Against All Odds: Interview with John Milton Langdon

John Milton Langdon is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and has a master’s degree in maritime civil engineering.  Langdon retired and became a professional writer after an active and rewarding engineering career.  Initially he worked in Britain but from 1972 until 2008, he dealt with project development in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria.  Langdon lives in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt which has a history stretching back to mediaeval times.  Langdon has three children and five grandchildren from his first marriage and two step sons from the second.  Langdon has many interests including travel, the British canals, music and literature but hiking in the mountains surrounding his home is a preferred leisure activity.

John’s latest book is a historical fiction titled Against All Odds (Tate Publishing).

You can visit John Milton Langdon’s website at www.jmlangdon.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, John. Can you tell us what your latest book, Against All Odds, is all about?

Against All Odds is the first of four volumes that describe Jason Smiley Stewart’s life from his early years in Queen Victoria’s England to maturity.  The story is fiction but has a background based in fact.

A chance visit to an island in the Elphinston Inlet (Khor As Sham) in Oman provided the inspiration for my story, and my retirement from full time employment gave me the time I needed to write it.  The island is called Telegraph Island and anyone with Google Earth on their PC will be able to locate it quite easily.

In the middle of the eighteen hundreds a small group of British telegraph operators lived and worked at a repeater station on the island, as it was one of the links in the chain of repeater stations on the electric telegraph between Britain and India.  This was at the very beginning of the electronic age that we take for granted now.

Standing in burning sunshine on a barren lump of rock, surrounded by a sea edged with equally barren but precipitous mountains, I could only marvel at the fortitude of men who could live and work under such appalling conditions.  Water, food and all the other essentials of life had to be supplied by sea.  They lived in Arab style huts made of barasti and must have suffered enormously in the heat and humidity.  The operators spent long hours listening to incoming messages in Morse code which they then had to retransmit along the next section of the cable.  It was small wonder that many became ill and the phrase ‘gone round the bend’ was coined by sailors recovering mentally sick personnel from the island which is beyond a bend in the inlet.

I felt there was a story to be told about these men with the development of the telegraph system during the industrial revolution as a background theme.  Against All Odds is the first part of this story.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

The main character is Jason Smiley who becomes Jason Smiley Stewart during his life.  The story opens when Jason is a small boy living with his mother and blacksmith father in a village in eastern England and describes his mimimal education.  His ability to take advantage of the opportuniies presented to him lead initially to a career as a naval officer and then to his involvement with the construction of part of the electric telegraph system.  During these early years he also met a young woman – his first sweetheart – but is prevented from pursuing the relationship by a puritanical Victorian father.

There are two other characters who influence Jason’s life.  One was Captain James Stewart who recognised Jason’s innate abilities and gave him the chance to be a cadet on his ship.  The other was Neil Fairweather who was a specialist with the electric telegraph and taught Jason about electricity and the telegraph during a voyage they made together to Bombay.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

With one minor exception the characters who live in my story are all fictitous.  I suppose they are an amalgam of all the men and women I have met during my life.  The exception is that I gave Jason red hair and the nickname ‘ginger’ which he disliked – as I did!.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

I expected to write only one book.  When I began I knew the story would begin at an imaginary village called Pickworth and reach a climax on Telegraph Island in Oman.  To achieve this I decided that my Victorian main character had to have at least the following attributes in order to be sent to the island :-

·    He had to know the telegraph system.

·    He had to be able to travel.

·    He needed to be physically dextrous.

·    Preferably he should be from a poor family, but be ambitious and desire to better himself.

Nothing else was defined at that time, and the story simply developed as I wrote it.  One situation would lead logically to the next.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Only one location is fundamental to the story and that is Telegraph Island; the other places are stepping stones on Jason’s journey from child to man; ignorance to knowledge; insignificance to fame.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

I think some background is needed.  In Victorian England a boy born as the son of a blacksmith would have normally followed his father’s trade and become a blacksmith.  Similarly, he would have travelled less than about twenty miles from his home because, being poor, he would have had to walk.  Only the wealthy had horses or carriages for transport.  Because Captain Stewart recognised Jason’s intelligence and desire for knowledge, he offered him a chance to become an officer cadet on his ship.  To attend the interview that would decide his future, Jason had to leave his home and travel about two hundred miles to Liverpool.  It was a city he knew nothing about, except that the local vernacular was called scouse, and for the first time he would travel on one of the newly built railway lines.  Jason had been given a letter of introduction to the Vicar of St. John’s church in Liverpool and expected to stay the night in the Vicarage.

On Page 69 Jason has arrived at the door of the Vicarage and tugged on the bellpull.  The door was opened by the housekeeper.

She said something that was totally un-intelligible.  Her accent and pronunciation were so strange I could not be sure she was even speaking the Queen’s English.  She spoke again, more sharply this time, but again I did not understand a word of what she said and in desperation I handed her the letter from my vicar.

She stepped back into the hallway.  Perhaps she was afraid I would follow because she swung the door back with such violence that I jumped back in alarm, but she closed it with only a gentle click.  I stood on the footpath in front of the door feeling a little foolish.

With the door shut and my letter on the other side of it, I began to wonder what I should do.”

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

– – – – -.  I was envious and very disappointed to be excluded from the group, but there was no need for us both to go and he was a much more experienced small boat sailor than I was.  Consequently, when he went down to organise the boat, I took over his watch on the bridge with the best grace I could muster.  The ship was lying with the bows into a gentle southerly breeze and the island was almost due north of us beyond the stern.

