This last Bank Holiday weekend I did a between-books clear out (generally known as procrastination). Okay, my excuse was that I was building up to promoting ‘The White Camellia’ and needed a little headspace before diving into Edwardian ladies’ tearooms (the hotbed of revolution and the freedoms we have today, but more of that another time). Oh, and the first glimmerings of the first draft of the next book were seriously doing my head in (as they do).
So, I cleared out drawers that hadn’t seen the light of day for years, happily sorting through memories, and plain junk, with the aid of re-runs of ‘Columbo’ and ‘The Great British Bakeoff’.
In the middle of it all, I finally (as you do) recovered something that had been put in a Very Safe Place, and so had been lost for ages.
What is it? A postcard. A simple postcard, no picture, written in a hasty, slightly shaky, scrawl in pencil.
And its significance? Well, there are two. Firstly, there’s the date. September 5th 1939. Two days after Britain and France had declared war on Germany. You see, without this little postcard, I, and my brother, would never have existed. The scrawled note is from my mother, to let a friend, who would one day be my dad, know that she had safely arrived back from a terrifying journey across France, including surviving a channel crossing. What she didn’t say until later, was that her boat had been pursued by a submarine at one point, and she was lucky to survive. And if she had not been able to get away from Paris? I dread to think what might have happened to a teenage girl, totally on her own in a strange land, with little money, and certainly no connections to bring her home.
I’ve known this story all my life. I’ve written about it earlier in this blog, and the letters we found that had passed between my mum in France and my dad, who was working in London. I remember finding the postcard among my dad’s things, along with the letters. It was one of those eerie moments when the past, that that has been familiar as a story, suddenly becomes real. At the time, I couldn’t deal with it, it was so real.
It’s only been recently, and while I was writing ‘We That are Left’, that it has struck me just how much that postcard, and the stories that lie behind it, have made me the writer I have struggled to be, all my life. You see, when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, the versions of the war you saw in films and on TV were the gungho, shoot-em-up heroics, with Clint Eastwood finishing off a few hundred German nobodies in one sweep of his machine gun.
What my mum saw in that terrible journey through a country swept up into war for a second time in living memory, and therefore with the additional anguish of knowing what lay ahead, was the saying of final goodbyes. Of lives broken up, and families about to be extinguished. The story of ordinary women and men caught up a horror that could, in this uncertain world of ours, engulf us all.
That is why, when I came to write, ‘We That are Left’, I wanted to write about the experience of ordinary civilians, from all walks of society. And I wanted to reclaim the stories of the women, who in all warzones are the survivors, the ones holding it all together, and who, in the films from my childhood, never appeared. The odd dollybird whimpering in a corner, maybe, not the ordinary, the unglamorous, and the middle-aged, who kept on going, whatever was thrown at them. Who kept the world turning.
It’s also, I’ve come to realise, why it’s those women, too, who are always at the heart of my books. In ‘The White Camellia’, Mrs Pankhurst makes only the briefest of appearances. I’m far more interested in the ‘ordinary’ women, who are, in the end, utterly extraordinary, and, against all odds, changed the world.
And sorry, Clint. It’s not a fairground game. That is some mother’s son, brushed casually into oblivion, who most probably never asked to be there in the first place – any more than those French boys wanted to die, when my mother’s train made way for them, as they were swept off to war.
The little postcard is now back in a safe place, where the pencil won’t fade. But I shall print the scans and frame them, and place them on the wall of my writing room, as a reminder of the little fragment of history – both global and personal – that will always be my inspiration. The past is indeed a different country – but one that is, after all is said and done, not so very different from our own.