Seth Hunter is the pseudonym of Paul Bryers pictured here aboard the square-rigger Earl of Pembroke off the coast of Cornwall while make the docudrama Nelson's Trafalgar. You can learn more about him and his work as a writer and filmmaker on www.paulbryers.com
But this is the website of Seth Hunter, writer of the Nathan Peake series of naval historical fiction, so the first question to be answered here is, Why a pseudonym?
Seth Hunter - by Seth Hunter
I have always had a strong love - and an equally strong fear - of the sea.
My first memory is of seeing my father with his arm down the mouth of a fish. A big fish. A cod, I was later informed. Quite naturally I assumed it was eating him and had hysterics. It turned out he was breaking its neck, which didn't entirely reassure me.
At the age of three you don't want to see your father eaten by a fish, not outside the realms of fiction and Freud, but you're not exactly comfortable with the notion that he goes around breaking their necks, either. We already had a difficult relationship. This did not improve it.
I was born in Liverpool, England, in the mid-fifties when it was still hanging on in there as one of the world's great seaports, though showing signs of wear and tear. My father was away at sea, at the time, in the Royal Navy. He heard about my arrival by telegram whilst passing the Rock of Gibralter on his way to the China Seas. I didn't see him until I was eight months old, when I apparently howled for several hours, thus giving him the impression that I was a cry baby and something of a mummy's boy, which the episode with the fish did nothing to challenge.
It happened at Port Erin on the Isle of Man. The fish thing. I'd been taken down to the harbour in my pushchair and the first thing I saw was my dad up to his elbow in the fish's mouth. I have a memory of blood and scales and bulging eyes - the cod's that is. Apparently this was the approved method of killing a cod on the Isle of Man, if it was still alive when landed, but nobody thought to tell me this at the time and I doubt, frankly, if it would have made a great deal of difference if they had.
We went to the Isle of Man a lot when I was a kid. My dad had family there who were fishermen and from time to time he went crewing for them, fishing round the Calf of Man, which was a small island off the main one. I can remember once going out with him and catching mackerel with a bit of silver paper on the end of a line and seeing seals and large black sea birds called Great Northern Divers. I liked that bit. But I was never entirely sure about the sea.
The Turk's Head
Most of my growing up was done in Liverpool - or just outside it, in what was then a village called Knotty Ash. My dad ran a café there called the Turk’s Head, named after a particular type of nautical knot which resembles a Turk’s head tied in a turban. So although we were a good few miles from the sea, it was still in the frame, as it were.
The old Turk was supposed to be a transport café, because it was on one of the main roads out of Liverpool. It was actually on the island in the middle of the road, which was a dual carriageway and the traffic went past on both sides. Unfortunately, the traffic very rarely stopped because there was nowhere to park, a major disadvantage in a transport café, but we had a few people drop by from the village, if they could make it across the road.
The café was owned by my dad’s Uncle Freddie, who worked on the Atlantic liners – and when my dad came out of the Navy, Uncle Freddie put him in charge as manager. We were supposed to live there – my dad, my mum and I – but apparently my mum took one look at it and said, “If you think I’m going to live in a dump like that, you’ve got another think coming,” and went to live with her dad and mum. So my dad had to go and live there, too and, being little, I had to join them, though I wasn’t happy about it.
The Turk’s Head might have been a dump to my mum but it was a wonderland to me, an adventure playground, a fantasy castle out of Grimm's fairy tales. And I had the run of the place because although she wouldn’t live there my mother had to work there most days, as a waitress, and she took me with her so she could keep an eye on me. In theory.
The Happy Cat
It was a rambling old manor house, timber-framed in the Tudor style, with eighteen rooms, and no furniture – apart from the tables and chairs in the café, which was in the biggest room on the ground floor. It also had three live-in dogs: a German Shepherd called Prince, a Labrador called Bruce, and a Scottish border collie called Black Bob. There was also a parrot, called Polly – of course – and a cat called Happy who was as miserable as sin but was supposed to be a good ratter. Oh yes, there were rats, too. Happy spent most of its time hiding from them. And the dogs. And the parrot, who screeched at him whenever it saw him.
One day, when I was a bit older, I asked my auntie why he was called Happy and she said it was short for Happy Days.
'You'll have to be a bit more forthcoming,' I said, in my childish way.
And she said: 'Well, your granddad found him down the docks when he was a kitten' - my granddad was a docker - 'and brought him home under his overcoat, and when you saw him you clapped your hands and said, "Oh, happy days!"
