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Archive for the tag “1943”

Does all this constant judging spoil our pleasure?

not judgingYesterday I had a brief telephone conversation with a young customer service person at my bank. Afterwards I had to rate the poor boy 1-5 on a number of criteria, his speed of response, his effectiveness with dealing with my query, his general helpfulness, his manner, and whether I would recommend him to my friends.

Returning to the edit of my latest wartime novel (yes, it is coming soon!), I reflected that nobody in 1943 was ever asked to rate anything, never asked to mark a customer service operative out of 5, (5 being delirious, 1 being disappointed) never asked to give a star rating, or to fill out a satisfaction form.

My research indicates that most of the petty frustrations of life in those days were either accepted with a kind of gritty resignation, or firmly laid at Adolf Hitler’s door. Nobody expected too much. Rationing and privations inevitably made perfection difficult to achieve. Queues and delays prevailed. But people were prepared, eager even, to try to enjoy what pleasures they could find. Shows were well attended despite ragged costumes and bomb-damaged sets. Restaurants served dull, utility meals, but it was still a treat go eat out. And holidays consisted of a week in a strict, under heated guest house, where you had to be out of the building between 10 and 5, whatever the weather. Nobody minded. Or if they did, they didn’t feel obliged to say.

It is so different for us. We all spend so much time assessing and critiquing, I sometimes think we have forgotten about enjoying.

We are so used to giving star ratings or marks for customer service, utilities, television programmes, hotel rooms, books, holidays, products and contestants on TV shows, that we are quick to notice when things fail to come up to our exacting standards.

Instead of relishing a meal out, we are wondering what Michel Roux might think of it. We have been programmed to expect so much that almost everything is a disappointment. There are a few ‘Fab-u-lous’es but they are few and far between, outweighed by the frequent longing to say ‘You’re fired’ to irritating waiters, salesmen, public servants or doctors.

But I am doubtful whether this critical thinking really helps to make anything better. It certainly doesn’t make us any happier. Especially when it transfers, as it inevitably does, to things that probably shouldn’t be judged, like friendships, colleagues, people in our community, our family.

The mantra of the war was that everyone pulled together. That may or may not be true, but what is certainly true is that people expected less. They hadn’t been influenced by endless soap operas to fight with their neighbours, nor to find fault with their friends and families. Perhaps as a result, communities were tighter, and friendlier. The war helped of course. They really were all in it together. But in a sense so are we. Maybe the time has come when we should try to expect a bit less and to enjoy a bit more!

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Research – reality or virtuality?

Twelve years ago, when my editor, Rosemary Cheetham at Orion Books originally asked me to write a series set in the Second World War in London, I was delighted because I was actually living in London at the time. Plus I had countless museums, libraries and World War Two ‘attractions’ within easy access. The research would therefore be relatively easy, I thought. And relatively speaking it was. I had great days out at the Imperial War Museum (wading through French naval history books in search of ships moored up in Toulon harbour in Nov 1942), at the Florence Nightingale Museum (where I found a terrifying wartime matron on whom I based the character of the indomitable Sister Morris) and the Concert Artists and Actors Club in Soho where I met the wonderful Mary Moreland, who had sung and danced her way through the war.

Twelve years on and I am once again researching the Second World War, this time for the fourth novel in the Lavender Road series. This time things are completely different. I am not living in London but nor do I need to take lots of days out on research errands. This time (unlike twelve years ago) I have Google, Wikipedia and the internet. At the click of a mouse I have the whole wartime world and its dog at my fingertips.

It’s so much easier. Or is it?

As always, the problem with research is knowing what you need to know. The amount of information I found last time was daunting enough, this time it is overwhelming. One click leads to another and soon I am awash with detail, recollections, personal histories, eye witness accounts, reports, military lists, lists of battles, bomb sites, casualties, I could go on and on (and often do …!)

How can I possibly remember it all, let alone include it in my book?

The truth is I can’t. Nobody could (at least not if the resulting novel was going to be remotely readable).

The trick is not to worry about forgetting things. Just having known them briefly is often enough – enough to add a tone of authenticity. A tiny appropriate detail here or there adds so much more than reams of facts. Atmosphere, a sense of reality, of being there, is what historical novelists should be striving for. My method it to take an overview of the period, enough to let me find a really compelling story, and then I can focus in on the details I need. Which is why I am off to Italy tomorrow (at least that’s my excuse!) to find the one thing the internet can’t give me – a real sense of the place and the people.

It is important to get the details as correct as humanly possible but even the most meticulous and comprehensive research won’t make up for a lacklustre story or unbelievable characters.

wearing my poppy with pride

I’ve had terrible trouble with my poppy this year. The first one’s stalk broke within ten minutes. I replaced it with a stick-on one which had disappeared before I had even got home. The third one fell to bits today as I put on my coat after a delicious lunch in a tapas bar  (aubergine stuffed with pine nuts, fresh anchovies, a warm beetroot salad and tortilla). As I scrabbled under the tables to retrieve the various bits, the cardboardy red flower, the flimsy leaf and the black centre button, I heard someone mutter, ‘Why do you bother?’

Straightening up I glanced at him, wondering whether he meant why did I bother rescue the poppy pieces, or why did I bother wear one at all. I was tempted to say that I bothered because, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, young men just like him had died fighting in wars. But my friends were waiting at the door and I didn’t want to get into a big discussion (and judging by the look of him it wouldn’t have been a fruitful discussion anyway). So I just smiled apologetically and left. Later of course I wished I had said something.

Several years ago we spent a week in Sicily with some friends. Before setting off we happened to visit my elderly aunt who reminded me that her brother Basil (my uncle, a  wartime glider pilot) had died during the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and was buried in Siracusa.  ‘It would be so lovely if you could go and put some flowers on his grave,’ she said and we promised that we would if we could.

Unfortunately when we arrived in Sicily we discovered that we were staying right at the other end of the island. ‘It’s too far,’ we said to each other. ‘It would take hours to drive all over there.’

But we felt guilty – after all my uncle had sacrificed his life and we wouldn’t sacrifice one day of our holiday. So we decided to go.

It took us seven hours solid driving to get from from Capo San Vito to Siracusa. (Sicily is somewhat bigger than it looks on the map.)

We arrived at about three in the afternoon, bought two bunches of flowers and made our way to the cemetery.

We were completely unprepared for the emotion that hit us. Lines and lines of small white headstones, each engraved with a young man’s name. We found my uncle’s grave quite easily, it was in the front row. Capt Basil Beazley, 29 years old.

The glider assault had been a disaster. They were launched from too far out to sea and the winds were too strong. Most landed in the water, some even crashed into Mount Etna. Military planning at its worst. Those young men must have known their chances were slim, but they did it anyway. Amazingly my uncle survived the landings but was killed later trying to hold a crucial bridge.

Seven hours later we arrived back at the villa in the pitch dark. ‘Did you have a good day?’ Our friends asked as we staggered in.

We looked at each other. For some reason I wasn’t on the car insurance so my partner (now husband) had had to drive the whole way. ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘We drove for seven hours, cried for twenty minutes and then drove seven hours back again!’

But it had been worth it.

We had picked up some pebbles and a bit of dry earth from the grave and when we gave these to my aunt a few weeks later she cried too. ‘I still miss him so much,’ she said.

That’s why I rescued my poppy.

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