This Game of Ghosts

Totleigh Barton Manor, the first Arvon centre from 1968. The manor is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

I spent a week in July teaching narrative non-fiction to a group of writers in Devon. It was a memorable week, not least because the weather was perfect and the Arvon Centre at Totleigh Barton is truly a magical spot. My fellow tutor and travel writer, Rory MacLean, enchanted us with his stories from his books and we talked in depth about all aspects of non-fiction. One that really struck a chord with me was what the past can tell you. We all too often think of the past as a black and white world inhabited by ghosts and sad memories but that is only half the story.

RANCOURT CEMETERY AND POPPIES, SOMME, FRANCE.EUROPE. THE WW1-1914-1918 CEMETERIES AND MEMORIALS MAINTAINED BY THE COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION.
COPYRIGHT PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN HARRIS © 2006
brianharrisphoto@ntlworld.com

A dozen years ago I worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on their ninetieth birthday commemoration book and I remember distinctly Peter Francis, who was in charge of the project, saying to me: ‘We don’t deal in death, we deal in life and memories.’ It really surprised me but when I thought about it that comment made complete sense. Doctors and nurses, police, firemen and undertakers – they all have to deal with the reality of death but we, who write about the past, work with memories. They are what last when a person moves from this life to the next, or to oblivion, if you prefer.

Major General Sir Colin McVean Gubbins

Our job as writers, as I see it, is to nurture memories, to bring alive on the page people who have lived in the past and whose lives touched others in a way that makes it relevant to write about them today. Three from my most recent book immediately spring to mind: Colin Gubbins, Ronald Knox and Gavin Maxwell who, were respectively the head of Special Operations Executive, the Roman Catholic scholar who translated both books of the bible during the war and the author of Ring of Bright Water. Gubbins inspired the special agents who would risk their lives in Nazi occupied Europe, acting with their countries’ resistance organisations and working as saboteurs, assassins, radio operators or couriers. He led with energy but also with empathy and humanity. All who knew him realised what a great man he was. Ronald Knox successfully translated both books of the bible in less than five years, completing a task that many believed would take ten scholars a decade while acting as priest to a girls’ school evacuated to Shropshire. Maxwell, a misfit in so many ways, found his milieu among the agents of SOE who he trained in Northern Scotland in weaponry and survival. The impact of these three men, so different in character but all shaped by the war, touched hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. But Our Uninvited Guests also tells the stories of people who lived what we might try to call an ordinary life, or at least one that we can more easily identify with: schoolboys and girls, expectant mothers, wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen. Their lives are also important and are to be celebrated. I find the courage and resilience of people fascinating and inspiring, from the twenty-two year old administrator of Howick Hall hospital who drove her Austin 7 through the worst snowstorm of the century to get to work to the seven year old boy who carried messages from Highworth Post Office to Coleshill House on roller skates.

The Bishop’s Throne, 1312-16, Exeter Cathedral

The morning after we all left Totleigh Barton I spent a couple of hours in Exeter Cathedral. It is one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals in Western Europe and it boasts the longest medieval stone vault in the world (96m or 315 feet for those who, like me, love detail). It also has the largest Bishop’s throne I have ever seen. Standing 18m (59 feet) high it is almost impossible to photograph but what is really impressive about it is the fact it is made from local Devon oak held together by wooden pegs and was made between 1312 and 1316. That means the oaks must have been growing about two hundred years earlier. It makes my mind spin when I think that I can touch something, very carefully of course, that is over 1,000 years old.

This magnificent statue is entitled: ‘Elder brother to the Lord Carew of Clopton’

The side-chapels around the choir are full of splendid memorials to knights and their honourable wives. Clutching their swords and resting their feet on dogs with bared teeth, they are destined to spend eternity encased in painted stone, enshrined in Gothic tombs with spiky pinnacles and long Latin inscriptions celebrating their achievements. Or, if you are cynical, their investments. However, I found myself particularly drawn to the memorial inscriptions on the walls of the nave and choir. Simpler than the tombs but equally impressive, they celebrate lives of people who in one way or another were associated with the cathedral. I was delighted to see how many were devoted to women and I was surprised at how personal they were and how heartfelt the lamentations. It is all too easy, as one of the writers at Totleigh Barton reminded me, to think that death was so prevalent in nineteenth century Britain that people became inured to it. Far from it, we both agreed, and this was richly illustrated in the lovely tablets I found in Exeter.

Memorial to Susannah Bealey

Felicia Jemima, the eldest daughter of William Lord Beauchamp of Powyke, died on 11th October 1813. No age was given but the raw emotion is there for all to see, over two hundred years on: ‘Words cannot express her worth, her virtues and accomplishments, nor the just grief of her lamenting family, but in heaven received by angels, she will meet her due reward’.  Rachel Charlotte O’Brien who was burned to death at the age of nineteen in rescuing her infant from a house fire in 1800 is also commemorated. It is heartbreaking to read such detail but also beautiful to think that their memories were so treasured. Susannah Bealey (her stone is illustrated above) was the wife of a local doctor. She died on 21 April 1798 aged 22 years and 3 months. Six months later her only child, Joseph, was buried in the same grave. He was just 18 months old.The ‘disconsolate relatives’ celebrated the ‘amiable qualities of her heart and an excellent and cultivated understanding.’ What a tribute.

Jessie Douglas Montgomery, who died in October 1918, is commemorated as ‘an ardent and unselfish worker in the cause of higher education and for the good of others.’ I looked up details of her life and found that a memorial fund was set up in 1919-20 in her name and that the files for this are at the National Archives in Kew.

Naturally these people commemorated in the Cathedral had standing and their families influence but if you visit any parish church or local graveyard there are headstones and memorials to people who lived long ago but whose lives were colourful and real. I do not think of myself as a maudlin type, just one who loves life – past and present – and who wants to celebrate the extraordinariness of ordinariness.

