One thing that has increasingly fascinated me as I get older is the extent to which any book or story can reflect the author’s own circumstances; in particular, stories where it’s unclear if the author is consciously deploying allegory or just (unconsciously) working through his issues. Off the top of my head, I can think of two examples. One is Mervyn Peake’s ‘Boy in Darkness’. Peake suffered a degenerative nervous disorder in the latter end of his life and I reckon this story is about the nature of his illness and the various coping mechanisms he employed to deal with it. But was Peake aware of this? I’m not so sure.
Another example would be ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.’ Lewis’s domestic situation was a curious one. He and his brother shared a house with a much older woman and her daughter. When Mrs Moore and Lewis first met, Lewis was around eighteen. She was a woman in her mid-forties, and – by all accounts – a manipulative, domineering bitch. Their meeting was due to a pact the young Private Lewis had made with a fellow soldier during WWI – that in the event of either man dying, the survivor would take care of the other’s dependents – and Mrs Moore was quick to exploit Lewis’s sense of obligation. The relationship (at least, early on) was a sexual one. A chief bone of contention was their differing attitudes towards religion. Lewis had been an atheist when he first met Mrs Moore. She remained one to the end of her life and was not afraid to voice her opinions in this regard.
It doesn’t take a very great leap of imagination to guess what this must have been like for Lewis after his conversion; he was sexually involved with a woman whose beliefs were fundamentally antithetical to his own. And as she was the dominant presence in the household, I think it’s safe to hypothesise that she was pretty intolerant of any theological discussions around the breakfast table.
Crucially, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was written as she lay dying in hospital.
I’m guessing you can see where I’m going with this. For years Lewis had lived in her shadow, never able to talk openly about his faith in her presence (although we know he was pretty voluble about it elsewhere) and that long, dark winter was finally drawing to a close; spring was in the air. Lewis’s brother was another convert to Christianity. Now, at long last, they could discuss their faith openly.
Which brings me back to how a writer’s work can reflect his personal situation in the oddest and most specific ways. How consciously did Lewis use his circumstances as the basis for the LWW? I’m not sure. Admitting as much would have meant admitting a woman he professed to love was also deeply unpleasant and that he was looking forward to her demise.
What’s interesting in this case is that Mrs Moore seems to have been the inspiration for two entirely separate characters in the LWW. The first is the White Witch (I don’t think I need to labour the significance of the enchanted Turkish Delight); the second is Susan. There were four adults living in that house; two men and two woman, with Lewis occupying the same place in the pecking order as Edmund; Mrs Moore and his brother were older than him. Mrs Moore’s daughter was the youngest member of the household, the ‘baby’ of the four. A lot of Narnian fans grumble about Susan’s eventual fate in the books; she alone of the four never gets to spend eternity in Narnia but – given the inspiration for this particular character – is this really all that surprising?
It's Book Week Scotland this week and as part of it, those good folk at Scottish Book Trust have published a free book that is available in libraries, bookshops, colleges, schools and all sorts of other places around the country.
The book is called Secrets and Confessions, its a collection of short stories and poems, the theme being real life secrets and confessions. The idea behind the book is to get people writing, so its mostly unpublished writers with a few pieces by estabished authors.
And I'm lucky enough to have a story published in it.
My story is called "A Gift of Knowing", if you want to have a read of it.
The book's also available for Kindle and e-readers and all the stories are availabe on-line. Just go to the Scottish Book Trust web site and click on Secrets and Confessions to down load.
There are Book Week events all round the country as well. Again, check the website, ther emight be one at a library near you.
Hope you enjoy the book, if you do have a look.
Here's hoping this linky thing works.
Today, I cleared out and painted the porch, a job that's been on the to-do list since I painted the kitchen in February. Yesterday, I gutted the living room, cleaning, tidying, moving all the moveable furniture to hoover, and I'm not admitting how long it's been since I last did that. Last night I babysat for a friend and worked through a mountain of financial paperwork dating back *ahem* months.
