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Meet the NI-born author whose military lineage includes a general who lost America and whose ancestral home was a US base during WWII

As his eighth thriller is published, Michael Pakenham tells Ivan Little that he may one day write a book about his illustrious ancestors

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The author Michael Pakenham has used his links to NI for ideas for his books

The author Michael Pakenham has used his links to NI for ideas for his books

Langford Lodge

Langford Lodge

The laundry and dry cleaning room

The laundry and dry cleaning room

US troops arrive at the lodge in 1942

US troops arrive at the lodge in 1942

Lady Antonia Fraser

Lady Antonia Fraser

Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller

The Telephone Call

The Telephone Call

The author Michael Pakenham has used his links to NI for ideas for his books

Northern Ireland-born fiction author Michael Pakenham would probably have a best seller on his hands if he ever wrote a real life story close to home.

For a book about his family could include tales of the Battle of New Orleans; of one of Northern Ireland's most historic estates; of the wartime exploits of the American Air Force; of Glenn Miller and of writer Antonia Fraser who was once married to playwright Harold Pinter.

Michael, who has just celebrated his 85th birthday, says his Northern Irish heritage, especially the military connections, intrigues him even though he left the province at the age of two.

"My father Major Dermot Pakenham was killed at Dunkirk and my mother decided to leave Ireland to live with her cousins in America until the war was over," says Michael who has never been back to Northern Ireland but still has links with Co Antrim where Langford Lodge, a sprawling stately home not far from the village of Crumlin, had been in the Pakenham family since the 18th century.

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Langford Lodge

Langford Lodge

Langford Lodge

"My ancestors are buried in the churchyard of what was once the family's private chapel at Gartree Parish Church inside the Langford estate and we have tried to support the maintenance of the building. And I used to own an old school in the area until I sold it to the education authorities.

"I also think I still hold the fishing rights to a river in the area," adds Michael whose Pakenham forefathers included a number of prominent political and military figures.

Among them was his grandfather Colonel Hercules Arthur Pakenham who founded the Royal Irish Rifles as well as becoming the Chief Scout of Northern Ireland and who was a Unionist senator at Stormont. He also worked for MI5.

"My great great grandfather Major General Sir Michael Pakenham died while commanding the British troops at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and somehow managed to lose America," says Michael, who is also related into the family of the former British politician and social reformer Lord Longford whose roots are in the south of Ireland.

Writers Antonia Fraser, Tom Pakenham and Rachel Billington are first cousins and self-effacing Michael jokes: "So you can see that I come from quite a literary family and I think I am probably the worst."

Michael admits that there's probably a book waiting to be written about his illustrious ancestors "but I haven't got round to that yet. Maybe sometime".

The Pakenham family's home Langford Lodge, on the east shore of Lough Neagh, was sold to the British Air Ministry in 1940 when an airfield was opened.

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The laundry and dry cleaning room

The laundry and dry cleaning room

The laundry and dry cleaning room

It later served as NI base command for American troops in the Second World War and videos of the United States Army Air Force on the site are readily available on YouTube.

In August 1943 American band leader Glenn Miller visited Langford Lodge and also went to Gartree Parish Church where he played the pipe organ before giving a concert at the Plaza ballroom in Belfast.

Michael Pakenham says: "Langford Lodge and the Pakenham family have a rich and fascinating history. I really should go back to Ireland though I don't have any relations in the north any more. My son Dermot has been there and he probably knows more about the family's story than I do."

Michael spent four years in the States during WWII, before sailing back to England on board the Queen Mary in 1945 to be educated.

His mother also later settled in England where she bought a house in Hampshire and father-of-three Michael and his wife Jeannie live just 300 yards away from the property to this day.

After school Michael, like his father before him, joined the Grenadier Guards before leaving to run his family's extensive farming enterprises.

Even though he was a busy farmer, Michael always tried to find time to read and thrillers have long been his favourite books.

"I quite like the odd biography and nowadays I read every day. I enjoy the likes of Jack Reacher, David Baldacci, Peter Robinson and Peter May," says Michael who waited until 1990 to realise a cherished ambition at the age of 55 to become a writer, something which came surprisingly easily to him though finding a publisher did not.