Flower Power

My friend Emma recently gave me a book about authors’ gardens. It is a beautiful publication that celebrates the gardens of great writers including Agatha Christie, John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke. She joked in her note to me that perhaps one day my garden would make it into such a book. Um, no. At least, not anytime soon. But it did get me thinking about my garden and the role it plays in my life.

The bottom pond June 2018

I have always enjoyed the garden but for the first dozen years we lived in Oxford it was simply an additional space to the house for the boys to play in. As they grew older and the call for sandpits, tree houses, go-kart tracks and slippy slides receded, we began to look at doing something more structural with our outside space. First came a pond. After all, who can resist a water feature? Then a second pond, higher up the rockery, and a stream to link them. There is something timeless and beautiful about running water – always calming and refreshing. The pond has been a source of endless delight and fascination. It is populated by newts, frogs, beetles, snails and endless flights of damsel and dragon flies as well as the occasional Border terrier who splashes about to cool down on a hot summer’s day.

The view of the bottom of the garden in 2016 with an old shed, tree roots in the lawn and a privet hedge that seemed to go on for ever

We became more ambitious and by 2016 a major project to refurbish the bottom half of the garden was underway. Chris stood in the middle of the lawn with a glass of Prosecco and waved his arms around: ‘I want a big round lawn, a wall, raised vegetable beds and colour all summer.’ He announced. His dream was realised by a brilliant Venezuelan garden creator called Aristides Escallonia. What a name and what a talented young man. I have spent the last two seasons learning the hard way how to grow vegetables, fruit and salad while Chris worked out how to mow a round lawn with a lawn mower that wants only to go in a straight line.

 

The vegetable garden and wall in spring 2017 replacing the shed and the old privet hedge

Chris mowing the round lawn with a truculent lawnmower that has its own ideas about going in straight lines

The vegetable garden in June 2018. The wall is now painted yellow and the greenhouse doubles as a mini-conservatory in the winter

Why am I telling you about this when I usually talk about writing? Well, it occurred to me this last week, as we were preparing to open the garden for the National Gardens Scheme (an organisation that raises nearly £1 million a year for charity), that my garden is a lot like one of my books. It has structure, chapters, anecdotes and detail. In fact, as I start my next book, I am thinking about it in the way I am planning the next development in our garden: creatively but within the scope of what is factual, or in the case of the garden, possible.

Paving stones lead from the formal vegetable garden through a woodland area to the pond

A book needs some hard landscaping to work. An overall structure is vital otherwise the reader will just wander aimlessly around wondering what this is all about.  The same applies to the garden. There is something magical about moving from one space to another or from one chapter to the next. From the outset of any book I have a clear idea of the scope and its shape but the detail develops as I go along. In most cases my books are limited by the war years but this new book is larger in timescale because it is a biography. The focus will be the years 1940 to 1960 but it will dip into the late nineteenth century at one end and refer to the early twenty-first century at the other.

Rosa Nostalgia – a true beauty

Now that I have the structure in my head – I never commit it to paper for some odd reason – I can work on the contents. If I think of the historical dates as solid forms like trees then the events that occur in the book and which affect my characters are the shrubs and roses. Oh yes, I have to mention roses. They are my absolute favourite flower and I have dozens in the garden: climbers, ramblers, shrub and tea-roses. They are white, pink, red, orange and yellow. Each is a beauty and has a special place in my heart. I know who gave it to me or where I bought it, when I planted it, how often I have pruned it and how many times it flowers in a season. My characters develop like roses to some extent and I like to think that I come to love or at least admire them, as much as I do my roses, when I write about them. Would it be too far-fetched to imagine Cecil Beaton as a splendid Danse du Feu? or Audrey Withers as Zephirine Drouhin? Who knows? And does it matter? It is my metaphor after all.

Danse du feu, a magnificent climber and one of my favourite red roses

Perennials are minor characters but they are essential in any narrative or good border. I have a strong affection for dahlias, lupins and hydrangeas – not the bosomy type but the panticulata varieties. Peonies also feature in luxuriant shades of white, pink and deep red-purple in my borders and these will also appear in the book. They are the surprise players who add greatly to the narrative but need propping up by the structure of the story. In Our Uninvited Guests one of my best surprises was the French agent Pierre Delaye. He occupies just two pages in the chapter about the Free French but he was a stand-out fascinating man and I enormously enjoyed weaving his story into the main narrative.

And finally there are the annuals. It is always tempting, especially before open gardens, to sprinkle pretty annuals around the borders to add a flash of colour. Resist, I always say to myself. Having too many characters in a book is equally to be resisted. It causes confusion and runs the risk of just becoming a list of names in the index. Over the past couple of months people have asked me why I did not include this house or that person in Our Uninvited Guests and my reply is very much the same as when someone asks me why I don’t plant azaleas or camellias – they don’t work in the context. In the case of the plants it is because we don’t have acid soil. In the case of the book it is usually because Bletchley Park (the most requested) has been done to death and in fact no one actually lived in Bletchley Park, they just worked in the huts, or that the person in question left no records. There is always a case for leaving things out, as there is in a garden and I have come to realise that it is essential to have the courage to do that.

Our Oxford garden, June 2018, ready and dressed for Open Gardens, but just for one day…

My passion for my garden and for writing is almost equal. Hard to say which would win in a head to head contest. Luckily I do not have to decide but if I’m honest, the garden feeds my writing but not vice versa. When I’m deep into writing a book I am wholly in the present (and the past) and my garden is then just a delicious respite from the atmosphere of my writing room. But when I am in the planning phase, as I am now, hours in the garden give me much needed mental space and band-width to let ideas pop into my head and begin to form. It is an organic process planning a book and what better place to do it than in the middle of a shrub border with mud under my finger nails, burrs in my hair and plants all around me.