And tomorrow's the day.
After a couple of months of being lulled into thinking it was all a surreal dream, I've spent the last two weeks responding to my agent's feedback, editing, tweaking, polishing, getting my photo taken (the end result rating far higher than the excrutiating agony of the process) and writing a biog for my agent's website. My face and my biog were posted to the website the day before yesterday. It's all starting to feel scarily real.
And tomorrow's the day. Tomorrow, my novel is being submitted to publishers.
(And yes, even as I type these words, it still feels very much like this is happening to someone else.)
I shall be keeping myself very busy over the coming days!
Way, way back when I first joined the Cloud, Barb used to run some groups writing collaborative stories. They were good fun, and I decided to blog about them today because Mark Lawrence (of The Broken Empire Trilogy) has written a collaborative story with seven other authors (among them, Garth Nix!) over on That Thorn Guy's blog.
So, if you fancy it, there's a chance to be involved in the same kind of thing over on The Scribbles.
It will be a straight, everyone gets one go, kind of thing and you can find details of how to take part by clicking HERE if you fancy getting involved.
Bit nervous as I've not tried anything like this on the Scribbles before - could fall flat on its face, but hey! I'll try anything once! ;)
For many years, so long that I can’t even remember how it started, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with World War One. Enthusiasm is hardly the word. Interest doesn’t really cover it either. Horrified fascination might be about right.
For me, as for many others, it is The War, the one that symbolises above all others the tragedy and futility of warfare. It was fought for no clear-cut, easily identifiable cause, often in the most appalling conditions imaginable, with pig-headed obstinacy and sometimes downright stupidity on the part of the leaders, both political and military. Never before or since has there been such a succession of battles in which so many men died for so little result.
This was largely due to military thinking being totally out of touch with the then new technology with which the war was fought, to the belief that individual courage and aggressive spirit, so important in the close-quarter fighting that was still dominating the generals’ thinking, could still prevail against shellfire and machine guns. There has been a trend lately among historians to temper the criticism traditionally aimed at First World War generals, but I still believe there would have been a strong case for trying many of them for manslaughter of their own men. The poet Siegfried Sassoon (who was there) put it rather pithily:
‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
If there was one single event that summed up and symbolised the whole senseless tragedy of it all, it was 1 July 1916, the First Day on the Somme, the blackest day in the history of the British Army. The statistics are well known, but they bear repeating. In one day there were nearly 60,000 casualties, of whom just over 19,000 were killed. And that’s not even counting German and French losses. Gains were negligible. The attack was an almost total failure.
One day. When I first heard about it I could hardly believe it. Even today, decades later, the enormity of it is difficult to grasp. How did this happen?
The attack was preceded by a week-long bombardment, the heaviest ever up to then. The generals were convinced that the German positions would be destroyed, the barbed wire obliterated, the defenders killed. It would be a doddle. The Tommies would be able to stroll across no man’s land and simply take over the German positions. They were sent over the top with full equipment, 50 or 60 pounds of it, and with orders to proceed in nice neat straight lines at walking pace.
But many of the shells hadn’t exploded, and the barbed wire was hardly damaged at all. And the Germans weren’t dead. They had dug deep bunkers in the chalky soil, where they had been sheltering from the shellfire. As soon as the bombardment lifted – the clearest signal the British could have given them that an attack was beginning – they rushed out, quickly set up their machine guns, and opened fire. They may have been half-stunned and covered in chalk dust, but they had a target they couldn’t miss. The results are perhaps best left to the imagination.
When as a young man I read Martin Middlebrook’s classic history The First Day on the Somme and was appalled at the bloodbath it described, I never dreamed that, decades later, I would find a family connection to that slaughter, a connection that struck right to the heart of my fascination with World War One.
I’d never known much about my family history. Possibly because he had a rather fraught relationship with his mother, my father never displayed the slightest interest in his family. I was vaguely aware that he had uncles and therefore cousins, but he never talked about them and we never saw any of them. It was as if he’d deliberately turned his back on his family, and for all I know he had. I didn’t like to ask.
