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 

Honour in Oxton: a Blue Plaque for Toosey

This is the transcript of a speech I gave to mark the unveiling of a blue plaque at the gates of the house where my grandfather lived in the early twentieth century. The people of Merseyside voted him the person most deserving of recognition. There was a huge turnout of Toosey relatives as well as two former prisoners of war, Maurice Naylor (96) and Fergus Anckorn (98) who unveiled the plaque. My son Richard read the words of the Japanese camp guard.

 

Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey CBE, DSO, TD, JP (12 August 1904 – 22 December 1975)

Brigadier Sir Philip John Denton Toosey was born in Upton Road in 1904 and moved to 20 Rosemount in 1910. Over the course of his life he played a role in the lives of many, many people from all walks of life: from Liverpool to Lima, from Barings Bank to the Bridge on the River Kwai and from Oxton to Africa. He had the ability to make you feel as if you were the only person who mattered at that moment in time, whether you were being praised on parade, being given a severe rocket for leaving bicycles on a train or drawing on the dining room wall paper. Latterly people felt his gaze upon them as he fundraised energetically for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

He was more than his title would suggest. His kindness, his delicious sense of humour, his repertoire of whistles and his passion for life never waned. He shared this passion with all who came into contact with him. To his friends he was Phil, and sometimes ‘Dear old Phil.’ To his wife, Alex, he was Philip with a particularly plosive P when she was cross with him. To his three children, Patrick, Gillian and Nicholas he was ‘The Captain’,named after Captain William Bush RN, a fictional character of extreme efficiency and loyalty in CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. Thus to us his grandchildren he became Grandpa Bush. To his men he was the Colonel and later The Brig and to the thousands of people he met over the course of his working life he was simply Mr Toosey.

To one man, however, he was a figure of such significance that he changed the course of this man’s life. Sergeant Major Teruo Saito was second in command at Tamarkan in Thailand when Colonel Toosey and his men marched into the bridge camp on the River Kwai to the tune of Colonel Bogey. Saito was a regular army officer from the Imperial Japanese Army and although his methods of discipline were brutal, Toosey always argued that Saito knew how to handle men and there formed an unlikely bond between the two of them based on mutual respect. Toosey wrung concessions out of Saito for his men, such as rest or Yasume days, a canteen and the right to discipline his own men rather than leave it to the Japanese. In return he agreed to keep the camp clean and morale high, which in itself saved hundreds of lives. In 1943 Toosey was involved in a plot to help two officers and seven soldiers escape. The men were all captured and executed. Toosey told Saito that only he had known of the plan and as such he was subjected to a severe beating and was forced to stand to attention for twenty-four hours in the tropical heat – a humiliation initiated by Saito as a way to show the Kempi Tai (the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo) that he had dealt with the situation. Saito’s actions undoubtedly saved Toosey from an even more unpleasant fate.

This photograph of the Bridge on the River Kwai was given to Toosey in 1955

At the end of the war when Toosey was asked to help screen the Japanese and Korean guards for war crimes he told the investigators that Saito should be set free. This made an enormous impression on the Japanese. In 1974 he wrote to Toosey:

For long period of time I have been harbouring the wish to meet you and express my thanks to you. I especially remember in 1945 when the war ended and when our situations were completely reversed. I was gravely shocked and delighted when you came to shake me by the hand as only day before you were prisoner. You exchanged friendly words with me and I discovered what a great man you were. Even after winning you were not arrogant or proud. You are the type of man who is a real bridge over the battlefield.

After the war Toosey, like most of the former POWs, struggled to settle back into civilian life. He was helped by his firm, Barings, and by his activities with the Far Eastern Prisoners of War Federation of which he was Chairman from 1966 to 1974

A decade later, in what would have been Toosey’s 80th year, Saito came to Britain at the invitation of Professor Peter Davies, Toosey’s first biographer. They visited the grave in Landican cemetery and Saito expressed surprise that there was no great monument but a simple headstone.