 

Agatha Christie and the Knox Commandments

Link

In March I had an email from a lady in Australia who I have been corresponding with over the past year or so. I suppose she is what I would describe as an e-friend but I feel that makes her sound unreal, which she most definitely is not. Whatever the description of our relationship, I have discovered that she has excellent taste in reading. She told me recently that she has been reading my books interspersed with detective stories by none other than Agatha Christie. Wow. To be selected to feature on a bookshelf or bedside table next to the greatest writer of detective fiction of all time is quite an honour.

As it happens I have been a huge fan of Agatha Christie for the past thirty-five or more years. After my university final exams, for which I had worked harder than for any other set of exams in my life, I went into a period of shut-down. I hid away in my parents’ farmhouse and read first the entire works of Dostoyevsky, which was perhaps not the wisest of moves, and then the entire works of Agatha Christie, which was a much better decision. I found such pleasure in inhabiting her various worlds and learning to appreciate her brilliant construction, feinting and plot-twisting. What I did not know then but I do know now is that she was a founder member of the Detection Club, formed in 1930, during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, an era when classic murder mystery novels were overwhelmingly popular.

Monsignor Ronald Knox © Lafayette, NPG London

The club included among its members the writers Dorothy L. Sayers, Hugh Walpole, G.K. Chesterton (its first president) and Monsignor Ronald Knox. This last man is the link in the chain to my most recent book but I will come to that in a while. The club’s oath is glorious: ‘Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?’

Members had a set of guidelines which were drawn up by Knox and were known as the Knox Commandments. It might seem rather odd that a man of faith, a man described by some as the greatest Roman Catholic scholar of the twentieth century, should be a member of a detective writing club but that is the delight of this great polymath. He wrote detective stories in the same way he might have set a crossword puzzle. He was not interested in the emotional motives of his perpetrators but in the solving of a crime that could keep the reader guessing right to the end of the book. And he wrote the books – ten in all – to supplement his modest stipend.

His Commandments number ten, of course, and were adhered to by the members. They forbid the murder being committed by the detective. A Watson-type side-kick has to reveal all thoughts that pass through his mind; the detective cannot conceal any clues he finds, and twin brothers and doubles ‘generally must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them’. Most of the rules stand the test of time, such as no supernatural or preternatural agencies being permitted or no hitherto undiscovered poisons, but others strike one as anomalous today such as ‘no Chinaman must figure in the story’. He also suggests that no more than one secret room or passage should be allowed. Unless today’s detective stories are set in old houses I feel the secret passage is rather outdated. Having said that, Knox spent the Second World War in a haunted house in Shropshire, so I suspect that secret passages were not far from reality at Aldenham Park.

Ronald Knox gave up writing detective stories in 1937 at the request of Lady Daphne Acton (although he did publish one last story in 1947). He had taken her on as a pupil as she wished to convert to Catholicism as he had done twenty years earlier. She was twenty-five, beautiful and highly intelligent. Before they first met he had been alarmed at the prospect of instructing a young woman – his own experience having been at Oxford and then at Bury St Edmunds where he came across few women in the course of his ministry. But he need not have worried. She put him immediately at his ease and he was soon captivated by her. Her brother-in-law invited him to accompany them on a cruise to the Adriatic and it was there that the two of them made a pact: Ronald would give up writing detective fiction (Lady Acton threw a copy of Double Cross Purposes overboard) and she would stop wearing the colour of lipstick he disliked. That went into the blue waters as well. She would offer him peace and a place to work, which he yearned, and he in turn would continue to instruct her.

In June 1939 Knox moved books, curtains, furniture and a lifetime of memories from Rose Place in Oxford to the Acton’s family home, Aldenham Park in Shropshire. His plan was to fulfil his life’s ambition which was to translate both books of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English. It was a task American scholars had estimated would take a decade using ten translators. Knox completed it in less than five years and in considerably less peace and quiet than he and Daphne Acton had anticipated. A day before Chamberlain announced that the country was at war with Germany, nine nuns and five lay sisters from the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington arrived at Aldenham at the invitation of Lord Acton.

Sisters from The Assumption, Kensington Square, London photographed at Aldenham Park in c. 1941. Their habits were purple and designed by House Worth © The Assumption Archive

Three weeks later fifty-five girls between the ages of eleven and seventeen arrived to be taught by the nuns. Lord Acton had been approached by the Reverend Mother and thought it more satisfactory to have a girls’ school at his country house than the army. It turns out he was right. To have the army take over was the worst possible outcome for home owners as their needs were opposed in almost every way to those of the previous incumbents. Large country houses had been looked after by armies of servants for a small number of spoilt inhabitants. When the tables were turned and armies of officers and soldiers were looked after by a small number of men from the catering corps, the houses were found to be completely inadequate: no central heating and few bathrooms were just some of the problems that confronted the new occupants.

Knox moved into the gardener’s cottage and worked in the corner of Lady Acton’s sitting room. It was in this small space that the Knox Bible was translated in an atmosphere of girls, ghosts and godliness. It was surely one of the strangest juxtapositions of the Second World War. Ronald Knox continued to correspond with members from the Detection Club and remained close personal friends with Agatha Christie, whose house Greenway in Devon was requisitioned by the US Coast Guard.
Lives entwined, experiences shared and all mixed up on a bookshelf in Australia. Thank you, Ellen Hall, for reminding me how much I love historical coincidences.

Girls, Ghosts and Godliness appears in Our Uninvited Guests 

Heil 15 März

Prague – the capital of the Czech Republic that was in 1939 the capital of Czechoslovakia

Heil 15 März, or Hail the fifteenth of March, was the cipher key used by SS signal regiments in the field in 1937. The Nazis entered Prague, taking control of Bohemia and Moravia on that day in 1939. Was it a coincidence that this date was already in the mind of the German high command some two years earlier? Who can know for sure? But what we do know is that the Czechoslovakian government had ample warning of the probable invasion of their country because the code was given by a German double-agent to the Czech intelligence service in December 1937.

