By Seth Hunter
‘The prisoner stood at the end of the jetty, between two redcoat soldiers, with his hands tied behind his back. He was unshaven and dishevelled, his clothes filthy and his lank hair hanging down to his shoulders, but he looked about him with an air of indifference, even arrogance, like a Philadelphia dandy, the colonel thought, waiting for the carriage to take him to his club.'
'He was taller, more upright than the other but he had a rope round his neck and they were pulling him along like a wild beast. A young man, personable but with a weathered complexion and long, dark hair untied and hanging loosely around his face – he could have been a gypsy, she thought, or a seafarer...'
‘Then he put the whistle to his lips and did a jig, and there was something so wild, so mad, so infectious about it, he had them all joining in, dancing and singing along with him in a crude approximation of the words. A sorcerer, she thought, a magician.’
The Birth of Nathan Peake
A prisoner or a Philadelphia dandy, a wild beast, a gypsy, a seafarer, a pied piper, a sorcerer and a magician...
A character in fiction often has many different personas and beginnings – false starts, you might call them. Still births. And so it was with Nathan Peake.
His first birth was as an American agent in Europe, one of a select group of secret agents answering directly to General Washington and known, on that account, as 'Washington's Boys' but for various reasons and after several adventures of my own in and under the streets of Paris and on the backwaters of Kerala in southern India, he became the present Nathan Peake, an Anglo-American officer in the British Navy at the time of the wars with Revolutionary France. But those initial images of him - the prisoner, the gypsy, the pied piper and the magician - remained a part of his character, even dressed in the splendid uniform of a post captain in His Britannic Majesty's Navy.
|The first Nathan Peake adventure The Time of Terror is set partly on the high seas, in the English Channel, and partly on, and under the streets of Paris in the notorious catacombs, haunt of fugitives, smugglers and dissidents from the time of the Romans to the present day.
THE PRISON OF THE CALMES, Nov 2004
Site of one of the most infamous massacres at the time of the Terror
HOW IT BEGAN
And from all of this came The Time of Terror - the first in the series of Nathan Peake adventures. Its main character is Nathan Peake himself - of course - introduced as the commander of a small brig patrolling the English Channel in 1793 - just before France declares war on Great Britain to launch what we now call the wars of the French Revolution which lasted for the next nine years.
I was interested in writing a novel about three historical figures who found themselves in Paris in 1793 - 4 years after the storming of the Bastille when the ideals of the Revolution had become lost in the violence of the Terror. The three people were:
Thomas Paine - the English-born author of the Rights of Man who emigrated to the American colonies and played a seminal role in the American War of Independence, becoming an influential friend of many leaders of the Revolution, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
After the war ended, like a modern-day Che Guevara, he took the ideas he had developed in America back to England where he wrote the Rights of Man, much of it in the Angel Pub in Islington, and then moved to France to lend his support to the Revolutionaries in Paris where he was known as Citizen Paine and became a member of the National Assembly. But he voted against the execution of the French King and fell foul of the ruling faction led by Citizen Robespierre and when France and Britain went to war in 1793 he was arrested as a foreign spy and imprisoned - facing execution.
Mary Wollstenecraft - pioneer British feminist and writer, sent to Paris to write a series of articles for a British journal on the progress of the French Revolution. She became a friend of Paine and other British and American expats but faced the same fate as Paine when war broke out. A fate she avoided through her friendship with the third party in this triangle -
Gilbert Imlay - an American author and spy. He was probably one of the select group of secret agents known as 'Washington's Boys' but he was also a double agent - working at one stage for the British, the Spanish and the French. In 1793 he was in Paris ostensibly as a businessman. When war broke out with Britain he became a blockade runner, bringing goods into the country from America past the naval blockade imposed by the British - he specialised in soap. Then he met Mary W. You could say they fell in love - who knows with Inlay. At any rate, he proposed marriage - he said, later, to make her an American citizen and save her from prison and she never denied this. At any rate, they were married - in the US Embassy by the American ambasssador Gouverner Morris. She later had his child.