Saito at Toosey’s grave on 12 August 1984 on what would have been Toosey’s 80th birthday

He asked to spend a few moments at the grave as to say a prayer, for he had converted to Christianity after the war. Later that afternoon he came here to tea with Patrick and Monica and saw 20 Rosemount. He returned to Thailand and wrote to Peter and Patrick:

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 a human being should be. He changed the philosophy of my life.

Phil Toosey in his study at Heathcote 1974

Three generations of Tooseys: l-r Nick Toosey (son); Arthur Toosey, Gillian Summers, Georgia Toosey, Giles Toosey, Stephanie Hickish, Richard Steele, Evelyn-Mary Matthews

 

Home Fires Season 2 Episode 6 The True Cost of War

As the second season of Home Fires draws to its dramatic close I thought I would concentrate on a question I have spent a great deal of time working on: the true cost of war The cost of the war in human terms. Not numbers of killed or wounded but the impact it had on their families.

HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured: CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam Brindsley, DANIEL RYAN as Bryn Brindsley and WILL ATTENBOROUGH as David Brindsley. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

HOME FIRES
© ITV

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Clara Millburn

One of the cruellest notifications a family could receive, short of killed, was Missing in Action. This was the fate of the Brindsley family in Home Fires. Miriam refused to believe that David was dead and held onto that hope against all the odds. In Jambusters I told the story of diarist Clara Milburn whose son, Alan, was posted as ‘missing’ after Dunkirk. Her diary entries over the summer of 1940 make haunting reading. In June she wrote: ‘How curious this life is. A sort of deep stillness comes over everything from time to time. There is not much traffic on the roads during the week and the village seems empty in the evenings. One misses the young life everywhere, particularly Alan coming in in the early evening.’ A month later there was still no news of her son: ‘Always one is thinking of him, wondering whether he still lives and if so, whether he is well, where he is, what he does all day, what discomforts he is suffering. If… if… And so the days go by.’ At the end of July she heard that he was a prisoner of war and hugged her husband ‘for sheer joy at the good news’. It was not until October that she received a letter from him, a full nine months after she had last spoken to him over the phone. Alan Milburn returned safely but a very changed man.

Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

For Barbara Cartland the news from France was the same as for Clara Milburn. Both her brothers, Ronald and Tony, were fighting with the British Expeditionary Force. Ronald wrote to his mother just before he went into action: ‘This is just to send you my love and bless you always. Don’t be anxious if there is a long silence from me – the fog of war is pretty impenetrable. We shall win in the end, but there’s horror and tribulation ahead of all of us. We can’t avoid it. What a waste it all is, but after months of desolation we shall gain and retain what you and I have always understood the meaning of – freedom.’ Barbara’s mother, Polly, had lost her husband in 1918 and knew full well the horror of the telegram. It came twice over that hot, dry summer of 1940. Both her sons were ‘missing’. In January 1941 came the terrible news that Ronald had been killed in action on 30 May 1940, hit in the head by a German bullet. Barbara wrote: ‘We had gradually been losing hope of hearing that he was alive – now we knew the truth. My mother was wonderful. “Missing” is the cruellest uncertainty of all, as she well knew, for my father had been missing in 1918; and that ghastly waiting, watching, hoping and praying was hers all over again – not twice, but three times, for Tony was still “missing”.’ Tony Cartland had been killed the day before his brother, hit by a shell. For Polly and Barbara Cartland there was no happy ending to their story.

In Home Fires there are men caught up in the same drama as the Cartland brothers and Alan Milburn. Sarah Collingbourne’s husband, Adam, is missing in France while David Brindsley has miraculously returned from an horrific accident at sea and Bob Simms, wounded at Dunkirk, was sent back to Great Paxford in an ambulance. It is easy to understand why Miriam clung so desperately to her belief that David was still alive and remarkable that he was able to come home.

imagesOf the vicar’s fate we know little. Ronald Cartland described ‘the fog of war’ meaning there was confusion and chaos as indeed there was. And the pressure on families was immense. My grandfather was taken prisoner on Singapore on 15 February 1942 and the first official notice my grandmother received that her husband was alive but a POW was on Christmas Eve of that year, almost 11 months after he had been captured. For her the fog of war was exceptionally thick. And for her there was the added problem that as he was ‘missing’ he was neither dead, in which case she would have received a war widow’s pension, or alive, in which case he would have received army pay. So for nearly a year she and tens of thousands of other wives received no money.