The jolly boat was cast off and Evans ordered his crew to hoist the small lugsail to take advantage of the breeze that was blowing.  Evans waved cheerfully and sailed away towards the island on the long run that would take him to the western and lower end of the island.  The Captain took a last look around the horizon and went below to his cabin.  I watched the jolly boat for a few moments and clearly the whole party were enjoying themselves.  Like a Sunday school outing I thought as I resumed my duties as officer of the watch and checked that the ship had not drifted off position.

Fifteen minutes later, when the boat with Evan’s party in it were about half way to the island, the Captain came hurrying back to the bridge.  Nothing had changed that I could detect.  The sky remained a cloudless blue and the breeze was slightly lighter if anything, but that was all.  But clearly Captain Stewart was worried.  He had seen or felt something while he was in his cabin, that I hadn’t detected and from the expression on his face, the instincts of a very experienced sailor were giving him considerable concern.

He picked up a telescope and started to scan the horizon.  He looked seaward and then slowly but progressively examined the visible horizon, carefully studying the shore line and the tops of the surrounding hills.  He said nothing and may not have known what he was looking for, but he suddenly stopped moving and studied a particular area almost directly in line with the island for several moments.

He suddenly snapped the telescope shut, reached above his head for the lanyard controlling the ship’s whistle and blew five short blasts, the danger warning, followed quickly by another five blasts and then another five.  He rang the engine room telegraph to standby and ordered me to signal the boat.

“Jason! Quickly! Hoist flags ‘U’ over ‘K’ over ‘X’.

Even as I rushed to the flag locker, a tiny part of my mind registered the fact that the Captain had addressed me as Jason instead of his customary Mr. Smiley.  I was thankful that my many hours of practice under the Bosun’s watchful gaze were being rewarded, as I had all three flags, bent on, hoisted and flying within a few moments of receiving Captain Stewart’s terse order.

As I carried out the instruction, I remembered that ‘U’ means ‘you are standing into danger’, ‘K’ means ‘you should stop your vessel instantly’ and ‘X’ means ‘you should stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals’.  The Captain had sent a very comprehensive message with the minimum of wasted effort but the wind was now very light and, as it was blowing almost directly from the ship towards Evans, I did not think he would be able to see them.  Captain Stewart called the engine room on the voice pipe in the corner of the bridge near the telegraph and the half of the conversation I heard was

“Chief?”

“Call the Chief Engineer immediately.”

“Chief?”  Captain here.  There is a storm approaching.  Raise steam as quickly as you can.  How long before I can use the engine?”

“I see.  That may not be soon enough.  You will have to do better!”

There was a significant pause as the Captain listened to the Chief and he then said, “I see.  If the storm that’s coming causes the anchor to drag, you may not have an engine to worry about this afternoon.”

The Captain obviously thought the wind direction was preventing Evans from seeing the flag signal as he blew another series of danger warnings on the steam whistle just as the First Mate arrived on the bridge followed closely by the second officer.

Captain Stewart gestured towards the north and said “There’s a bad storm coming and Evans is right in its path”.

Captain Stewart turned to the second mate and ordered, “Go round the ship and make sure all portholes and hatches are closed.  Tell the crew there is a severe dust storm coming and all off watch crew are to go to their mess rooms to wait further orders”.

In company with the Captain and Mr. Richards, the First Mate, I used a telescope and looked in the direction the Captain had pointed and could see low, dark, rolling clouds rushing out of the mountains towards us.  It came even closer as we watched and the sea between the mainland and the island began to smoke and boil from the fury of the approaching wind.  Suddenly the main land behind the island became a blur and then disappeared.  Between the island and the ‘Earl Canning’, our boat with Evans and the surveyors on board sailed serenely on.  They were clearly unaware of the approaching danger, possibly because they were close enough to the island for its bulk to block out most of the mainland and the approaching storm beyond.  They had obviously heard the siren and knew something was amiss, as we saw in our telescopes Evans pass the tiller to one of his crew and stand in the stern of the jolly boat looking back at us with the small telescope that he always carried with him. We could see the dust being blown like smoke horizontally from the top of the island as the storm approached it but we were incapable of indicating where the danger to Evans and his party was coming from.  Apart from the helmsman, everyone was looking back towards us.

The Bosun arrived on the bridge.  He had also heard the steam whistle blowing and knew from experience that he would be required in an emergency.

He reported directly to the Captain who said, “Ah Bosun, just the man.  There is a storm coming.  Set an anchor watch.  Two of your most experienced hands.  I need to know immediately if the anchor starts to drag.  Put some men at intervals along the deck so that there is no delay passing information to me from your men on the forecastle”.

The Captain again blew on the whistle to attract attention to the storm and as he did so a freak gust of wind blew our signal flags out to port.  Evans saw the hoist, spun round and saw the approaching danger himself, and the lugsail started to drop.  But his action was far too late, as the sail was not half down before the boat listed steeply in a sudden violent blast of wind.  Both boat and occupants disappeared from our horrified view into an impenetrable blanket of dust.

We watched with fascinated horror as a thick brown cloud of dust, only rising a few hundred feet into the air, roiled and boiled rapidly across the sea towards us.  Amazingly there was a serene blue sky above it and turbulent white capped sea at its base.  The noise from the wind was deafening and seemed louder than the hurricane winds I had experienced a few years before.

My thoughts and prayers were with my friend Evans who was fighting three enemies at once.  The sea, the wind and the dust.  – – – –

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, John.  We wish you much success!

Thank you for the courtesy of this interview.  I have enjoyed revisiting the decisions I made some years ago and hope my answers have been of interest.

 

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