Writing About War
I’ve been in England recently to visit my mother, and while in London I naturally ambled into a few of my favorite bookstores—Hatchards and Waterstones along Piccadilly, Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street and John Sandoe Books just off the King’s Road. Needless to say, with two major war anniversaries this year—the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the centennial of the outbreak of the Great War (WWI), the first devastating international war of modern times—the stores were full of books about war. I could have come home with my arms full. And it reminded me of the many times I’ve been asked, “Why do you write about war?”—especially by readers of my series featuring ex-WWI battlefield nurse, Maisie Dobbs, and those anticipating my new novel The Care and Management of Lies. That question has made me realize that, perhaps, it’s time to share a few thoughts on the subject.
According to Martin Parsons, Founder of The Research Center for Evacuee and War Child Studies at the University of Reading, England, in his book War Child, it takes three generations for an immediate experience of war to work its way through the family system.
I read his book when it was first published, and many years before had read Ben Wicks searing book about the 1.5 million children evacuated during WWII from Britain’s cities into the countryside, No Time To Wave Goodbye. I’d bought Wicks’ book for my mother, but she couldn’t read it—it brought back too many painful memories.
I knew a lot about war even by the time I was five years old, though I had never lived through a war. But I understood something of its aftermath.
As many of you know, my interest in WWI was kindled in childhood as I witnessed my grandfather’s suffering from wounds sustained at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the most devastating battles of that terrible conflict. He had already seen action at Ploegsteert Wood and Ypres—names that echo from history books today—and he came home shell-shocked, gassed and with terrible leg wounds. He was a dear man, around whom we had to be quiet, and who was still removing shrapnel splinters from his legs when he died aged 77.
My father’s childhood in an otherwise happy family home was marked by his father’s ill health as a result of the war. The winters were hard on my grandfather, because his poor lungs could barely cope with the damp and smog of London’s streets, and when his breathing became most labored, the doctor was called and a special ambulance came to take him away to a sanatorium on the coast. The family would be plunged into economic distress, so visiting was out of the question. Then about a month later, he would come home and do his best to pick up the reins of his business again—my father and his brother having kept things going as best they could, working after school. Granddad would get the family on an even keel again—until the next time, and the next. And my father was raised in a quiet house, because my grandfather could not stand loud noises—they brought back unwanted memories of the fighting. Shell shock was often associated with sound and percussion injury, and my grandfather’s wounding was no exception.
My dad was a very talented runner in schooldays, a boy who was often deliberately handicapped by the teacher—and still he kept winning races. He had some big competitions in his sights, but the Air Raid Precautions men had him and other boys who were swift on their feet in their sights. At age 12, Dad became a “runner,” sprinting with messages from one depot to another through the Blitz. I wonder how he did it. When he turned 17, he received his military call-up papers, and was assigned to the Royal Engineers. This is a man who grew up in a quiet household and as a result hated loud noises—and he became an explosives expert due to his calm demeanor under pressure.
I think I get my distaste for loud noises from my dad—I don’t like going into stores with loud music and will walk out of a restaurant if I can’t hear myself think.
My mother’s mother was a munitions worker in WWI, and was partially blinded in an explosion at the Woolwich Arsenal in London.
But my grandmother loved reading and was determined that her disability would not stand in the way of her and a good book—she could polish off a book per day, and so can my mother. That love of books was passed down to her ten children and some thirty grandchildren. Perhaps it was the books that helped my mother and her siblings endure evacuation during WWII.
I know the stories about my mother’s experiences during that time—I’ve heard them from my aunts too. They are not to be shared here, but suffice it to say, children away from home, plunged into a different world with complete strangers, are open to abuse. Of course there were those who were treated well, but many weren’t—and the scars remain. When Ben Wicks wrote his book in the 1970’s, he embarked upon the project because he believed the stories of men and women like him should be heard—he was a well-known cartoonist-journalist in Canada, but as a child he had been one of those London evacuees. He placed an advertisement in a British newspaper and anticipated a few replies—instead, he was inundated. Thousands of letters were sent to him, with so many of those (then middle-aged) respondents opening their letters with “I haven’t ever been able to talk about this …”
None of the stories here are unique or unusual for someone of my generation—I’m a Baby Boomer, and that’s what many of our parents and grandparents endured. But school history lessons frustrated me; I wasn’t so much interested in dates and generals and the geopolitics of war—though it had its place in my learning—but I wanted to know what happened to ordinary people. The social history of war and its aftermath held my attention and touched my heart. From observing my family, and listening to stories at home, I knew intimately (as Lady Rowan says in the second Maisie Dobbs novel, Birds of a Feather), “That’s the trouble with war, it’s never over when it’s over, it lives on inside the living.”
It’s as true today, as it has been over centuries of conflict.
You can read the story of how I came to write The Care and Management of Lies here on the website, however, perhaps it makes more sense to you, now, why, when I first picked up a battered old copy of The Woman’s Book and saw it had been inscribed to a young woman on the occasion of her wedding in the summer of 1914, a month before war was declared, I immediately wondered what had happened to the young couple. Over the years that wondering became a story, and I tried to put into the novel—as I have with all my novels thus far—something of what I understood about war.
The Care and Management of Lies will be published on July 1st.
(I have bought my first book by Jacqueline Winspear after reading this blog post by her. She drew me into her writing by sharing her family’s stories. I agree with her desire to know about the ordinary people who were part of WW II, and I wonder if I could put my dad and uncle’s stories on paper. So far in my brief writing career, it does seem that what I wonder about finally finds itself on paper.)