What came next was the Munich Agreement. The greatest effort to avoid a world war or the greatest betrayal of a sovereign state? It depends whose side you were on. Two men had no illusions about what they thought would happen. One was the Czech president, Edvard Beneš and the other was Churchill. Beneš had been instrumental in negotiating the setting up of Czechoslovakia after the First World War and had been president since 1935. Hitler loathed him and frequently mentioned him in his speeches as the embodiment of cowardice. He challenged the Czech president to hand over the Sudetenland to Germany but Beneš refused. He tried everything in his power to accommodate the Sudeten Germans wishes in order to avoid war but on one subject, the free expression of Nazi doctrine on Czech soil, he would not back down. Many thought that he had offered too many concessions but, as his biographer wrote later, it was beyond the courage of any man to take responsibility for throwing the world into war.

Hitler was never going to be satisfied with anything Beneš offered him in the way of concessions. He needed not just the Sudetenland but the whole of Czechoslovakia and for two reasons: one was a matter of geography. Czechoslovakia jutted deeply into German territory and with its military strength it had been the keystone of the post-war French alliance in the east. And with the German plans of expansion announced in Mein Kampf the country stood in the way. Secondly, by the late 1930s Czechoslovakia had developed heavy industry with an enviable record of workers’ rights including an eight hour day; sickness and employment insurance, government aid for housing and more besides. Hitler would have a ready-made highly skilled work force to boot. A French writer and politician saw this all too clearly in 1938 writing in Époque: ‘Bohemia and Slovakia are a bastion, a great junction that commands all the roads of Europe. With Czechoslovakia under her rule, Germany will be able to encircle Poland and Hungary, and gain an outlet to the reserves of oil and wheat in Rumania and Russia. If Hitler takes Prague, he will, in fact, have become master of Europe.’

Churchill saw this too. He was implacably opposed to appeasement and made no secret of his fear of the dire consequences of Chamberlain’s plans to negotiate with Hitler using Czechoslovakia as a bargaining chip. On 21st September 1938, a full eight days before the Munich Agreement was signed, Churchill wrote: ‘It is not Czechoslovakia alone which is menaced, but also the freedom and the democracy of all nations. The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small nation to the wolves is a fatal delusion.’

After the agreement was signed he was even more gloomy. He stood up in the House of Commons and predicted a terrible fate for Europe. He bemoaned the lack of preparation, particularly in the field of air defence. He said: ‘We have been reduced in those five years from a position of security so overwhelming and so unchallengeable that we never cared to think about it. We have been reduced from a position where the very word ‘war’ was considered one which would only be used by persons qualifying for a lunatic asylum.’

President Edvard Beneš (with hat) and members of the Czechoslovak military intelligence services in Britain, July 1940 courtesy Jaroslav Tauer c/o Neil Rees

Czech Intelligence had been feeding the British secret services with information about the build up of Goering’s Luftwaffe for years. They had nurtured two German spies who produced valuable and accurate information from the early nineteen thirties. The first agent, known as A52, was Major Selm. He was deeply in debt and needed large amounts of money to fund his lavish life-style. He turned double agent and for his information on numbers of planes of the various fighter and bomber types, on the nature and training of pilots and their support crews as well as battle tactics he was paid 2 million Czech crowns, worth about £6,000,000 today ($8 million). In 1936 he was rumbled by German counter-espionage, caught and beheaded. The second agent, A54, was even more valuable to the Czechs and the British. His identity was not known by the Allies until a decade after the war but his information was of the highest calibre. It turned out that he was a high-ranking Abwehr officer and a member of the Nazi party who, for unexplained reasons, was disillusioned with the regime and he betrayed many secrets that were highly damaging to Germany, including details about Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.

A54 Paul Thümmel 1902-1942

In 1937 A54 gave the head of Czech Intelligence, General František Moravec, the cipher keys Heil 15 März and fifteen months later, at the beginning of March 1939, he appeared in person in Prague to warn Moravec and his team about the proposed invasion. Moravec wrote later how ‘the master spy stood facing me, stiff and erect. We were all standing – almost to attention – as we listed to A54’s report, which made it perfectly clear that in exactly eleven days our country would cease to exist.’ When Moravec warned the Czech Parliament of the impending invasion the following day he was dismissed and told to go and ‘bring us better news in the future’. It was the most humiliating experience of his life.

On the evening of 14 March Moravec and ten of his closest intelligence colleagues flew out of Prague with their most valuable files. The following morning, 15 March 1939, the Germans made their move and, as A54 predicted, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. A tragic anniversary but one to be marked, nonetheless. It is one of many stories told in Our Uninvited Guests.

A Quiet Celebration of International Women’s Day

Lady Denman, the inspirational chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes showed women courage by example during the Second World War.

I celebrate women every day of my writing life. I do it quietly and with respect, humour and awe. I write about ordinary women who do extraordinary things when faced with intractable problems or simply difficult situations. So while I am thrilled with all the fuss being made about International Women’s Day in this significant year marking the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, I don’t want to lose track of the immense and often dogged bravery of women who are not famous but whose lives are nevertheless impressive.

My current book, which happens to be coming out on 8 March 2018, is not about the Suffragettes or feminists, so it seems to be somewhat out of tune with the current zeitgeist. Or is it? I revisited the stories of women in the book and a few sprang out at me immediately. These are tales of how everyday women rose to the challenge of the times and did things that they did not know they were capable of. Sometimes it was out and out bravery, such as the women who became special agents, at other times it was all about being calm and coping in strained circumstances.

