Pedal to Paris 2021 Day by Day

Pedal to Paris 2021 Day One London to Dover

121.31 km (75.38 miles)

1,296m (4,252 feet) ascent

5.15 hours

As we stood on the start line at Eltham Palace at 6:30 on a grey, chilly morning with mizzle, all the first-timers felt a sense of anxiety about whether we would make it to Paris at all. These were of course private thoughts, but I could sense them in the exchanges or silence between group members, while solo-riders looked nervous. Even the seasoned cyclists who have one, two, three or in the case of Paul Harding, 23 Pedals to Paris under their belts there was a sense of uncertainty about the ride to come.

We set off after soon after 7am and wove our way out of London, stopping and starting at lights, slowing and bunching to get around parked cars, dodging potholes and drains, manhole covers and cobbles. As we negotiated the M25 roundabout and set off into the lovely Kent countryside the speed picked up, we fell into small groups of riders and began to get the sense of moving together. It was nothing short of thrilling for me, who has only ever cycled with one or two other riders. At one stage six of us cycled for 10 miles without stopping, pedalling along at a comfortable pace higher than I had ever averaged in training.

Out of London and over the M25. We split into groups and got rolling

Our first stop was at the Royal British Legion village at Aylesford where we were welcomed by flag waving, cheering employees of the RBL and volunteers who served us coffee, sausage rolls, Vienna whirls and all sorts of goodies that in normal times I would not eat at 10 o’clock in the morning. That was a sign of things to come. Whenever we stopped anywhere en route we could be assured a fantastic welcome, sustenance, encouragement and some gentle ribbing.

Day One ended with a monstrous hill into Dover which nearly blew my thighs, such was the build up of lactic acid as we struggled at snail’s pace in Grannie gear up the New Dover Road to Capel-le-Ferne. 120m of climbing over about 0.75km. Unrelenting and painful. Our ride captains, a magnificent and talented group of cyclists who looked after us, encouraged us, helped when we fell off or fell back, were there on that hill, 65 miles into our first day, to help those who struggled up it. Two of them cycled up the hill four times. I took my hat off to them so often over the next three days.

Waiting for the ferry below the White Cliffs

Once we arrived in Dover we were ushered onto The Spirit of Britain and had a welcome supper of fish and chips with a beer to replace the much-depleted sugar levels in our blood, which Simon assured me was a good cure. Later we learned that the consumption of alcohol on the Tour de France was only banned in 1960. Not for health reasons but because it was believed to be a stimulant.

As we rolled off the boat and onto the quayside the enormity of getting here struck us all. It was nothing short of magical to step onto continental soil for the first time since the pandemic broke out 18 months ago. For most of us it was the first time abroad and the emotions were very close to the surface. We pedalled to the great Fort Nieulay and put our bikes into safe storage for the night and made our way to the hotels. Never has Belgian beer, which Simon, Chris and I found a nearby café, tasted so good.

Calais Fort Nieulay: about as safe a bicycle store as you could ever wish for.

Day Two Calais to Abbeville

134.42 km (83.5 miles)

1,234m (4,049 feet) ascent

6.15 hours

This began with the collection of bikes from the Fort and our introduction to the ISE (International Sport Event) team who were to accompany us from Calais to Paris. This team comprised four cars and a dozen motorcycles, the latter being ridden by ex-gendarmes who earlier this summer has escorted the Tour de France. I freely admit that I was over-excited about the outriders and chatted to them. They were warm, friendly and completely into their BMW bikes.

Motorcycle Outriders

Our first ceremony was in Calais, soon after 8am. The Deputy Mayor, with special focus on sport, welcomed us to the town in a short speech which was followed by the laying of a wreath by Lieutenant General James Bashall CBE CB. Five minutes earlier I’d seen ‘Bash’ as everyone on the trip referred to him, in his RBL lycra. There he was in a dark suit laying a poppy wreath and speaking the Exhortation from Binyon’s poem For the Fallen. You know the words so well. ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.’ Alongside the general and the Deputy Mayor were two standard bearers: one from the town of Calais, the other from the Hertfordshire branch of the Legion. He, Paul, is the man who now has 24 Pedal to Paris under his belt and he does it on a recumbent bike with a huge union flag attached to a pole behind him. As the General finished the Exhortation, Paul repeated it in French. It was a powerful moment.

Paul Harding, veteran of 24 Pedal to Paris rides, with the RBL Hertfordshire Standard at Calais memorial

After the ceremony we gathered in front of the Town Hall where Lewis, our superb cheer-leader, organised us into three groups. The so-called Social Group would ride of first, followed 15 minutes later by Group 2 and 15 minutes after that Group 1 would sally forth. I had been advised earlier this year that Group 2 was a comfortable place to be as the speed was good but there was still time for conversation. Group 1 was for the super-speedy guys who wanted to ride in a proper peloton. The Social Group left at 9am and we divided into Groups 2 and 1. It looked as if everyone bar about six cyclists wanted to be in Group 2 so Lewis drew a line half way through the group and Chris, Simon and I ended up cycling with the back section which included the speedy guys.

A Group prepares to leave Calais Town Hall. Paul Harding, now in his cycling kit, can be seen on his recumbent bike with flag

Rolling out of Calais with our fabulous outriders halting traffic at every road junction was about as thrilling as it gets. Thirty of us poured in a liquid stream of cycling energy around corners, over crossroads, around round-abouts and out into the beautiful hilly countryside of the Pas de Calais. We were cycling over ground that had been trodden by millions of soldiers – both French and British – in the First World War and that just added to the sense of history that surrounded us all day.

The riding was great and the pace hot, which was fine until we hit a big hill and then I realised that what I saw as a wall the speedy riders saw as a minor rise. By lunchtime my legs were throbbing, and I decided that I wanted to be in a proper Group 2, not the souped-up version. Fortunately, others felt the same. Lunchtime was a buffet of baguettes made locally. We were told there were 37 different fillings on offer. They were delicious.

After lunch we went straight into the first hill, known in our ride brochures as Baguette Hill. We’d read about this in the forward planning emails but any amount of googling had left us none the wiser. It was only when we set off that we were told it was the nickname for the hill that came immediately after a lunch of baguettes on day 2 and that it was a test for us riding on full tummies. Predictably I found it very tough but soldiered on and spent the next 180 minutes riding some 72km (45 miles) without stopping. Our driver had failed to make the mid-afternoon break.

Preparing to leave Crecy-en-Ponthieu for Abbeville as one group

When we did finally stop in the beautiful village of Crécy-en-Ponthieu it took two ice lollies and three litres of water before I was able to concentrate on Dan’s short talk about the site of the Battle of Crécy in 1346, one of the earliest and most important battles of the Hundred Years’ War. From there we cycled as one group into Abbeville making the transition from countryside to urban streets with consummate ease thanks to our outriders. By now we all knew the commands for slowing down, speeding up, avoiding potholes. And then comes the ‘Stopping’ command. That was very welcome at the end of a long day.

