Welcome to my 15th newsletter. After an autumn of intense activity on all fronts I am looking forward to a quieter period of planning for the future.
There is nothing to report on Jambusters the drama series, now re-titled Home Fires, as ITV wish to keep their powder dry until shortly before the series is aired in spring 2015. I will give a full update on this shortly before broadcast but please bear with me until then. A new edition of Jambusters the book, to coincide with the TV series, will be published with a preface telling the story of how it went from non-fiction to fiction in two years.
However, a really exciting project is underway to turn an abridged version of the book into an audio CD as we did for Stranger in the House and The Colonel of Tamarkan, read by Lesley Manville and Anton Lesser respectively. This time Chrome Audio is seeking crowd funding to get the project off the ground and the book will be read by the wonderful Samantha Bond. It is so thrilling that people are really interested in what women did on the home front in the countryside during the war. The audio book will appear in the spring if we can get pledges for 1,000 copies, so if you know anyone who might be interested, do please point them towards the webpage http://jambustersaudio.co.uk/.
This book is due to be published at the end of February and the exhibition of the same title will open on 5 March at the Imperial War Museum, London. It will run until 31 August 2015 and there are rumours that it might travel abroad but at the time of writing nothing is fixed. The story of wartime clothing and fashion is a tale of two halves. On the one hand there was the vision of the fashion industry and the haute couture houses who designed Utility clothes for the home market and more luxurious designs for South Africa, America and Brazil, and on the other, the Make-Do and Mend worn by the man or woman on the street. What interested me was where the two met and overlapped. It seems almost impossible to imagine nowadays, but the fashion editor of Vogue advocated sewing brightly patterned or coloured pockets in contrasting shades to liven up a dull skirt or pinafore dress. Picture Post featured a showgirl from the Windmill Theatre who worked as a fully-trained air-raid warden. Other journalists, such as Anne Scott-James, deplored trousered women in West End restaurants and '16 stone women in flannel bags ... and similar incongruous sights.' The War Office commissioned corsets for women in the services to have pockets for carrying loose change (bus money) as women in uniform were not allowed to carry handbags. Although there are plenty of amusing anecdotes, this is a serious look at a fascinating period when the government had such minute control over people's lives that civil servants at the Board of Trade could dictate the length of men's socks and the amount of material in women's knickers.
I retired from the chairmanship of the Mountain Heritage Trust in September after four years in post and almost a decade on the committee. It has been a wonderful time in so many ways and I have enjoyed working with the outstanding archivist, Maxine Willett, who has brought professionalism and dedication to the job and put the Trust on the map as a leading example of good practice in preserving and documenting collections. I shall miss the work but I needed to move on and let someone else take over.K2 Showing the Abruzzi Spur
Actually, it is strictly speaking not quite over yet. On Wednesday 11 February I will be interviewing Chris Bonington at the Royal Geographical Society in London to mark his 80th birthday and some sixty years at the top of British climbing and mountaineering.
Chris celebrated his 80th birthday by climbing the Old Man of Hoy, proving, if proof ever were needed, that he richly deserves his place in the pantheon of great British climbers. Over six decades Chris has celebrated first ascents and extraordinary mountaineering leadership all over the world, from his ground-breaking ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger in 1962 to leading the 1975 Mount Everest expedition that successfully placed two Britons, Doug Scott and Dougal Haston on the summit.Chris Bonington
We will be joined for this special event by climbing friends and family including Doug Scott, Charles Clarke, Mike Thompson, Jim Fotheringham, Paul Ross, John Porter and Rupert Bonington who together span Chris's sixty-five years on rock, snow and ice, and have shared triumph and tragedy.
This is not the first time I have interviewed Chris but it is certainly the most high-profile event we have done together and I am enormously looking forward to it. Tickets are going like hot-cakes, so if you would like to join us, shout now as I really do believe it is one not to be missed.
Many years ago I remember being told about my great-grandfather, Harry Summers, who spent the last few years of his life as a lonely old man living in a hotel in Harrogate. It had always struck me as a somewhat sad end to a long and distinguished life but now I know that was not the case. I mean, the life was long and distinguished alright but he did not die a lonely old man. He had a companion with whom he travelled to Egypt for three months every winter and who was a regular visitor at the Majestic where he lived. During the war the RAF took over the main part of the hotel and the long-term residents were moved to a smaller wing. When I discovered this I found myself wondering what had happened to other houses, hotels and premises that were requisitioned after 1939. I decided that there was a story to be told and my agent agreed that it could possibly be a topic for a new book. I went off to see what information could be uncovered. A few months into the research I can assure you that there are some fascinating stories to be told. I am not interested in the country houses and castles, whose stories are already well documented, but the smaller properties whose inhabitants were told unceremoniously that they must give up their house, home or farm 'for the war effort' and sometimes did not move back in for six years. This feels like a very wonderful project and sits well with my passion for art and architecture as well as nosing around social history. At the time of writing I am waiting to sign the contract and it will be great to have something solid on the calendar for 2015-16.
I cannot get away from paper diaries. Try as I might, I have not succeeded. Every December I am lucky enough to receive the gift of a dark blue leather bound Letts diary which is just the right size for my handbag. Apparently this 'original' diary dates from 1812 and I find it rather satisfying to think that Mr Letts' design that would have been good enough for my great-great-great-great grandfather – had he not been an illiterate cobbler in Bolton – is good enough for me today. Being a history-minded person I like the fact that some things stand the test of time.
December 2014, Oxford
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