But as the years passed I became more and more intrigued by our surname. Bleksley. It’s extremely uncommon. It appears in no dictionary or list of surnames I know of. People who hear it can’t spell it, and most who read it don’t know how to pronounce it (like Bexley in Kent, with an extra L), which often ramps up my annoyance with cold callers. There are other, similar names, such as Blacksley and Blakeley, but this particular variant is so rare that I have never heard of anybody bearing it who wasn’t related to me. Not unnaturally, I became interested in finding out where it comes from, but it wasn’t until the nineties, nearly twenty years after my father’s early death, that I got round to doing anything about it.
In those days there wasn’t the abundance of on-line information there is now, and my researches proceeded slowly. The oldest records I found related to six baptisms in Lewisham in the early nineteenth century, but this part of the story starts with my great-grandfather, Frederick Charles Bleksley.
During much of the nineteenth century the Bleksley family called the East End of London home, and seem to have been mostly skilled craftsmen. Frederick was a printer and compositor (as was his younger brother) and was born in Bethnal Green in 1857, but by the 1881 census he was married and living in Shoreditch, where the first four of his five sons were born. This made them true Cockneys, as ‘born within the sound of Bow Bells’ refers not to Bow in East London but to the church of St Mary-le-Bow, on Cheapside in the City, and Shoreditch is only a mile or so to the north.
Family tradition was strong in those days, and Fred’s three elder sons, Frederick Sydney, Herbert Alfred, and Arthur Lawrence (my grandfather) all went into the printing trade. The fourth son, Walter Charles, seems to have joined the Navy. But the fifth son, Francis Gilbert, born in 1889 after the family had moved out to Beckenham in Kent, was a bit of a mystery. There appeared to be no records of a marriage or of any descendants. When the year of his death turned up, it seemed to explain things a bit. 1916, at only 27 years old. Almost certainly he must have died in action in the Great War. Naturally the question arose of exactly when and where, but by this time I’d just about reached the limit of easily found information, and my researches had got to the point where the effort outweighed my interest.
Several years later my daughter was talking to a friend who was into family history, and made the assertion I made earlier: that anybody called Bleksley was related to her. Her friend didn’t believe it, and a bet was made. Fired up, she took up the hunt where I’d left off, and with the resources of the Internet at her disposal she has since found out far more stuff than I ever did (some of the information in the last few paragraphs comes from her). One of the first things she told me was the exact date of Francis Gilbert Bleksley’s death. 1 July 1916.
‘It doesn’t say where, though,’ she said. ‘Only France and Flanders.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘I know where it was, now.’
My great-uncle hadn’t died in any obscure corner or side-show of the war. He’d been killed on the Western Front, in the Big One, the First Day on the Somme. And my father, his nephew, had never, ever mentioned it. He may not even have known.
Certain information about servicemen killed in the World Wars is easily come by on the Internet, namely rank, unit and burial place. It wasn’t long before I’d learned that Frank (as he was surely known) had been a sergeant in the 15th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. His burial record is given as Thiepval Memorial Pier and Face 2A 2C and 2D. This didn’t mean a lot to me, until I remembered a scene in Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, which I’d read a few years earlier. A scene I’d found deeply moving.
Elizabeth, grand-daughter of Stephen, the book’s MC, is aware that her grandfather served on the Western Front, but knows very little about it, because he would never speak of it, and she has never been moved to find out. Now she has recently decided that she ought to. She’s driving through northern France on her way to meet her lover in Brussels. Across the flat fields she sees a huge arch, apparently some sort of memorial. Intrigued, she turns off for a closer look.
Elizabeth walked up the stone steps that led to it. A man in a blue jacket was sweeping in the large space enclosed by the pillars.
As she came up to the arch Elizabeth saw with a start that it was written on. She went closer. She peered at the stone. There were names on it. Every grain of the surface had been covered with British names; their chiselled capitals rose from the level of her ankles to the height of the great arch itself; on every surface of every column as far as her eyes could see there were names, teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, over hundreds of yards, over furlongs of stone.