Day Three Abbeville to Beauvais

107.34 km (67.14 miles)

751m (2,467 feet) ascent

4.59 hours

Abbeville War Memorial was the site of another moving ceremony at the beginning of day 3

The ceremony at the Abbeville War Memorial was attended by more standard bearers than the one in Calais. I was moved not only by the First World War standards but by those from the Second World War. One marked the ‘Prisoners 1939-1945’ which caught me out. France and Britain’s experiences of that war were poles apart. It made the wreath laying even more poignant.

We began the cycling with a steep climb which was painful on tired legs and I was glad I was in Group 2. The countryside was glorious: undulating roads through fields of corn, tobacco and sunflowers. Occasionally you would spot our tireless photographer disguised in a patch of sunflowers or lurking behind a signpost. His white motorcycle helmet was a giveaway and we always waved to him cheerfully even if our legs were burning at the top of a hill.

Our lunch spot on day 3 was in a sports stadium. There, on the sand, Dan created a reinterpretation of the Western Front during the First World War, using cyclists to represent the Allies and the Axis powers. He made them stand two steps apart and then talked us through every significant gain and loss on the Front. Each time one of them would be asked to step forward or back to mark a battle. What struck everyone was how little ground was fought over and what devastating losses and destruction resulted from that terrible war.

The make-up of the cyclists was biased heavily in favour of men. I’m not sure how many women there were but I would hazard a guess at about 10% (so 12-15 of us). That seemed to me to be not dissimilar from the make up of men to women in the First World War. We often forget how many women stepped up in both world wars to do their bit. On the Home Front from 1914-1918 hundreds of thousands of women worked in munitions factories and in men’s jobs on the trams, railways and in other roles. Then there were the female doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and auxiliaries who worked in the dressing stations and hospitals in France and further afield in other theatres of the war.

In the Second World War women were active in uniform, albeit at a distance from the fighting. They worked on radar, on coding at Bletchley Park as well as nurses and ambulance drivers. Some flew planes from factories to airfields. And a sizeable number worked with the Special Operations Executive. I thought the story of Nancy Wake, known by the Germans as the White Mouse, might inspire the women cyclists. She was part of the French Resistance in Southern France during the battle for the liberation in 1944. Desperate to file a report for SOE HQ in London, but unable to make contact via radio, Nancy Wake grabbed a bicycle and claimed to have ridden some 172 miles in 24 hours. She said afterwards: ‘That part of my anatomy which is meant to give pleasure was on fire. I could neither sit nor stand for two days.’ That chimed with some of us. Imagine doing that distance on an old-fashioned bike without gel shorts, comfortable cycling shoes and under the constant threat of attack.

The steep hill after lunch. Not my speediest on hills but I made it

After lunch, and the inevitable steep hill to concentrate the mind, we sped across the countryside to the village of Auchy-la-Montagne where the village (population c. 570) had put on a magnificent welcome for us. As we entered Auchy we saw signs saying: ‘Welcome English Friends’ and ‘Auchy is Happy to Meet You.’ As we rounded the corner into a little area next the park and opposite the Mairie we saw gazebos with tables laden with cups of local wine and sweets, while members of the village’s veterans’ association waved us in, some holding flags.

This lovely village has welcomed the Pedal to Paris caravan every year and this time they presented the President with a huge cup to mark the 25th anniversary. The mayor was unable to attend but his representative told the story of the liberation of Auchy-la-Montagne in 1944 by the British 8th Army. The mayor is known to have said in the past: ‘we prefer you on your bicycles than in tanks.’ Two children were on the local council to give their age group a voice in local politics. They made a request to the RBL: could we find them an old-fashioned British telephone box that they could use as a library for book exchanges in the future. The general threw down the gauntlet to the cyclists to see if anyone could help. Let us hope someone can.

With hearts warmed by the welcome and the excellent rosé we pedalled off as a group to Beauvais for a ceremony at the war memorial. There was a sizeable crowd gathered in the park around the memorial already and we saw standard bearers from several veterans’ groups with a gap for Paul Harding. Like the General, Paul made a lightening change out of his lycra and into the uniform of an RBL Standard Bearer.

The Beauvais War Memorial Ceremony

The Mayor of Beauvais made a speech in French and English. He spoke of the collaboration between the Allies in the First World War. We had already been reminded by Dan that the French lost more men in 1914 than the British did in the entire war. Here we were, facing the Beauvais memorial, contemplating that appalling statistic. The mayor then talked about the Second World War when Beauvais had been invaded by the Germans. The British 8th Army liberated the town on 30 August 1944 and the mayor expressed the town’s enduring gratitude to their liberators. It was a humbling moment.

Beauvais had been extensively damaged during both wars and much of the older part of the city was all but destroyed. The cathedral was rebuilt in the ensuing years and as we cycled past it after the ceremony it was hard not to be moved by the resilience of this magnificent city.

Day Four – Beauvais to Paris

96.86 km (60.18 miles)

883.92 m (2,900 feet) ascent

4.40 hours

The Social Group leave Beauvais Fire Station where our bikes had been stored

The final day of the ride seemed to entail a lot of climbing. The weather had warmed up and it was with some considerable relief that we cycled into the aptly named village of Menucourt for our last baguette lunch of the ride. From there we set off as a single group for the last 40km (25 miles) to Paris. We were given strict instructions not to attempt to overtake other cyclists on this leg and to follow the car as closely as we could, especially once in Paris.

Group 1 race past our pit stop on the last day. They averaged over 24 mph and that with hills.

This was the moment when the motorcycle outriders were at their most brilliant. The closer we got to the capital the greater the number of cars on the roads and the larger the junctions. Sometimes we found ourselves streaming down the slow lane of a dual carriageway with cars zipping past us at high speed, but never once did we feel vulnerable. Our outriders had our backs and motorists who did not play fair were subject to gesticulations and whistles to keep them in place.

The last stop as we group to cycle into Paris. What anticipation

Entering Paris via St Germain-en-Laye, which occupies a large loop of the River Seine, we were now less than 20km from the Arc de Triomphe. This lovely suburb has a surprising link to the United Kingdom. In 1688 James II, King of England and VII of Scotland, exiled himself to the city where he remained for the final three years of his life. We crossed the Seine for the first and second times and headed towards the city centre itself. As we rounded the Place de la Porte Maillot we shouted ‘cobbles!’ Suddenly we were on the Avenue de la Grande Armée and there, in the near distance, the Arc de Triomphe. Tired legs, sore backsides, aching arms and bruised feet all vanished as we sped up the cobbles towards the Arc and over to a layby next to Avenue Foch.

Arrival at the Arc de Triomphe

Lewis and the wonderful RBL team greeted us with cheers and whistles ushering us to safety and towards a table with bottles of beer. It was a remarkable feeling and I am not sure I remember seeing so many smiling sweaty faces on one small patch of ground as I did that afternoon. We parked our bikes, took endless photographs and then made our way over the Avenue Foch to a tunnel which led us under the Charles de Gaulle Etoile and the entrance to the Arc de Triomphe itself. Currently the monument is in the process of being wrapped up for a Christo installation which gave it an even more wonderful air of grandeur.

