I’m currently working on a book about bravery and tragedy in the lifeboat service, focussing specifically on winners of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Gold Medal for gallantry since its inception in the early 1800s.

To add a bit of colour, I’m also researching the lives of the medal winners, and to a lesser extent the ships whose crews were rescued – which leads me onto the following story.

A major feature of the Second World War was the determination of both sides to attack merchant shipping in order to disrupt supplies and hamper the enemy’s war effort. Early in the war the German U-boats were very successful. We tend to think of the many ships and their crews that were lost to stealthy enemy attacks – but it wasn’t always like that, and yesterday I came across a fascinating German U-boat captain called Herbert Schultze and his exploits.

In a sensational world exclusive, given below is a passage from the book (in first draft form at least) in which I briefly tell his story. The actual lifeboat rescue at the heart of the chapter concerns a cargo vessel called the Browning, but this is what happened to her a few months before she ran aground:

The SS Browning

On the afternoon of 5 September 1939, near the start of the war and when perhaps a vestige of naval chivalry still existed, the lookouts on board the Browning, then about 300 miles off Cape Finisterre en route to Brazil, spotted a surfaced U-boat heading rapidly towards them. When a series of small explosions erupted in the water around them from the deck gun of the submarine, U-48, the cargo ship’s captain ordered the lowering of the boats so that his crew could escape before the Browning was torpedoed.     But the U-boat continued to close the distance, instead making for the lifeboats. Their crews were sitting ducks and must have feared the worst – but instead, the U-48 captain hailed them when he was close enough. What transpired was that Captain Herbert Schultze had earlier intercepted another British cargo ship, the Royal Sceptre and had

Captain Schultze

opened fire in order to make her stop, killing and wounding several of those on board. Her crew had also taken to the lifeboats, but a radio operator had been left at his post. Even though the man was sending distress signals that would have alerted any nearby Royal Navy warships, Schultze took the time to get him off and make sure all her crew were clear before sinking the Royal Sceptre. He had then spotted the distant Browning and had made for her, but not with the intention of consigning her to the same fate. He now ordered her crew to re-embark, and told them where they would find the drifting lifeboats of the other British ship and so be able to rescue the crew – which they duly did. [Footnote: Herbert Schultze became a U-boat ‘ace’, sinking 26 ships during his wartime career. On his first patrol he sank a ship called the Firby in a similar fashion, and sent a cheeky radio message across the airwaves (knowing that it would be intercepted by the British) to ‘Mr Churchill’, telling him what he’d done and where the crew could be picked up. He was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, Iron Cross 1st Class, the Knights Cross, and the Knights Cross with oak leaves. His nickname among his men was ‘Daddy’ Schultz because of the paternal care he took of them. He survived the war, dying in 1987 at the age of 77.]

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Hurry – While Stocks Last

On a recent visit to Waitrose I was tempted to buy one of these:











Unfortunately, when I went back the next day, the situation had deteriorated:



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My fault I suppose…

I should have read the sign before I went in.






It could have been worse. I found some of my dog’s old worming tablets at the back of a cupboard and they seem to be doing the trick.

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Why Do We Say That?

In response to a baying mob surrounding Beardsley Towers demanding another explanation of a well-known phrase or saying

I don’t think I can hold him back much longer

I bring you the following.

People complain about health and safety regulations these days, and often probably rightly so because an awful lot of it is now appears to be inspired not by a genuine, practical desire for safety but a fear of being sued (thanks, America!). (One place where I worked used to clear a path outside when there was ice on the ground. Then they learned that if anyone slipped on a bit they’d missed they could be sued, whereas if they didn’t attempt to clear any of the ice they couldn’t be. They stopped clearing the ice. But I digress slightly.)



There were plenty of occupations in days of yore that carried hidden dangers for those involved in them. Many of you will be aware of the Victorian match-making girls whose jaws began to rot thanks to the phosphorus fumes in their place of work. Some of the women involved in making shells during the First World War became known as ‘Canary Girls’ owing to the toxic affects of the TNT they handled, which could cause their skin to turn yellow.



Hat making might seem like it was a pretty safe trade to earn a living in. The problems started when it was discovered that mercury helped to produce a superior sort of felt hat, and its use became widespread. Unfortunately, so did mercury poisoning among hat makers, leading to dementia and serious effects on the central nervous system: from which we get the term Mad as a Hatter.

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I want a Refund




Alternative title: ‘My spelling, my chois’

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Heroes & Villains

In my work as a freelancer for one or two writers’ advice services I mostly receive children’s stories to critique, and one I read recently prompted me to pass on some pearls of wisdom about a very common trend among newer writers.

When you read enough manuscripts you come to recognise certain things that crop up again and again, eventually leading to a little inner groan as soon as you see the first signs. The one I’m writing about today is ‘the evil Mr Big’ phenomenon.

He (occasionally it’s a she but they’re mostly male) often – but not exclusively – crop up in fantasy-type stories, because that genre tends to lend itself to the idea of the villain who wants to conquer the world and enslave everyone in it. (Or something along those lines.) The question I always ask myself is – why? What is he going to get out of it? What motivated him to want to do it? Who would want to take on the stress of ruling a whole world and keeping everyone in check unless they had a powerful reason for doing so?

Very often, the author provides is no answer. Whereas the goodies might be well-rounded characters with a backstory and realistic human traits, Mr Big is just evil for evil’s sake and wants to conquer the world because….well, just because. He speaks in sneering tones and evilly laughs at our hero’s attempts to defeat him (till our hero has the last laugh at the end, of course) and is generally the archetypal moustache-twirling pantomime villain. Dick Dastardly without the laughs.

It’s not enough, writers! Publishers will have seen this a thousand times, and you’re going to have to come up with something better. And anyway, interesting villains are…interesting! They add a whole extra dimension to a story. Give them unexpected traits, reasons for doing what they do – perhaps even to the extent that we think they might have a point, even though we have to admit they’re going too far. After all, in the real world most Mr Bigs feel fully justified in doing the things they do. (This also applies, albeit in a slightly different way, to the stock bully that so many children’s writers feel compelled to toss into their story to spice things up.)

One of the best examples from fiction is surely Hannibal Lecter. He is a charming, fascinating, erudite man. You could share a bottle of wine with him and have a wide-ranging, intellectual conversation – and then he would eat your face off. In a way, the fact that he is intelligent, witty and charming yet capable of such terrible deeds makes him even scarier than the stock Mr Big. Certainly more interesting!


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The Show Must Go On

I can identify with this








In my case it was long division, but mathematics in all its forms can have a devastating effect. I’ve always believed there should be ‘safe spaces’ in classrooms where you can pretend it doesn’t exist.

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