How did they cope? Sometimes firms would make hardship payments to wives of men who had worked with them pre-war but more often than not they had to rely on family support or charities. The oldest military charity in Britain was SSAFA – the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It was founded in 1885 to provide lifelong support to serving men, women and veterans from the British Armed Forces and their families or dependents. In the Second World War SSAFA helped hundreds of thousands of families and their support was invaluable then, as it is still today.

So as this second season of Home Fires gives us a powerful finale, it is worth reflecting that there are very real parallels between the experiences of the fictional characters and their historic counterparts. We are going to be left with more questions than answers but then that reflects the true cost of war. Let’s just hope that one day we will get a third season to give us some answers.

cover Home Fires full 6.24.15

Home Fires Season 2 Episode 5 Fur and Friction

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

HOME FIRES SERIES 2
© ITV

When I am asked what it is about the Second World War that fascinates me so much I reply that it is not war but people who excite my interest: how individuals cope in a time of emergency and how such events impact upon their later lives. One of the practical aspects that had to be considered was clothing and it is something I am regularly asked about in regard to Home Fires. Just to be clear, I am not involved in the production of the drama – my involvement stops with the scripts – but I did have the great good fortune to talk to the series costume designer, Lucinda Wright, in the lead up to filming series 1 and she took me round the fabulous collections of clothes at Angels Costumes in London. Their website claims they have over one million items and eight miles of hanging costume. Well, I didn’t see them all but Lucinda and I did discuss colour and fabrics in some detail.

HOME FIRES EPISODE 4 Pictured:CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation the HOME FIRES on ITV.

CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow.
© ITV

Everyone in Home Fires is dressed to their status. Steph Farrow wears dungarees in the fields but once she arrives at a WI meeting she is scrubbed clean and wearing a patterned dress, as would have been the case in the 1940s. Edith Jones, the wonderful diarist whose jottings form the golden thread through my book Home Fires, would always change into a frock in the evening for supper, even if it was just her and Jack eating dinner together. She is similar to Steph in many ways. At the other end of the spectrum is Joyce Cameron. Always meticulously turned out and often wearing fur. Until the 1970s when there was a huge animal rights’ movement against fur coats, women of a certain standing would have one, two or even three fur coats in their wardrobe: a mink for the evening, a pine-marten for day use and a fox stole to wear over a tweed coat.

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One major change in Britain during 1940 was the proportion of people wearing uniform. You might not have noticed the change between series 1 and series 2 but it is striking and absolutely reflects what was happening in the country. About a third of the population of Britain were entitled to wear uniform during the Second World War. This would give a figure of somewhere in the region of 15 million people, a large number of whom were women. So we have in Great Paxford a mixture of RAF, Army and women’s service uniforms – that much is obvious. But then there are the women working in the Barden’s factory who all wear pinafores over their own clothes to protect them. Clare wears a uniform when she is working for Frances Barden as a maid, though not on her days off with Spencer. House coats, such as those worn by Pat, were popular and a sensible way to keep the wear and tear of ordinary clothes to a minimum.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : FRANCES GREY as Erica Campbell, CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms and SAMANTHA BOND as Frances Barden. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

House coats galore! © ITV

With so many people wearing them, it is unsurprising that the general public knew how to ‘read’ uniforms across a street or at the scene of an incident, and could identify at a glance a man or woman’s job, rank and status. And it was very important to know and trust the person who was issuing an instruction, especially during the Blitz, when people needed to know who to listen to or appeal to in a crisis. Aside from emergencies, uniforms had a hierarchy with implications on many levels, some of them more personal than official.

