September 2017 – Dick Durham “Voyage between Empires”

Our September talk, held at the Chippy Chequers, was given by writer, raconteur and Yachting Monthly’s editor-at-large Dick Durham, on a topic that has fascinated yachties and historians for years. Was Erskine Childers’ pre-WW1 classic spy thriller The Riddle of the Sands just a novel, or was it a warning about a real threat of invasion from the Kaiser’s Germany, across the North Sea?

For historical context Dick reminded us that the work is set in the age of Empire when Victoria was on the throne and Britain ruled the waves. A different age indeed, in the run up to WW1.

Dick’s talk ‘A Voyage Between Empires’ examined the fact and the fiction, drawing on both his field research, undertaken with artist Martyn Mackrill; and three years of research by Maldwin Drummond (published in his book “The Riddle”, now in its second edition).

The boat Dulcibella of the novel was very like Childers own and very real boat, the Vixen (later renamed Dulcibella) in which Childers cruised the area. Vixen was a converted and stretched lifeboat (the Thomas Chapman). It is also clear that the leading characters of the novel were based on real and identifiable people.

Dick peppered his talk with convincing voices. Churchill figured. So did the Kaiser. Churchill certainly knew the book and it does not seem to be much of a stretch to think that our defence policies were coloured by it.

Childers later in life became very anti-English and joined Sinn Féin, and was convicted of gun-running and shot, on a trumped-up charge, during the Irish Civil War, having been given a hand gun for self-defence…

BecalmedEven those of us who know the book intimately learnt something new, and we were further drawn into this classic mystery. As well as showing us pictures of the seas, sandbanks, watersheds, and islands where the book is set, Dick showed us some evocative drawings and paintings by Martyn Mackrill depicting scenes from the novel. His work is on sale from Messum’s gallery in Mayfair.

Yet another fascinating evening, in good company.