Bernard Cornwell Interview

Last Update: 15 April 2000

`I was cut off from the modern world': Fired up by his pacifist parents, Bernard Cornwell created the swashbuckling Sharpe, he tells Charles Laurence.

The Daily Telegraph

PERHAPS the noblest deed Richard Sharpe ever did was rescue his own creator. Long before the swashbuckling hero of Indian adventure and Napoleonic war burst on to bookshelf and television screen, he was doing duty as alter ego to a troubled teenager named Bernard Cornwell.

And long before Cornwell thought to write about him, or even name him, Sharpe stood brave against forces that might have overwhelmed a lesser man. Whatever happened, however tough things got as Cornwell struggled through an extraordinary childhood, there was Sharpe, in his mind and by his side, splendid in crimson and ready for the fight.

"Sharpe is a hero with a capital H," says Cornwell, as he reaches above the mantelpiece in his library-cum-office by the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. "He is larger than life. And this is his sword. Look at it."

He has taken from its mount a 1796-model heavy cavalry sword. It is nothing like one of those fancy, tasselled sabres we lily-livered civvies associate with charging British cavalry. This sword is the real thing: it is straight, plain and made for killing people.

"Now look at the tip," says Cornwell, a certain gleam in his eyes. "See: it is straight. That is how we know it has been used in battle, maybe even at Waterloo.

"The swords were made with the cutting edge curved at the end, like a carving knife, but the troopers found that that deflected a stabbing thrust, which is a very useful blow when you are actually trying to kill people. So they were allowed to modify them, and did."

He demonstrates, in a non-lethal way. "Feel the weight! You had to be really strong to use one of these, you know." You had to be the sort of man, in fact, who has inhabited Cornwell's mind for as long as he can remember.

Cornwell, 56, was born of a wartime fling between a Canadian airman and a British woman who already had children and was waiting for her husband to come home. His mother dumped him in an orphanage, from which he was retrieved by a couple who belonged to a religious sect called the Peculiar People.

"They were very peculiar indeed," he says, with a wry smile that he has obviously been practising for most of his life. "It was a very oppressive childhood of being force-fed religion, no point in saying otherwise.

"The idea was to cut us off from the modern world, which was sinful. We read the Bible a great deal, and there was no other entertainment. There was no sparing the rod."

The Peculiars, Cornwell explains, were an early 19th-century cult of evangelicals - born-again fundamentalists, in modern terms - derived from the Methodists. The name comes from a reference in Deuteronomy and means chosen people. They were based in East Anglia, crucible of Puritanism, and died out as an organised church in the Sixties.

"They were right at the head of the Fun Prevention League," Cornwell says. Among their peculiarities was an insistence that the Bible proscribes the use of medicine. In the early 1900s, East Anglia was swept by a cholera epidemic, which proved largely impervious to prayer. Hundreds of Peculiar children died, and the local courts took a dim view.

The sect, he explains, divided into two: Old Peculiars refused to see doctors, and went to prison for child abuse and manslaughter, while New Peculiars accepted medicine, but only if prayer was failing.

"Luckily, my parents were New Peculiars, because when I was six, I got very ill. I have this memory of lying in bed with some huge fever and seeing a bunch of odd, old men, the Elders, gathered around, laying on hands. I got sicker and Mother lost no time in calling the doctor."

Another peculiarity of the sect was pacificism, but it was soon after he recovered from his illness that Cornwell began to fantasise about his warrior friend. "Soldiers, of course, were forbidden, but I was fascinated," he says. "Right from the start, my man was Hornblower-on-land."

Cornwell was one of five adopted children and the only one with a serious inclination to rebel. This, he feels, saved him, because his father, who made a lot of money as a builder "covering Essex with concrete", sent him away to Monkton Combe, a boarding school with an evangelical curriculum leavened by kinder hearts.

"It gave me rugger and cricket, which I love, and enough knowledge to conclude that my parents' religion was garbage," he says. "I knew what I had to do."