She moved through the space between the arch where the man was sweeping. She found the other pillars identically marked, their faces obliterated on all sides by the names that were carved on them.
‘Who are these, these…?’ She gestured with her hand.
‘These?’ The man with the brush sounded surprised. ‘The lost.’
‘Men who died in this battle?’
‘No. The lost, the ones they did not find. The others are in the cemeteries.’
‘These are just… the unfound?’
She looked at the vault above her head and then turned around in panic at the endless writing, as though the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes.
When she could speak again she said, ‘From the whole war?’
The man shook his head. ‘Just these fields.’ He gestured with his arm.
Elizabeth went through and sat on the steps on the other side of the monument. Beneath her was a formal garden with some rows of white headstones, each with a tended plant or flower at its base, each cleaned and beautiful in the weak winter sunlight.
‘Nobody told me.’ She ran her fingers with their red-painted nails back through her thick dark hair. ‘My God, nobody told me.’
Now I checked the passage in the book, and went searching on Google Maps. Though Faulks seems to have taken some liberties with the local geography, placing it nearer than it really is to the road between Bapaume and Albert (but this is, after all, a work of fiction), this has to be the Thiepval Memorial. Where Francis Gilbert Bleksley’s is one of the names that teem and reel over the stone. His body was one of the thousands that were never found.
That was plenty of resonance for me, and I left it there. But recently, having made a brief reference on here to this, and having been asked if I knew any more, it occurred to me that maybe it was about time I found out, and I started digging.
I’d already got as far as I could with Frank’s name, so now I turned to his unit, the 15th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. I quickly found out that they’d been known as the Leeds Pals. I don’t know, and probably never will, when and why Frank moved from Beckenham to Leeds, but I’d heard about the Pals’ Battalions, and it is one of the saddest stories of that sad war.
After Kitchener had informed the men of this country that they were needed (in maybe the most famous poster of all time), it was decided that men signed up at local recruiting drives in the resulting upsurge of patriotic fervour should be allowed to stay together in the same unit, so that friends, neighbours and colleagues could serve together. This, it was considered, would boost comradeship and morale.
And so it did. Enthusiasm remained high in the resulting Pals’ Battalions through the long months of training. By the time of the Somme Kitchener’s New Army units were finally ready. And they were needed, for this was the biggest British offensive yet in the war, and many of the Pals’ Battalions were allocated to the attack. They were raring to go, keen to prove themselves and do their bit for King and country in this, their first taste of battle. For many, it only lasted minutes. The Pals’ Battalions were decimated.
Actually, it was often worse than that, much worse. Decimated literally refers to one in ten. Probably the most famous case is that of the Accrington Pals (the 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment), who were ordered to attack Serre, a village right at the northern end of the assault, which the Germans had heavily fortified. Out of about 700 men, they lost 235 killed and 350 wounded in the space of twenty minutes. That’s 84% casualties.
Now the downside of the idea was discovered. When so many men from the same area died together, the blow to morale was correspondingly severe. And the communities they were drawn from were devastated. The experiment was not repeated.
My Great-Uncle Frank, I’d discovered, was part of that sad story. My next step was to find out exactly where on the Somme battlefield he’d died. And the answer turned out to be even nearer the knuckle.
The Leeds Pals were also in the attack on Serre. A trench map of the area showing the positions of the units involved, nearly all of them Pals’ Battalions from the North of England, places them right next to the Accrington Pals, just to the south. They didn’t do much better, sustaining 528 casualties, out of whom 248 were killed. ‘We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying,’ said Private A V Pearson, quoted in Martin Middlebrook’s book.