I went cold. The thought of what the local scallies and hardcases would do to me if they ever found out. It cast a shadow over the greater part of my childhood - until Happy was run over by a truck - running away from a rat - and I could relax.
As the traffic increased, the local trade dropped off a bit. It was too dangerous to cross the road. We were like shipwrecked mariners marooned on a desert island called the Turk's Head. We only had one regular customer - a dwarf called Uncle Titch.
I know we don't use the word dwarf now, but this was the late fifties before the advent of PC. And of course, Titch wasn't his real name. I never knew what that was. Everyone called him Titch. Or, if you were smaller than he was, Uncle Titch. He drove a horse and cart and collected people's rubbish. We called them rag-and-bone men in those days. I don't know where the bones came in but he certainly collected a lot of rags - and anything else people wanted to get rid of. He used to drive round the neighbourhood shouting, 'Any old iron?' Or, if he was in a jocular mood, 'Bring out your dead!'
He was often in a jocular mood. He was about four feet two and had a handlebar moustache about the same size and he used to twirl it with his finger like a comic opera villain or a circus ringmaster.
He had this trick he played on people. He used to hide under the box on the cart and let the horse trot off as if there was no-one in charge of it. People used to think it was a runaway and they'd dash out in front of it and try to head it off, and then Uncle Titch would leap up lashing out with his whip and shouting, 'Just because I'm a dwarf doesn't mean I'm not here!'
He used to come into the Turk's Head cracking his whip and twirling his moustaches and scaring the living daylights out of me. I used to hide under the tables. With the cat.
He used to say, 'I don't know what you're frightened of - you should see yourself.'
He fancied himself a great impersonator but the only person he could do with any conviction was Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He'd use the whip as a crutch, stick the parrot on his shoulder and go stomping about the place shouting, ‘Ah Jim lad, where you be, you little varmint.’ I'd be wetting myself under the table and the parrot crapping on his shoulder and the cat climbing the curtains. No wonder we didn't get much custom.
When I was about six or seven the Turk’s Head went bust. It’s always difficult to get the true story out of my family but I think Uncle Freddie died or jumped ship or something and we found out he didn’t actually own the place, just rented it, and the rent was way overdue so and we had to do a runner.
We had to get rid of the dogs and the parrot but at least we got shut of Uncle Titch. I used to see him in his horse and cart riding around Liverpool but I kept well out of his way and he kept out of mine. I have an idea we gave him the parrot.
Feminism and Seamed Stockings
As for my dad, he got a job in a stocking factory. He operated a huge knitting machine twenty-two yards long – the length of a cricket pitch, as he used to tell people - which knitted dozens of fully-fashioned seamed nylon stockings at the same time.
There were all these women's wooden legs sticking out the top of the machine and hundreds of needles clacking away and the nylon thread rose up the women's wooden legs until they were all wearing seamed nylon stockings. Just imagine it, all those legs sticking up out of my dad's machine like a line of chorus girls doing the can-can. I'm not sure if it turned him on or gave him nightmares.
For the first few years he did quite well on piece work but by the mid-sixties women had stopped wearing stockings, seamed or otherwise. They were wearing tights. The factory, which was in Woolton, tried to buck the trend by putting out a series of adverts showing women in frilly knickers, seamed stockings and suspender belts.
It should have worked but it didn’t. It always turned me on, though. When I was a bit older I did my bit by trying to persuade the girls I was dating to stop wearing tights and wear seamed stockings instead. I told them they were putting honest working men like my dad out of a job. But this was at the start of the feminist seventies and most of the women I met told me to where to get off. They’d stopped wearing bras but they were still into tights. I couldn’t see the logic of that.
Finally, the factory gave up and bought a load of smaller, simpler machines that made tights and brought in a load of women to work on them, because, feminism notwithstanding, they could pay them less and make all the men redundant. Including my dad.
But I’m leaping ahead a bit.
When my dad first started at the factory we were living in my nana and granddad’s house on a council estate in Old Swan, which had been the next village along from Knotty Ash but was now just a suburb of Liverpool. It was a small three-bedroom house and it was crammed full of people. When we first moved there, as well as my nana and granddad, there was my Uncle Bill and Auntie Chris, my Auntie Ann and Uncle Hughie, my mum, my dad, and me. I didn’t mind this, I liked crowds. The main problem, from my point of view, was that my Auntie Ann was a ballroom dancing teacher at the Billy Martin School of Dancing and she was teaching Uncle Hughie dance steps so he could stop working at the bacon counter in the Co-op and join her as a dancing teacher at the dancing school.
