I imagine most writers sit, like I do, at the laptop wondering what comes next- until it comes in a bus load. Delane’s War took a long time to write. It started when I came across some official Government reports about Florence Nightingale which complained, with evidence to support the objections, that she was procuring huge quantities of port wine for the use of her patients in the hospital at Scutari during the Crimean War.They were drunk to avoid the pain of death. Those comments come from a Select Committee report of 1855 which is in five volumes, in the last few paragraphs of which she is named as one of the handful people who had acted, in the view of the Committee members, honourably in the appalling events into which they had been asked to inquire.
I followed the trail back, not just for her but for the other people on that short list, of whom I had never heard. There was the Reverend and Honourable Sidney Godolphin Osborne, who turned out to be the vicar of a tiny parish church in Dorset, but who wrote letters to The Times and frequently had them printed. Augustus Stafford the independent MP for Northampton who had travelled to the Crimea to observe for himself the appalling events in the war zone, and John MacDonald the printing engineer of The Times newspaper who had been sent out to administrate The Times Fund – which had been set up by the editor to help bring comfort to the soldiers injured and made sick in the war. The assembly of the stories of all the people gave many possibilities for the tale that needed to be written; the Rev Osborne, when asked about supplies that failed to reach the Crimea, told the committee that he believed that the whole subject should be handed to the police to investigate.
Florence Nightingale, from what I was reading, was most certainly not the angelic lady of the lamp we have all been told about in school and the writings and speeches of Augustus Stafford could hold their own anywhere. But the siftings and tellings of the story in the end all pointed to the person who was driving the moral backlash against the government and the army and he, too, was someone lost in the obscurity of Victorian history: John Delane the editor of The Times, who never put his own name to any article. I then read the daily editions of the great newspaper in the original copies that are held, neatly and magnificently bound in the basement of the London Library, from July 1854 to March 1855. And from these the real story became clear: it was the editor who had fought his own war against the Government of the day, in a way that showed courage almost beyond our experience and conception. I was writing this at the same time that the Blair Government and Alastair Campbell were locked in battle with the BBC and Andrew Gilligan over the reporting of the Iraq war, and the story each day was almost identical — except that in the version of 1855, the journalists held out to win, which sadly was not the case one hundred and fifty years later.
It's a terrific tale. Buy Delane's War HERE.
UPDATE: Tim Coates is giving talks on his new book, Delane’s War, at the following venues. It’s a terrific book and he speaks well so if you find yourself in the vicinity, do drop in.
Tuesday 3rd November 7pm - Swiss Cottage Central Library
Thursday 5th November 7pm – Westminster Reference Library
Thursday 12th November 7.30pm – Fulwell Cross Library