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John Jenkins Oct 10


The October column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


Following in Byron's wake

By John Jenkins

I was, like many another hopeful, a totally unsuitable candidate to be a son-in-law. My girl friend’s parents regarded my presence with alarm, particularly when it appeared that their only daughter was inclined to ignore all their warnings and if necessary run off with me.

At the time I didn’t think there was much wrong with me. Perhaps I drank a little too much whisky for an 18-year-old, I liked to bet on the horses and play cards, and my language had a few rough edges not improved by barrack room experiences in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Apart from a stint in the army I had no proper job and then, to cap it all decided that I didn’t want to become a lawyer and joined a newspaper as a reporter.

Looking back, and now being the father of three daughters, I can fully appreciate their alarm and wonder how I ever landed their daughter.

I can thank Lord Byron. To my surprise I found that my future mother-in-law was a fan of Lord Byron’s poetry. Now any woman with two brain cells who knows anything about Byron must realise that he was - in the terms of his day - the most unmitigated cad or bounder who ever walked the earth.

His sexual exploits would have made Tiger Woods or Wayne Rooney seem like choirboys. He broke the hearts of titled ladies, married ladies and a variety of pretty pageboys. He borrowed money with such abandon that I believe he was the inventor of quantitative easing.

By chance I had a beautiful little edition of Byron’s poetry which I wrapped up prettily and gave to my girl friend’s mother as a present. From the moment my mother-in-law unwrapped that exquisite volume of Byron’s poetry my reputation began to improve.

But what on earth was an honest, non-conformist, God-fearing woman like my future mother-in-law doing admiring a man like that? Then I did not fully realise that women are susceptible to flawed heroes. She loved his poetry.

This all came back to me this week when I read Joy Unconfined by Ian Strathcarron, who followed in the footsteps of Byron’s grand tour.

Some 200 years ago Byron set sail from Falmouth and left a trail of havoc and debauchery around the Mediterranean. He also established himself as a writer and poet of renown. He visited Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Greece, Albania and other parts of what we remember as the Ottoman Empire. He took with him his best friend, pageboy, valet, and eight portmanteaux for his costumes, bedding, shoes, saddles, campaign desk, two army beds and four camp beds.

Ian Strathcarron, (Lord Strathcarron to give him his proper title) travelled somewhat lighter in Byron’s wake 200 years later to record and document the poet’s adventures.

In fact Strathcarron fitted out a ketch, and re-named her Vasco da Gama, a nice touch for a modern explorer. He too set off from Falmouth and hopped from port to port over two years. His wife was often the only member of the crew but he did ensure that he had modern navigational aids and a copy of a prayer book - "an essential manual for a sailor," he says.

The result is a fascinating book for travel buffs, biographers and poets. Many would-be writers dream of that log cabin at the bottom of the garden and solitude to write. But surely it cannot match cruising in the Med, stopping at these historic points and living life at the pace you want?

Offhand, I can only think of one other author who did this with success – Hammond Innes.

Strathcarron successfully weaves his own voyage into the logbook of Byron’s travels. Both have a fascination for Hellenic lore and the Greeks’ successful struggle to shake off the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. Both met with kings, villains, consuls, governors, chieftains and gangsters.

Surprisingly, the author managed to unearth some new sources for his book and found people only too willing to help his quest and talk about the legendary poet who reached into the very heart of Greece.

This is a book I recommend to any writer. It is inspirational, original and after you have read it you will immediately think of a dozen people who would enjoy it as a Christmas present. Strathcarron writes with wit and wry observation, particularly his account of a trip to Albania. Unlike Byron, who was recruited by British intelligence to act as a spy, Strathcarron says he was not approached by the spooks.

More’s the pity. He has an eye for detail, a photographic memory and a gift for seeing what lies below the surface. Strathcarron is now planning another voyage and another book – this time following in the footsteps of Mark Twain who visited the Holy Land.

As for me I’m off to renew acquaintance with the poetry of Lord Byron. I feel it is the least that I owe him.

Joy Unconfined! (Lord Byron’s Grand Tour Re-toured) by Ian Strathcarron, is published by Signal Books at £19.99.ISBN 9781904955740.

John Jenkins' September column dealt with the huge success of children's author Joe Delaney.


If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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