But to do that, he had to pass his exams, and she would practise with him all the time in the house. She had the dance steps marked out in chalk on the floor and as I used to play on the floor, with my toy soldiers and my toy motor cars and ships, it caused a certain amount of friction.
They usually stayed in the living room and I went out into the hall, but you couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t follow you, to get a good run at it, as it were. I used to have all my soldiers lined up in battle formation and out they’d come. Out through the door of the living room and up the hall. One-two-three, one-two-three... And I’d be scrabbling around, trying to get my soldiers under cover. It wasn’t so bad if it was a waltz or something, because you could just about shift out of the way or place your troops between the marked-out footsteps but there was no chance with the faster numbers. The quickstep and the tango were murder. But the one I feared most was the Paso Doblé. This was a kind of Spanish marching dance. It would start with a drumbeat and a stamp and then they’d come streaking out of the living room door and up the hall. There’d be toy soldiers everywhere. The plastic ones just got a good kicking but I had quite a few old-fashioned lead ones and they were just ground under. There were heads rolling, arms, limbs. It was a charnel house. I used to splint them together again with matchsticks. I had an army of cripples with lolling heads, the Army of the Dead.
Auntie Ann gave me a lot of grief when I was a kid. It was she who insisted I go to elocution lessons, so I didn’t grow up speaking Scouse – Scouse being the term used to describe the Liverpool accent which was generally held to be inelegant by people such as my aunt.So every Saturday morning I had to go to elocution lessons next to the Billy Martin School of Dancing.
I learned to say: ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’ and ‘In Hereford, Hertford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen’. And other choice sentences. I was, to coin a term used by my father, a right little ponce.
It was hard work growing up on a council estate in Liverpool, being a right little ponce. Nor did it help going to a grammar school and having a posh school uniform. Every time I came back in the evenings there’d be a gang of kids waiting to beat the bejesus out of me. The only good that came of it, so far as I was concerned, was that I learned how to fight back. I got so good at it I took up boxing for the Liverpool Boys’ Association and fought in the finals at the Liverpool Stadium as a middleweight. I could have been a contender. But my Auntie Ann stepped in again and said I was growing up to be a thug, albeit one who spoke posh, and my mother agreed with her and instead of keeping up with the boxing I had to go to evening classes and to cut a long story short I ended up going to university. And learning to sail.
The Boxing Kangaroo
I went to Southampton University to study history, politics and economics. And this was when I first fell in love with the sea. Southampton, like Liverpool, is a major seaport but being on the south coast it is also a sailing centre and my flatmate, a student called Noblett – Roger Noblett – had a boat moored on the Hamble. In the first year it was only a dinghy and we had to travel there the twelve miles there and back by bus and coming back we had to bring the wet sails with us and dry them in the launderette. But I learned a lot about sailing in that dinghy and in the second year he acquired an old sports car and a 18-foot Dragonfly cabin cruiser.
But I didn’t write about the sea. Not then. What I wrote about was girls. Or women, as I was learning to call them. Instead of writing about the love and fear of the sea, I wrote about the love and fear of women.
Particularly the fear.
There was a reason for this. Her name was Cobber.
Cobber was a kangaroo and I met her in a circus. My job was cleaning out the cages - when the animals were safely locked inside their sleeping quarters - but Cobber's trainer found out I could box and asked if I'd like to go a few rounds with her. Why did I say yes? She was over six feet tall. She had claws like a grizzly bear. He said he'd give me a few tips.
He said to me, 'Three things you have to remember when boxing a kangaroo. One, they are very short-sighted. Two, they have very weak forearms. Three, they have very strong hindlegs. This is why they hop. They also use them to disembowel predators.
'The secret to boxing a kangaroo is to get in close and jab it gently in the face with your boxing gloves so it jabs back at you. But if you see it fall back on its hindlegs that means it's preparing to disembowel you.
'And we don't want that happening, do we?'
I agreed that we did not.
'So you have to get out of the way - fast. But if you stay out of the way, it loses sight of you and loses interest. And we don't want that happening do we?'
I nodded politely but to be perfectly honest, I wasn't that bothered.
I spent the next few days trying to make friends with her so she wouldn't disembowell me. I knew she liked eating carrots so I got in a large supply and poked them through the bars one by one, murmuring endearments.
But when the big day came I had to wear my clown's outfit and I was afraid Cobber wouldn't recognise me. I was given a ginger wig to wear and I had a red nose and large freckles painted on my face and I was afraid she might take me for a predator.
