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What is 'hidden tracks'? - 22 Feb 2009

'Hidden Tracks: the Secrets of James Fitzjames and the Franklin Expedition' is the book I've just completed. (Actually I'm obsessively editing and re-editing the manuscript, but that's another story). 'Hidden Tracks' is the first complete biography of Commander James Fitzjames, the third-in-command of the Franklin Expedition.

Why did I write it? Well, first of all he was an amazing guy. He was a true hero and his life story reads like a real-life Hornblower novel. He was also very lively and great company. He had a wicked sense of humour and some of the jokes he carried out are still very funny today. He was charismatic and he mixed in the highest echelons of British society of the time. He was only actually thirty two when he joined the Franklin Expedition but he'd already packed more into those thirty two years than most people do in a lifetime. He entered the Royal Navy just after his twelfth birthday and within six months had done his first double Atlantic crossing. That's about how old I was when I first crossed the Atlantic, but I did it in a Boeing 720, not a wind-jammer. He was one of four Royal Naval officers on the now almost forgotten Chesney Expedition. This was led by a British army Colonel called Chesney and it sailed two iron paddle-steamers down the River Euphrates and into the Persian Gulf. In 1835-6! Col. Chesney was a martinet straight out of central casting. One of Fitzjames' friends said the Colonel was 'a most determined man', which was certainly something of an understatement...

Fitzjames fought in two wars, one in Syria and the other in China. In the first war he did something so daring that an Egyptian General put a price on his head. In the second he was shot and nearly killed - firing rockets while street-fighting.

But everything was not what it seemed with James Fitzjames. He concealed several secrets, which is why I've called the book 'Hidden Tracks'. One of these was the scandal surrounding his birth. He concealed his true identity and would not even let anyone know his date of birth. Despite this, he made advantageous personal connections which he played with great skill to achieve promotion astonishing in the Victorian Royal Navy. He was appointed a full Captain at the age of only thirty three.

He had more secrets. He was only a thirty two year old Commander, but had far more influence at the Admiralty than you would have expected an officer of that relatively junior rank to have had. This is very apparent in the history of the Franklin Expedition, for example. But why? Well, there is a reason and it's tied up with another of those little secrets which Fitzjames was able to cover up. There is a third secret, too, which explains why he was so keen to join the Franklin Expedition, even though the position he accepted was actually a demotion for him. He had a plan, and the Franklin Expedition was only a part of it ...

We'll never know everything about James Fitzjames because of the way he covered his tracks, but 'Hidden Tracks' takes the evidence about as far as it can go. It will enable us for the first time to understand his true significance for the Franklin Expedition. It will put him in context and help us better understand some of the things which we know happened on the Franklin Expedition. And lastly we have a great portrait of a witty, amusing and brave man who does not deserve to be forgotten.

Actually I feel a little guilty teasing out the things Fitzjames took such care to hide, but I take solace from having got to know him a little. I'm sure he'd be delighted that he succeeded in pulling the wool over the world's eyes for more than one hundred and sixty years, and I think he would laugh it off over a pint of porter or a good bottle of claret. At least, I hope so.


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