Daniel Craig and The Emperor’s Gold

Robert Wilton interviewed by Iain Ballantyne, published in Warships December 2011

Q1: What is the core concept of ‘The Emperor’s Gold’?

In summer 1805, Britain was a weather-change away from invasion and defeat by Napoleon Bonaparte. Everyone's heard of Nelson; but very few have heard of what was going on in the shadows - the deceptions, the betrayals, the desperate manoeuvring to try (almost literally) to stem the tide. The archive of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, a forgotten department of the Crown, reveals some of this for the first time; key documents from the archive provide the skeleton of the book, and future books in the series will explore other periods of British history in the same way.

Q2: That’s an intriguing idea – but can you explain why nobody has ever heard of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey before?

Well, it's never advertised its existence. And I have the impression that, during its evolutions over the last few centuries, it may at times have changed its name, or at least operated behind the facade of other organisations. Some historians may have seen passing references to it in more obscure documents, and maybe decided it sounded too bureaucratic to pay much attention to.

Q3: What is it about your take on espionage in the Georgian world that you feel adds something new to a genre in which we already have Patrick O’Brian’s Dr Stephen Maturin and Julian Stockwin’s Nicholas Renzi, both of whom are fictional naval spies of the Georgian era?

Renzi's an appealingly romantic figure, and I think Maturin is a brilliant creation (not just as a foil for Jack Aubrey, and because of the lovely relationship with Diana Villiers, but because of the fascinating link O'Brian makes between the natural sciences and naval intelligence); so I've no desire to compete or repeat. What I found fascinating, reading through the activities of the Comptrollerate-General, is how new understanding of what was going on in the shadows explains or forces us to re-think what we've previously taken for granted from regular histories.

Q4: You have enjoyed an interesting and varied career, so did any of your experiences within government provide you with grist for your novel-writing mill?

Yes - but very few of them, sadly, to do with excitement, mystery, or dangerous temptresses enjoyed in stolen moments in high-society boudoirs. Starting out among people who'd been diligently and thanklessly working for their country for twenty, thirty or forty years (insert old fogey comment: a tradition of public service which we're probably losing) gave me respect and a kind of affection for the unseen cogs of our Government. So perhaps it's natural that I ended up writing about an organisation, rather than a synthetic hero. As an historian, and having seen how Government works elsewhere, and having only glimpsed levels of suffering and oppression and chaos that most of us will never endure, I think that the level of relative stability and continuity that Britain has had over the centuries is staggeringly lucky. I think that idea creeps into the books.

Q5: Your protagonist, Tom Roscarrock, seems a rough-hewn Cornish seafarer, so do you think there is something distinctive about the South West Peninsula that breed the kind of hero you desired to place at the heart of the action?

To quote Roscarrock, "I've spent a lot of my time in Cornwall - we've links there, and the Cornish think they're a nation apart, which suited me." Cornwall isn't just further, it's different. On top of his intrepidity and resilience, the fact that Roscarrock was a sailor, from a world lived more communally and closer to death, made him indifferent to the more stratified society in which he then had to operate.

Q6: You start the novel off with an extraordinarily powerful description of a shipwreck, so does that spring from experience as a seafarer or observing such a storm from the shores of Cornwall?

I love the sea very deeply, and enjoy being battered by the waves as long as I'm guaranteed a warm fire and a cup of tea very soon afterwards. But the image of the storm and the shipwreck came with dry feet and safe distance, one moonlit night watching the Atlantic rushing the Cornish cliffs.

Q7: Your academic background is pretty impressive - reading history at Oxford, and studying for an MA in European History and Culture at the University of London – so why this novel and why now?

It’s disappointing: despite that supposedly good academic background I still find myself muddling through trying to pay the mortgage. The Nobel Prize Committee seems to have overlooked me again this year, as well, so that's another delay to my early retirement. I write what I can, and what stimulates me: whether it's analytical pieces about Balkan history and culture, poetry translations, short stories or spoof newspaper articles. I've no pretensions, or discomfort, about The Emperor's Gold: I hope it's an enjoyable read, for people who don't want to switch their brains off completely. And if a love of history translates into a bit of vitality or depth in the narrative, fine.

Q8: Your portrait of English society in 1805, projects a powder keg of discontent, whereas we traditionally think only of Nelson chasing Villeneuve to and from the Caribbean and then destroying the Franco-Spanish Fleet at Trafalgar. Invasion deterred, job done. You seem to be suggesting that things were less cut and dried, that there were forces at work ashore, not only at sea, that could have enabled Napoleon to actually enact his invasion. Or is that all just a flight of fancy on your part?

If Napoleon had been given the few free hours he needed to get his Army of the Ocean Coasts from Boulogne to England, end of story. His Army was vast and approaching its legendary peak; the British resistance was in Dad's Army territory. And the image of jolly jack tars and stout defiant John Bull overlooks the serious social unrest, the spurts of radicalism, and rebellious oppressed Ireland, that the country had felt in the previous years - not to mention those individuals at all levels of society whose feelings about the French Revolution and Napoleon were ambiguous. In 1805, as in 1940, Britain survived because we seized a critical opportunity to convert our one area of technological strength into a decisive victory - and, it turns out, because of men and woman behind the scenes, arguably as brave as those on the decks of the ships of the line at Trafalgar.

Q9: You deploy a number of devices, such as allegedly reproducing historic documents - including intelligence reports, letters and even transcripts of conversations - in addition to a standard dramatic narrative. Firstly, why? Secondly, from early reaction to the book, has your somewhat fragmented, innovative, approach been a success?

You tell me. I think that, as I'd hoped, readers have found that the use of documents from the Comptrollerate-General archive reinforces the authenticity and texture of the account. Through their letters and testimonies, these voices - whether it's the vain French Admiral, the desperate and under-funded saboteur, or one of the seedy Government agents - come to us more clearly and intimately.

Q10: There is a rather spooky video of you on the Internet, allegedly lurking in a deep and dark cellar below Whitehall, explaining how you have drawn on secret archives of the shadowy Comptrollerate-General, the hidden hand on the tiller of the English State for centuries. How does the Comptrollerate-General feel about you exposing its espionage activities to the world – are you a marked man, forever looking over his shoulder?

As I write in the introduction to The Emperor's Gold, I don't know whether or not the Comptrollerate-General does not, in some guise, continue to operate even today. Obviously I've not been able to get official approval for this book. I'd like to think that the Government would be pleased that one of its more remarkable facets was getting a fair and positive hearing. But Government departments can be funny about even favourable exposure.

Q11: Finally, is your Internet video an audition for the Hollywood version of ‘The Emperor’s Gold’?

Of course. I'll naturally be playing Tom Roscarrock, and Nicole Kidman will be Lady Virginia Strong. Unless someone shows her that internet clip of me, in which case I'll be playing a disfigured rioting peasant and they'll call up Daniel Craig for the lead after all.