Barbara and Antony Bertram c. 1937

Mrs Bertram, or Madame Bertram as she was known to her French agents, was one such. She secretly housed over a hundred men and women in her modest house in Sussex during the Second World War. She called them the hullabaloos, so named by her two little boys who couldn’t understand the excited babble of conversation that was to be heard in Bignor Manor during the ‘Moon Period’. Those were the two weeks every month when it was light enough for pilots to fly by the light of the moon and drop their precious cargo in France.

This cargo comprised men and women who were working with the French Résistance either as agents, radio operators or couriers. The risks for them were immense. Once in France they had to evade discovery by the Nazis, knowing full well that if they were captured they would be tortured and almost certainly killed. Mrs Bertram provided a safe house for them with comfort, food and friendship. She always managed to find flowers for the bedrooms and cigarettes for the nervous smokers. Her store cupboard was a miracle of minutiae and she prided herself on being able to put her hand on any single thing the agents might want, from hairpins to typewriter ribbons. When returning agents arrived at the house they were given ‘Reception Pie’ which might be a pie or bacon and eggs, but it was delicious and always welcome. When some of them cleaned their muddy boots on the doorstep she would scoop up the mud ‘so that I could offer salad grown on French soil to the next moon’s French’.

Agents were flown from Tangmere in Sussex by Lysander into France. The little planes could barely accommodate three passengers

It is those little gestures of kindness that move me when I write about women. Another perhaps not exactly ‘ordinary’ woman was Lady Bearsted. When she and her husband moved to Upton House in Warwickshire she noticed that the local midwife was doing her rounds on a bicycle, even in the depths of winter. So Lady Bearsted bought her a car. She could afford to but it strikes me still as thoughtful and practical. She noticed children were walking to school along the road and having to jump on the verges if a car or lorry drove by. So Lady Bearsted paid for a pavement for them. During the war, by which time she was nearly sixty, she ran a mobile canteen in bombed out London.

Suzanne Warren soon after she escaped from the Gestapo

Suzanne Warren was one of the heroine-types, if they must be type-cast. She was French but she had a strong link to Britain, having spent much of her childhood visiting Clacton-on-Sea. After the fall of France she could not face the idea of sitting idly by as the Germans marched across her country and into the capital, Paris, where she was living with two aunts. So she decided she would do anything she could to undermine them. At first she acted as a courier, helping to get men left behind after Dunkirk out of France via Spain. It as dangerous work and she was part of an organisation that was ultimately betrayed. She was captured by the Germans and severely tortured but she managed to escape and get to the coast where she was picked up and brought to Britain. At the time she appears in my book she was undergoing Special Operations training in the West Highlands and hoped to be flown back into France. Luckily for Suzanne the liberation of Paris and France came before she was sent back but she would have gone. She was brave to the bottom of her boots.

Another woman who was brave in a very different way was Elsie. She was pregnant as a result of a love affair with a married man (she too was married). Naturally enough she was in deep disgrace and her family disowned her. She left home with one suitcase containing her worldly goods and, accompanied by her partner in crime, as she described him, went to Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire where she was giving a serious ticking off by Matron on her arrival. The partner was sent packing and Elsie was taken below stairs where she was given a brown uniform and told she would have to work in the washing and drying rooms until she went into the second stage of labour. The Brownies, so-called because of their uniforms, were not allowed to be seen by the legitimate mothers for fear that their scandal would pollute their pure worlds.

Mothers in the Prince Regent suite at Brocket Hall recovering from childbirth. Naturally enough there are no photographs of the Brownies

Eventually Elsie went into labour and had a baby girl. She was not allowed to bond with the baby and it was taken away after a week for adoption. After the baby had gone Elsie was sent back down into the kitchens where she was given a blue dress and allowed to wait on the mothers upstairs. She never said anything about her own grief for the baby but she wrote about others:

Most of the girls knew it would be impossible to keep their babies and all they had to look forward to was leaving Brocket heart-broken. Sometimes we got to hear when one of the Brownie babies was going to be collected for adoption. We all congregated at the window which overlooked the back entrance to watch the baby being carried out by the nurse and handed to the adopting parents. How can you hope to ease the pain after the mother had witnessed that? She had loved the baby so much for just a few days and may never have the chance to have another. It was sheer torture for her and we all went to bed very sad and subdued on those nights.

If that doesn’t call for courage, I do not know what does.

For International Women’s Day I say a loud ‘hurrah for brave women’ and then I say it quietly every day of my life even if no one is listening.

Our Uninvited Guests is now on sale in all good bookshops

 

 

The Joy of Language

One of the great joys of being a writer is having the luxury to spend time playing with English. It is a magnificent language – rich, colourful, brimming with borrowed words from all over the linguistic world and infinitely versatile. It can also be exceptionally precise, although it does not have a word for my favourite German expression Griffbereit, a very useful compound noun that means ‘something that is within grabbing reach’, ie a handbag. But I digress. As a writer I have a wealth of words to choose from when describing scenes or people or weather – a favourite topic with me as anyone who knows my work will spot.

First draft of a chapter in Our Uninvited Guests with my notebooks and handwritten annotations on the typescript.

When a book appears in first draft it is often rough around the edges and in need of a lot of linguistic brushing up. My writer-friend, Diane Setterfield, author of the best-selling Thirteenth Tale, refers to the process of polishing the language in her books as ‘literising’. It isn’t a word but I know exactly what she means. I read each of my books at least twelve and usually sixteen times between the final draft and the final proof and a lot of literising goes on. This is usually over a period of six to eight months during the process of copy-editing and proof-reading. The copy editor’s job is to make sure that I, the author, have got my facts right, that the narrative makes sense and that I have not left glaring gaps which will confuse or frustrate the reader.

