Gavin Menzies explains how a life as a submarine commander gave rise to the revolutionary notion that Europeans were not the first to sail round the globe.
Gathering the material for my new book, 1421: the Year China Discovered the World, has been a journey through paradise, a voyage across an unspeakably beautiful and fascinating planet in search of a world of long ago.
It all started after the Second World War when my parents bought a mediaeval farmhouse near the Suffolk coast. With no electricity or running water, life remained almost unchanged from the Middle Ages: in winter a constant struggle to keep warm, in summer a battle to keep flies off the meat. We all shared our hunger and our pride; Hitler was beaten, we were free – no more bombs, doodlebugs or air raid sirens. There was plentiful work for all, no-one feared losing their job, an era of huge self-confidence had dawned.
At breakfast on summers’ mornings as the boom of foghorns drifted across the misty Suffolk cornfields, my parents would paw the Afghan rugs with frustration. How they longed to return to those carefree days when they roamed the world! Our house was a testimony to their journeys, furnished with Turkoman kelims, paintings of Chinese farmers, ashtrays of coconut shells, ebony elephants which served as door stops. When we built a summerhouse in the garden, we buried exotic money in the foundations – bronze coins with square centres, Chinese silver dollars, cowries from the ocean, faded sepia banknotes faced with palaces shrouded in jungle.