Nous sommes arrivees

As we lined up in two rows either side of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier I had to blink hard not to let roll the tears of overwhelming emotion. Bash had once again, and for the last time on this trip, donned his dark suit and morphed into Lieutenant General James Bashall CBE CB, President of the Royal British Legion, which marked its centenary in May 2021. A representative of the mayor’s office gave a speech about the significance of the Unknown Soldier, the idea for which predates our British Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey by four years. This soldier represents the silent voice of all those lost in war and of Remembrance. Behind us we could see the Champs Elysées, the glorious rooftops of Paris and above us the blue sky and sunshine that had accompanied us all that last day.

After the wreath-laying we sang the National Anthem and the Marseillaise, whose words we had all learned (a bit) over the last few days. And then it was over. A girl standing next to me asked me to tell her what the French official had said in his speech. As I explained what it all meant the tears began to flow. I could not stop them. Everything about the ride, from the moment we conceived of the possibility of doing it, through the long hours of winter training, to the uncertainty of whether the RBL could even stage the ride given the pandemic, to the glorious moment at lunchtime on that day when I realised I, we, were going to make it. I have not cried like that for a very long time. We had witnessed something very special and each of us had gained a personal achievement.

“Here lies a French soldier who died for his country 1914-1918”

Men on the Move: The Royal British Legion at 100

I mentioned in a previous blog that one of the things that struck me about the Royal British Legion was the age of its membership around the time of its formation. Rather like the Women’s Institute when it was set up in 1915 with its members average age of 24 years old, the Legion’s profile was young. Many of the men who had returned injured during and after the First World War were in their twenties. Some had missed out on education and apprenticeships as a result of conscription. What these men wanted more than handouts or sympathetic support was a job. The Legion was active in helping tens of thousands of men to find work after the war but there was a cohort of disabled men for whom it was much more difficult to find employment. Sometimes their disabilities meant they were physically unable to undertaken manual work. A man who had suffered a spinal injury or who had lost a limb would not be able to work in a factory or in agriculture, but he needed a job.

The Legion knew that nothing was more demoralising for a man who had returned injured to be told he could not work. It worked hard on many fronts but none more so than for these men. The Poppy Factory, one of the Legion’s best-known and popular undertakings helped thousands of men and families over the years offering employment and support. It still does. Poppy making is a year-round business and although the busiest period is in the run up to Remembrancetide, there is a permanent workforce at the factories in Richmond and Aylesford who keep the poppies and wreaths pouring off the production line.

Men working at the Poppy Factory 1930s (c) Poppy Factory Archive
Working on wreaths at the Poppy Factory in Richmond, 2020 (c) Royal British Legion/Gavin Kingcombe

A less well-known project is the car park attendant scheme. It may not strike you as the most exciting thing that you have ever heard of but bear with me. By the late 1920s the motor car had become a familiar sight on Britain’s road. Of the roughly 2 million vehicles in circulation, just under half were privately owned cars. That meant that people could take use their cars for leisure journeys, such as eating out, going to the cinema or shopping. A horrible side-effect of increased motoring was high road fatalities. In 1934 over 7,000 people were killed in car-related accidents, with pedestrians being half of the victims. Put into context, there were 38.7 million vehicles registered on Britain’s roads in 2019 and the road deaths totalled 1,870.

Some of the most dangerous places were town and city streets. With no official car parking in place, apart from in London, motorists simply left their cars where they wanted, regardless of how dangerous that might be to fellow road users and pedestrians. Councils realised that something had to be done and in 1927 the Rochdale South Branch of the Legion set the ball rolling. They agreed with the town council that in exchange for a rent-free piece of land they would employ two disabled men to run the first town car park. Rochdale Council let the Legion erect a hut and the two men, in attendants’ uniforms, manned the carpark on behalf of the town. This was so successful that it was repeated in towns and seaside resorts all over the country. It thrived after the Second World War and by 1960 the Car Park Attendants Scheme employed over 3,000 men. Today carparks are generally automated but spare a thought when you leave your vehicle in a little car park tucked away behind a municipal theatre or town market-place: it was probably first run by a disabled veteran supported by the Legion.

Men inspecting a taxi at the London Taxi School (c) Getty Images

We all know about London taxi drivers whose knowledge of the metropolis within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross is so great that they are known to have a larger and more developed hippocampus than the rest of us mortal souls. Did you know, however, that at one stage a third of all London cabbies had been through the British Legion’s London Taxi School? I, for one, did not, so thought it worth exploring. The School opened its doors in 1928 and was available to ex-Servicemen. It was particularly popular amongst those with spinal injuries who could not stand for long periods or operate heavy machinery. The idea came from Lieutenant General Sir Edward Bethune who was a veteran of the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80, the First and Second Boer Wars, and the First World War. He believed that men who had learned to drive during the war would be suitable students. The scheme was supported by the Legion’s Honorary Treasurer, Sir Jack Brunel Cohen MP, who had lost both his legs in 1917. He and Sir Edward succeeded in getting Lord Nuffield to donate a taxi for training purposes.

14th October 1947: Mr Turner briefs prospective taxi drivers on bicycles at taxi school at Harleyford Street, Kennington. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The Taxi School was run by the Legion, who paid for a third of the costs, the remaining two thirds being covered by the government. The training was arduous, taking at least 12 months and often longer with men going out day after day, week after week, on bicycle or on foot, notebooks in hand, noting routes and “points” where taxis are usually picked up. Fred Marks, who completed the course in 1947, wrote about his experiences: ‘When at long last the Carriage Office is satisfied [with your knowledge] then comes your driving test – a stiff one. You are directed into a narrow back street and told to turn your cab around. A private motorist would do it in 20 movements, perhaps. You must do it in three.’ Remember, readers, this is pre-power steering, so not an easy feat. The Legion’s London Taxi School ran for 67 years. By the time it closed its doors in 1995 over 5,000 men had passed the famous Knowledge and the stringent driving test to become a London cab driver.

There is still a connection today. Any ex-Serviceman or woman who is scheduled to attend the National Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in London in November can hail a participating Poppy Cab at one of the agreed points around the capital and find him or herself transported there and back for free. The cost of this service is supported by the Legion, which gives the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans an annual grant. It is one of the most popular ways of helping veterans to get to and from the Cenotaph. The taxi drivers, some of whom had been through the Legion’s Taxi School, see it as a way to pay back part of the debt owed to the veterans old and young.

Chelsea Pensions with Poppy Cabs

One way and another the Royal British Legion has helped to keep veterans on the move for over a century and in a way that we, the public, have all benefited from.

The Duke of Edinburgh

When the Duke of Edinburgh’s death was announced this morning, I found myself recalling a wonderful afternoon in Paris in 1992 when I had to show him around an exhibition. I was working for the Henry Moore Foundation at the time, and we were staging a huge show of his largest sculptures in the Jardins de Bagatelle in Paris. It had been the most complex logistical project I had ever worked on and the installation alone had taken three weeks. The lorries bringing the sculptures from Perry Green in Hertfordshire to Paris had to travel through the night as convoi exceptionel were not permitted on the periphérique later than 5am.