When the copy edited version comes back it has benefited from a fresh pair of eyes and I have had time away from it. During this phase I make some decisions about how much literising is required, whether descriptive pieces are going to add colour to the narrative. Yes, even writing non-fiction I believe you need to introduce scenery in order to give your history a believable backdrop. So with this most recent book, for example, I found myself writing a whole page of description about the magnificent Scottish Highlands west of Fort William where, during the war, young men and women were trained by the Special Operations Executive to be parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe to carry out any number of sabotage missions. I had been to the area twelve months before and walked along the white sandy beaches of Morar and watched as a beaded curtain of rain drew across the bay. I needed to convey the immense majesty and power of this magnificent landscape and the effect it had on those who trained in it for the most dangerous jobs of their lives.

Loch Nan Ceall seen from the breakfast room at Arisaig House

Later in the year I met Sir Richard Hyde-Parker and his sister, Lady Camoys, to talk about their family’s ancestral home Melford Hall in Suffolk, which had been burned down by the army in the war during a night of drunken revelry. Sir Richard talked with almost bated breath about his memories of that time. He spoke not of the fire but of sitting close to his parents in the cellar of their house opposite the Hall during air-raids. He spoke with such warmth for this long-lost memory that I found myself searching out the right words to convey this childlike sense of wonder expressed three quarters of a century later by an elderly man. It was a beautiful moment to capture and I spent many hours circling round that paragraph trying to pick the right balance of adjectives, structure and idioms. I hope I succeeded.

When the book has been copy-edited to everyone’s satisfaction it goes to the proof reader whose job it is to spot spelling and grammatical mistakes, repetition and general untidiness in the use of English. I love this process because the changes I make at this stage are small but extremely focussed. I am polishing the book, burnishing it as best I can, so that I can feel confident that the reader will hear my voice in the language. A rule of thumb an editor told me when I wrote my first book was this: ‘If you don’t love what you have written no one who is reading it will like it either.’ It is so true and I tell students this whenever I speak to them about writing. That is not narcissistic or vain but sound advice. Learn to love your words.

Rosa ‘Nostalgia’ – one of my new favourite roses

Very occasionally I have a disagreement over my use of language with the proof reader. In 2007 I wrote a history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, celebrating ninety years of their incredible work looking after cemeteries and memorials all over the world. I was staggered to learn that even on Gallipoli, where the peninsula is ravaged by wild winter storms, roses survive. So I wrote: ‘The English rose thrives in all but the harshest of climes.’ The proof reader changed it to: ‘English roses can survive in almost all climates.’ I was outraged. She had taken all the symbolism out of my phraseology. I had to argue my corner fiercely but what I was trying to convey was not that roses are robust but that the corner of England that is forever captured in those beautiful cemeteries is adorned with that most quintessential memory of youth, beauty, femininity: the English Rose. In the end I got my way.

In this most recent book I wanted to keep a paragraph that described the great ice storm of January 1940 ‘when birds froze on the wing and ponies in Wales were entombed in ice’. A proof reader’s pen hovered over that paragraph but I wasn’t having any of it. Nothing could be more desolate than the image of ponies frozen to death in the severe cold. It was so much more descriptive, I felt, than giving the facts and figures of the temperature, wind chill or size of snowdrifts. As I am writing this we are going through an intense cold snap in the UK but let me assure you that no birds are freezing in flight nor are ponies turning to ice.

I have now published over 750,000 words and most of them, for me at least, are in the right order. If you believe me that I read my books up to sixteen times before publication, then that means I have read over 10 million words of my own before I even begin to estimate how many of other people’s words I have read in the course of my research. You have to love this fabulous language of English, don’t you? It has given me a lifetime’s pleasure and I hope, when others read my work, it gives them just a little bit of pleasure too.

Our Uninvited Guests is published by Simon & Schuster on 8 March 2018

Cultural History

Bunbury – the ancient Cheshire village that became Great Paxford in HOME FIRES

If you savour the concept of a British village in the middle of the twentieth century it is all too easy to think of a chocolate-box scene with cottages and houses surrounding a duckpond with a postman cycling by whistling while a farmer drives his sheep to market. So it may come as some surprise to learn that thousands of villages were surrounded by camps occupied by foreign servicemen and women, governments-in-exile and refugees from continental Europe. The majority of the visitors had never been to Britain before and fewer still had set foot in an English village.

American soldiers in Hightown, Wrexham © Wrexham History Society

In 1944 over a million more American GIs arrived to prepare for the invasion of Europe. Few of them had left America before and by the time they arrived in unfamiliar Britain they had suffered a debilitating troopship crossing of the Atlantic in their convoys, dodging submarines, landing in Northern Ireland before being billeted who only knew where. They were put up in remote country villages where no restaurant had even heard of – let alone served – a hamburger. The lack of showers, central heating and lager led many to feel homesick initially, but some grew to love the pretty countryside and the quirky English ways.

By and large they were welcome guests and had a good reputation among local communities for putting things right if they went wrong. A schoolboy in Dorset said that a neighbour had been delighted when his farm, damaged by American tanks on manoeuvres, was restored within a week. They repaired all the hedges and even helped out with the harvest, towing the old- fashioned binding machines with their jeeps. Another group damaged an ancient gateway leading to a fine manor house but restored it to its former glory in two days. The owners of Peover Hall in Cheshire were not so enthusiastic as the farmer in Devon. The US Third Army was based there and General Patton had his headquarters in the large Georgian wing in the build- up to D- Day. In 1944 a fire was started by a soldier and the house was so badly damaged that the wing was demolished after the war and the house returned to its pre-Georgian dimensions.

