Clearing the First Hurdle

My very messy desk and one patient dog, Tiggy, who sits in her wine box behind the desk day in, day out, while I’m writing

Well, as promised in my last blog, here I am on 4 April 2019 with the first draft of Audrey under my belt. I kept a note of the daily word count to prove to myself that I was making progress so I thought I would be brave and publish it here. It shows, to me at least, the days when I struggled to get into the writing mode and other days when things went fluently. That is the nature of writing non-fiction in my experience: I get onto a roll and power through a segment, as I did on 19 February or get stuck up a blind alley as shown by the dismal figures on 4 March.

Do these figures actually tell me anything about my writing? To some extent they do. On 19 February I wrote the last half of chapter seven which covers the breathtakingly exciting period in Audrey’s editorship when Lee Miller was covering the battle of St Malo and the liberation of Paris. My diary entry from that day reads: ‘After gym spent all day writing 5384 words on Lee in France. All good stuff but utterly exhausting. Off to plan skiing clothes.’ Not very informative but the truth is that writing is exciting in my head but boring for the rest of my family. When I am locked up in my office for eight hours, I am hors combat to all and when I emerge my brain is so fried that I am not very good company. For what it is worth, I had returned from skiing on the first weekend in March so the reason for a small word count on the first Monday was not that I was stuck but that I had to spend the morning doing admin.

What next? I have 102,821 words in a draft and now the process of editing begins. For me this is the most exciting and creative part of writing non-fiction. I get to read the book for the first time as I almost never re-read anything while I’m completing the first draft. It is also a time of truth. The raw writing is full of repetition, facts that need cross-checking and an unhealthy number of adverbs. I could probably cut 1,000 words just by removing those unnecessary fillers which I know I put in to emphasise emotion or action but which add little to the work. So those will come out in the first edit, as will padding which inevitably creeps in when I am not entirely sure of myself, especially when dealing with family emotion. How do I know, for example, how Audrey felt at her father’s funeral? I do not know but I have to make an educated guess based on her relationship with him shown through her letters and her thoughts in her autobiography

Ah, the autobiography. Now there is a book I have had trouble with. Audrey published her autobiography in 1994 at the age of eighty-nine. She devoted less than half of it to her years at Vogue and a portion of the later chapters deal with her father’s correspondents and his art collection. In fact, that book is more interesting for what she leaves out than for what she includes. It is a prime example of her desire to cover the traces of her personal life. There is, for instance, no mention of any of her friends by name. Not a single one. But I know from her letters that she had many friends and was popular with her own age group and people of her father’s generation as well. The dramatis personae in her version of her life are her immediate family, her two husbands and about eight colleagues at Vogue.

My favourite example of Audrey taking control of her own story are the couple of sentences that she devotes to her first wedding. ‘Our friends had assumed that Jock and I would marry, and one day we did. From my parents’ point of view it must have been an unsatisfactory affair, to a man they had never taken to, and not in church but at a registry office.’ Hm. Not a very promising start to married life a reader might conclude. But Audrey was writing with hindsight and a divorce behind her. Through Percy Withers’ letters at Somerville College and Harry Yoxall’s diaries it is possible to build a richer and clearer picture of her nuptials. Far from disapproving of Jock, her parents accepted him readily and Percy wrote to one of his friends to say how pleased he was that Audrey was marrying at last. There was a huge party the night before the wedding, which took place on 2 September 1933 (thank you Somerville College archives), and a reception at the Savile Club in London which was attended by about 100 guests. It is true they got married in a registry office but that would not have bothered Percy Withers as he was an atheist. Mary Withers did have a religious bent but she bowed to her husband’s persuasion, as she did on so many other things… but that is another story. So, you see how I’ve had to read between the lines and take Audrey’s own record of her life with a large pinch of salt. A whole bucket load, in fact.

I interviewed Pam Makin who worked for Audrey from 1949 to 1952 and who spoke to me about her energy, passion and sense of humour.