However - Imlay did a lot of ducking and diving. Even though France and Britain were at war, he moved freely between Paris and London. How? We don't know. It would have had to involve ships, or at least boats, and smugglers. What we do know is that while he was in London he had an affair with an actress who lived in Charlotte Street. When Mary finally came to London and found out about it - she tried to kill herself. Twice.
I was fascinated by the process that led to this courageous, admirable, complicated woman, this pioneer feminist, become emotionally involved by a man who was certainly a spy, and probably a scoundrel.
Into this historical melage a trois I added a character of my own invention - the British naval officer and secret agent - Nathan Peake.
And my fifth character - was Paris. Paris at the time of the Terror.
I had taken an apartment in Barbes, a rough old area just below the Butte Montmartre. I would run up the hundreds of steps of the hill for exercise, and then find a little bistro or bar to undo all the good it had done me - and write.
But my priority was to explore the catacombs. These are the miles of ancient tunnels that literally undermine the city - though they were originally dug out for the limestone that built Paris in the first place at the time of the Romans.
Since then they have been used for a variety of purposes, some more sinister than others. They sheltered the early Christians from Roman persecution. They were the secret base of the Cours des Miracles - the society of beggars and criminals and outlaws that flourished during the Middle Ages. Over the ensuing centuries they were used by smugglers, outlaws and dissidents, by renegades at the time of the French Revolution and by resistance fighters during WW2. They were also used to bury people. Millions of people.
For more than 50 years from the late 18th century to well into the 19th they were used to re-inter an estimated 6 million corpses from the overcrowded medieval cemeteries of central Paris.
Almost every night for half a century a ghoulish procession of death carts, led by hooded monks with flares, would roll through the streets of Paris to lay the bodies - or bones - in their new resting place in the catacombs. And during the time of the Terror they were also used to bury the victims of the guillotine. King Louis is here - and his Queen Marie Antoinette - and the man who killed him, Maximilian Robespierre. But you will never find them. They are just three of the anonymous skulls in the Empire of the Dead.
You can enter the Empire of the Dead legally through a strange portal at the Porte d'Enfer - the Gateway of Hell - on the Paris Peripherique. You can walk through 6 kilometres of tunnels lined with those 6 million skulls - and speculate on who they were - and what brought them here, to the Empire of the Dead. Apart from the death carts, of course.
But the Empire of the Dead is only a small part of the catacombs. The rest is out of bounds. You can only enter them illegally. Usually by meeting up with one of the illicit 'tour operators' in some bar somewhere and joining his group. But it is not without dangers. The catacombs link with the sewers and with the Paris Metro and they are patrolled by a special police task force known collequially as the cataflics who will arrest anyone caught trespassing and impose a hefty fine.
So I spent over a month in Paris exploring the catacombs - legally of course - and various other parts of the city that played their part in the Revolution. I wrote the first 30-40,000 words here and then put it aside for a while to work on a film. Then, almost a year later, I booked into an hotel - the Raheem Residency in Kerala, south India - where I finished it. I know it sounds odd but there are parts of Kerala – in Alleppey and Fort Cochin - which are probably more like Paris at the time of the French Revolution than Paris is now.
But Nathan is by no means typical as an officer of His Britannic Majesty's Navy - and here you may find his origins as the character I introduced at the top of this page - the son of a retired English admiral and an active American revolutionary, steering a wild tack between the two whilst doing his best, often in difficult circumstances, to serve Mad King George, his often devious Prime Minister William Pitt - and the officers and men of the King's Navy. He's not Hornblower, he's not Jack Aubrey - he's not even Stephen Maturin, for all the latter's maverick qualities - but I hope whatever you think of him, you'll enjoy his adventures - from the English Channel to the Andaman Sea, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Venice - just as I have.