WW2 Christmas card, Escort! A Chelsea Pensioner looks in admiration at an RAF airman with an elegant woman on each arm. 1941

WW2 Christmas card, Escort! A Chelsea Pensioner looks in admiration at an RAF airman with an elegant woman on each arm.
1941

Some uniforms, such as the Royal Air Force blue, gave men real status in women’s eyes. This was partly because it comprised a smaller body of men than the army, and their jobs, especially the pilots, were considered heroic and extremely dangerous. They were known as ‘Our Glamour Boys’. The PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) suffered in their khaki uniforms from being the least admired of the three services by the general public. Members of the women’s services (just over 100,000 in June 1941) were said to grade potential boyfriends in an order of eligibility in which ‘RAF officers rated tops, being classified in turn by rank and number of decorations; naval officers came second and brown jobs a long way behind’.

So as you are watching Episode 5 of Home Fires, it is worth looking out for the distinctions of dress and the way different people react to it. That is, if you have time to notice that level of detail when there is so much drama going on around you. This is another breathtaking hour where I lurched from near tears of enchantment to gasps of horror. Enjoy Sunday evening!

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Home Fires Season 2 Episode 4 Love and Sex in Times of War

‘If you put men and women together in close proximity in a danger shared, a mutual attraction is not only the inevitable result, it is what we should expect, and we should be very surprised and perturbed from a national point of view if it wasn’t.’ Thus wrote the English novelist, Barbara Cartland in 1945. As a welfare officer for the women’s services during the Second World War she was warm, generous and young people responded to her: ‘No one has ever minded when I have talked to them, and I’ve been both personal and intrusive. Being a novelist helps. I don’t know why, but people always want to confide in novelists, and the other thing which I believe makes everything alright is the fact that I am sincere. I do believe what I say.’ There were those in society who judged young people who got into trouble and condemned them but Cartland thought that was unfair and wrong. They were young, in love, in danger and in a hurry.

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From today’s perspective it is difficult to imagine or understand the stigma caused by extramarital affairs or illegitimate children. For both men and women during the war there was a sense that living for today was fine because tomorrow you might die and this spilled over into behaviour which to some seemed reprehensible but which to others was inevitable and not even particularly surprising. ‘War Aphrodisia’ was traditionally ascribed to men in battle and was a well-recognised condition. In total war, as the Second World War undoubtedly was for Britain and mainland Europe, a hedonistic impulse reached many other segments of society. Later in the war the American GIs turned many heads and over 60,000 GI brides made their way to the New World in the immediate aftermath of the Second War. But that is all in the future.

The emancipation of women in Britain after the First World War had led, briefly, to a more liberated attitude towards fashion and behaviour. One commentator wrote: ‘Women bobbed their hair, donned short skirts, smoked in public and wore the heavy makeup which had formerly been the attribute of the harlot.’ The seeds of emancipation had been sown and the flame was fanned hardest in the USA where the combination of a buoyant stock market, bootleg gin and the racy novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald fuelled the frenetic pace of the social revolution.

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‘Jazz babies’ in Hollywood, 1927

Hollywood played its part, producing erotic films for a mass audience and elevating the leading stars to almost legendary status. Audiences flocked to films such as Alimony (1917), which promised ‘brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrifying climax that makes you gasp.’ The Great Depression put a stop to much of this and divorce rates in Britain plunged along with the stock market, reaching a low in 1933, down 40% from the 1928 level. The number of weddings also fell.

The circumstances of total war changed both attitudes and opportunities: ‘We were not really immoral, there was a war on,’ explained one British housewife. The ‘what the heck I could be dead tomorrow’ attitude of some of the fighter pilots, for example, brought many couples together and hastily arranged marriages, with often only forty-eight hours to spend together, were not uncommon. Few couples could consider what would happen after the war, when life might return to normal. They lived for that day and perhaps the next. ‘They were loved and beloved, and by this stage in the war love was about the only thing left unrationed.’

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copyright ITV

As we dig deeper into the fourth episode of HOME FIRES, war aphrodisia has reached Great Paxford. Electric tensions spark and shock around the village in the ferment of high drama. Pat’s nascent relationship with Marek has caused gasps and quickening heartbeats not just for careful observers like Erica, but for the rest of us watching on, agonising over her every move, desperate for her to duck and dive to avoid the eagle eye of Bob. How can she be so brave as to carry on her relationship with Marek while her deeply troubled husband is trying to exert his influence over her?