One of the myths that has grown up around her is that of the intelligent but austere blue-stocking. A headmistress-type with little emotion but great strength of character. It is true that she was intelligent, formidably so according to some colleagues, and it is true that she could be headmistress-like at work, but what that hides is her true personality. She was kind and generous, giving every member of staff at the office a personal and carefully chosen Christmas present every year. She was ‘one of the quietest listeners now living’ according to her friend, the artist Paul Nash, while Maur Griggs, an older friend, wrote of the gleams of friendly fun in her eyes. Later in her life she showed her passion when she described her happiness in the early months of her second marriage. Those letters to Edna Woolman Chase (editor-in-chief of Vogue), carefully preserved in the magical archives of Condé Nast in New York, were a revelation in their honesty, sheer delight and surprise at finding herself so happy. Audrey was not austere but passionate, fun, adventurous, impetuous at times. She adored foreign travel and wild swimming, she wrote poetry and went to concerts and the theatre as often as her work would allow. And she loved cats. She described herself once as being like a soda stream, fizzing with pleasure. That is the Audrey who is beginning to appear in my work.

My next three months will be taken up with beating the book into shape, teasing out the development of Audrey’s personality over the decades and planting her firmly, enthusiasm and all, in her life’s work as editor of Vogue. Appropriately, as Audrey loved America, I will be posting my next update on 4 July, the day before I fly to Boston for my son’s wedding. How about that for a neat circle?

 

Ready, Steady, Go

There is something intensely exciting about starting to write a new book. I don’t mean starting from scratch, I mean that delicious moment when most of the research has been done and you feel it is time to pull a blank page to the fore, to pick up a pen (or keyboard) and write. Although this is my thirteenth book, the sense of thrilling anticipation and out and out terror gets stronger, not weaker. When I wrote Fearless on Everest in 1999, I do not think I had a clue about the enormity of what I was attempting to do. This time I know full well and the pressure is great. It is another biography, my third, and this time it is of a woman. Her place in history is acknowledged by a small coterie of people who understand her unique contribution to the twentieth century. Her name is Audrey Withers and it is quite likely you will never have heard of her but I plan to put that right in my biography.

As the time-frame for this book is very short, it is due to be published early 2020, I thought I would do a quarterly blog with updates as to its progress and to share some of the highs and lows of writing biography. Apart from anything else, it will give me the incentive to be honest with myself about where I am in the process.

Writing historical biography, as opposed to social history, is a challenge on many levels. Key is to keep the central character to the fore in all relationships, however grand or overpowering the other characters might be. And in my case, they are both grand and overpowering. I have Condé Montrose Nast, father of the American magazine publishing empire and one of the most powerful men in early twentieth century New York. Many people I speak to in Britain do not even realise that Condé Nast, who gave his name to the brand, was a real man. But he was. By the time he entered the era about which I am writing he was so rich that he would book a suite at the Ritz with two bedrooms and two bathrooms so that he could have a hot and cold bath in the evening and not have the inconvenience of having to wait for one to drain before refilling it.

Then I have Cecil Beaton, the society photographer who worked for Vogue for over thirty years. At the beginning of the war, when Audrey Withers had just taken over as editor, Beaton was out of favour in New York and it was Audrey who got him reinstated. She needed his brilliant eye and his satiric pen to capture wartime London for her, especially during the Blitz. After Beaton comes the brilliant, brave Lee Miller who worked as Vogue’s war reporter from 1942 and whose reportage from the continent from 1944 onwards occupied in all seventy-seven pages of the magazine over a period of eighteen months, more than that of any other writer or photographer of the era. She was Audrey’s eyes on the ground and it was Audrey’s passion for making Vogue relevant in wartime that shaped her editing of Lee’s articles.

An issue with this book all along has been that Audrey destroyed all Vogue’s archival papers and photographs from its inception in 1924 to 1942 in order to support the wartime paper salvage effort. This action, while noble at the time (I guess), has produced agonies for me and other historians of Vogue because there is nothing extant from that period. Not a letter nor a memo. Just the magazine itself, where reading between the lines has become a dark art.

I have spent two and a half years, the last twelve months full time, researching this biography. My greatest challenge has been to find Audrey’s voice. She was a private person who did her best to cover her tracks in life – and with some degree of success I might add – but I have been able to unearth more than I thought I would thanks to a key find in the archives of Condé Nast in New York in October. Of that more anon.

