Summer is here at last, the sky is a clear blue without a cloud in sight, the garden cries out for weeding or a pair of secateurs to dead head the roses. Better still there’s that sun bed under the apple tree and the temptation of a stolen hour to dream.
Last month I posed the question – what keeps you going, inspiration or imagination? Every writer knows those two feelings, the first and best, a sense of excitement when an inspiring experience takes over followed by a longing for the opportunity to find a corner to write uninterrupted confident that words will flow freely onto the page driven by the force of imagination. The second, the dreaded writers block when only the drive of a dead-line will get you to your desk.
Where do you go to refuel when your mind feels dry and empty, when you feel you are not up to the task in hand, when you want to give up? I go back to a time when I was very small, to the days when I would hide under a table and listen to the grown-up world going on around me, careless of what they did or said, unaware that I was there. Sometimes the room would be empty and the wireless which sat on the table above me would be talking to itself. 26 February 1941 was one of those days.
During the war years the BBC news at one o’clock was all important to the grown-ups, something I usually found inexplicably boring but for some reason that day even though it was lunch-time there were no grown-uos about when I realised that the man on the wirelesswas talking about HMS Ladybird, my ship. Of course she wasn’t really my ship but I had been born in Hankow on the banks of the Yangtze when my father was first lieutenant of the Ladybird, the only member of the ship’s company whose wife had been able to join him in China so, soon after I was born I was adopted by every member of the crew as their baby. The ship’s bell was used for my baptism and my name was inscribed on the inside. My mother got me and my amah back to England in the last passenger ship to leave Shanghai as the Japanese forces came over the northern border, and I grew up in England thinking of Ladybird as my ship. The day of that broadcast I was only five but I listened so closely that the report has been my driving force to this day.
Ladybird, an Insect Class gunboat was built in 1916 and deployed in the China fleet. She came under fire from Japanese artillery near Wuhu, was hit by six shells but not badly damaged and so was able to join her sister ship Bee in picking up survivors after the sinking of USS Panay. In 1939 she was fitted with more modern guns from the decommissioned battleship HMS Agincourt and sent to Singapore where she and five others of her class were stripped down and towed to the Mediterranean. On the journey she was damaged again and from then on was limited to no more than 7 knots as her hull had become misaligned. First of all she was sent to defend Port Said but in December she was sent to bombard the port of Bardia. In February she landed a Royal Marine unit during Operation Abstention and was hit by an arial bomb but was still able to carry on until, acting in support of the Tobruk Garrison, she was involved in shelling the Gaza airfield and ferrying in supplies. This time she was badly damaged by dive bombers and set on fire. The end was in sight. She settled on an even keel in 10feet (3.0m) of water.
By this time I was listening more closely to the report than to any story designed for a child. This was my ship, she was a real personality, she was brave, she was sunk but she was a survivor. Her 3inch (76mm) gun was still above water and continued the fight as an anti-air craft gun. As an adult I learnt to recognise the bravery of her crew but for me and for all involved with her, her crew and their families, the ship herself had a real personality. For seventy seven years the story of that little gunboat HMS Ladybird sunk at the battle of Torbruk but still fighting has been my inspiration. You may be at the bottom but you never give in!