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A contemporary description from a Manchester housewife in 1944 might throw some light on this: ‘There was nothing cheap about our affair, and if Rick had my body, my heart was with my husband and somehow I didn’t feel that I was doing anything wrong.’

Other relationships stop and start. Emotions that would normally have been ignored or suppressed, rise to the surface with a juvenile and intoxicating urgency. Some women find themselves almost out of their depth and exert a rigorous check on their emotions. Thanks to an intervention by Joyce Cameron in the last episode, Sarah Collingbourne is brought to an abrupt halt in her dalliance with the delightful, handsome and oh-so-eligible Wing Commander from RAF Tabley Wood.

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But what of Miss Fenchurch? She might have danced with him at the Czech Camp but is there a chance of something in the future? Is Laura Campbell’s reputation going to blot out the early signs of love with Tom, the handsome young pilot who nobly stands up to the prissy but not-above-buying-black market-butter, Mrs Talbot? This fetid atmosphere of possibility belongs, of course, in a 9pm drama in 2016, but it accurately reflects the intoxicating atmosphere of the summer of 1940 when no-one knew what might happen next. The Second World War had entered a phase of unprecedented high stakes and it is not surprising that people reacted to it by questioning their tomorrow.

I am constantly excited and delighted by Simon Block’s brilliantly observed scripts. He has succeeded in chiming with the changing times. The pace of this series increases as the pace of the war did too. We never quite know what turn is to come next but when it comes it is both thrilling and fitting. Robert Quinn’s outstanding directing never lets us rest for a minute, yet it is not hurried. We are on the edge of our seats, as the country was in 1940. Home Fires is an all-round production with an exceptional cast, a superb production team and an energetic editorial and post-production set up that weaves the magic together as Samuel Sims’ music sprinkles the icing on the cake. Enjoy Sunday 23 April. It is a mesmerising episode.

The first section of this blog appeared in the USA in October 2015 and is an abridged version of a chapter in Stranger in the House, entitled Sex and Love in Times of War.

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Home Fires Season 2 Episode 3 The Grey Market


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As episode 3 opens we find ourselves in mid-July 1940. The view from the USA looks bleak, as described in the New York Times that month. It is oft repeated but bears another repetition as it sums up so beautifully the parlous state of Britain at that moment in history:

The folk, old towns of Britain, the hills and cliffs and shores and meadows, rich with history, the homes and lives of forty-five million people, the great British traditions of human worth and dignity, the folk sayings, the deep wisdom and the long-suffering hopes of a race – these, not being pleasing to Hitler, are condemned…

From our own shores we cannot see the shadow over ancient gardens, over houses hoary with age, over the graves of poets and philosophers, and the tombs of the martyrs. We know only that one of the green and lovely oases of civilisation in the wilderness of man’s time on earth, is foully threatened and that the whole world for evermore will be the poorer if it falls.

The British Channel Islands, close to the French coast, have fallen into German hands. Hitler has told his military to plan for an invasion of the United Kingdom, to be called Operation Sea Lion. In Great Paxford Stanley Farrow firmly believes the operation will succeed. He has increased his determination to safe-guard the farm. With the help of Isobel he lays barbed wire and farm machinery across the fields.

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People put all manner of blocks in the roads in an attempt to impede German progress following an invasion

Meantime, Little Stan has other ideas about how to prepare for the Germans. All over the country people were anxious, trying to work out who might be a spy or an enemy, and some ridiculous misunderstandings arose, as we shall see. All foreign nationals were picked up and imprisoned either in jails or in camps on the Isle of Man. Many of the men were later freed, as they were considered no serious threat to the country, and were enlisted in the Pioneer Corps. But for the time-being the atmosphere was febrile.

imagesThe summer of 1940 saw an increase in the number of foods rationed. In March all meat was rationed and in July tea and margarine were added. Tea rationing was particularly unpopular but there were ways to increase the quantities of food available on the ration. Gardens were turned over to vegetable growing and the Women’s Institutes were very active in growing onions and tomatoes for their local country markets. Yet some things were very hard to come by in quantity and this is where people became resourceful and traded illegally. Much has been written about the Black Market, most of it speculative, because few records were kept and although some dealers were caught by the police, many were not. What I have always found more interesting and believable is the Grey Market. That was not even an official title, so vague were the lines that people were prepared to cross. People in the countryside had greater access to fresh food during the war and were happy to exchange honey for home-made lard, or eggs for butter. It was not illegal but some frowned upon it. Mainly, I suspect, if they had nothing to exchange or barter.

