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