Creating classics

Ralph Jackman

Ralph Jackman - Credit: Angela Sharpe

Growing up in Norfolk, Ralph Jackman longed to live in ancient Rome. Now, from his childhood home, he mixes history and imagination into compelling fiction, writes Rowan Mantell

Every time Ralph Jackman sits down to write he is continuing a line of creativity which takes in The Beatles, jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, the handover of Hong Kong and Hollywood movies. The desk where his first novel took shape is also the desk where his composer father arranged songs for stars ranging from Elton John to the Sex Pistols. It was here the music for the 1997 handover of Hong Kong was written.

Now Ralph works in his father’s study, summoning a cast of historical figures and fictional characters from ancient Roman times to join the creative maelstrom at the house beside the railway in tiny Tivetshall St Margaret, near Long Stratton. It is Ralph’s childhood home, the place where he decided he would be a Roman when he grew up, and now where he and his wife, Becca, are bringing up their one-year-old daughter Esme Rose. When Ralph and Becca bought the house from his mother they renamed it The Chapters, as a new chapter began for the old house, and their family.

Ralph’s day job is as a civil servant but, off duty, the politics of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago fascinate him - he grew up loving all things Roman. “Everyone else wanted to be a racing driver or an astronaut. I wanted be a Roman.” His passion led to a degree in classics. As a child he wrote adventures for his own Asterix-like character and his mum encouraged him to take a masters course in creative writing.

“I read a lot of historical fiction and was just determined to get into that world,” he says.

During the year-long course he wrote his first novel but then spent several years finding a publisher. Now Actium’s Wake is out in paperback. The political thriller set in the time of Antony and Cleopatra, 2,000 years ago, is a story of betrayal, war, love, loyalty, corruption, courage and power. Ralph’s hero is republican senator and soldier Marcus Rutilius Crispus and the novel is the first of a trilogy. The student, who completed his dissertation on the Caistor St Edmund Roman town Venta Icenorum, now sits at his writing desk to take himself and his readers back to ancient Rome.

“I come from a creative family,” says Ralph, 33. “My late father Andrew Jackman was a composer, arranger and conductor, my mother is a poet and my brother writes music for movies in Hollywood. My father worked with everyone from Barbra Streisand and Michael Crawford to the Sex Pistols. He wrote the piece of music that was played as Hong Kong got handed back, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra . . . but to me he was Dad. It was as I was reading his obituaries that I was learning about him.”

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His beloved dad died of a heart attack 12 years ago. His mother eventually remarried, but still lives close by, in Diss. She wrote children’s books when he was young and is now a published poet. “I decided to compete with her; I entered short stories in competitions and she entered poetry. I won a prize and went one-nil up, but it’s now 25-1 to her!” laughs Ralph. His sister is also nearby, in Tasburgh, but their brother is based in Los Angeles, where he writes music for Hollywood films.

“My brother, Henry, is a genius!” says Ralph. He composed the music for films including Captain Phillips, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: First Class.

Their grandfather, Bill Jackman, was a saxophonist and played with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, and featured on The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s album. Their parents came to Norfolk on holiday and fell in love with the county. Ralph was born here and, alongside the day job and his family, returns to thrilling and intense evocations of ancient Rome. Here he brings to life betrayals and battles alongside visits to the baths, chariot races, slave market and money-lenders.

“Now I have the pleasure of listening to my brother’s soundtracks, while writing on my father’s desk and sitting in the house my parents brought me up in ... wonderful!” says Ralph.

Actium’s Wake is published in hardback by Knox Robinson Publishing and is also available in paperback exclusively in Jarrold’s books department.

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