Welcome to my third newsletter. Last time there was a theme of rocks and snow (and a little bit about rowing) but recently my work has been all about the world wars and their impact on ordinary people.
I do not think I can remember a busier spring than 2010 and there is no sign of a slowdown until July. The tasks of lecturing, writing, organising exhibitions, editing and research all clashed during February and March and were fairly exhausting. I have now settled into a slightly more focused, if busy, phase of writing my evacuees book, Relative Strangers, and putting the final touches to the Fromelles exhibition. Meanwhile, The Colonel of Tamarkan (produced by Chrome Audio in 2008), read by Anton Lesser, is being broadcast on BBC Radio 7 from Monday 5th April over eight week days at 3pm under the title The Colonel of the Bridge on the River Kwai. In addition, by way of keeping me fit and sane, rowing has continued through the winter, and the spring has brought with it some glorious early mornings but fast streams.
From my point of view it has been fascinating to compare today’s techniques of exhumation and identification with those used in the 1920s. When the mass clearing of the battlefields took place after the Great War the men who were undertaking the work – and it was deeply unpleasant, let’s not gloss over that fact – had first-hand experience of the war as they were all ex-servicemen. They had unparalleled knowledge of what colour of khaki had been issued at any stage in the war and became detectives par excellence at latching on to the tiniest of clues. In those days it was entirely possible that they would have known personally, or at least known of, a man who was buried in a certain area. Men known to have fallen near to another already identified or to have had a particular feature such as a distinguishing tattoo or to have been especially tall or small, might just have given enough clues to the Graves Concentration Units to identify him.
The saddest thing for me was that their families had been deprived of knowing where their boys were buried. So on a bitterly cold day in the middle of February I went out to Fromelles to attend some of the funeral services at the new CWGC cemetery. Each man was buried individually, as an unknown, but with military honours. Those who have now been identified will receive a named headstone in due course and the families will be able to attend dedication ceremonies if they wish. On that particular day the funerals were conducted in the snow in front of a crowd of two – me and a lady from Ypres. The burial parties were made up of three soldiers from the Australian Army and three soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers on either side of the coffin with the British padre burying on one side of the cemetery and the Australian padre on the other. One man at a time.
Which brings me to the Armed Forces Memorial in Staffordshire. But a word of explanation before I continue with that train of thought...
Quite often, after I have given a lecture, people ask me general questions as well as specific ones related to the subject I have spoken about. The two questions I get asked most often are: ‘Do you choose your own subjects? And ‘How do you choose which stories to put into a book?’ To the first question the answer is yes and no. Some books are commissioned – Shackleton, Remembered, Fromelles – and some are ones I have come up with myself: Everest, The Colonel of Tamarkan, Stranger in the House and Relative Strangers. I also get commissions to write articles or, most recently, a handbook to celebrate Our Sporting Life (www.oursportinglife.co.uk), which will culminate in a big London exhibition in 2012. One of the most rewarding smaller commissions was to write an essay about the sculpture on the Armed Forces Memorial at the Arboretum in Staffordshire. I first saw the sculptural groups about six months after they were unveiled. When I saw Ian Rank-Broadley’s sculptures I was taken aback by their immense power. They are truly extraordinary and deeply moving. I really wanted to write a commentary on them somewhere, somehow.
Having spent all my working life in the art world dealing with modern and, therefore, more or less abstract sculpture, it might come as a surprise to learn that I love figurative sculpture, especially the work that appeared at the beginning of the last century in response to the Great War. I felt that Ian Rank-Broadley’s work, eighty years on, captured that same mood of raw emotion as had Charles Sargeant Jagger, Gilbert Ledward and Francis Derwent Wood. So when Ian asked me, more or less out of the blue, to contribute an essay to the book he was publishing on the memorial sculptures I was delighted. I wanted to place his work in the context of the memorial sculptures of the early twentieth century and point out that the nobility and simplicity of the human form is the most effective memorial to the horrors (and stupidity) of war. If anyone has the time to take a detour to the Arboretum it will not be a wasted journey. The book is available on Amazon (ISBN 978-0956051707)
The second question I am frequently asked is about whose stories to include and whose to leave out when I write a book such as Stranger in the House or, currently, Relative Strangers, which is about the evacuee children who came home after the Second World War. As much as anything else it starts with a hunch. When I go to interview somebody I am completely open-minded and expect nothing. The most successful interviews generally begin with the comment: ‘I’m not sure I’ve anything of interest to tell you . . .’ My ears prick up at that instant and I am seldom disappointed. What I am trying to find is the human side of any story. It does not necessarily have to be dramatic or heroic but if it illustrates a human emotion then it can be used in a book to shed light on other people’s experiences. One thing that many people who have read Stranger say to me is that they can see their own stories reflected in those of the women in the book. It may not mirror identically their own narrative but there will be sufficient points of coincidence to make them feel it refers to the kind of experience they had. Very much the same is happening with the book about the evacuee children. It will come as no surprise to you that the gamut of experiences is so rich and varied that it is almost impossible to corral them into one book. And corralling is exactly what it feels like at the moment. So what I have tried to do is to fit the stories I have been told around the historical narrative of the book and I hope there will be some surprises along the way. There are certainly some very amusing stories and those that are writ large in the book generally come from interviewees who have large personalities and lively tales to tell. So a follow-up question I get is: ‘Do you like everyone you interview?’ How hard is that to answer honestly? Of course the answer is no. I would not be human if I liked everyone I came across. But those I am not so keen on are few and far between and that does not mean I leave out their stories. They can be some of the most successful illustrations. The great joy of writing a book like Stranger in the House or Relative Strangers, is that I do get to know some wonderful people who I like to think become friends and that is something truly special.
I will now get back to finishing Relative Strangers and wait to see what S&S suggest for the book cover.
3 April 2010, Oxford
If you'd like to be notified via email when my latest newsletter is published, click here to subscribe.
September 2015, May 2015, December 2014, July 2014, August 2013, January 2013, June 2012, March 2012, November 2011, August 2011, April 2011, January 2011, October 2010, July 2010, April 2010, November 2009, September 2009