A summer of writing – with history this good who needs fiction?

As most of you will know, I have been on light council duties for a couple of months. I’m still dealing with urgent matters. Sewerage spills. Homelessness. And attending planning meetings and more. But after nearly a decade as a councillor I decided I need a break.

Always in the back of mind was a plan to write a couple of books centred on the Dukes and Duchesses of Buckingham and Chandos. History books. About the people, not the events of the Georgian era about which so much has been written. Of course, the events of the day feature. Politics, just as ugly, self-centred and back stabbing as it is today. The war with Napoleon. But I am more interested in the people and how they reacted to the events of the day and to each other.

I’ll be back full time as a councillor in early September reserving a couple of days of week to continue a project begun more than two decades ago.

Richard Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville 1805.
Later the first Duke of Buckingham and Chandos.

How do you begin to tell a story that you first sketched out on a beach bar in India in Easter 1999? A lot has happened since then. In my life. In the world.

I was a busy consultant, burning myself out on advising on science policy, technology transfer and management of research programmes in the UK, across Europe and beyond to Russia, Japan and Canada.

I lived in a small village in Oxfordshire, which I loved to bits. Despite my archaeological being career long behind me, it was inevitable that I would turn out to a meeting on the lawn of the King’s Head in Finmere one evening in August 1998. We spent a couple of hours imbibing ale and discussing a project to write local history for the millennium, just as many other villages were doing. That afternoon, I’d spent a couple of hours in the local studies centre digging out some nuggets about a village I’d only lived in for a few years. People seemed impressed by what I knew, which was a surprise to me.

As the meeting drew to a close, the organiser Frank, who had spoken little before, said quietly. “We have agreed to write a history. Now someone needs to lead.” I looked around the lawn on that summer’s night. People had fled to the bar to replenish their drinks or had headed for the toilets. The others stared at their feet. Looking at me Frank said quietly, “I think these people elect themselves.”

Finmere Historical Society was formed and I became its lead. Researching history was a relief from my 24×7 job. History eased the stress of getting out of bed hours before sensible people were awake to get a red eye flight from Birmingham, Heathrow or Gatwick.

There were breaks between my being anywhere but home. I spent a lot of time in the Shropshire, cementing a love of the blue remembered hills I had discovered in 1978 cycling through the county.

After the village had agreed on writing a history, I spent more of my spare time in archives. It did not take me long to discover that a sizeable part of the village records was archived in California. Henry E Huntington, the man who built Los Angeles railways, the “Red Lines”, was a renowned bibliophile. He had purchased a job lot of historic documents from a dealer in London. Around 350,000 in all. Many related to the Stowe estate in Buckinghamshire. Stowe House, now a school and National Trust property, was just three miles from my home.

With lots of local contributions, the village history book took shape. But going to California seemed too great a journey to just add a few pages to a local history book.

I created a stroke of luck. In January 1999, the American Association for the Advancement of Science was meeting in Anaheim, a little way south of Los Angeles. Many of my colleagues on the international science policy circuit were going. I hopped onto a plane and joined them.

I can’t recall much about the conference except Al Gore’s lengthy speech claiming he had kickstarted the internet. As the meeting concluded, our group met for lunch. Sitting around the table at the end of the meal, we described in turn where we were heading next. Disneyland, a few people said. Yosemite National Park. Long Beach and other popular destinations. I said, after a hesitation, “Hmm, I’m going to spend a week in a library.” The reaction was polite but not enthusiastic. Most of the company must have thought I was nuts.

Maybe. But that week in the Huntington Library was a turning point.

After three days, I had exhausted my research on Finmere. With two days in hand, I began to look at the other Stowe documents.

In those two days, I discovered a tale of young love, of betrayal, of weak men and strong women. People who are heroes. People who are deeply flawed.

A few weeks later, I was taking a break in Goa with friends. One hot afternoon, I purchased a two rupee notebook from the bookstall. Shading from a temperature of 40C in a beach bar, I scribbled the outline of the books I am writing now.

The next few years were turbulent. The market had shifted away from the consultancy we ran and we were no longer the cute kids on the block. Over the next couple of years, the company fell apart. My mind followed suit.

The next decade was difficult. Painful. I was helped by so many people, family, friends, people I barely knew. Eventually, after sleeping on cold benches, getting better sleep along with all the bugs in a warm community compost bin, I was housed in Ludlow. GPs and family created the space to allow my mind to ease and get it back to its previous strength.

Always, there was the idea of the books. Of a movie or mini-series to follow.

In the early years of the millennium, I’d used airmiles to yo-yo between Oxfordshire and LA. I gained a reputation for being the first through the doors of the Huntington Library every day and the last to leave. I worked just as hard in Buckinghamshire, week in week out at the archives in Aylesbury. In Winchester, in London and many other archives. I visited many buildings, sometimes knocking on doors unannounced. I went to graveyards and to churches. I walked around the estates owned by the family I am researching many times.

There are moments I remember during the many months of research.

The time in the Huntington Library when I burst into tears as I realised something I should have understood months before. It is the tragedy at the heart of the story. The library supervisor sitting high above us scholars leant forwards and said, “Are you alright, Mr Boddington?” “Hayfever is bad today,” I muttered in reply. I guess I fell in love with one of my central characters Anna Eliza at that point.

Anna Eliza 1805. Later 1st Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos, with her pug and her son Dico (later Chandos and second duke).

There was the time in Buckinghamshire Archives in Aylesbury when, on a table crowded with researchers, I was struggling to read a scrawled sentence. I was muttering under my breath as I tried to get the sense of it. Suddenly, I got it. I blurted out in a sotto voice profanities that echoed around the reading room. Fortunately, nobody complained about the outburst.

Work on the project stalled when I was elected councillor in March 2014. I have not done any major work on the books since then. In May this year, I turned 68 years of age. I decided that if I was to complete this project, it was now or possibly never.

Over the years, I have transcribed and copied more than a million words of information from original records and printed diaries of the period. There is more to research but that will wait a short while.

This summer is dedicated to pulling together everything I have now. Think of it as giant jigsaw. I have had a glimpse of the overall picture. I have assembled the edges. Now I am matching patterns, landscapes, buildings and people. But many pieces are missing and I may never find them. There are a lot of pieces that don’t belong. Interesting in their own right but not part of this puzzle.

What’s it about? You’ll need to wait a while before I talk about that. It about people involved in politics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not about the politics but the way politics affect people. It includes military action, at least early on. But again, it is not a book on the Napoleonic wars. There are duels, affairs and illegitimate children. There is blackmail and a flight into exile. These are books about love and betrayal of love. Books about status and wealth and the loss of both. About poverty and slavery.

The duel between the Duke of Bedford (left) and the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. William Heath 1822. British Museum.

There is nothing fictional in my work. With history this good, you don’t need fiction.

Mostly this is a book that takes place in Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and London and the Mediterranean, though there are connections to Shropshire and the borders through the Wynne family of Wynnstay and the Lloyd family of Aston.

3 comments on A summer of writing – with history this good who needs fiction?

  1. Astonishing Andy, thank you for letting us in to your work and we wish you success in its progression.

  2. Yes. Life gets in the way of dreams, hopes, plans.I also had hopes of writing about,of all things, vacuum cleaners.I am still waiting to get past the research stage.In the end you will succeed.

  3. Sounds like a superb tome Andy. I took A Level history many years ago and moving to Ludlow two years ago has been a great boost for my love of the subject with the Civic Society and U3a. Best of luck with it.

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