"I'd always been told that I had quite an imagination," says Michael. "And once I got myself sat down to write I was able to do it without too much trouble.

"Finding a publisher was a nightmare, however. You really need the skin of a rhinoceros to keep going after writing to agents and publishing firms who don't want to know you.

"I self-published one of my books but now I have a mainstream publisher which has made life very different.

"I still enjoy writing immensely and the ideas come quite readily.

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US troops arrive at the lodge in 1942

US troops arrive at the lodge in 1942

US troops arrive at the lodge in 1942

"Sometimes I think that I've had it and that I won't go on but suddenly for some unknown reason the ideas flood into my head when I sit in front of my computer gazing at the screen.

"In the old days, of course, when I first began writing I didn't have a computer and I wrote everything out in long hand."

His latest book, The Telephone Call, is his eighth.

It's the second in a series of crime thrillers about a detective called Daniel Appleman who has garnered a substantial fan base for Michael around the world.

But despite Appleman's popularity Michael is planning to kill him off in a forthcoming novel.

Even though he hasn't been back to Northern Ireland Michael's sixth book, Love Thine Enemy, was based on the Troubles.

"I still keep in touch with what's happening," he says, adding: "The book was about a group of republicans who called themselves Freedom for Ireland and who were determined to murder a British government minister. It sold quite well, in America, funnily enough."

Another book, The Judas Son, was also set in Ireland and dealt with a young man's plot to kill his father.

Michael says he tries to write every day after completing the long process of working out the plots for his books.

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Lady Antonia Fraser

Lady Antonia Fraser

Lady Antonia Fraser

He adds: "I have my own office and if I don't work there in a disciplined way every day I lose the theme.

"I may only be in the office for 10 minutes some days but it means I am still writing on a regular basis," he says.

Michael says he's careful not to base any of the characters on people he knows. He adds: "Some folk have recognised themselves and haven't found it flattering. So that's why I now avoid all references to people whom I may know in my circles."

Michael says he hasn't used his military career as a backdrop for any of his books "because it wasn't particularly eventful".

He adds: "I was in the Army when the world was quite peaceful. There were no wars on at that time and I spent most of my service in London and Germany.

"I never went anywhere that was all that exciting, though I have to say that I enjoyed my life in the Army.

"If I hadn't had to come back to farming I would probably have stayed there longer. My grandson has now followed me into the Grenadiers, the fourth generation of the family to do so."

He may have retired from active farming but Michael still looks after the corporate side of the family's agricultural interests which are managed by son Dermot.

One of Michael's daughters is Hetty Kate, a jazz singer who lives in Paris and who has recorded no fewer than nine albums.

"I'm not a big jazz fan but I enjoy listening to Hetty," he says.

As yet, none of Michael's books have been bought up for money-spinning TV series or films.

But he says: "I live in hope though I am a very middle of the road writer and there are thousands and thousands of us out there.

"One has to be very, very good or write something that is topical to attract approaches from the TV and movie people.

"Most writers like me basically make very little money and write for enjoyment.

"Needless to say if something came up I would jump at it."

Social media is growing all the time as an important tool in the publishing world, according to Michael who relishes the good reviews he receives online particularly on Amazon who sell many of his books.

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The Telephone Call

The Telephone Call

The Telephone Call

A number of the bigger High Street book stores have, says Michael, also been very good to him though he rues the disappearance of privately owned independent shops around the UK.

He has his own website www.michaelpakenham.com but he insists: "It's a waste of time because no-one gets on to it."

Even though he's in his 80s, Michael has only just retired from playing tennis because of back problems.

But he still enjoys watching the game and he is a cricketing fanatic. "I'm still pretty active and I still refer to 'old people' totally forgetting that I am probably older than they are.

"However I am very lucky. I am still fit and my brain is still ticking over sufficiently well for me to start my latest book."

  • The Telephone Call by Michael Pakenham is published by The Book Guild
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