Finding the Voice and Finding the Time

RGT + James Cook I’ve felt this man’s eyes on me for years. His and George Vancouver’s.

On a recent trip to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich I discovered the famous 1775 portrait of the great mariner James Cook by Nathaniel Dance-Holland. I’ve done a lot of research on Cook and his era, and I’d seen this picture many times before, so it was a delight to discover the original there on the wall. So: selfie time. The resulting photo surprised me. I wonder if George Vancouver also felt Cook looking over his shoulder.

Vancouver was a midshipman on Cook’s last two voyages. With Cook, he twice circumnavigated the globe, spending more than eight years at sea. Thirteen years after Cook’s death, still only thirty-four, Vancouver was assigned to lead his own ambitious voyage of exploration. He was to complete the mapping of the northwest coast of North America, in the course of which he was to find or refute the existence of a navigable North West Passage.

My work-in-progress is set in Nootka Sound in 1792, during that epic voyage. I’ve long faced the challenge of how to tell an historical story with authenticity, how to be true to the characters and the age without losing contemporary readers. My initial effort produced a manuscript that veritably creaked with authenticity. Authenticity, good. Creaky, bad. I rethought it and eventually found a narrative voice that could accomplish what I wanted to do. It is omniscient, perhaps unreliable, egotistical, and it’s got attitude, which makes it fun, in a dangerous (though not Travis Bickle-dangerous) way. By dangerous, I mean unconventional.

My path to this approach was long and winding. Years ago, my daughter Kaitlin introduced me to a book she was reading at school: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, in which the narrator is Death. I loved that book and drew inspiration from it in solving my narration conundrum, though I haven’t gone as far as Zusak in using Death’s voice. Not quite, though my narrator has a unique perspective and plenty of character. I’ve also been inspired by the German writer W.G. Sebald, whose novel The Rings of Saturn is unlike any I’ve ever encountered. In the course of his story Sebald’s solitary, nameless narrator digresses into history, biography, literature and architecture. His narrative arc winds, not aimlessly, but delightfully. A friend gave me the book and said I’d like it, and I did, though perhaps not for the reasons he anticipated.

I’m pleased to say the narrative voice in my novel-in-progress (working title: The Wind From All Directions, “TWFAD”) works. I’m making good progress on the manuscript and am happy with it. I’m taking risks with voice, perspective, and story-telling in general. I’m painting outside the lines and don’t give a damn about breaking literary convention. The way I see it, if you’re painting within the lines—if you can see lines—well, you’re working on someone else’s painting. What about your own? This is my last novel. I see no need to hold back now. What do I have to lose?

Now back to Greenwich. It was a pleasurable working visit, the best kind. I did some research there for TWFAD that I could do nowhere else. I was there to investigate time and ogle the chronometers housed at the Maritime Museum and up the hill at the Royal Observatory.

John Harrison’s famous “sea watch,” known as H4, and its predecessors H1, H2 and H3 (all of which are still in working order), are on exhibit at the Observatory, where there is a very thorough, very accessible audible tour. If you’ve read Dava Sobel’s Longitude (nerd alert: Yes, of course I have.) you’ll know the significance of these chronometers. H4 was the timepiece that solved the great conundrum of marine navigators, the problem of determining longitude at sea, a problem that had preoccupied astronomers, mathematicians, horologists and instrument-makers for decades.

H4 was a masterpiece, a work of genius, a breakthrough for science and instrumentation, but a one-off. It was so expensive that it was impractical as a day-to-day solution for ships at sea. The navy could not afford to equip all its vessels with such a piece, and it was completely out of reach for the owners of merchant vessels.

The effort began to simplify the clock’s movement and cut costs. Britain’s Board of Longitude commissioned watchmaker Larcum Kendall to copy H4 with those objectives in mind. In 1770 he produced a timepiece called K1, which James Cook tested on his second voyage—George Vancouver’s first. K1 worked superbly—Cook referred to it as “our trusty friend the Watch.” It proved that H4’s success was no fluke. Kendall went on to produce K2 in 1772, and K3 in 1774, both cheaper, though inferior to K1. Cook took both K1 and K3 on his third and final voyage. K3 remained in service for many years. It was assigned to George Vancouver for his great expedition in 1791. It proved erratic in its running rate, although it was superior to other chronometers he was provided with. K2, by the way, was assigned to William Bligh (who was on Cook’s fateful third voyage with Vancouver) in 1787 for his voyage to Tahiti on HMS Bounty. It remained on the ship when Bligh was set adrift in the Pacific by Fletcher Christian. Christian took it to Pitcairn Island where he scuttled Bounty. Years later the last surviving mutineer on Pitcairn gave K2 to the captain of a visiting ship. It was eventually returned to Britain. It is exhibited in the Maritime Museum alongside K1 and K3.

These historic timepieces are awe-inspiring for anyone (such as yours truly) who finds inspiration in the long and ultimately successful quest for a solution to the vexing problem of longitude.

Here are some pictures of these historic timepieces and other eighteenth century navigational equipment housed at the National Maritime Museum or the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

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