Wednesday, 09 May 2012

First impressions: Bernard Cornwell

'My first memory? Hitler trying to kill me'

BERNARD CORNWELL OBE is a British author of historical novels. He is best known for his novels about rifl eman Richard Sharpe in the Napoleonic Wars, which were adapted into a popular TV series. He currently lives in America.

What are you working on at the moment?

A story about the battle of Poitiers (1356), which I want to call Slaughteryard, but my publishers will insist has a title such as Lilies Of The Valley, to attract women readers.

When were you at your happiest?

Sailing across the Atlantic in a small boat (well, 38 feet). There were three of us on board and I wished the voyage would never end.

What is your greatest fear?

Heights. I once locked myself out of a fi fth-fl oor flat in Chelsea and got inside by edging along a narrow cornice to a window I’d left open. I still have nightmares about it.

What is your earliest memory?

Lying in a crib and a window shattering above me. I was later told that it was a V1 flying bomb and I’m happy to say Hitler failed in his dastardly attempt to kill me.

Who has been your greatest influence?

CS Forester. I read all his Hornblower books and freely confess that Sharpe is an attempt to translate Hornblower on to dry land. Hornblower is a much nicer man, though.

What do you most dislike about yourself?

A complete lack of small talk. I dread parties. My wife can talk to anyone, and does. I beg her to stay at my side, but she doesn’t and I’m left stammering in a corner, wondering how to escape.

What is your most treasured possession?

A Cavalier King Charles spaniel called Whiskey, who is dreadfully spoiled and has had the happy effect of being my exercise machine and lost me a whole stone in weight.

What trait do you deplore most in others?

Eating ice cubes. This is mainly an American habit, but Cupid decreed I should fall in love and marry an American, so I am exposed to it. She doesn’t do it, but Whiskey does.

Do you have a fantasy address?

I’ve always fantasised about living in New Zealand, which is the most beautiful and friendly country, but just so very far from everything else. Maybe that’s why it’s so lovely…

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

My teeth, which are horrible English teeth and I just spent three hours of my birthday having one of them replaced, so I now have one American tooth.

What is your favourite book?

Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys, which is a strange choice (he was a strange man), but I came to it at a vulnerable time (adolescence) and it has stayed with me ever since.


What is your favourite film?

Shakespeare In Love. My least favourite, which you didn’t ask me for, is Titanic, which is pure schlock from the clodhopper.

Your favourite record or piece of music?

Mozart’s Requiem, which I know is very predictable, but I never tire of listening to it.

Your favourite meal?

Roast beef and Yorkshire, which is surprisingly hard to come by in the United States, though my lovely wife did learn how to roast potatoes, a skill that is surprisingly scarce in the US.

Who would you most like to come to dinner?

A table of actors and journalists; they have the best stories.

Which historical character do you most admire?

Nell Gwyn. She was fun, did not take herself seriously, and is much prettier than most famous characters from history.Can she come to dinner?

What is the nastiest thing anyone has ever said to you?

‘I wish we hadn’t adopted you’, said often and always in a heartfelt voice, but on the other hand, it was a mutual feeling so I can’t resent it. Still, even if true, it was pretty nasty.

Do you believe in aliens?

Yes, I’ve been to California.

What is your secret vice?

I try not to keep my vices secret – that way others know how to indulge them.

Do you write thank-you notes?

Yes, I do. I just sometimes forget to mail them.

Which phrase do you most overuse?

‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I must have forgotten to mail it.’

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

My wife would say giving up cigars, while I would answer that the best single thing would be a scientific discovery that smoking cigars prolongs your life, stops your hair falling out and protects against dementia. I live in hope.

What would you like your epitaph to say?

I’m not sure I even want one. When it’s over, it’s over, and I’ll become an irrelevance, except to the few loved ones who, remorselessly, will follow me into oblivion.

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