They were in the first wave of the assault, and where they attacked no man’s land was only about 100 yards wide, making them a prime target for the German machine gunners. Many were mown down as they left the trenches. It seems unlikely that Frank was one of those, otherwise his body would surely have been recovered. I only hope that he wasn’t one of the men who apparently got caught in the barbed wire and hung there for hours until the Germans came out and finished off any who weren’t already dead. (Though it’s not a fate I would wish on anyone else either, I think I can be allowed a little personal bias here.) Nobody got further than the barbed wire.
Today the small village of Serre Lès Puisieux sits astride the D919 road about ten miles south of Arras. It consists of no more than a couple of dozen houses. The surrounding countryside is an almost featureless landscape of nearly flat arable fields, but about half a mile west of the village is a strip of woodland. Here is the Sheffield Memorial Park (the Sheffield City Battalion, otherwise the 12th York and Lancasters, were also in the attack, and suffered very heavy losses), where there are memorials to the various units involved. Shell holes are still visible in the ground here, and under the trees runs a shallow depression, all that is left of the actual trench where the Accrington Pals went over the top.
Comparison between the trench map I mentioned earlier and Google Maps tells me that the track leading from the D919 to the Park must cross the place where the Leeds Pals were slaughtered. Several cemeteries nearby contain many unidentified graves, and it may be that one of these marks the final resting place of my Great-Uncle Frank. If I am ever driving through Northern France I must make a detour to pay my respects.
The trial of the murderer of Jo Cox has begun. For me her murder has overshadowed Brexit, the memorial at the Cenotaph and the American election. Where is her wreath? What was the second world war about? We now know what the charge is and the motive.
The killing of Martin Luther King had the opposite effect than the killer envisaged. It seems the killer of Jo Cox had been a white supremacist and his views are shared by a significant section of the population. His defense is that he committed a political act - it is not a case of diminished responsibility.
A few weeks ago I saw a drama about the klilling of Martin Luther King. It had a variation of of a duality.
There were two black actors. The female actor played both a night cleaner and the angel of death and, at the climax, she played a woman who raced around the stage in black agit-prop.
Robert Louis Stevenson seems to have conerned the market with Jekyll and Hyde but there are other ways of dramatising this duality.
Radio 4 seem to be spending the week dramatising Stevenson. In his lifetime and afterwards, he had been considered a great prose stylist. An aunt told me that his 'Travels with a Donkey had been used as a text on the correct way to write prose but this was in the Edwardian era.
All The Elevens.
November eleven has come round again,
We remember the Boys, we remember the Men.
Not for them the eleven of Cricket,
Their field of play held a stickier wicket.
Not for them were cream teas made.
The best for them was to avoid a grenade.
So many Menfolk took the King's shilling,
To fight the foe and come home, God willing.
Their eyes saw horrors no man should see.
They endured it for us, for Country, for Family.
So spare two minutes as the clocks strike eleven.
Silent thanks to the few, The poppies of heaven.
First in a new series of Dr Hairy puppet-animations. The
Under-Secretary for Health cooks up a fiendish inspection regime
for doctors' surgeries, and Dr Hairy gets a bizarre phonecall
from his mother - with hilarious results!
YouTube - https://youtu.be/azwID6hgXOs
Vimeo - https://vimeo.com/191198092
- Edward Picot
personal website - http://edwardpicot.com
Is it best to trust your imagination? .
I saw a recent production of Amadeus. Does anybody remember the film? This is a brief summery of the plot.
Salieri is a court composer and the most popular, and influential musician of his era. He composes traditional music in the style of the period.
Along comes Mozart. Salieri recognises that Mozart is the far better composer and cannot understand why God should have gifted someone he considers a child. I think that, today, we might use the word ‘idiot savant’.
In the stage production, Mozart conducts by punching his fist in the air at the climax of a musical phrase. One almost expects him to come out with ‘Hit me with a fiddle-stick, hit me.’ I suspect Salieri wished someone had done so!
Salieri kills Mozart - literally and metaphorically - as he had the power to destroy his career. Salieri later attempts suicide as, during the following thirty years, he is gradually eclipsed by Mozart.
Does an adherence to genres and formulaic styles result in a Salieri?