I kept well out of the way, and sure enough she began to lose interest and the crowd started getting restive. There was some booing and hissing. My trainer shouted from the corner. I thought he said, 'Make a noise like a carrot.'
This made a certain amount of sense - at least to me. I thought it might remind her of the carrots I'd been feeding her. But what kind of noise does a carrot make? I decided it was the noise it makes coming out of the ground. A kind of slurping noise.
So I went in close and jabbed her in the face and went, 'Slurrrrrppp'.
She seemed to like it. I did it again. We danced around the ring together jabbing at each other with our gloves - more like love pats than blows - and with me making slurping noises. When the bell went for the end of the round I sat back in my corner and the trainer said, 'Not bad, not bad, but what's with this slurping noise you keep making?'
So I explained this was my interpretation of the noise a carrot makes, coming out of the ground.
And he said. ‘Not a carrot, you wanker - a cannon.’
So I go back in the ring, and the first time Cobber’s attention starts to wander I lean in close and I go, BOOOOOOOM!
Wow, that kangaroo could move. She shot back about ten feet, bounced off the ropes and then came for me. No love pats this time, no pawing about with her forearms, this chick meant business. She was bouncing around on her tail, trying to disembowel me with her hind legs and I was running round the ring screaming. The crowd loved it. Finally I dived through the ropes leaving my shoe behind and ran through the crowd while the trainers got the cuffs on her. The crowd was going wild. More, more, they were shouting. But I wasn’t having any more of that.
But one of the things that stayed in my mind was the look in her eyes the instant before she came at me. It was a look of hurt. It was the kind of look that said, this is what they’re really like. They make up to you, they poke carrots through the bars, they murmur endearments and slurping noises, but this is their true nature. Just when they’ve got you off your guard they go BOOOOOOM!
The Fear of Women
And that’s when I first started seriously to write about women. The love of women and the fear of women.
I wrote four books on this subject under my own name. Coming First, The Adultery Department, The Prayer of the Bone and The Used Women’s Book Club. I also wrote In A Pig’s Ear which is a version of the King Arthur story, which was about adultery and betrayal, among other things.
You can find out more about them – and my work as a TV writer and director on www.paulbryers.com but this website, believe it or not, is about the sea – and Seth Hunter.
I was, as I believe I’ve said, a great reader of historical naval fiction. I’d read every one of the Patrick O’Brian books and when he died a few years back I read them again. I’d directed several documentaries about sailing and the sea, I’d written plays with a nautical theme, including the Floating Republic for BBC Radio 4 (about the great naval mutiny of 1797), and I’d written, produced or directed a couple of television dramas – Nelson’s Trafalgar about the life and battles of Britain’s greatest naval hero and Mary Bryant, the story of the First Fleet to Australia and a woman highway robber who was among the first convicts sent there.
I did think of writing a naval novel. But I wasn’t confident enough to set it entirely at sea. I didn’t think I was good enough.
So although I had a naval commander as my main man – Nathan Peake – he was more of a spy, or an agent, than a seafarer.
I sent him to France at the time of the Revolution and the book was mainly set on land. A lot of it underground – in the catacombs under Paris, known as the Empire of the Dead, where all the bodies are buried. In fact, I won an award from the English Arts Council to go to Paris and explore the catacombs and do other necessary research.
The book was going to be Patrick O’Brian meets John Le Carré in Revolutionary Paris. A modest ambition.
It was Martin Fletcher, commissioning editor at Hodder Headline, who persuaded me to turn it into naval fiction. There were one or two chapters set in the Channel, including a fight with French privateer, and he said I could do it. Or at least, have a bash.
So I had a bash.
In making the two naval films for television, I’d used the facilities at Square Sail, based at Charlestown in Devon, where there is an old harbour and three square-rigged sailing ships, often used for filming. So I hired one of them - with a crew of twelve and a couple of friends of mine who'd been in the Navy - and we practised manoeuvres off the coast of Cornwall.
I'd also met naval historians such as Colin Cross and Brian Lavery, whose expertise and books on 18th century naval warfare were an enormous help in getting me started on my first book in the Nathan Peake series, The Time of Terror.
But I still wasn’t confident enough to use my own name. I guess I thought, if I fell flat on my face I could go back to writing under my own name - about women. Some people may feel I should never have stopped. But the initial reviews have been encouraging as so have the sales, so... I've come out of the closet, so to speak.
If you click on Blog you can read about the research and writing of the books, some of the travelling involved, and something of the private lives and secret histories on which they are based. I hope to make this a regular column and to include feedback from readers.
And, of course, there are the books...