Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend a rare live appearance from Bernard Cornwell. The event was organised by Foyles and took place in Westminster, Central London – right next to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The talk took place in a beautiful, old room packed with oil paintings and so the atmosphere was fantastic before the authors even arrived.
Bernard Cornwell is the most popular writer of historical fiction in the UK. He has written more than 40 books, selling over 5 million copies worldwide. I had always been intrigued by his books, but hadn’t read any until I decided to go and see him talk. I had mixed feelings about my first Cornwell book, but I’ll save those for my review next week.
Bernard Cornwell was sharing the stage with Richard Kemp, a former British commander of troops in Afganistan (and author of Attack State Red). Together they talked about the role of the soldier in both fiction and non-fiction. Both were fantastic public speakers and I had an entertaining evening listening to their anecdotes.
Bernard Cornwell talked almost exclusively about his new book, The Fort. Set in Massachusetts during the War of Independence it describes the Penobscot Expedition in which a less than thousand British infantry managed to successfully stand up to a fleet of more than 40 vessels.
The audience consisted mainly of people twice my age and of the opposite sex. I presume that the talk of war put off many women and I have to admit that there were several moments when it was too much for me. You definitely have to have certain qualities to become a soldier and I don’t have any of them! Both authors described how the best soldiers in history were recruited from bar fights – they were the “scum of the Earth”, “larger louts who were given pride and discipline”. It was interesting to hear them talk, but I think it just confirmed my suspicions that military history isn’t for me.
A few Bernard Cornwell facts revealed that evening
- He wanted to give The Fort the title Captivate, Kill or Destroy but the publishers insisted on the boring title.
- The stupidest thing he ever did was kill off Hatesville (don’t ask me who he is – I have no idea!)
- He hates the word “task” and wishes people would stick to using the word “job”.
- His favourite author of military fact is Antony Beevor
- His favourite military fiction book is Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
The most amusing question of the night came from a man near the front who asked how often Bernard Cornwell is confused with Bill Bryson – I noted that he sidestepped the question!
I was most struck by how knowledgeable Bernard Cornwell is. He has a detailed knowledge of the history surrounding all his books and a clear enthusiasm for his subjects. Talking about war may not have been to my taste, but he managed to hold my attention throughout and make me laugh on several occasions. I will definitely go and hear him talk again if given the opportunity – especially if he talks about some of his other historical fiction titles.
Have you read any of Bernard Cornwell’s books?
If so, which did you enjoy the most?