Author Tony Bradman has today written a lovely piece at The Guardian Books pages about being inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff: “… thanks, Rosemary – you really were an inspiration to that 11-year-old boy”.
I remember being gripped by the story of a young Roman called Marcus and his quest to find the Eagle standard of a legion that marched north and disappeared in The Eagle of the Ninth. From then on I was a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books.
In 1965 I was 11 and in my last year at Junior school. I was living with my mum and older sister in a rented flat in south London – my parents had separated when I was five and got divorced a couple of years later, which was unusual at the time. My dad was working abroad and I hadn’t seen him for several years. He had become a mythical figure, someone I longed for and resented because of his absence.
Then he came back, and soon Saturday mornings were taken up by dad’s weekly “access visits”. By then I was obsessed with history. At school we’d studied the Romans and the Saxons, and I was fascinated by it all. So I made my dad take me to the British Museum as often as possible. My parents were of the world war two generation – dad had been a sailor on HMS Belfast – so he took me to the Imperial War Museum too. Mum told me stories about her time in the Women’s Royal Navy, and about her dad, who had died before I was born – he’d been sent to Australia as a child, then joined the Australian Army in the first world war and fought at Gallipoli.
Then one Saturday, probably on the way home from the British Museum, dad and I stopped at a WH Smith’s so I could spend my pocket money. I bought a Puffin book, attracted by the cover picture of Roman soldiers and the title: The Eagle of the Ninth. I remember being gripped by the story of a young Roman called Marcus, and his quest to find the Eagle standard of a legion that marched north of Hadrian’s wall and never returned. From then on I was a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books.
I can give you lots of reasons why I think she’s a great writer. She’s a terrific storyteller, and could certainly teach Hollywood a thing or two about pace, suspense and cliffhangers. Her central characters are usually underdogs, children or young people with colossal problems to overcome – she herself suffered in childhood from Stills disease, a form of arthritis that left her permanently disabled. And then of course she writes so well, bringing her characters and the past brilliantly to life.
But it was only a few years ago that I realised why I’d been so drawn to The Eagle of the Ninth – the story is really about Marcus looking for his father, a centurion in the lost legion. Marcus wants to know what happened to his dad, and in some way to reclaim him. The shadow of not knowing hangs over Marcus, and I see now that I must have identified with another boy who missed his dad and resented his absence.
It was also then that I realised I had always wanted to write historical fiction. I’d written lots of other stuff, of course – poetry and picture books and Dilly the Dinosaur stories – but then I wrote a short novel about Spartacus, and loved the whole process. I haven’t looked back since – I even wrote a novel called Viking Boy, in which a boy goes looking for his missing father. Now I’ve written Anzac Boys, a story based on what my mum told me about her dad and his experiences at Gallipoli.
So thanks, Rosemary – you really were an inspiration to that 11-year-old boy.