CHRIS DURBIN QUESTIONNAIRE
Old Salt Press, that inestimable publisher of fine maritime fiction and non-fiction, recently advertised that Chris Durbin, author of the stirring Carlisle and Holbrooke series, had joined its ranks.
Certainly, eager readers would like to know more about this fine acquisition, and so I asked Chris if he would consent to be interviewed for my blog, and he graciously agreed.
So here goes.
Chris, not only are you a true-blue Britisher, raised in South Wales, and retiring on the south coast of England, but you were apparently wedded to the sea since childhood. This included not just crewing the Porthcawl lifeboat, but a week on a topsail schooner. Could you tell us about one of your most memorable experiences as a young lad at sea?
Well, not quite a young lad, but during my naval training I saw a mermaid! Now, I know as well as anyone else that mermaids are just a myth, probably invented by Walt Disney. Or are they? You be the judge.
As a young sub-lieutenant, I was sent for a few months experience to a British merchant ship based at Bahrain that maintained navigation aids – lighthouses and buoys – in the Persian Gulf. I was to be a bridge watchkeeper and handle the boats and because of my youth I was known as Chota Sahib (little boss) by the Indian crew. She was an old ship with a steam reciprocating engine that could send her racing around the Gulf at… oh, a good eight knots with a tailwind. However, most of the time was spent on overnight passages from one place to another at a much more sedate four knots or less. On the night in question I had the middle watch, on passage between Halul Island and Jebel Dhanna. I was alone on the bridge wing peacefully watching the stars and the milky way which in those pre-light pollution days made a spectacular display in the night sky. Then, suddenly, I had the curious sensation of being observed.
I looked down to the brilliant phosphorescence around the bows and there was what I can only describe as a mermaid! She (I say she for convention’s sake, but I can’t be sure) was riding the bow wave and looking over her shoulder up at me. I held her gaze for perhaps two seconds until, with a flick of her tail, she dived under the bow and I saw her no more. I’ve often thought about what I saw. Was it a dugong, often the source of mermaid misidentifications? But it seemed to me to have a distinct neck, which the dugong lacks. Was it a swordfish encumbered with discarded nets? I saw just such a thing a few weeks later, and no, that wasn’t it. To this day, all I can see is a mermaid, just like the popular illustrations: a human head and body, long hair and a fish tail. And no, I hadn’t been drinking.
So, I know there’s no such thing as mermaids, and it must have been something else, surely…
Twenty-four years in the Royal Navy involved aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and minesweepers. Which of these was your favourite ship? Do you have an anecdote?
I enjoyed all my ships, but my favourite was the mighty HMS Exeter, a type 42 Sheffield class guided missile destroyer, and my most fulfilling operational deployment was to the Persian Gulf at the height of the so-called tanker war in 1988. It was my third spell in the Gulf, but by now I was the ship’s operations officer, and to a large extent the buck stopped with me. Much of what we did still can’t be told in detail, so I have no single anecdote, but let me describe to you the operational environment in the Persian Gulf in 1988.
Our principal task was to escort British-flagged tankers between the Straits of Hormuz and the northern Gulf. We had to counter missile threats from shore-based batteries, ships and aircraft, as well as small, heavily armed speedboats. And there was always the potential threat of submarines. There were minefields, as USS Samuel B. Roberts discovered to her cost (incidentally, I’ve always been in awe of the way that the American sailors saved their ship from sinking; it was a valiant and ultimately successful effort, the fruit of outstanding training and determination-to-win) and there were ships and aircraft from a dozen nations, some friendly, some neutral and some decidedly unfriendly.
This made for a complicated tactical picture that we had to keep our fingers on, every minute of the day and night. From the moment we entered the Gulf we and our convoy were under threat, and not only that, we were acutely conscious of the dangers of accidentally engaging a friendly or civilian unit. The operations room was a constant hive of activity as reports came in from radar, sonar, electronic surveillance systems, data links, radio messages, visual sightings, our own Lynx helicopter and a score of other sources. There was no let-up until we passed back through the Straits of Hormuz and into the relative peace of the Gulf of Oman. I learned about mental pressure from that deployment, and to this day whenever anyone talks about stress in their job, I say nothing, but remember the Gulf tanker war.
