Arts, OldVenue

Review: Bernard Cornwell at UEA Literary Festival

The audience sat eagerly, many with novels in hand from Sharpe to The Warrior Chronicles, waiting to hear from the creator of some of their best-loved novels.

Chris Bigsby introduced Bernard Cornwell with his impressive figures of having published more than 50 books, sold more than 20 million copies and had his books translated into 28 different languages. Bernard sat wearing jeans, shirt and suit jacket, casually taking it all in. Before the conversation began, Bernard introduced the audience to a competition he and Chris had agreed on before coming on stage. If one of them asked a question with a yes, or no answer the other got a point. Throughout the evening this game provided much amusement for the audience, with Chris doing abysmally.

Chris navigated the conversation, beginning with a short history of Bernard’s life. Born of “a disastrous love affair” between his father, a Canadian airman, and his mother, a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Bernard grow up having not met his biological parents. Bernard recounted meeting each of them as an adult. In a gruff voice he spoke in imitation of his father, saying “It was only a one night stand” and in reply to Bernard’s question of “was she beautiful?” he had said “Well of course she was! You wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t!”

When he then recalled speaking to his mother about the time she and his father had known each other (she said it was for seven months, to which he repeated what his father had said and she simply replied “Bastard”), the tale was greeted with much laughter from the audience and from the start it was clear Bernard had a very natural gift for story telling as he related his life.

After a sad childhood, beginning in an orphanage, Bernard was adopted by a “peculiar family”, members of the strict fundamentalist, Christian sect. When asked about his adopted parents he said with indifference that he hated them. At seven years old his mother told him she wished they hadn’t adopted him. With 76 Bibles in the house he was beaten by his father for reading Treasure Island, and their list of sins soon became his wish list. Finally escaping his adopted parents he went on to boarding school and then University, never to return to his family, changing his surname to his mother’s maiden name – Cornwell.

In discussion of how Bernard began writing, he told how it started with his love of Hornblower. He kept looking for a series that didn’t exist, a “Hornblower on land”. Knowing he always wanted to write a book and earn a living this way, he set out with that ambition. Using the analogy of a mousetrap, where if you want to build the best mousetrap you get all the different versions and add the bits that work and throw out the things that don’t, he applied this theory to historical books already out there. Bernard admitted that “I’m not in it to win a Man Booker Prize, I’m in it to make money”. And money he made. Following the completion of his first novel he sent it for publication, and although he received an offer, the pay was poor. After meeting a literary agent at a party in New York, he humorously told how he pestered the man to read his novel. Once he had, the agent came back to him asking how much he wanted. And so began Bernard’s career as a successful writer.

Bernard described himself “a strange beast, because I’ve had the same publisher, agent and wife for 36 years”. From Bernard’s attitude and life story, it doesn’t seem strange; he appeared very much a man who knows what he wants and once he finds it, he keeps it. In relation to his wife he told us how after the very first time he saw her he said “I’m going to marry her” and that he did, following her to her native country – America.

Bernard’s love for history came across clearly as he spoke in great detail with historical facts about the battle at Agincourt and the “poor buggers” who had to fight against 5000 archers shooting 16 arrows a minute each, exclaiming “it must have been awful!” Bernard showed himself as a very versatile writer, enjoying working in the frame of historical facts such as with his new novel Waterloo, but also taking on the adventure of filling in the gaps where history doesn’t provide the answer. When Chris asked him about the challenge of remaining original when writing a story already so well known, Bernard replied with the example of Red Riding Hood – people know it, yet they still listen to it, and he, foremost a storyteller, enjoys creating another version.

In terms of the future, Bernard’s main plan is to make it up as he goes along as it’s “more amusing like that”. However, he does plan to write one more Sharpe novel. When asked by the audience if he will write anymore non-fiction books, he heartily replied “no”. In terms of television screening, he did announce that next week they start the filming of his The Saxon Stories, which was greeted which much excitement and gasps from the audience.

In conclusion of the evening, Bernard announced the win for yes/no’s was his 5-1. Better luck next time Chris!


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