Most of my research is stored in carefully labelled folders in Drop Box. For biography I order it in character files. Audrey has a folder which contains subfolders on her early life, her education, her employment, her parents, her marriages (a very thin one at present), her official personal details such as birth, death, marriage certificates and the 1939 National Register. Within that folder there is also a file of obituaries and letters, by date, from people who knew her and who have written to me. Beaton has a folder, as does Condé Nast, Lee Miller, Edna Woolman Chase (editor of Vogue worldwide) and so on. Then there are folders with general archive material and these are listed by date and then character. Old editions of Vogue are précised month by month and copy by Audrey highlighted where relevant.

Leuchturm Notebook from September to November 2018

In addition, I have three notebooks full of interviews, observations, pencil notes from my visits to the Tate Archive, the National Archives, Vogue House, Condé Nast, Somerville College and visits to private individuals who worked with Audrey. Those sit on my desk, indexed thanks to the foresight of the designers of Leuchturm 1917. In all it comprises about 500,000 words.

Most of this material will never make it into the book but it serves as background material, a sort of historical tapestry against which Audrey’s life was set. The challenge is to make sure that she is always to the fore and the material does not swamp or obscure her.

On Thursday 3 January I tidied my office in preparation for beginning work on Monday 7, accidentally polishing my desk with oven cleaner rather than furniture polish. The smell was appalling but the desk is thankfully undamaged.

My desk in the attic of my home in Oxford. Over the years I have gathered endless items of memorabilia which help to ground me when I am writing.

My plan is to write the first draft of 110,000 words by 28 March 2019 then take three days off to walk in the Lake District, write another blog and brace myself for the next three months which will be editing what one of my fellow writers calls the ‘shitty first draft’.

If you are interested, please look out for my next update in a blog on 4 April 2019.

Desperately Seeking Someone

Researching non-fiction is a bit like being a police detective, I imagine. Sniffing out clues and piecing together a story that brings the facts to the fore in a convincing way. I also imagine it must be near impossible to put a perfect case together as life is not neat and linear. It is chaotic, veering off in this or that direction and leaving traces which sometimes lead to vital clues and at other times a dead end. I will stop with the police analogy as I am out of my depth, basing my knowledge on Agatha Christie or PD James’s crime fiction.

The trunk in the attic © Julie Summers

However, I am in the right part of the stream when talking about sniffing out clues about people’s lives for my non-fiction books. I am known as the ferret by my irreverent god-father. Others might describe me as a nosey-parker but whichever sobriquet you choose, the truth is that I am persistent in my pursuit of facts. In 2000 I found a trunk in the attic which no one in the family believed still existed. In this now famous trunk I found a blue foolscap folder, tied with a blue ribbon, and the title ACI Everest 1924 which gave me eleven letters written by Sandy Irvine to his mother, father and sister from the Mount Everest expedition. Also in the file were photographs, drawings, invoices for clothing and notes on his work on the truculent oxygen sets for the climb: all unseen for over seventy-five years. It was the archive find of my writing career to date and brought the book to life in a way that I had not anticipated. Suddenly I had this young man’s voice and it was thrilling.

When I was writing the biography of my grand-father, Philip Toosey, who was the colonel who built the bridge on the river Kwai, I had more material than I could possibly have wished for. There are collections all over the world charting the Death Railway from all sides of the story. Military histories focussing on the fall of Singapore are outnumbered by autobiographies from Prisoners of War in the Far East by about ten to one. And my grandfather had added to this mass by recording thirty hours of conversation with Professor Peter Davies on reel-to-reel tapes in the early 1970s. Having an embarrassment of riches can be almost as off-putting as having too little material. You have to work very hard to find the individual personal voice among so many.

