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Lauren Bacall – the passing of an era

There are lots of wonderful aspects to researching the Second World War, the stories of the indomitable spirit that people showed even in the worst of time, the grim humour and the accounts of extraordinary courage and derring-do.

I never know quite where my research will lead. But I do know that one of the most amazing things of all is talking to people who were actually there at the time. And one of the saddest things is that so many of the people I have spoken to during the course of my research have since died.

A few years ago I found myself talking to Lauren Bacall.Lauren_Bacall_Harper's_Bazaar_1943_Cover

I was in Italy researching my Lavender Road series. We were staying in Roncade, a small town in the Veneto. It was New Year’s Day and most of the cafés were shut. But there was one place open, so we went in for a coffee before leaving for our flight home. The café was called Il Grillo, not, as we thought, something to do with the cooking methods employed there, but after its owner, whose nickname was ‘il grillo’ (the Italian word for a cricket.) He was indeed a very lively (and amusing) man! He was fascinated to hear about my research and told us proudly that Roncade was a famous place because not only did Ernest Hemingway pass through the town towards the end of the war but that Lauren Bacall was also a frequent visitor and had, over the years, become a personal friend.

Apparently misinterpreting my somewhat bemused expression as one of scepticism, he took out a mobile phone and dialled a number. A moment later he handed me the phone and, to my astonishment, there was Lauren Bacall on the other end, apparently quite happy to have been woken up in the middle of the night in Los Angeles to wish me Happy New Year! She couldn’t have been more charming.

At the beginning of the war, at the age of seventeen, (rather like my Lavender Road character Jen Carter,) Lauren Bacall took acting lessons at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she was classmates with Kirk Douglas. To make ends meet, she was, at the same time, working as a theatre usher and a fashion model. In 1943 she was chosen to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. The following year she appeared for the first time as a leading lady in the Humphrey Bogart film To Have and Have Not and her career was launched.

But now, like so many of the icons of the wartime years, she has passed on, leaving the world a less glamorous, less stylish and, perhaps, a less wonderful place.

It is the passing of an era. And it is the job of us novelists to try to capture some of that history, some of those people’s lives, some of that spirit and humour, to enable our readers to transport themselves, albeit briefly, back into those extraordinary times.

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Italy is …

capenaI was thinking about writing a piece about recent trip to Italy (to research my next wartime novel) but my lovely husband Marc Mordey has summed it up so well in this poem, he has saved me the effort! Find more of his work at http://themarcistagenda.wordpress.com

Italy is:

Sunlight slicing the morning apartment
Gracing the piazza too,
Streaming over the crimson and cream banners.
Caressing cappuccino coffee cups,
And lighting the way for the young baristas to be
Who are hawking cups of rosemary water,
Whilst bric a brac trembles in the spring wind.

It’s Antonella’s pasta with fennel
And basking in her salted, amber glowing cellar,
Graced by Roberto’s gentle, courteous conversation
It’s Crodino, Americano, cat motifs, cornettos,
And Enrica’s charming welcome.

It is you and I dozing alongside the Tiber
As it flows greenly by,
Kingfishers calling,
A chestnut cob rolling in a dust bath
Amidst the sylvan spring countryside.
Smoke whisping through the olive groves,
And a farmer raking fresh mown grass.

It is forcing ourselves up vertical cobbled streets.
Sipping lemon soda on a tiny terrace.
Being amazed at the crazed musings and meandering
Of medieval planning.
A Moroccan lamp catching the sunlight
Above a dusty wood bandaged and padlocked door.
Madonnas and St Francis sitting serenely in relief
Above ancient archways.
And it is pistachios purchased in the lee of history.

Italy is lakes and splendour
Fettuccine and ravioli consumed
High above the water,
Local white wine honeyed and soft.
The Italian Airforce museum, and
Planes hurled aloft.

It is gambling with hectic traffic in Tivoli.
The mossed water delights of the Villa d’Este,
Intense, green chiselled pleasure gardens.
A bride, beside the Cypress pencilled skyline.
Wild cyclamen, purple flag irises,
Gargoyles, monumental architecture,
Dwarfing statues and confusing the gods.

It is Hadrian’s Villa
The insistent clamour of modernity,
Juxtaposing
The silenced weight of the ages,
Muffling the shadow stained ruins.
Pierced by the delight of children, untroubled by time,
Yet to become their own slight slice of history.
The might of erstwhile empire
Captured by omnipresent electronic aids.
A terrapin floating serenely in the great pool
No carping about the past there.

Italy is an ice cream diet.
Being woken by words at 5 in the morning,
Grappa fuelled brain stumbling.
An early evening promenade,
A carousel in the park,
Evening’s silky silence, punctuated by footballing children
Twisting, tumbling.
The gossip and smoke of their elders.
The riot of oranges, artichokes, tomatoes
Pastries, flatbreads, pizza slices and olives.
Wine stained plastic bottles
Peroni filled shelves.
Hustling bustling restaurants,
And a woman gently selling Chinese novelties.