The beautiful fishing villages of Fowey and Polruan in Cornwall, home to hundreds of GIs in the buildup to D-Day 1944

The arrival of Americans in such vast numbers had a major impact on life in certain areas of Britain. The fishing village of Fowey in Cornwall had the magnificently named USN AATS B, or the United States Naval Advanced Amphibious Training Sub Base, which trained at Pentewan Beach twelve miles to the west. The officers were billeted at Heligan House and 850 men lived in tents. It was said that in the build- up to D- Day it was possible to walk across the river from Fowey to Polruan on American boats and landing craft, a distance of over 400 metres at high tide. Soldiers charged around the tiny narrow lanes in convoys of jeeps, while the village halls shook to jitter- bugging and children crowded around for sweets and chewing gum, which the Americans seemed to have in unlimited quantities. The citizens of Fowey quickly became used to their new guests with their enthusiasm and energetic attitude towards life. Then one day they woke to find the harbour empty and the Americans gone. They, like all the other GIs spread across the south-west, had left the shores for the beaches of Normandy.

Black soldiers in Britain 1944

The US 333rd Field Artillery Battalion (FAB) arrived in Britain in February 1944 in preparation for the Ardennes offensive, or the Battle of the Bulge. The soldiers were a black battalion from Alabama, a small number of the 130,000 black soldiers billeted in Britain from 1942 onwards. For many inhabitants of the small Cheshire village of Tattenhall, where the US 333rd FAB were housed, it was the first time they had encountered a black man. Equally, the Cheshire countryside provided a novelty for the southern American soldiers: it was the first time they had ever seen snow. They were billeted in and around a house called the Rookery, hunkered under the commanding ruin of Beeston Castle which is situated on a magnificent rock towering over the Cheshire plain and leading the eye westward to north Wales.

The Rookery, Tattenhall © Tattenhall History

Alabama in 1944 was still a segregated state and the soldiers had to be reassured that it was permissible for them to walk on pavements or go into the same pubs, shops and restaurants as their British hosts. When the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion left Tattenhall in summer sunshine six months after they had arrived in snow, one of the soldiers, Private George Davis, wrote, ‘We have found Paradise’. Tragically, many of the soldiers never returned to Alabama. Some were killed or captured near Antwerp but Davis was one of eleven soldiers who became separated from the rest and was hidden by a sympathetic Dutch farmer, only to be betrayed by a Nazi sympathiser and brutally murdered by the Germans at Wereth.

The British countryside opened its heart to the incoming soldiers but nothing could protect them from the brutality of war. Their stories feature in the final chapter of Our Uninvited Guests.

Gold, Frank-intentions and Murder

By the summer of 1940 Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe with nothing to protect her apart from the Channel.

This is an oft stated fact that has become entirely accepted by the majority of people. But is it true? Strictly speaking, yes. Geographically we stand on the edge of Europe and always have done. There is nothing new in that claim. But the implication here when set in the context of the early summer of 1940 is that plucky little Britain with its population of 38 million standing shoulder to shoulder faced the threat of a German invasion entirely alone and with no support from anyone. That is the bit that is not true and it does history a great disservice to ignore the massive contribution made by our friends and allies both that summer and in subsequent springs, summers, autumns and winters that followed.

signposts were removed all over the country in order the thwart the Germans had they invaded.

By the time the Battle of Britain took place, London was host to seven foreign governments-in-exile and the hot-headed French General, Charles de Gaulle, had arrived as well. None of them came empty handed.

The Norwegian government lent the British more than 1,300 vessels from their fleet, the fourth largest and most modern merchant fleet in the world, which sailed with the Atlantic convoys for the whole war. In 1941 a British official declared that the Norwegian merchant fleet was worth ‘more than an army of a million men’. That was an enormously valuable contribution and one that was not without risk. Many Norwegian sailors would lose their lives in the heaving seas of the submarine-ridden North Atlantic. In addition, King Haakon of Norway brought 1400 soldiers, 1,000 sailors and a small number of pilots that grew rapidly over the next few months.

The Belgians donated their substantial gold reserves and over the course of the war shipped 1,375 tons of uranium from their stocks to the USA to fuel the Manhattan project.

The Dutch government and their magnificent Queen Wilhelmina, who was described by Churchill as ‘the only real man among the governments-in-exile in London’ brought six hundred ships from its mercantile fleet and rich resources from the Dutch East Indies.

Reinhard Heydrich

The Czechs brought brilliant intelligence from inside Nazi Germany. Their main agent, A54 as he was always known, was a high-ranking Abwehr officer who divulged highly valuable secrets until his eventual capture in 1941. He told the Czechs about the build up of Goering’s Luftwaffe, he gave them the code for German wirelesses in 1938. It was a sinister code: Heil 15 März and a week before Prague was invaded (on 15 March 1939) that the Germans had been instructed to round up all intelligence officers and treat them with great harshness. His warnings helped the intelligence services to evacuate to London the night before the invasion. In 1942 two Czech agents carried out the most audacious assassination of the highest ranking Nazi to be murdered: Acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. The agents were trained in Britain and flown to Bohemia by the RAF. Our past is inextricably linked to the former Czechoslovakia.

Charles de Gaulle (right) with Churchill, Andrew McNaughton, and the Polish leader General Władysław Sikorski

Charles de Gaulle’s contribution would take longer to materialise but his presence in London cannot be underestimated. Churchill, passionately supportive of the French, gave de Gaulle every encouragement as he gradually built up the Free French army and encouraged the development of the Resistance. Many of the agents were trained in Britain and used safe houses all over the country, including one in Sussex which features in Our Uninvited Guests, to stay while waiting for flights into occupied France.