Early morning delivery to the Jardins de Bagatelle in Paris (C) M. Muller

We would all gather at the magnificent baroque entrance gates to the Parc at around 6am, where the crane and lorry drivers would be standing around eating croissants and drinking coffee with the prostitutes who occupied that spot during the night hours. They were a fabulous group of people and we had many laughs about the ridiculous idea of lifting three or four tons of bronze over a set of Baroque gates every morning.

The installation team from the Henry Moore Foundation and MoMart with me and Catherine Ferbos Nakov (centre) trying to keep control.
(C) M. Muller

The installation of 29 massive works by Moore was an interesting combination of heavy lifting and exact precision. Each work had to be lowered by crane or forklift onto a pedestal that was less than 5cm larger than the base of the sculpture. And it had to be done exactly right each time as any shifting around damaged the plasterwork on the breeze blocks which meant retouching and repainting.

Lifting several tons of bronze over a Baroque gate is a terrifying manoeuvre (C) M. Muller
Hill Arches the right side of the Baroque Gates (C) M. Muller

By the time we had finished the exhibition in late May I had cycled hundreds of kilometres around the beautiful Jardins de Bagatelle, avoiding the peacocks. The opening of the exhibition was to coincide with a royal visit to Paris and would be conducted by Her Majesty The Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh, in the presence of the François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who at the time was Mayor of Paris. The Foundation’s director, the late Sir Alan Bowness, was to show The Queen around the exhibition and I was asked to guide the Duke.

I was given a few instructions about protocol including a warning not to ask any questions and not to leave long silences. When the Royal party arrived, I was standing in the appointed place and curtsied to The Queen, who looked at me with her piercing eyes, and then presented to the Duke with whom I set off, a few steps behind The Queen and Alan. We got to the first sculpture, Hill Arches. The Duke turned to me and said: ‘I don’t like Moore’s sculptures’. Oops. This was going to be a very long hour and a half, I thought.  Then I remembered he was interested in engineering. ‘Well Sir’ I said, ‘shall I tell you how we got them into the grounds?’ He was fascinated and asked many questions about the cranes we used, the lorries making their stately progress across northern France and the prostitutes who shared our croissants with us.

The Duke of Edinburgh and me at the opening of Moore a Bagatelle, 10 June 1992 (C) M. Muller

At one stage we had to walk through a long lane between dense shrubs with no sculptures to look at but with a lovely view of the west of Paris in the distance. ‘I grew up over there.’ He said, pointing to Neuilly. He spoke a little about what it had been like growing up outside Paris and how he had known the Jardins de Bagatelle when he was young. Then there was silence. I got a bit anxious, so I decided to chance it and bring up my grandfather, who he had known well in the 1970s when he, the Duke, was Patron of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and my grandfather was the president.

Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey, also known (to us) as Grandpa Bush (c) Toosey Family

At the mention of his name the Duke stopped dead in the middle of the lane, looked me straight in the eyes and said: ‘Good gracious, are you Phil Toosey’s granddaughter?’ When I said I was he went into a long speech about how much good work my grandfather had done for the Far Eastern Prisoners of War and what a great contribution the School had made to FEPOW health under his presidency. He ended by asking me: ‘Is your mother here today?’ When I said she was he insisted I point her out so he could go over and shake her hand, but not before he had met the lorry drivers who had brought the sculptures to Paris. As we approached the end of the walk, where the crowd of guests had gathered to meet the Royal party, he marched past all the dignitaries from the British Embassy and the Mayor’s office, straight up to Eric, the head lorry driver, whose 42nd birthday it was, and wished him a very happy birthday. ‘A date you share with me,’ he added with a twinkly smile. Of course, it was 10 June 1992, the Duke’s 71st birthday. Eric was overwhelmed but the Duke’s greeting put him at his ease.

He then walked over to my mother, who was shaking like a leaf, and said: ‘Hello Gillian, it’s very lovely to see you here.’ He talked briefly about her father and how much he used to enjoy seeing him in Liverpool when he attended meetings at the School of Tropical Medicine. After that, the Royal party left and Mum and I went out with my husband Chris and various other members of the Henry Moore Foundation team for a long dinner.

There is a PS to this story. Fast forward to 2005 and the publication of my book The Colonel of Tamarkan, the biography of my grandfather and his role in the construction of the bridges on the River Kwai. The book came out in October and the following April a very excited postman arrived at my door with a special delivery. The Duke had seen the book in a catalogue and had bought and read a copy. On page 361 I had written the story of the Blackpool FEPOW reunion of 1973 when my grandfather had hosted him at an event for 3,000 former prisoners of war. The Duke had a strong connection to the men as he and his ship had picked up two Royal Marines in August 1945. The two had been prisoners of the Japanese and had escaped from captivity in the final days of the Second World War. They spotted British vessels near the entrance to Tokyo Bay and immediately stripped off and swam out to safety.

The Duke told this story to the 3,000 men gathered in Blackpool and as soon as he finished a voice piped up from the back of the hall: ‘They’re here!’ The Duke and my grandfather made their way through a sea of excited men who cheered and clapped as the two former Royal Marines and their erstwhile rescuer were reunited. On that occasion the Duke spent so much time with the men that he had to leave for his next appointment without having met and shaken hands with the Mayor of Blackpool and other grandees. My grandfather was highly amused by that.

When I saw the postman this morning, we reflected with sadness that there would be no more recorded deliveries from Windsor Castle for me. But what memories.

The Cost of War

Soldiers in Wrexham

Today is Friday 8 May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Seventy-five years ago today the costliest war in history was finally drawing to a close, though its end would not come until 15 August 1945 when the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered unconditionally. Costliest in terms of lives – historians estimate 60 million men, women and children, military and civilian, lost their lives. A generation of children had grown up knowing nothing but war as the backdrop to their lives. In Britain, those children at least had more or less enough to eat. In Nazi-occupied Europe whole families were starving while further afield the famine in Bengal cost the lives of 3 million people. Costliest in terms of economic damage – Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war. And costliest in terms of its impact on society. Hitler had boasted the German Reich would last for 1,000 years. It went on for 12 long, destructive years but the impact of it has lasted for eight decades and it will go on for many more.

Soldiers from Jamaica

Today we have been celebrating and commemorating those brave men and women who fought for Britain abroad and on the Home Front. We have heard extraordinary stories from veterans, like the Jamaican, Alan Wilmot who flew with air-sea rescue, saving up to 17,000 lives, or Donald Hunter who sailed with the Merchant Navy from the age of 16. There have been tributes from people who were children at the end of the war. Everyone spoke with warmth of their memories of that special day, but few mentioned what had happened after VE Day was over.

The morning of 9th May 1945 was another bank holiday. Britain woke up with a national hangover and probably a few sore heads too. Barbara Cartland, then 44 years of age, summed up the feelings of many of her generation:

‘We were glad, but still our hearts refused to sing, the shadow of war still lay over us in a restriction of freedom, in controls and coupons. We had only to look at our empty larders, empty store cupboards and half empty coal cellars to know war had not receded very far from our daily lives. To practically everyone in Great Britain the war had brought the loss of someone they loved – either man, woman or child – and for many there were crippled bodies or blinded eyes as a legacy from the nights of terror and fire.’