Minesweepers! Did you get seasick? Have you ever been seasick? And, if so, do you have a pet remedy?
As a youngster I twice sailed to Scandinavia in the wooden minesweeper HMS Upton and yes, I was horribly seasick in the North Sea gales; it was no place for delicate stomachs. Luckily, I grew out of it before I joined the navy. However, I do remember that there are two phases to the mal de mer: in the first phase you’re afraid you’re going to die, and in the second you’re afraid you’re not going to die!
And of course, there’s only one cure: climb a tree.
Retiring from the navy, I see that you joined a large American company to work in the aerospace, defence, and security industry. This must have involved some culture shock. What adjustments did you have to make?
There’s one huge adjustment that anyone leaving the armed forces must make before becoming effective in a commercial company, and that is to understand that their job – whatever their position in the organisation – is to make money for the company. That may sound simple and indeed obvious, but if you’ve spent a quarter of a century diligently spending other people’s money, it often takes time to truly understand that new philosophy. I was fortunate in being given the time to make the transition.
Now I would like you to tell us more about your maritime series. Why did you choose the names Carlisle and Holbrooke? Are they based on real people, either in fiction or the real world? How did their characters develop?
I’m glad you asked that! My two principal characters are Edward Carlisle from Williamsburg, Virginia and George Holbrooke from Wickham in Hampshire. I chose the name Carlisle by searching the records of the prominent colonial Virginian families, steering clear of the very well-known ones. Holbrooke was an accident. I was with my wife (the editor of my books) on our way to the school in Portsmouth where she was a teacher, and, stuck in traffic, I noticed a street sign: Holbrook Road. That sounded about right, so I added an ‘e’ and happily appropriated the name. I thought no more of it until a year later when I happened to stumble across the story of the person who gave his name to the street. Norman Holbrook was a first World War submarine commander who was awarded the Victoria Cross for traversing a minefield to sink an Ottoman ironclad at Gallipoli. Entirely accidentally, I had chosen a good name.
Neither of their characters are based on individuals that I have known, but rather they are an amalgam of all the people that I served with in the Royal Navy and during my two happy years with the United States Navy and equally happy year with the British Army. One thing that I’ve learned in researching and writing my novels is that the technology may have changed since the eighteenth century, but the people haven’t. My memory is a rich hunting ground for the development of my characters.
In view of the fact that you are a fan of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books, and also Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, I find it curious that you have chosen an earlier era for your setting. Mind you, it is a favourite era of mine, the time of Anson and “Foul Weather” Jack Byron, but could you confide your reason for this?
Certainly. First, I wanted to differentiate my novels from those great authors that you have mentioned. Make no mistake, I respect their legacies and am inspired by their examples: I joined the navy because of the Hornblower novels, and my pet tortoise is named Aubrey! There’s plenty of scope in the French Revolutionary war and the Napoleonic wars to feed a thousand more stories, but I was determined to offer my readers something a bit different.
The second reason is that I have always been interested in the Seven Years’ War (The French and Indian Wars) and the American War (as the revolutionary war was known to the British navy.) It was a period of change and rapidly increasing professionalism, where commissioned officers could no longer leave the technicalities of their trade to the warrant officers. The navy that stood victoriously astride the trade routes of the world in 1763 was vastly different to the one that stumbled ineffectively through the first years of the war in 1755 and 1756. And then, a scant decade or so later, how did it fall so far as to lose the American colonies? It’s a fascinating period for naval historians and offers a huge range of incidents that have hardly been touched on by novelists.
And readers and struggling wannabe writers always want to know about your daily routine.
Oh, I do wish I had one. The theory is that I start writing at eight-thirty and continue through to three o’clock in the afternoon. The reality is that I have five grandchildren living within half an hour of my home and an unreasonable desire to go sailing or fishing or walking on the South Downs. Go figure!
Thank you, Chris. I know my readers will find your replies as fascinating as I do.