically gifted to him by Michael Collins, in contravention of the emergency powers resolution. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. An appeal launched by his lawyer was not heard by the time he was executed by firing squad, at Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin. Before his execution, he shook the hands of the men who would shoot him and, in his last meeting with his 16-year-old eldest son, Childers he told him find and make peace with every man who had signed his death warrant.

His final words were to the firing squad, when he told them it would make it easier if they took a step closer.

Plaque on Howth harbour wall, near Dublin, in memory of Erskine Childers and Asgard

Erskine Hamilton Childers, Childers’ son, went on to become the fourth president of Ireland.

And the mud flats, the sandbanks, the creeks and the marshes of Denmark and Northern Germany found their way into the Sturmtaucher Trilogy.

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