Barbara Cartland The Years of Opportunity 1939-1945
Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

Twelve years ago I wrote a book called Stranger in the House that looked at the impact of returning servicemen and women on life at home. It was at times a heart-breaking book to research and I wrote several of the stories weeping onto my keyboard. I know that it affects readers too: my friend John wrote to me only this week to say that he has never cried so many times over a book as over that one. Am I sorry? No, not really. These are human stories that needed to be told. We have to understand the cost of war. It is not possible to gloss over the inconvenient truths, the ugly aspect of readjusting to life after war and to imagine that all the veterans are great heroes who shrugged off the impact of what they did and saw. They did not. They could not. Some will never be able to stop the memories coming back. And that applies to young men and women who in the more recent past have taken up arms on behalf of Britain in conflicts all over the world. They cannot be unaffected by what they witness.

At the moment I am writing a book for the Royal British Legion’s centenary in 2021. Once again, I am reminded of the enormous cost of war and the extraordinary efforts that people go to in order to try and alleviate the pain and distress returning service personnel and their families suffer. The story of the Legion is the story of our country’s twentieth and now twenty-first century wars and the impact they have had on our society. The Legion helped to shape Remembrance, it is a peaceful, peace loving organisation and it has a most generous welfare programme. It has fought for pensions, disability rights and widows’ allowances for 99 years and it is not going to be giving up any time soon.

As I work through the research I am reminded, daily, of the terrible situations faced by men coming home from the First World War. 2,300,000 ex-service personnel returned injured or disabled to a Britain that was suffering from an economic decline, that did not have the jobs, housing or welfare for them. The Legion had an enormous job on its hands to help those affected by the war, including hundreds of thousands of widows, orphaned children, the sick, disabled and unemployed. But it set about the task with impressive energy and focus. The Legion changed many things over the first twenty years of its existence and one of those was the way returning men were treated. By 1945 there was a better, more humane system in place. But even they cannot make the nightmares, the feelings of dislocation and the difficulties of settling down as a family go away. That has, eventually, to come from the individuals and their families.

In my most recent book, Dressed for War, the emphasis was on Audrey Withers’ life and on her energy and courage during the darkest days of the 1940s. Yet even in that book there is a major casualty of war. Her star photojournalist, the brilliant, brave and tireless Lee Miller, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in the post-war era. She never really recovered her equilibrium. She was one of thousands who suffered, many silently, from the impact of their wartime experiences.

So, without wanting to throw a bucket of cold water on the celebrations around VE 75, I just think it is worth remembering that war has a far-reaching impact on everyone involved.

Coping in a Crisis

Several people have asked me what Audrey Withers’ reaction to the current crisis would have been. I have thought about it a lot and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare 1940 and 2020.

Fashion is Indestructible by Cecil Beaton, June 1941 © Conde Nast Publications Ltd

At the beginning of the Second World War the government closed down the country. It banned all public gatherings, sporting events and race meetings. Theatres and cinemas were ordered to close and no group meetings of more than 100 people were permitted anywhere except at church. Does this sound familiar? The introduction of petrol rationing from midnight on the day war was declared and the blackout altered people’s lives even more directly. The shutdown lasted for just twelve days but it had the effect of changing people’s behaviour, the way they thought about being at war – even though the war proper did not affect them until the spring of the following year – and it changed the way people moved around.

Now, in 2020, we are in equally uncertain times but on this occasion we are not terrified of air raid or gas attacks but of an invisible virus. The government is not only protecting its citizens but our wonderful, precious but horribly overstretched NHS.

So what would Audrey have done? The answer depends of course on what period of her life we are going to imagine in this hypothetical situation. Let’s place her in London at the beginning of the Blitz, days after she has been named as editor of Vogue, when nightly air raids and daily warnings disrupted life in so many ways. Audrey wrote an article about living under those conditions for American Vogue. She described how every night she and her editorial and art staff packed up a large laundry basket with all their ‘treasures’ and every morning the basket was unpacked and work began again. ‘If the siren goes work goes on until the alarm warns that planes are overhead or that guns are firing with the result that we now take shelter less frequently but more rapidly.’

I find in here a hint of how in the very early days of the Blitz there had been a touch of panic but by early October, when she wrote this article, she had got used to the bombing.

We grab work and paraphernalia, descend six flights of stone stairs to the basement. We look as if we are going on a peculiar picnic: coats slung around our shoulders; attaché- cases with proofs, photographs, layouts, copy, mixed up with gas- masks, sandwiches and knitting. The Art Department men carry under one arm a stack of drawings and layouts; and under the other, a stirrup pump, a pick axe or a shovel. It’s a peculiar picnic all right.

Audrey working in the bomb cellar of One New Bond Street in October 1940. As usual, she was wearing a hat.

She described how they greeted each other every morning with ‘what kind of night did you have?’ and how gallows humour soon emerged and kept them sane even when the news was grim. ‘A feeble joke makes us laugh, and we’re glad of the chance to laugh at anything; and on the other hand, you get oddly insensitive and callous, and are amused by incidents that normally you would have found macabre.’ She concluded the article by saying that they lived day by day, not looking too far ahead but always trying to be organised and practical.

It would be wrong to paint Audrey as instinctively brave. She was not courageous like her fearless photo-journalist, Lee Miller, but she became brave through sheer hard work and a determination to keep going under any circumstances and she was organised. Another aspect of her personality was her deep and furious dislike of cheating of any sort. She railed against people who bribed shopkeepers to give them a little bit extra over the ration and she despaired about Vogue readers who cheated with their clothing coupons. I suspect she would have had something to say about panic buying and, worse still, the scalpers who clean out supermarket shelves and then offer the products for sale at a higher cost. Spivs are what those people were called during the war and Audrey despised them.

She was a caring person and I am sure that she would have worried about people being lonely and cut off. There was no compulsory self-isolation during the war but petrol rationing had more or less the same effect for people living in the countryside. Her parents, both in their seventies, had been socially active in the nineteen twenties and thirties. By 1940 they were living on the edge of a small village outside Banbury seeing almost nobody week in, week out. They were lonely and depressed by her father’s ill health. Audrey and her sister, Monica, tried to ensure they had visits or letters as often as circumstances permitted.

As we are today, so Audrey was overwhelmed by government advice. During the war it was called propaganda and it was sometimes issued three or four times a day. The Board of Trade published nearly 200 notices in one year on the subject of women’s underwear alone. The ministries of food, agriculture, health and so on were equally busy bombarding editors with information. Audrey had to decide what to publish in Vogue, a monthly magazine, and what could be ignored as it had already been dealt with by the daily press.

By the end of 1940, when London had been bombed for 56 nights consecutively, Audrey could be proud that she had managed to get the October, November and December editions of her magazine out almost on time. November had been two days late and December just one. One of her staff, Audrey Stanley, wrote to Condé Nast describing how they had coped during those difficult months:

We went through such a transitional stage and we did not know exactly what to strive for as everything was so precarious and atmosphere and feeling was as fickle as the wind, but now I really think a comprehensive pattern has come out of it all. Audrey Withers is a remarkable person. She has such balance and tact and we all admire her enormously as being editor just now must be a difficult job.