In Home Fires I wrote about a WI member called Sibyl Norcott whose father, Mr Shacklady, sailed very close to the wind. He had added pigs to the farm for the duration of the war. pigs_mainThis way the family could have meat and lard from the pigs, cream and butter from the cows, eggs from hens and ducks, flesh from turkeys, vegetables from the garden and fruit from the orchard. Sybil’s father once swapped a ham for a hundredweight bag of sugar and both parties were delighted. She quickly made the point that Mr Shacklady did not keep all the sugar for himself but distributed it among the neighbours in their Cheshire hamlet. He then bought Sibyl a canning machine so that she could make a few bob on the side helping WIs and other local farmers’ wives to can their vegetables, beans and fruit for the winter. It was a good little business for both of them.

People in official positions, such as the butcher in Home Fires, had to be scrupulous with their returns. The paperwork was a headache with forms to be filled in six copies and submitted to the local Food Office along with the surrendered food coupons.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: DANIEL RYAN as Bryn. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

Bryn.
© ITV

Although Bryn Brindsley is, I am sure, above suspicion, a lady I know of discovered that her greengrocer would sell ‘special’ potatoes to certain customers. One day she got up the courage to ask him if she could have two pounds of his ‘special’ potatoes (these were not rationed) and when she got home she was delighted to discover she had one pound of potatoes and a one pound ingot of sugar.

With so much bureaucracy there was plenty of opportunity to exploit the systems that the government put in place but in reality people understood that rationing had been introduced so everyone had fair shares and in terms of overall percentage it was a drop in the ocean in comparison with the food bought and sold on the ration. But the grey market persisted in the countryside and the impact it had on the economy will probably never be known. However, a dozen fresh eggs or a pat of fresh butter was always a welcome addition to the larder.

Meanwhile, the war has begun to take a serious turn and the final quarter of episode 3 is tense and dramatic. The juxtaposition of everyday concerns with situations that could spell life or death is where Simon Block’s drama sparkles. Enjoy Sunday evening!

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Home Fires Season 2 Episode 2 Hearts Aflame

Episode 2 of Home Fires is packed full of love, loss, hope and pain but I do not intend to write anything in this blog that would give away the plot. Instead I thought it would be more fun to explore themes which were introduced in Episode 1. The first is that of divorce. It considered a disgrace to be cited in a divorce at almost every level of society. The stigma attached to any part in the unravelling of a marriage is today inconceivable. In the United Kingdom there were 470,549 marriages and just 7,755 divorces.

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That was to rise dramatically to over 60,000 in 1947 as couples found they were incompatible in the sober light of post-war Britain. Those figures compared with 241,000 marriages and 120,000 divorces in 2011 show just how rare divorce was in the era of Home Fires.
Laura Campbell’s naming as the co-respondent in the formal break up of Richard and Charlotte Bowers’ marriage is therefore deeply humiliating and people’s attitudes towards her reflect the intolerance of 1940’s society. The fact that Wing Commander Richard Bowers was a predatory man has nothing to do with the way she is treated in Great Paxford. In reality, a disgraced woman would have brought shame not only on herself, damaging her chances of making a ‘suitable’ marriage, but also on her entire family. I recall as a child in the 1960s being told in a very hush hush way that one of my relations was getting something beginning with ‘D’. I immediately assume this meant death, but in reality she was leaving her abusive husband and filing for divorce. It was the first time I had ever hear the word. Laura is contending with a very difficult situation and we will soon learn whether there are people in the village who have sympathy with her.