Toosey in his study at Heathcote c. 1974. This is here he and Peter Davies did the bulk of the tape recordings © Toosey Family

Eventually I did but in the most peculiar way. Every time Peter Davies went to interview Toosey, as he was universally known, he would start with ‘Well, Brigadier, today we will talk about …’ and then he would give a topic such as Baring’s Bank, Dunkirk or the Allied bombings of POW camps. One day I happened to be chopping carrots for my children’s lunch when Toosey himself announced the topic of the day: ‘Well Peter,’ he said, clearing his throat and bracing himself for what came next: ‘Today I would like to tell you about my experiences with women.’ ‘Oh heck,’ I thought, ‘what do I do now?’ Should I turn off the tape or fast forward it in order to preserve my grandfather’s privacy or should I listen, like a diligent historian? I listened, of course. And the listening was rewarded with the following: ‘Like most Englishmen, I could write the story of my sex-life on a postage stamp.’ I got off light there, I thought with relief.

Alex Toosey 1949 © Toosey Family

He then did go on to talk a bit about brief encounters in Piccadilly and Peru but his focus was on my grandmother, who he met in 1930 and married the following year. He described her as ‘formidable’. She was known as the regimental sergeant major and ‘we all love and respect her.’Over the course of the next two years I got to know this man who was in awe of his wife. I had known him as a child, of course. He died when I was fifteen. But that does not give you the kind of knowledge you need as a biographer. The tapes helped me to understand him in a way that no books ever could. Sometimes he would laugh when telling a story, at other times his voice would break, particularly when he was speaking of the men’s suffering in the prison camps. However, most impressive of all was his energy, his love of life and his determination not to be beaten down, however ghastly the circumstances. At the end of the war he was on a panel screening prison guards for war crimes. Some he had to condemn and it was not something he took any pleasure in. Revenge was not in his character.

Saito at Toosey’s grave, Landican Cemetery, 1984 © Toosey Family

A Japanese guard who had given him a serious beating for allowing some prisoners to escape in 1942 came up in front of him. Toosey insisted he should be set free without punishment. He knew that this man, Sargeant-major Saito, had had to punish him because he had flagrantly disobeyed Japanese orders. He also knew that Saito had saved him from a far worse fate: cross examination by the Kempi Tai (the Japanese secret police). Saito finally came to Britain in 1984 to pay his respects to Toosey. He visited his grave and wrote to Patrick, Toosey’s son, after the visit: ‘I feel very fine because I finish my own strong duty.  One thing I regret, I could not visit Mr Philip Toosey when he was alive.  He showed me what human being should be.  He changed the philosophy of my life.’ By the time I finished the book I believe I had my man.

Now I am embarked upon a third biography, separated in time by fifteen years and eleven books, and yet the task is the hardest to date. Audrey Withers was Vogue’s editor from 1940 to 1960. She was married twice and worked in later life as a volunteer for the Liberal Democrats. She received an OBE in 1954 and the Bi-centenary medal from the Royal Society of Arts in 1961. Yet despite being a public figure and publishing an autobiography, she has succeeded in remaining almost completely in the shadows. So reticent was she about personal matters that she filleted her father’s archive before she gave it to Somerville College, Oxford, removing all copies of personal letters referring to her. It is tantalizing to say the very least.

So I am have to piece together the jigsaw puzzle that will, I hope, paint a portrait of this remarkable woman by reading biographies and autobiographies of all the people she worked with. The relationship she enjoyed with the American photographer, Lee Miller, was the closest one she had during the war. Lee became Vogue’s war correspondent and I discovered recently that it was Audrey who worked hard to get her press accreditation so that she could go to France in 1944. Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth David gave me clues about Audrey’s interest in fresh and home-grown ingredients, while Hugo Vickers revealed that Audrey had been instrumental in persuading Vogue to reinstate Cecil Beaton as a photographer on the magazine after he had fallen foul of Condé Nast in 1938. Audrey’s own autobiography is more revealing for what it leaves out rather than what it includes and I am only now realizing that this is useful as it gives me clues about what mattered to her.

Valuable resources, which she could not destroy, are letters in the Condé Nast archives in London and New York. She was a prolific correspondent, as was Edna Woolman-Chase, the editor-in-chief of Vogue. Edna once complained that Audrey wrote too many memos and they were too long. That might be so but they are invaluable to me. These are full of detail of everyday life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. They give glimpses of personalities and offer reminders that famous photographers or writers, such as Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Elizabeth David, were real human beings with feelings, foibles and fury. I have a rich palette for the Vogue years and I am fortunate to have access to this material.