Polish fighter pilots of 303 Squadron returning from a mission in September 1940

The Poles brought fighter pilots among a total of 8,000 airmen and 20,000 soldiers as well as hundreds of sailors manning three destroyers, two submarines and a number of smaller vessels. By the end of the war the Polish were the fourth largest Allied Force after Russia, the USA and the British Empire. Critically they also sent an early decoded version of the Enigma machine. Yes. That’s right. Enigma. You know, the one that we make so much of. It was the Poles in 1932 who first worked out how to use the German Enigma machines and they had been reading German messages for the greater part of seven years by the time the war broke out. I’m not saying the coders at Bletchley Park could not have done their work without Polish help but it might not have happened so quickly. We owe the Poles far more than we ever imagine. That is why I have dedicated my new book to them. They might have been Uninvited Guests but they were brilliant guests to have on our side.

Until the entry of the USA into the war, Britain relied extensively on this generous support from its continental allies. We owe them an enormous debt of thanks and that is why they are all mentioned in Our Uninvited Guests.

Welcome to Our Uninvited Guests

The strange thing about writing a book is that it starts as a germ of an idea and ends by being a public object. It is a bit like having a baby who grows into a child and then is suddenly thrust out into the world entirely alone to be loved or hated without protection from the parent (me).

When I first had the idea for Our Uninvited Guests it was a completely different creation in my mind. My son Richard and I were in Harrogate in 2012. We had been looking at Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in the north east because I had been asked by the Commission to write panels to explain why there were large groups of CWGC graves in civilian or military cemeteries in this country. It is a little known fact that there are 13,000 Commission burial plots and cemeteries in Britain. But that is an aside. We were staying near the Hotel Majestic where, I was given to believe, my great-grandfather, Harry Summers, had spent the last ten years of his life. In fact, it turned out he had not lived at the Majestic but at the Prince of Wales Hotel. However I only discovered that last year. My interest was piqued by the idea that all the grand hotels in this magnificent spa town were earmarked by the government for requisitioning in the event of war and that is indeed what happened. The Hotel Majestic was taken over by the RAF; the ballroom at the George Hotel housed the General Post Office and so on. It was said that had London been bombed flat, the government planned to move lock, stock and barrel to Harrogate.

So was born a book proposal entitled Hotel Majestic. The subtitle was always ‘the secret life of country houses 1939-45’. The more research I did the more I realised that it was the people and their lives in these houses rather than the houses themselves that interested me. Of course it is interesting to know that the government decided, in 1938, that any house with more than four rooms downstairs could be requisitioned under the Defence of the Realm Act. My house would have escaped but my sister’s would not, for example. So yes, the obvious places such as Bletchley Park, Woburn Abbey, Chatsworth, Blenheim Palace were taken over but so were smaller properties all over the country. In St John’s Wood a house with a garden that led straight onto Primrose Hill was commandeered by the Air Raid Precautions Unit while a small manor house in Sussex was used as a safe-house for French Resistance couriers en route to France.
Further, I discovered that the Ministries of Information, Food, Supply, War etc could take over any building they wanted almost anywhere in the country with barely a shrug. Greater Malvern became infested with civil servants, BBC employees and later Radar technicians. The one thing in that town in short supply was school boys. They had been ousted and were living at Blenheim Palace.

Schoolboys at Blenheim Palace 1939 © Country Life

In Aylesbury, for example, no fewer than 60 properties were requisitioned in whole or in part. Sometimes the Ministry of Food forcibly commandeered freezers from ice-cream parlours, refrigerated plants and garages. At other times they took over tracts of land for access. The armed forces had almost carte blanche to occupy whatever they required.

A chaotic picture began to emerge and I soon realised that government bureaucracy, while fascinating for a page or two at most, is actually a killer. The book soon gained a new title: Behind Closed Doors. This very nearly stuck but there are a number of books and films with that name and the publishers decided in the end it should change to something more focused on the people rather than the houses. People matter: they are endlessly fascinating and almost always surprising when placed in unusual juxtapositions. BBC employees with beards cycling around the West Midlands are far more evocative than Nissen huts in Tewkesbury. Nuns in purple habits walking through the wild countryside near Bridgnorth captured my imagination as did an American journalist crawling over the heather in Northern Scotland. Why was there a pregnant mother from the East End sleeping in a hospital bed in the Prince Regent’s suite in a country house in Hertfordshire and why was a forger living in Audley End? What were they doing there and how did they cope with being completely torn from the roots of their former lives?

The Prince Regent’s Suite, Brocket Hall. During the war it was used as the recovery room for women who had given birth in Lord Melbourne’s bedroom. The women came from the City Maternity Hospital in East London.

This is the question at the heart of my new book Our Uninvited Guests. If you have time to read it you will meet some of the most beguiling characters imaginable. I have favourites but I won’t spoil it by telling you who they are. Suffice it to say that this book has been one of the most delightful and challenging I have ever written. It took longer than any other both to research and write but the rewards for me personally have been immense. I hope they translate into a rewarding read.

Our Uninvited Guests is published on 8 March 2018 by Simon & Schuster £20.00

Book Club Discussion Notes for Jambusters

This book came about as a challenge from Julie’s editor to see if the Women’s Institute did anything interesting in the Second World War. As a result of the research she carried out over four years the conclusion she inevitably came to was that there a wealth of material. The year after the book was published ITV bought the rights to turn it into a television drama. It ran under the name of Home Fires for two seasons in 2015 and 2016. The true story of the country women who kept the countryside ticking is what is on offer in Jambusters (Home Fires in the USA and Canada).

Topics to consider for discussion might include:

Coming just 21 years after the First World War what do you think women feared most from the Second World War?

How much did the WI’s Pacifist stance affect the way it was perceived by the British Government?

How important was a sense of humour during the war?
Were you able to relate to any of the characters in the book and if so, what drew you to them?

Has the author got the balance right between using her research to tell the factual story and her writing abilities to create an engaging narrative?

Do you think today’s women would rally to the support of the government in a future war and if so, what would be their main focus?

Did this book change your opinion on the Women’s Institute or the role of women on the Home Front in the war?