Look carefully. This painting by Charles Willson Peale was hanging outside the room where I gave a talk recently in the National Portrait Gallery. As some of you will know, I have a cat called Captain Oates who looks uncannily like the creature in the picture (except that Captain Oates has a body attached to his head).
More of the unfortunate feline in a moment. The NPG talk was one of many I've been asked to give so far this year. It's been frantic, in a controlled sort of way, and hugely exhilarating. In what other walk of life could I find myself sitting in a green room in Emma Bridgewater's factory in Stoke-on-Trent one moment, sharing a meal with the wonderfully gentle and illuminating Michael Morpurgo and with Prue Leith looking dazzling and extolling the virtues of offal; the next, sneaking peeks at the Royal Wedding on my iPad with Joan Bakewell and David Dimbleby in Vanessa Bell's kitchen at Charleston; drifting around the exquisite buildings and grounds of Dartington Hall in Devon or attempting to look nonchalant as I turn up to speak at Portcullis House or prepare for the Edinburgh Festival?
I'll never grow tired of this life on the road. I love meeting readers and listening to their stories and reactions, whether it's at high-profile Literary Festivals like these, or to a local history group, an enthusiastic U3A meeting or a group of WIs. At one such gathering last week a lady came up to me at the end and presented me with a bunch of 'suffragist roses' - red streaked with white - in honour of the heroines of Hearts and Minds. So moving.
That said, after six months I'm ready for a couple of weeks faffing about by the sea doing nothing much at all. I LOVE my job. But there's nothing like a silly season now and again, when there are (temporarily) no deadlines to meet, and nothing needs make sense. That's why my silly summer task is going to be to write a short story about Mr Peale's picture. And I'll dedicate it to Captain Oates.
I'll have to clear Captain Oates off my chair first, but I'd like to write a new post to celebrate the launch of my revamped website. (You can still find past posts on a separate page, by the way.) Given that I'm a historian, maybe I should start by looking back.
I'm often asked how I became a writer. Predictably enough, it all began with a love of books. The tale of the jam-tart bookmark is told elsewhere on this site; that's what turned me into a collector. My parents' weekend hobby was to drive around the North York Moors where I was brought up, visiting local farm sales and auctions. I used to tag along and search out the inevitable boxes of books - job-lots languishing in a corner which I couldn't often afford but thought needed company. I loved to look at them, handle them, wonder who turned the pages before me. Occasionally no-one would bid for them and I was allowed to take the orphans away. All this was while I was still at primary school.
At 'Big School' my friends and I used to catch the number 80 bus from Easingwold to York most Saturday mornings, and while they would peel off to buy loons and platform soles in boutiques, I'd make straight for the many second-hand bookshops in the city; again, just to ogle. I worshipped leather-bound volumes - the feel, scent, design, the innate wisdom and dignity of the things - and soon began to make the odd judicious purchase with hoarded pocket-money.
I left my safe and undemanding rural Comprehensive school for Oxford in 1978. I read English Literature and Language, and loved every moment. I really did. One of the first clubs I joined was the Oxford Bibliophiles; one evening we had John Maggs of the iconic London antiquarian booksellers Maggs Brothers as a guest speaker. I rounded on the poor man after the meeting and asked if I could come and talk to him about a career (I never wanted to do anything else) and he took me under his wing. He brokered my first job after university with Cavendish Rare Books in the Prince's Arcade, between Piccadilly and Jermyn Street.
The shop specialized in travel and exploration, about which I knew nothing. But we carried an eclectic general stock, too, from incunabula to the odd modern first edition. I got to bid at Sotheby's and Christie's (inconveniently paralytic with fear); to visit international bookfairs as buyer and seller; to learn how to catalogue and research books; to handle a dizzying variety of them and to meet extraordinary people, some of whom had just clambered off a Himalayan peak or partially thawed out after an expedition to the Antarctic.
One of our customers was an American gentleman who came in one day with a request. He'd decided to collect books by women travellers - an extremely quirky ambition - and wanted bibliography, a list of titles, so that he could tick them off as he amassed them. Fine, I said; I didn't know of one off-hand, but would do some research and let him know. From my experience in the shop I knew there were quite a few indomitable Victorian globe-trotteresses, a handful of eccentric mountaineers and sailor or two. The list would be short, but surely out there somewhere.
I did my research, and discovered that no-one had thought it worthwhile compiling the recherché bibliography my customer needed. So a helpful friend suggested I do it myself. Great idea. I went to the British Library and the Royal Geographical Society whenever I had the time, and got to work. But with titles like To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair, or On Sledge and Horseback to Ourcast Siberian Lepers, how could I resist reading the books I was only supposed to be listing? I couldn't. And once I started doing that, I was lost. What unexpected women. What incredible adventures. Why did they go? What did their families say? How did they feel about leaving home? How did they cope?
That was that. I decided to write about the women rather than the books. That same friend who had suggested I do the bibliography introduced me to his editor at Oxford University Press; I went along to chat about my idea, wrote a proposal, and Wayward Women was commissioned. As easy as that (couldn't happen now...). I gave up my job to become a freelance cataloguer; got married, and three months before our first son was born, the book was published. The launch party was held at Maggs Brothers, then in Berkeley Square, hosted by 'Mr John.'
They say the thrill of your first book can't be matched. I disagree. I'm working on number 11 now (another son and some 27 years later) and I love my work, and the people I meet through it - both real and long-gone - more than ever.
Historians should look back, of course. It's our job. What's really exciting is the hope that what we learn and can communicate as writers will somehow light the way ahead.