Of her private life, however, there is precious little. Here she did indeed succeed in hiding a great deal. Husband number one is a shadowy figure ‘who was never without a girlfriend’ and who has eluded my most determined efforts to track him down. There is minimal material from the 1911 census and an announcement of his second marriage in 1964. I know where and when he was born and died but apart from that there is almost nothing. When I say almost nothing, I do know one or two things that are revealed by the official records. I know, for example, that he did not volunteer for service at the outbreak of the war, unlike Audrey who was a driver for the Auxiliary Fire Service. That is recorded on the National Register from September 1939. He was working as a salesman for a bookshop in London, which would not have been a reserved occupation and he was only thirty-two. That strikes me as strange and I hope eventually to find out why.

Jock Stewart, c. 1948, in London © Julie Summers

There is one fuzzy photograph of Jock, taken at a wedding just after the war. He is about six feet tall which I worked out from comparing the height of the taxi behind him, the woman to his left and taking into account perspective and the height of a London pavement. He is quite good looking and well-dressed but his shoes are not shiny, so that tells me that he had not been in the military. He has thinning fair hair, large ears and full lips. The way he carries his hat and umbrella tells me he is a man with confidence. I would so love to find another picture of him, though. A younger Jock. But none appears to exist.

I also know that he described himself as ‘head’ of the household at 31 Blomfield Road in the 1939 register. The other occupants of the house, which was divided into three flats, were his wife, Elizabeth Stewart, his parents and a spinster who lived on the top floor. I realized that Audrey compartmentalized her life to such an extent that she had two names. At home she was Elizabeth Stewart while at work she was Audrey Withers. She recorded her occupation as ‘journalist’ while her mother-in-law is ‘unpaid domestic help.’ It was then I understood her mother-in-law kept house, did the shopping, cooking, washing and ironing while Audrey worked long hours at Vogue, often not returning until 10pm, something she had mentioned more than once in letters. Slowly a picture of the domestic life in Blomfield Road began to emerge. I even managed to work out which floor Audrey lived on from a chance remark about moving downstairs to sleep in her parents-in-law’s sitting room during the Blitz.

This is the work that will occupy me for the rest of this year and I confess that I love it. I shall find my subject, as I did with my other two biographies, and it will all come together in the end. In the meantime, where are the passenger lists for Southampton-New York for April 1938?

 

 

A Sense of Place

Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire © Julie Summers

Where were you born? I think it is fair to say that most people know their place of birth and probably the name of the hospital, maternity home, house name or number where they came into this world. Thinking about it, though, it is in some sense a strange question because chances are you have no personal knowledge of the place and you have probably never returned. Is it not a little unusual to imagine that you might meet up with people who were born in the same place as you? And further more to do so annually and in great numbers? I was born in Clatterbridge Hospital in Birkenhead and not far from Liverpool but I have never met anyone in my life, other than my siblings, who was born there. Two of my sons were born at the Rosie Maternity Hospital, now the Rosie Hospital, in Cambridge and as far as I know they have never met anyone else born there either.  So how extraordinary was it for me to visit Brocket Hall last month and to meet over fifty people who were born at the hall when it was a maternity home between 1939 and 1949?

Brocket Babies at the 2018 reunion © Julie Summers

The story of the Brocket Babies features in chapter one of Our Uninvited Guests and it is a remarkable story in so many ways. At the outbreak of the Second World War Brocket Hall belonged to Arthur Ronald Nall Cain, the second Lord Brocket, a well-known Nazi sympathiser. He was so close to the German Foreign Minister in the nineteen thirties that one of the bedrooms in the hall was renamed the ‘von Ribbentrop Room’, though it has since reverted to its previous name, the Queen Victoria, because she liked to stay in that modest but luxurious bedroom when she visited the hall in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Queen Victoria Bedroom, once known as the von Ribbentrop Room © Julie Summers

Brocket Hall has one of the most colourful histories of any of Britain’s country houses from royal love affairs, mad wives and illegitimate offspring to a healthy dose of society intrigue. In the nineteenth century the hall had been in the possession of two prime ministers: the Lords Melbourne and Palmerston, the mother of the former having been lover of the Prince Regent, later George IV. Naturally enough there is a room named after him too: the Prince Regent Suite. So how glorious from a historian’s point of view that this house, with its walls hiding past scandals, was taken over by the Red Cross and used as a maternity hospital for a decade at a time when childbirth was clinical and married women held up as paragons of virtue.

