One of the blockbuster TV dramas over the festive period focuses on a story that many North East viewers won’t be aware is close to home.
Moonfleet, a ripping yarn about smugglers and a famous diamond, is set in Dorset but was written by John Meade Falkner who settled in the North East where he became a notable figure for reasons other than his popular fiction.
Ray Winstone will play Elzevir Block, innkeeper-turned-smuggler, in the Sky One adaptation which is to be shown in two parts on December 28 and 29 at 8pm.
Moonfleet stirs special memories for me. As a child I lived for a time in Weymouth, on the south coast, and my grandfather would take me and my brother to walk the dogs on nearby Chesil Beach.
This is an extraordinary shingle ridge stretching 18 miles from West Bay, where the pebbles are small and colourful, to Portland Bill where they are dull and the size of King Edward potatoes.
You are advised not to swim. My grandfather, ex-Royal Marines, occasionally defied the warning, taking to the water in his wartime khaki shorts.
On a still day the sea can have an almost fishtank calm, tiny waves lapping the pebbly shore. Arguably this is when it’s most dangerous, luring the unwary to its ferociously sucking undertow and steep submerged steps.
It was on a day like this that we once saw the huge fin of a basking shark cruising just feet from the beach. Harmless it may have been, but it was a Jaws moment long before the Spielberg film came out. It almost goes without saying that when the sea is wild, Chesil Beach can feel like the most perilous place on the planet.
I mention all this because my grandfather would often tell us that Moonfleet was set there, or at least on the Fleet, the long, shallow lagoon dividing the Chesil and the mainland.
You can easily see why this might have been a good place for landing contraband. It was, so they say, the scene of many a battle between smugglers and excise men.
In the Falkner novel, which was published in 1898, the powerful tidal drag off the Chesil is a crucial plot device.
I was alerted to John Meade Falkner’s North East connection by Keith Jewitt, a Jesmond resident who is building up a comprehensive literary portrait of the Newcastle suburb.
Falkner, born in Wiltshire in 1858, spent part of his childhood in Weymouth, studied at Oxford and became a schoolteacher. He came to Newcastle as tutor to the sons of Sir Andrew Noble who lived in what is now Jesmond Dene House. Sir Andrew ran the armaments company Armstrong Whitworth. Falkner must have impressed his employer for in 1895 he was offered a post with the company and in 1901 he became a director.
Falkner travelled widely on company business. The obituary published in The Times in 1932 noted: “For this purpose he was well fitted alike by his charm and dignity of manner, his gift of languages and his patience. “He was, in short, the chief diplomatic representative of the firm for many years.”
Despite being effectively an arms dealer, Falkner had what he called “a medieval mind”. He was fascinated by medieval lore and church music. He collected old books and, when in Rome, regularly visited the Vatican library. The Pope presented him with a gold medal given only to a few distinguished scholars.
The obituary notes: “He wrote beautifully, in every sense of the word, for until he was disabled by writer’s cramp his script, modelled upon that of the best medieval scribes, was exquisitely decorative as well as perfectly legible, and a letter from him was a work of art as well as a revelation of the workings of an original and observant mind.”
His first novel, a romantic ghost story called The Lost Stradivarius, was published in 1895. Moonfleet followed three years later and then, in 1903, came The Nebuly Coat.
According to Keith Jewitt, Falkner wrote these popular works of fiction while on his business travels to far off places.
He also wrote verse, a History of Oxfordshire and guides to Oxfordshire, Bath and Berkshire. In addition he filled more than 40 notebooks with jottings about the manuscripts in the Vatican library, all in Latin.
Falkner became chairman of Armstrong Whitworth on Sir Andrew Noble’s death in 1915. When he stood down in 1921 he became honorary reader in paleography (the study of ancient writing) at Durham University and honorary librarian to the Dean and Chapter Library of Durham Cathedral. Apparently he loved Durham and lived, from 1902 until his death, in the Divinity House on Palace Green, which is now the University Music School.
According to that Times obituary, Falkner was “full of curious contradictions”, enjoying company while declaring himself a recluse and sometimes adopting a cynicism which masked a kindly nature. Many said The Nebuly Coat was his finest novel. They must have looked forward to his next. But we learn that having written the bulk of a fourth novel, Falkner left the only copy in a bag on the train during his daily journey from Durham to Elswick. It was never seen again.
When friends begged him to rewrite it, he declared that he was too old for the task.
John Meade Falkner died on July 22, 1932, in Durham but his ashes are buried in a churchyard in Burford, Oxfordshire. Moonfleet, as you’ll see at the end of the week, remains very much alive.