My history hero: J Meade Falkner (1858-1932)

Chosen by Chris de Burgh, singer and songwriter

A photograph of J Meade Falkner, c1915. He

This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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J Meade Falkner was an English novelist, best known for his 1896 work Moonfleet. Born in Wiltshire, the second son of a village curate, Falkner developed a love for literature and classical learning at an early age, encourage by his parents. He attended Oxford University before becoming a tutor in the household of Andrew Noble, the operational head of Armstrong & Co, a world-ranking engineering and armaments firm.

Despite rising through the firm’s ranks to become a director in 1901, Falkner retained his passion for literature, publishing three books between 1894 and 1896, and was made an honorary reader in Palaeography at Durham University, and honorary fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, in 1927.

When did you first hear about J Meade Falkner?

I attended Marlborough College in Wiltshire in my youth where, unbeknown to me at the time, Falkner had spent four years of his life working towards his Oxford University entrance. As fate would have it Falkner’s novel Moonfleet was on the school syllabus and it has remained a favourite with me ever since. Its gripping story of smuggling and hidden treasure was the inspiration behind my recent album, Moonfleet & Other Stories.

What makes him your hero?

It comes down to one word: imagination. Falkner had an extraordinary mind, the type you don’t come across that often. He broadened his imagination in a way that wasn’t thrust upon him, developing interests in everything from music and old maps, to architecture and the classics. He wrote 40 notebooks, in Latin, about the Vatican manuscripts alone! Moonfleet was written in a very arcane, and even old fashioned language but the story is fantastic – it’s even been compared to RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I actually prefer Falkner’s book, though.

What was Falkner’s finest hour?

Before his death, Falkner said that his most treasured distinction of all was becoming honorary fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, in 1927, the college he had once attended. The post acknowledged his ability in many different fields and he viewed it as the greatest of compliments. He was also decorated by Turkish, Italian and Japanese governments for services to literature and armaments.

Can you see any similarities between his life and your own?

We both share a love of music and travel, as well as a wide imagination. I could also feel him looking over my shoulder as I was working on the music for the Moonfleet project.

Is there anything you don’t admire about Falkner?

No, not really. It has been said that he was someone who could change his opinion about politics and religion very swiftly, but this may have simply been an attempt to create drama. He certainly possessed a keen and observant mind.

If you could meet Falkner what would you ask him?

Faulkner wrote another novel but he accidentally left the work on a train. He made the decision not to go back and try and rewrite the story, but I’d love to know what was in the manuscript.

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Chris de Burgh’s music career has spanned four decades, during which time he has written and recorded more than 260 songs and sold nearly 50m albums worldwide. His album Moonfleet & Other Stories was released in 2010