Audrey Withers by Cecil Parkinson, 1944 © Norman Parkinson Archive

As the war went on, Audrey became more confident in her role as editor and more impressive in the way she coped with the pressure. In 1944 the President of the Board of Trade, Hugh Dalton, described her as the most powerful woman in London.

If we can take a message from Audrey’s strategy for coping in difficult circumstances I suggest it would be to keep calm and play fair. And, if you fancy, wear a hat.

Audrey’s Miniature Wardrobe for Today’s World

Now that Audrey is launched in Dressed for War she is public property. People have begun to contact me to tell me things about her which of course I wished I had known when I was writing the book. That always happens, though, so I have given up getting paranoid about missing out on every last gem. However, people have also been talking to me about how relevant they find Audrey’s attitude towards clothes rationing and how it rings a bell for today’s concerns about excess consumption and waste.

Last week I was thrilled to find a copy of the September 1943 edition of British Vogue with its stand-out beautiful cover and fascinating articles by Cecil Beaton, Lesley Blanch and Lee Miller. Audrey’s editorial for that edition was entitled Miniature Wardrobe. ‘Wardrobes are shrinking fast,’ she wrote, ‘and the smaller they get the more perfect they have to be.’ That autumn she would tell the New York editor of Vogue that she had in her personal wardrobe three suits, which she varied with blouses and accessories, one cashmere dress for dining out and two pairs of ‘slacks’ which she wore with baggy jumpers at weekends. She concluded her editorial: ‘In a miniature wardrobe – as in a small circle of friends – versatility is to be prized and bores not admitted.’ Coming a year after the introduction of Utility clothing and Austerity design it is clear to me that Audrey and her fashion editors were trying to encourage an upbeat message in straitened circumstances.

Audrey’s editorial in Sept 1943 Vogue

For Audrey Withers and her generation, recycling, making-do and mending, refashioning clothes and eking out the last few months of an old suit was part of their every day after clothes rationing was introduced in June 1941. In fact, before that date there had been a ban on the sale of silk stockings and all sorts of clothing was in short supply as a result of the bombing of factories. In comparison to a human life, clothing must have seemed unimportant. Yet it was not dispensable. At the most basic level, people had to keep warm. Children needed clothes and shoes to go to school. Men and women had to be dressed to go to work, whether in factories, in secretarial offices or indeed in the editor’s office of the most prestigious fashion magazine. The government understood that clothing was also important for morale. That is one of the reasons why they allowed the women’s magazines to continue to publish, albeit with a reduced quantity of paper.

Today, in Britain at least, we are not in the position of having to limit our wardrobes because of clothes rationing. We live in an altogether different time. A time of plenty which is running into an era of excess. Perhaps we can learn lessons from Audrey Withers. Barbara Guarducci and Saskia Terzani certainly seemed to think so when I met them via Skype in the autumn of 2019. They founded Mending for Good ‘to provide ethical solutions for fashion waste.’ When I met Barbara in London in November, she and I quickly found that we had the same anxiety about the vast excess that fashion creates. My concern came from having spent six years writing about wartime clothing, hers from a lifetime’s experience of the fashion industry but we met at the same point: we have to declare war on overproduction and waste. We are living beyond our means in terms of our impact on the environment and we have to change the culture that permits over-consumption.

Barbara, Saskia and I decided to team up to help launch Mending for Good at the same time as we launched Audrey in Dressed for War. The themes seemed to align so well. Then came the suggestion to produce a series of embroideries of Audrey’s phrases that she used in Vogue to exhort readers to think about their clothes. Taken on their face value they seem to have as much relevance today as they did eighty years ago: Wage War Against Waste, Quality Rather than Quantity, but also the more reassuring: You Cannot Ration Style or Relax and Mend.

Mending for Good works with the London College of Fashion’s vocational training and ethical manufacturing initiative. That sounds a bit of a mouthful but it is a wonderful undertaking that gives employment opportunities women in socially frail and challenging circumstances. We commissioned a group of women in HMP/YOI Downview Prison to create 100 embroideries with eight different messages. We gave them away to guests at the book launch and they proved so popular that I have only the original eight examples left.

Four of the embroideries created by women from HMP/YOI Downview 2020

I know Audrey would have approved of this initiative on so many levels. After the war she strove hard to make people – young women in particular – think about the fashion industry as a career that could help to make a difference. She ran a competition in Vogue from 1945 to get this message across. Today the London College of Fashion’s Making for Change initiative and my friends at Mending for Good are both trying to help change the way people think about fashion production. That is a wonderful thing.
I believe Audrey’s wartime campaign to encourage women to think responsibly but creatively about fashion can find echoes in today’s world.

Setting Audrey Free

There is a moment in a book’s life when it is no longer the personal, much-loved friend it was during research, writing and editing. This is when it goes to print and the powerful machine of publicity grinds into action. It might seem strange to express a book’s publication thus but it is something I and other writers have experienced. As the novelist, Diane Setterfield, said recently: ‘You care about your book. You love it deeply but it does not love you back. It would eat you alive if it needed to.’ I know exactly what she means. A book develops a life of its own. It goes out into the world as a published hardcover: Dressed for War will have an existence far beyond my desk – in bookshops, on shelves in libraries and private homes, as a second-hand ex-review copy on Amazon. It might be well reviewed. It might get a hostile reception – I have had experience of both – but it is out of my hands.

My desk on 7 January 2019 with notebooks, my favourite pen and Audrey to inspire me.

When I started writing Audrey Withers’ autobiography on 7 January 2019 I was still in that blissful state of privacy and intimacy with my subject. For three months it was just me and the material in my little office at the top of my home in Oxford. I watched the garden wake up from its winter slumbers as I wrote about Lee Miller and Cecil Beaton. I heard the first cuckoo of the year as I was describing the heart-breaking moment when Audrey’s beloved father, Percy, died. And I had my first glass of wine in the greenhouse the day I wrote the last sentence of the first draft. Eleven and a half months later I sent off the final proofs and the lovely picture section for the last time, having read the book sixteen times in draft and proof form.

A spread from Vogue, June 1957 by William Klein © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

I shared all the writing stages in my quarterly blogs and as each one was finished, I experienced a different emotional reaction: relief at first, panic when the deadline was brought forward by six weeks, grief when the third proofs went off and now anxiety. At the end of this coming week the printers will run off the first copies. Of course I am excited about it but I am also nervous and there is so much still to do. As an author I have to work flat out with publicists and marketing people to make sure the book is noticed. And believe me, it really does matter.

I have my own publicist, Richard Leon, who works alongside the excellent team at Simon & Schuster led by Becky and Rich. Together they have cooked up a publicity and marketing plan that involves every possible media platform you can name and some that I cannot. I have been booked to speak at a dozen literary festivals already and there are bound to be more to come. I hope we might get some radio coverage and perhaps even a little bit of TV. This all sounds glamorous but it is hard work. We have been planning and talking about how to ensure Dressed for War gets a good start since October 2018, which is three months before I typed the first sentence of the first draft.