In 1963, when he was 19, he grew his hair down to his chest, started listening to a lot of rock and roll, the devil's music, and did "quite a bit" of dabbling in the drug culture. He thought of trying to trace his natural parents but decided not to and has never again picked up that trail.

One day, when Cornwell went home in his hippy duds and with his hair all over the place, his mother flew at him in a rage. "I held her by the wrists, so she could not hit me," he says. "Then I left and I never went home again."

By now, he was taking a degree at London University, in, of all things, theology. Theology? "Quite," he says. "But I was looking for ammo. I wanted to come out a battleship with all guns blazing, and I did. And then I discovered there was no enemy."

Sharpe, as this sort of imagery makes plain, was fighting valiantly at his side. But he was, at this point, a strictly private character and Cornwell had other ideas for a career. He joined the BBC -"because, I suppose, television was forbidden" - and soon found himself on the career ladder in the current affairs department.

He married and had a daughter, then was posted to Northern Ireland, good turf for the Sharpe in him, and became head of current affairs, Northern Ireland. He digs out a photograph of himself in the Belfast war zone of the late Seventies, looking dashing in dark glasses, with his hair still well below his ears. His marriage had already collapsed, but work was on the fast track and he met another woman.

"I probably would never have written a word if I had not met Judy," he says. "She would be the perfect wife for me, I knew that right away. But there was a problem. She was American, and she flatly refused to live in England." Would Sharpe's heart have been deflected by such a trifle? Of course not.

"I quit the job," he says. "I went to see my bank manager and asked for pounds 3,000 to go to America and write a book. He said I would never do it on that, and gave me five. And I've paid it back, of course."

There was never any doubt about the novel he would write once he got started. "With hindsight, I do have things to be grateful to my parents for. I learnt from them that childhood is a trap and that growing up is learning how to get out of it. And a 17th-century mentality has proved useful to a historical novelist."

He has now sold more than three million copies of his Sharpe novels, and a new book, Sharpe's Trafalgar, has just been published. Sales of the television series, starring Sean Bean, and a second series of historical novels, built around the Arthurian legends, have helped to make him rich, secure and, on the whole, very happy.

His relationship with Judy, who has three children from a previous marriage, seems to work on the principle that opposites attract: in his words, she is "a pacifist yoga teacher, with no interest in the Napoleonic wars".

Their house is neat and expensively furnished: the fire surround with leather bench seating was imported from Britain, as was the Aga. Outside, the pond has an elaborate roof because Cornwell could not bear to see his fish snapped up by herons.

Judy reads his books, he says, but rather quickly because she always skips the battle scenes. Cornwell chuckles again, this time more warmly.

But it is on the subject of family that the cracks show. When I ask him whether he ever thought of having children with Judy, he makes a cross with his fingers, as if warding off vampire thoughts. He seems reluctant to talk about Judy's new grandchild, too, as though he believes that tough chaps are not supposed to be interested in babies.

Cape Cod, Kennedy country, gives Cornwell shelter, as it has given shelter to generations of Yankee fishermen. He misses all the usual British stuff - Twickenham and Lord's, decent beer, arched-eyebrow irony - and he is getting fed up with America's relentless march to "the politically correct and all that nonsense".

There is a Range-Rover in his garage, he wears a Belstaff waxed-cotton jacket and keeps an old cricket bat on the wall - all familiar marks of the yearning expat. Blustery now, he actually claims that if it were not for his marriage, he would "come home like a shot".

I am not sure that I believe him. In America, Cornwell is a safe distance from the ghosts of his Peculiar family and, like thousands who have settled in the land of self-invention, he can be the Brit he wants to be, Range-Rover, Aga and all.

Here, too, he can sail his boat in the safe, off-shore waters of the Cape. Cornwell's big reward to himself is a rare and stunningly beautiful craftsman-made boat, his gaff-rigged, 24-foot Cornish Crabber. He bought one of the last ever made.

For most of the year, he works 12-hour days, researching and writing, promoting and selling. And then, for two months every summer, he hoists canvas and, alone, sails off into a world of his own.

"It's marvellous," he says. "Just like Swallows and Amazons."

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