Italy is:

The curling call of the hoopoe,
Pining in Farnese woodland.
The sonorous symphony of church bells,
And the threading road
That laces up to the Palazzo Farnese,
Cluttered and steeped with mourners,
Gathered, sombre coated and 10 rows thick
Though not for that, once great family,
Now extinct,
Who left us frescoes and blue gold maps of the world –
The impressions of exploration –
The vulgarity of GPS yet to be discovered.

It’s you in new Ray Bans,
Gracing my movie,
Dreaming downstairs.
Giving me,
As only you know how,
La Dolce Vita.

It’s life, vigour, the weight of history
For this one week
It’s the street where we live
Carpe Capena
Pot planted and balconied,
Lamplit and almond blossomed,
Monastic, mosaiced and modern.

It’s the joy of today,
Of spring and of sunshine
Balanced, cushioned and unclouded.

Italy is – a holiday.

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.

Comme ci comme ça

I am off to France next week on a research trip for my next novel. And in order not to commit any faux pas I decided today that I should brush up on my French. Apropos the timing you may feel this is a bit late in the day, but au contraire, I am confident that with a little sang froid and a soupçon of je ne sais quoi I should be able to carry myself off with some panache. If I can just remember the difference between au naturel and eau naturelle, coup de grâce and cri de coeur, I should be able avoid any contretemps (and indeed any double entendres) during my research tête-à-têtes.

As you probably already already know from previous posts I love language, and particularly the French language, but vis-à-vis actually speaking it there is no doubt that we English generally have a very laissez-faire attitude. Most people I know either operate either in the ‘Allo ‘Allo, ‘Oh la la, zut alors, sacré bleu!’ mode or the more prosaic, ‘Parlez vous Anglais?’ mode. And, despite a multitude of evening classes and all the crème de la crème teach-yourself-language apps and CDs, plus ça change. The only French phrases that most of my friends can manage with confidence are ‘hors d’oeuvres, petits fours, vin rouge, nouveau riche, grand prix and papier maché’. Quelle horreur! But then en masse the English are known to be generally poor at foreign languages. C’ést la vie.

But the avant garde among us find this shaming, it is, in fact, one of my bêtes noirs. I believe it is de rigueur nowadays (you could almost say comme il faut) to at least have a go. Surely one of the raisons d’être of traveling is engaging with the locals. That’s certainly what I need to do on this trip. So next week I am going to give myself carte blanche to show not only some savoir faire but also some joie de vivre. I will use an aide-mémoire, I will seek out bon vivants and avoid ménages à trois (I have no desire to be a femme fatale) I will search diligently for the mot juste and chat away fluently to people in their pieds-à-terre about l’esprit du corps, cordons sanitaires, noms du guerre and agents provocateurs of the Second World War.

And will my trip be a success? Well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a fait accompli.

Researching WW2 – treasuring those memories

However you define the term ‘historical novel’, there can be few things more daunting than being asked to write about events which you yourself don’t remember, but which other people do. This was the position I was put in when Rosemary Cheetham at Orion commissioned me to write a series of London based street sagas set during the Second World War. 

When my agent set up a meeting to discuss the project, Rosemary’s first words were, ‘Oh dear, I didn’t realise you were so young.’ Obviously this was a matter of opinion! Nevertheless the implication was that she had hoped for someone with at very least a few childhood recollections of cowering under a Morrison shelter in the corner of the kitchen while V2s whistled overhead. 

Clearly this was not the case with me but I was reluctant to be defeated at the first post by the trifling problem of my age: ‘Goodness,’ I said. ‘There’s so much material available about the Second World War. I can easily research it.’ 

It sounded easy enough. But what I hadn’t quite appreciated was exactly how much material there was. 

That was over ten years ago. Now, as I start researching the fourth in the Lavender Road series, on top of the published (and unpublished) histories, diaries and letters,  the museums, the themed ‘attractions’, the official reports, the local history libraries, the films, film footage and endless BBC documentaries, there is also the internet with a million WW2 sites and a plethora of WW2 online enthusiasts. 

But what there aren’t so many of now, sadly, are real live people who remember those eventful years.  And it was people’s memories that I found the most interesting element of my research last time around. Yes, historical records are great, but nothing compares with someone telling you at first hand what it was like to be caught in Balham tube station when a bomb severed the water main, or to crawl through the cellars of a collapsed building searching for a trapped child, or to take a tiny riverboat over to rescue soldiers marooned at Dunkirk, or to be parachuted into occupied France. And it’s not just the big events, it’s the small memories too, Americans soldiers sticking their chewing gum on the door of a hospital ward while they visited injured colleagues. a precious pound of sugar carried in a tin helmet, the terror of a war office telegram, the delight in a fresh egg. 

Yesterday I interviewed a ninety year old doctor who had been present in the laboratory where they developed the first penicillin cultures. He told me that they had to use bedpans to grow the cultures in, they simply didn’t have anything else suitable. Later on he casually let slip that in 1941 his ship was torpedoed at night crossing the Atlantic and he spent several hours tossing about in the dark on a makeshift raft in his dressing gown and slippers, waiting to be rescued. 

 That is one of the odd things about the war years, people who lived through it often look back as though it was all quite ordinary. But it wasn’t, it was extraordinary and it forced people to show extraordinary amounts of courage and resilience. That’s what makes it such a fascinating period to write about. At the very least it is a way of preserving some of those precious personal memories.

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