The book that I have always referred to as Audrey will be published on 6 February 2020 with a party at Somerville College in Oxford and an interview with Diane Setterfield, which I am very much looking forward to. Two days before that we will launch the book in London at a joint event with a small team from Italy who run a project called Mending for Good. Today there is a growing appreciation of the impact of fashion’s carbon footprint on the environment and I feel certain that Audrey would have been behind any project that challenged waste and encouraged good practice. After all, she presided over the most dramatic movement in wartime fashion, the Utility and Austerity scheme. This dictated skirt and shirt lengths;  it limited the number of pockets on jackets and the width of the gusset in women’s knickers. It feels fitting to focus on the future as well as on the past as we celebrate setting Audrey free.

Visitors to the 2015 Imperial War Museums exhibition Fashion on the Ration, dressed in 1940s costumes © IWM.org

As Dressed for War leaves me bobbing in its wake, I will try to be sanguine about the reaction of the reviewers who will express their opinions, whether good or bad. It is a fact that writers, as other performers, tend to remember the bad reviews. But what I really long for, and what I think every writer longs for, is the moment when we come face to face with a reader who has got something personal to say about the book we have just published. It does not always happen but when it does it is as important as any review. And that won’t happen unless we get the publicity right, which is why Richard, Becky and I are working so hard behind the scenes to make it work.

This is the preview of the book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEvw_APrtX8&feature=youtu.be

Hidden Secrets

Poppies of Remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial, Somme © Brian Harris

The build up to Remembrance Day always reminds me of the importance of memories. I’m talking here about national memories as much as personal ones. Two organisations most closely connected in the public’s imagination to memories in this context are the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who I worked for part-time from 2005 to 2015 and the Royal British Legion, who I will be working for from now until 2021. Both these great bodies focus a significant part of their work on remembering the individual servicemen and women who died in the service of their country. They do much else besides but both have outstanding archives that tell the story of the organisation and the people involved in them.

Menin Gate, Ypres, where over 54,000 names of the missing are recorded © Brian Harris

Having spent all my working life using archives I thought it would be a moment to reflect on the importance of archives and their role in preserving the nation’s memories, the world’s memories in some cases. If I asked anyone to name, say, three archives that would be places to consult when writing about the Second World War they would probably come up with Imperial War Museums, National Archives and the National Army Museum. You might not expect to find anything relevant to that topic in the archives of, for example, Barings Bank or Burberry or even the Met Office. But let me assure you that you can find material in the most unexpected places.

I am a regular visitor to the national collections such as Imperial War Museums and the National Archives but I also enjoy visiting the smaller archives that focus on one single issue, such as the Alpine Club or the Henry Moore Foundation. I did a quick calculation and jotted down the names of 38 archives I have visited in the last few years and I do not think that is close to the total I have consulted one way or another over the course of my working life.

It is hard to have a favourite because all archives are wonderful in their own right but one stands out for me as an experience I will never forget. I was writing The Colonel of Tamarkan, the biography of my grandfather, Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey, who was the senior British officer at the bridge camp over the river Kwai in Thailand. He spent all his working life at Barings Bank in Liverpool bar a few years in the early 1920s. Fortunately he did not live long enough to see it disgraced and then absorbed by ING in 1995. I wrote to bank in the hope that they might have kept personnel files from the Barings’ days and got a response by return to say that they had and I was welcome to visit. I made an appointment and set off with a spring in my step and a notebook and pencil in my bag.

Phil Toosey in Peru, 1935, on business for Barings

I arrived at an enormous glass and concrete building in the city and felt distinctly out of place among so many dark suits coming and going at great speed. The receptionist phoned through to the archives for me and there soon appeared the archivist himself, dressed in a brown tweed suit and wearing reassuringly thick glasses. He ushered me through the atrium and towards a brown domestic-sized door through which I stepped as if into another world. In fact, it was another world. It was an office full of old-fashioned filing cabinets and shelves bulging with books and folders. I was completely enchanted. The old office had apparently been transplanted lock, stock and barrel into the new building.

Toosey, February 1946, six months after being released from captivity and three months after arriving back in Britain

Sure enough the material was as good as the archive promised it should be. An entire personnel file on Toosey, including a fascinating exchange of a dozen or more letters between his boss, the Liverpool Agent for Barings, Alan Tod, and Evelyn Baring in London. So concerned were they for Toosey’s welfare (read mental health in today’s parlance) that they decided what he needed post-war was perspective with which to begin his new life after three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

They sent him to South America as a roving ambassador for the firm but really with a view to giving him a chance to find his feet again. It worked and he was forever grateful to Barings. So was I. What a treasure trove and so beautifully preserved. On the surface the file had nothing to do with the history of the bank but in reality it had everything to do with it. The bank was run by men, and a very few women, who were individuals with personal history, characters, foibles and in this case, a war record.

Other archives have been equally valuable and nothing is more thrilling than finding something that even the archivist did not know was there. In the Royal Geographical Society I found a piece of paper slipped into the back of a notebook which had not been unfolded for years. Very carefully the archivist and I took it out and read it. It made us laugh. It was a memo sent from camp 3 to camp 2 on Everest in 1924. Written by Edward Shebbeare, one of the support team, it read: ‘I’ve been out on the glacier for hours looking for Beetham. Either he is lost or he is with you. If the latter, he’s a bugger for not letting me know.’

For that book I also found the now famous trunk in the attic that contained all Sandy Irvine’s correspondence from the trek and the mountain from where he was never to return. There were photographs, sketches of his changes to the oxygen sets and, hauntingly for me, the final letter he wrote to his mother on 26th May 1924. The trunk was in a family attic in North Wales and it was the most significant archive find of my life. Until 2018, that was. But that is still under wraps and will be revealed in February when Dressed for War is published.

So when you think about remembrance, or just national memory, spare a thought for the wonderful archivists up and down the country and all over the world who take care of this precious material. If it had not been for organisations understanding the value of keeping material for the future and for archivists cataloguing, preserving and caring for it, the history of our lives would be greatly impoverished. An archive might be kept under a bed (yes, I’ve seen those) or in a cupboard in a private house. It might be in the corner of an office or in an attic. Material might be stored in cellars, attics, barns, stables or in carefully monitored air-conditioned buildings. It is all important and valuable. How this will be kept in the future in this, our digital age, I do not know. But for now I acknowledge archivists at every level because they deserve our gratitude.

These precious diaries are stored in a family collection

Announcing Audrey

It is a very strange feeling when you hand over a proof of a book for the final time. This precious document that you have shared with an editor, a copy editor, a proof-reader and an indexer, is suddenly ready to be shared with others. There is a momentary feeling of loss that, for me at least, is comparable to a bereavement. Well, a bereavement over the loss of an animal, say, not a relative – let’s not be over-dramatic.

But when I pressed the final send button to launch Audrey back through the ether towards London I felt a terrible, almost physical sadness. She was no longer my private, treasured friend with whom I have spent the most intensive nine months of my life since I laid down my research papers and clicked out the first words of draft one on 7 January 2019. It seems a lifetime ago, as it always does, but it also seems to have gone far too quickly. In a strange way it is a lifetime. I have come to know Audrey over the course of most of her long and varied life, that is with the exception of the years of her retirement. I have found her fascinating, lovely, loving, amusing, passionate and ambitious but also private, infuriatingly self-deprecating and mischievous when it came to covering her tracks.