During the war the Prince Regent Suite was stripped of its furniture but the Chinese wallpaper lent colour to the recovery room and some mothers said they thought they had died and gone to heaven. © Julie Summers

Mothers recovering from childbirth in the Prince Regent Suite ©Imperial War Museums

There are photographs of mothers in the Prince Regent Suite sitting up in metal-framed hospital beds knitting white caps for their babies, attended by nurses in crisp white uniforms set against the background of the sumptuous Chinese design hand-painted silk wall-paper chosen by the Prince Regent for the room in which he would entertain Lady Melbourne. Not so however for those poor girls who found themselves carrying a baby conceived out of wedlock: they belonged to a class of woman to be condemned and whose babies would be taken away immediately after birth. Those whose families could afford to pay would send their daughters to Lemsford House, just outside the gates of Brocket Hall, where they were held until it was time to give birth in the delivery suite in the hall. Those who could not afford to pay were sent to Brocket Hall and worked below stairs in the kitchens and cellars. They were known as the Brownies. It is not clear from the records how many Brownies worked at Brocket Hall during and after the war but it would have been scores, if not hundreds. I found it a sad and chilling reminder of society’s relatively recent attitude towards illegitimacy. Indeed when I was growing up in the mid-nineteen seventies and a school friend of mine fell pregnant she was considered to be ‘in disgrace’ and her baby was delivered and adopted immediately. But she never returned to school.

Babies were cared for in the extensive cellars are Brocket Hall. A trainee nurse is bathing a very angry baby ©Imperial War Museums

In all, 8,388 babies were born at Brocket Hall including several pairs of twins. At the last count the couple who organise the Brocket Babies website (www.brocketbabies.org.uk) have a mailing list of over 1,100 ‘babies’ who were born there between September 1939 and November 1949. That is more than one in eight of all the babies. I find that fascinating.

Why does it matter to them where they were born? They could not possibly remember anything of Brocket Hall as they would have left with their mothers to go home, or with the Church of England Adoption Agency, after two weeks. But matter it does and it is clearly an essential part of who they are today. I believe it gives them a sense of belonging to an exclusive community whose existence was called into being by an event in history that none of those born at Brocket Hall experienced in person, namely the outbreak of the Second World War. But their mothers did. Each and every one of them lived through the war and but for the decision of the Ministry of Health to move expectant mothers out of the cities for their safety, all of them would have given birth in the City of London Maternity Hospital. It is one of the many strange juxtapositions of the Second World War.

Waddesdon Manor, home to nursery schools from Croydon © Julie Summers

For me it begs the question of how much a sense of place, especially in our childhoods, has an impact on our later lives. I wrote about Waddesdon Manor, home to over a hundred babies and children under five years old. Some of them have memories of their time in the stunning surroundings of Ferdinand de Rothschild’s splendid Loire-chateau inspired country house. Fifty-four girls from the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington spent the war in the house and grounds of Aldenham Park in Shropshire while 400 boys from Malvern College were sent to Blenheim Palace for three terms. Everyone I spoke to or whose memoirs I read made the point that the opulent surroundings, however temporary, that were part of the backdrop of their childhoods made an impact on their subsequent memories. It is a little detail from life on the home front in the Second World War that affected the lives of millions of people.

One final thought: I observed not only how much Brocket Hall meant to the Brocket Babies but also how much the Brocket Babies mean to the people who run the hall today. Their enthusiasm for this part of the hall’s history makes me realise that, as usual, history is at its best and most fascinating when we can see it brought alive, literally in this case, and see or hear the individual stories behind the statistics. Long may the Brocket Baby day continue.

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