Dredging up the Facts

Bestselling author Peter James talks about the process of 'dredging up the facts' for his book, Dead Tomorrow.

Someone once likened being an author to being a mushroom. We spend most of our lives in the dark, and occasionally someone opens the door of our shed and shovels shit over us . . . Well a few days ago was different!

On one of the coldest days of the year, a freezing February morning, I rose at 4.30 and made my way to Shoreham Harbour, one of the two commercial sea ports bordering Brighton, to join the crew of the dredger, the Arco Dee, on which a friend, Tim Moore, is the chief engineer. I was to spend a day at sea with them.

I'm sure those of you who have read this far are thinking, after a big yawn, how great can a dredger be? Well, I thought that too, before my day with the crew, and it was something of a revelation for me. I got out of it the kind of ‘Eureka' moment that happens on rare, precious occasions, when I am in the process of starting a new novel. To reveal more would of course be to reveal too much of the story of Dead Tomorrow.

I thought that all dredgers did was to dredge mud out of the harbour mouths, to keep the shipping channels deep enough. But I've now learned that is only one of the roles of a dredger. Another job, far bigger in terms of commercial enterprise, is excavating sand and pebbles from the seabed for use in the construction industry. Some pebbles are used for driveways and garden decorations, but the majority of what is hauled up ends up being used in the aggregates business for concrete, cement, asphalt and tarmac.

It is underwater quarrying, on land leased from the UK government, and as strictly marked out as any farmland (see the chart). And there is a real magic about seeing the cargo hold fill with stuff from the ocean floor that has lain for hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions, of years. Occasionally the dredgers haul up historical artefacts, such as canon balls or bits of Second World War aircraft and, even more occasionally, as I had been hoping, naturally, for my story, they haul up a dead body . . .

Some years ago, Tim Moore, the Chief Engineer, told me of the time a dredger hauled up an unexploded bomb, which had wedged in its drag-head (see below). Once the Bomb Disposal Unit had clambered on board, they tried to move it, whereupon it dropped on the deck then bounced into the hold! Tim said that, to his astonishment, the first thing the Bomb Disposal guys did was to climb down after it and start hitting it with a hammer. By which point the rest of the ship's crew were busy lowering the lifeboat and writing farewell letters to their loved ones . . .

I have a great love of the sea – and respect for it – and have sailed a lot, but not all my experiences have been trouble free. My most embarrassing moment was when I was eighteen years old and a school Naval Cadet, and head of the Charterhouse School Naval Corps. We had been invited for a day's sailing on a frigate in Portsmouth Harbour and I was asked if I would like to take the helm as we were approaching the harbour mouth. It was a massive honour and I was nervous as hell. Too nervous. I was suddenly informed by a voice down the speaker system that the Admiral of the Fleet's destroyer was heading into the harbour and I was given the instruction ‘Starboard Fifteen'. I dutifully gave the correct reply: ‘Starboard fifteen, SIR', turned the wheel, and then reported: ‘Fifteen of the starboard wheel on, SIR!'

Whereupon the ship, instead of turning towards the right, turned towards the left, straight into the path of the Admiral's ship. In my excitement at getting my replies correct, I had inadvertently turned the wheel to the left, causing the Admiral's ship to have to alter course. I then had the privilege of speaking to the great man in person, over the radio. Or rather, listening to him . . . he had a repertoire of swear words that, to this day, forty years later, I have not heard equalled.

So, of course, it was great to be able to utilize my extensive naval terminology on the dredger. The most important one of all, which I learned long ago, is the one for a snack. And it came in handy because the brilliant chef of the Arco Dee, Sam Janes, does a mean line in fruit scones. You have to ask for a tabnab. In the immortal words of landlubber Michael Cain: not a lot of people know that.