Now she is almost ready to be launched on the world in her final form. The book, with 416 pages including twelve pages of index and eight pages of photographic plates, will be available from 6 February 2020. Rather wonderfully that is my grandmother’s birthday, though she is no longer with us. She knew Audrey well as my grandfather and Audrey were cousins, born two years apart. My grandparents used to visit her on business trips to London and she and Victor stayed with them on the Wirral more than once.

The title for my book, which we have pushed back and forth for months, has been decided upon by the publisher: Dressed for War. The cover image took even longer to negotiate but what a stunning one it is. Undoubtedly the most beautiful cover I have ever had but then Audrey deserves nothing less. It was an American design used by Audrey for the September 1943 issue of Vogue with a list of contents on the left-hand side that included renovations, coupons and repairs. A stark juxtaposition but somehow a beautiful summing up of Audrey’s editorship during the second half of the war: beauty and excellence balanced with practical, no-nonsense advice.

For now Audrey is still under wraps at the publishers. I will get to see her one more time before she goes off to the printers to check the layouts and see the final version with plates, index, updated acknowledgements and footnotes. My job is to ensure this wonderful woman reaches as wide a public as possible. Audrey’s extraordinary life, her exceptional leadership and her championing of women’s causes in the middle of the twentieth century deserve to be better known, especially at a time when women’s rights are under threat as at no other time in our recent history. I want to celebrate her editing skills, her ability to attract, handle and maintain relationships with some of the most brilliant but tricky artists and writers of her time. And I want readers to understand that history has created a black and white portrait of a woman so colourful that it needs to be corrected.

You can pre-order Dressed for War at your local independent bookshop, at all other major bookshops in Britain, and online. The book will also be available as an e-book and an audio book.

Catapulting Audrey

I was going to post this blog on 4 August after I had handed in the finished draft of my biography of Audrey Withers to my editor, Iain MacGregor, on 31 July, as per contract. However, on 25 April Iain asked whether I could bring the deadline forward by six weeks and deliver by mid-June. It is the kind of question that focuses an author’s mind in a way almost no other can. I agreed to have a go. My feelings on the way back from London that afternoon ranged from blind panic to the thrill of the challenge. Over the last six weeks I have gone from one to the other on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. But I met my deadline and delivered the book last Friday, a week before Iain was expecting it. That surprised even me.

My son pointed out that there are a lot of diet cokes in the bin…

The main reason it was possible to do what seemed almost unthinkable on the morning after my meeting with Iain was because I was able to clear the decks and my diary thanks to the support of my incredibly kind and understanding husband, Chris. He retired last year and was able to act as gatekeeper and cook so that all I had to do was to work. Sometimes that work involved thinking and puzzling over some knotty little problem or other so I did that while working in the garden or walking on the riverbank with the dogs or on my cycle ride to the library. But in the main I sat in my office, staring at a screen, thumbing through my notebooks with an exasperated ‘where the hell did I make a note of that?’ or looking out of the window at the sun-kissed garden wondering when it would rain.

This morning we did a cross comparison of the difference between draft one of Audrey and the final version which is at least draft seven. Here it is.

As you will see from the amount of red on the screen, not much of the brilliant first plan survived contact with the editing enemy. I was astonished, to be honest. I had not realised just how much I had changed in the last two months (I had started editing before my critical meeting with Iain).

When I finished the first draft, I had the weekend off, then sat down on Monday morning and read the whole book through from cover to cover and tried to get a feeling for the overall story. That took three days and by the end I realized I had got a book that could work and although it was in need of a great deal of editing, it was at least a narrative. The next time I read it was for facts. Had I got everything in that I wanted to include, such as the vital memos or the story of her first marriage or her relationship with Lee Miller? That took two weeks and involved me using both my screens, one for the draft and the other to double check my electronic files. That is when a lot of changes took place and I needed a couple of visits to Vogue House to check issues of Vogue from the nineteen fifties.

The third read-through was for cadence. It seems a funny word to use but it is the best one I can come up with. Every chapter has to have a certain type of pace. Audrey once described how the readers of Vogue had to be led through the magazine page by page and there should be no ugly juxtaposition of stories. She was once very critical of a piece in American Vogue shortly after the war which featured luxurious clothes in Rome opposite a photograph of a starving child. For a book it is sometimes helpful to be able to change the pace and go from a piece of high action or drama of, say, war reporting, to a completely different type of event, such as a family funeral. For it to work it has to be deliberately but carefully done. I want my readers to feel some emotion. I once got ticked off by a WI lady who accused me of making her cry several times when she was reading Stranger in the House and she was rather put out when I said I was sorry but very pleased too. It is a sad book, telling some terrible stories about the impact on women of men returning from the war. Good that she was moved, good that she cried. I cried when I was writing some of those stories. War is a terrible thing and it has a long, long tail. A psychologist from Germany once said to me: ‘Hitler wanted the Third Reich to last for a thousand years. He didn’t succeed but the fallout from his experiment will last for generations.’

By the time draft three was completed I had had my meeting with Iain and the pressure was on. It was fortunate that I had got to where I was in the editing process because I could see how it would be possible to accelerate the next iterations. I think Audrey has benefitted from very close and energetic attention because I was forced to keep up a cracking pace and it meant that any research I still needed to do had to justify the time spent on it. I had one fantastic day in May reading the diaries of Harry Yoxall, Condé Nast’s managing director in the UK. He wrote about 250 pages a year and had the pages stapled and bound in slip cases with the year on the spine.

I had read the Second World War years at his great-grandson’s house in Surrey but the rest of the diaries were with his grandson in Suffolk. I needed to read the years Audrey was at Vogue, so 1931 to 1938 and 1946 to 1960. Twenty-two years or 5,500 pages or, even more scarily, 1,375,000 words. How the hell was I going to manage that in ten hours? In the end I worked out a way to scan his handwriting for Audrey’s name. He had quite a distinctive way of writing A and it made it relatively easy to find mentions of her. Less easy when the diaries were in French, which half of them were! Sometimes he typed letters to his wife and then used them as diary pages.  They were a joy, especially the one from March 1953 when he attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace the day Audrey was given her OBE by a very young and nervous Queen Elizabeth. He was worried that the knighting sword was so heavy she might chop off the head of one of her subjects. That was a great discovery, as was the moment when I found out for sure that Audrey had left Vogue of her own volition and had not been gently asked to leave, which is what I and others had assumed. She told him over lunch in June 1957 that she intended to retire at the end of the decade. The trip was more than worth the day and a half it took to get there and back.

There have been other finds too, in the bowels of the Law Library in Oxford and in the microfiche copies of the Daily Sketch at the British Library but this blog is already too long…

So that has been the process and I plodded, raced, panicked, wept, laughed my way through the next weeks as I beat and bashed my writing into some sort of shape which I hope Iain will be able to work with. The next months are crucial as Audrey will be edited, copy-edited, proof-read, fact-checked and finally sent to the indexers prior to printing in the autumn. I have no idea how many more changes will be made but I expect quite a few. I am both excited and exhausted, but most of all relieved that I made it.