If you have followed me for a while you will most likely already know that I am a big fan of Nick Britten’s brilliant Facebook page UNDER EVERY LEAF. The page focuses on the men and events of the British Empire between 1860-1913 and it has often been a source of inspiration for the Jack Lark series.
I am delighted that Nick has agreed to answer a few questions about his interest in this period and what inspired him to start the page.
PFC: Your page UNDER EVERY LEAF is one my favourites and it has certainly been an inspiration. What made you start it?
NB: UnderEveryLeaf originally started out as a blog in which I could publish my research. At the same time I also created the Facebook page to generate traffic. I very quickly realised that I had neither the time nor the skill to write long involved research, but that pictures posted on Facebook with short punchy captions generated a much wider interest. I switched to building up the Facebook site and have never looked back.
I also was very aware that most of the articles, films and books on the Empire are very Anglo-Centric, and I wanted to tell the the stories of the native troops who fought and died alongside British troops. It has been a joy that these posts generate the most interest and discussion on the page.
One of the most asked questions I get is what does UnderEveryLeaf mean? Well it comes from a 19th Century Farsi saying. ‘Anywhere in the world, where a leaf moves, underneath you will find an Englishman.’
PFC: Which part of this particular era fascinates you the most?
NB: What part doesn’t fascinate me! I try (and fail) to keep my focus on the High Victorian period of Empire from about 1860 to 1914 and the pretty much destruction of the old colonial army on the fields of Belgium and France. I’m obsessed with with most aspects of the era: the music, the literature, the uniforms, the weapons but most of all by the men who left these shores to fight in far flung places for Queen and Country.
While not wishing to cause offence to authors, some of the stories from this time are almost beyond believing and couldn’t be made up!
PFC: How do you go about researching a particular piece. Do you have any go-to sources that you don’t mind sharing with us?
NB: I normally start with a picture, either from the National Army Online Collection, the British Newspaper Archive or many times from people who send them to me. I then spend a few days researching the subject. For this I use a variety of sources including FindMyPast, my book collection, the British Newspaper Archive and regimental websites. The British Newspaper Archive is certainly the best resource on the web. It gives you the story from the point of view of that time, opinions of editors, eye witness accounts, letters from combatants and recollections from veterans. It adds a whole layer of information that just isn’t available from books.
PFC: Which battle or campaign of the period has most grabbed your attention?
NB: I think the battle of Rorke’s Drift certainly captured my attention as a kid (mainly thanks to Zulu) but as I spend more time researching the era the more I’m drawn to the 2nd Boer War (1899-1902). I’ve quickly realised that the war is almost a dress rehearsal for the First World War and arguably the first “Modern War” the British Army fought. It was the first time that the whole of the Empire pulled together as troops from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as non combatants from India, flooded into the War. Add in the telegraph, air balloons, concentration camps, trenches, barb wire and modern medical support, and you quickly realise just what a learning experience it was for the British.
PFC: I am always a fascinated by the weapons Jack gets to use. Do you have a favourite weapon?
NB: I’m unashamedly influenced by Zulu in my choice, so it has to be the Martini-Henry which was introduced in 1871. While not the best weapon of the era, it is certainly one of the most iconic. I’ve never fired one, but I’ve held one, and the weight of the piece is surprising. It makes you appreciate the men having to hold one under the boiling African sun, with their hot sweaty woollen red coats done up, trying to fire it as 4,000 Zulus descended upon them!
PFC: Every novel should have a good cast of characters. If you were in a novel what sort of character would you be?
NB: I have no need or want to be a main character like a general or an officer, I would be quite happy as private in my red coat, standing to with my Martini-Henry at the ready, as the colour sergeant told me to “Hold steady.”
PFC: What is your favourite novel that you have read in the last few years? (and it doesn’t have to be a Jack Lark novel!)
NB: While not wishing to sound like I’m creeping, the first Jack Lark book, “The Scarlet Thief”, was certainly one of the best as the premise was so clever and unusual. It has basically allowed you to take Jack Lark anywhere in the world and make it believable.
It’s really tough to name just one as there are so many talented authors out there, but if you held a gun to my head I would choose Bloodeye by Giles Kristian. It is about the best debut novel I’ve ever read and it has Vikings in it!
PFC: As you know, I am rather fond of impostors. If you were able to sneak your way into a single historical event which would one would you choose?
NB: No contest…Standing behind a mealie bag wall at the aid station known as Rorke’s Drift. 22nd-23rd January 1879.