imgresAnother theme is the impending invasion. All over the country people were preparing for invasion. Farmers, in particular, were called to help prevent aircraft from landing on their fields by rolling farm machinery and old junk from their buildings onto fields that might be used as a landing strip. Some villages protected themselves by rolling huge tree trunks across the entrance roads.They were often on wheels so they could be rolled back to allow legitimate vehicles through. Others created makeshift blocks out of anything they could find which would hamper the enemy’s progress.

imgresSignposts were removed from roads, railway and bus stop signs were taken down in an effort to confuse the enemy when they landed and tried to make headway inland. Whether any of this would have worked in the face of the Wehrmacht is something that we shall never know as fortunately it was never tested. But make no mistake, even Churchill believed it unlikely that Britain would not soon be under the jackboots of an implacable foe.

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Enjoy Episode 2. It is magnificent. Simon Block’s writing sparkles through the words and actions of the outstanding cast. The mood in Great Paxford is tense, tempers are short and surprises come thick and fast. Roll on Sunday evening!

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Home Fires Season 2 Episode 1

Life on the Edge of Europe

Three weeks after the evacuation at Dunkirk, France fell to the Germans. Amongst the Allies who had been fighting were Polish and Czechoslovakian forces who were at risk of captured and put into German Prisoner of War camps. Churchill realised that if this could be avoided it would mean he would have experienced, battle-hardened troops in Britain. So he ordered them to be rescued from southern France. In the end some 20,000 Polish and nearly 5,000 Czechoslovakian soldiers and airmen were brought to Britain and proved themselves more than worthy of the trust Churchill had placed in them. The Czechoslovakians sailed into Liverpool and were put on a train to Bunbury from where they marched 8 miles to Cholmondeley Castle.

home-slider3The villagers along the way cheered them and the soldiers immediately fell in love with the beautiful Cheshire countryside. They camped in the fields around the Castle, which had already been requisitioned for another military use, and they remained there throughout the glorious summer of 1940 until they moved on to Leamington Spa to a more permanent camp.

The mood in the early summer of 1940 was one of agitation, anxiety and apprehension, mixed with fear. People were told that careless talk would cost lives and that they should be on the lookout for spies. Signposts were taken down or blacked out, so that moving around in the dark became even more difficult.

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Signposts were removed to fool the feared invaders and people had to learn to navigate without way markers

There was a genuine and powerful fear of invasion. Even Churchill thought it unlikely that Britain could withstand a full-blown attack by the Luftwaffe and seaborne troops. The Battle for the Atlantic, which is the off-screen backdrop to our series, was about to enter troubled times. The German U-Boats had become ever more effective at targeting convoys and fears grew for the safety of passengers, especially evacuee children, who were setting out west for the safety of Canada or America. Yet once France had fallen there was a sense in Britain that, as the last man standing, on the edge of Europe, we would somehow defy the odds and emerge victorious. This mood is well-documented in diaries, letters and newspapers from the era.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

HOME FIRES SERIES 2
Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat.
copyright ITV . must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

So, for our village of Great Paxford, the sense of anxiety about the future is very much there. The incoming Czechoslovakian soldiers add a fresh element to the drama, as does the permeating anxiety about foreigners, spies and Nazi sympathisers. However, life did go on during the war and it will go on in Great Paxford. The everyday lives of the characters are of course affected by the external influences but themes of love, loss, suspicion and excitement are constants. We pick up where we left off with Laura Campbell named in the divorce of her lover, Richard Bowers; Alison Scotlock is still in trouble with the police over accounting and Claire Hillman is as in love with Spencer as she was at the end of the last series. Bryn the butcher is typical of the kind of man who is determined not to be cowed by the threat of invasion. He has a business to run, a pregnant wife to protect and a missing son to worry about. Pat, on the other hand, is once again knocked down: not by husband Bob, this time, but by a brawl outside a pub. For her the war is about to change her life but in a wholly unexpected way. This episode opens with the farmer going about her business and the army going about theirs. After all, this is wartime…

Home Fires airs on Sunday on PBS Masterpiece. It is created and written by Simon Block and inspired by my book Home Fires which tells the true story of the WI on the home front from 1939-1945.

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