Emperor Smith – the man who built Scilly
When Augustus Smith became Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly in 1834, the islands were approaching the final stages of anarchy, dereliction and famine. Smith was a man with advanced social theories. He saw in Scilly the ideal laboratory for testing these theories.
His wise but arbitrary rule soon learned him the nickname of Emperor – loved by some, hated by others, respected by all. During his reign he tirelessly championed the weak against the strong. He rebuilt farms, quays and houses, and introduced an educational system forty years in advance of the one prevailing on the mainland. And he founded and laid out Tresco Abbey Gardens, still one of the wonders of the world, though no longer (as in Augustus’ day) populated by forty ostriches.
So who was Augustus Smith, and why did he never marry, and what possessed this sprig of a Home Counties banking family to attach his fortunes to wild, lovely Scilly? This book uses material from hitherto unseen and inaccessible archives to paint an extraordinary picture of the public, private and secret life of an extraordinary and colourful man.
The Worst Journey in the Midlands
illustrations by Chris Aggs
I wrote this book after living out of England for six years. When I returned, I found that the travel book had taken over from the novel. In place of characters, chance encounters along the route. In place of plot, itinerary. In place of protagonist, narrator. Eager to keep up with the trend, and even more eager to satirise it, I filled up the holes in an ancient open boat, and rowed it from the source of the Severn to the Houses of Parliament. This occupied the wettest October since records began. The book has been described as ‘a little masterpiece of gloom.’ I cannot argue with this.
The Bounder’s Companion; a manual of Good Advice, by Harry Chance
I met Harry Chance in a casino in Aruba some thirty years ago. Even then he was a strange figure, toothbrush-moustached, Panama-hatted, out of his time. But after he had taught me how to play Persian Monarchs (cut a deck of cards; highest card wins) I found myself greatly in his debt. In exchange for his letting me off this financial obligation, I agreed to ghost-write his laws for easy living. I am often asked if the book was a success. Well, the librarian of the House of Lords tells me that of the four copies of the original edition bought for the House, three were immediately stolen. You may draw your own conclusions.
By the way, I found out the other day that Gavin Chance, the protagonist of my thriller Black Fish, is some sort of nephew of Harry’s. Which just goes to show that unreliable narration runs in families.
Small Parts in History
Great events often have small causes. Think of Kermit Tyler, on radar watch at Pearl Harbour, who in 1942 dismissed a huge flock of approaching echoes as a flight of geese, only to find out the hard way that it was in fact the Japanese Air Force. Think of the ancient peasant woman whose cakes Alfred the Great burned while he schemed the invention of the British Navy. Think of William Webb Ellis, first man to pick up a football and run with it. Without these nonentities, history would have been very different. There are seventy-seven of them in this book, all obscure, all crucial.
Yacky dar moy Bewty! A phrasebook to the regions of Britain (with Irish supplement)
The English-speaking traveller in non-English-speaking countries is well provided with phrasebooks. In England, things are different. Stray thirty miles from home or arrivals lounge, and you will find yourself in a country whose language is totally unfamiliar. Baffled and stammering, you will find yourself in danger of misunderstanding, impatience, and xenophobic violence. This book provides a handy guide to the languages of Britain’s regions, and will spare the reader a load of embarrassment – pointing out, for instance, that a pony is a small horse in the country, £25 at Newmarket Races, and something really disgusting in Southeast London. No home should be without one.