Guest post: The moving memoir of a despatch rider on the Western Front

AES 1917 001Today I am lucky enough to have another fascinating guest post on No Wriggling – this time by family historian and writer David Venner, who I met after the publication of my own book, Shell Shocked Britain. Here he writes movingly of his own family experiences in the Great War, and tells us more about his great-uncle Albert Simpkin, a despatch rider and the subject of a book David will see published by Pen & Sword in the spring. 

As I write, many of the leaves on the hazel outside my window have fallen and lie scattered on the ground. In time they will decompose or get dragged below the surface by earthworms.  Other leaves remain on the tree but they have changed – from the fresh green of the spring to a faded autumnal yellow: a metaphor, perhaps, for the men who fought on the First World War battlefields. Many of them fell and lay scattered on the surface or were swallowed up, unrecognisably, by the mud. The men that survived and returned from the war were changed, some in obvious, physical ways, others with mental scars that may or not have been apparent to the observer.  A lot of them of course were damaged both physically and mentally.  Their families and the wider community were deeply and irreversibly affected too, as Suzie conveys in her thoroughly researched and well-written book, Shell Shocked Britain.

My great uncle Albert Simpkin was one of the lucky ones who survived the war. Suzie’s book has started me thinking about how his experiences might have changed him. I knew him as an old man, but as he only married into my mother’s family when aged 40, his early life and character are not easily pieced together.

AES 1914 001
Albert in 1914

He was born in 1885, the eldest child of a Salford printer and his wife. When he was 12 his mother died at the birth of a fourth child, a traumatic experience for Albert and the rest of the family. His father soon re-married and Albert apparently did not take to his step-mother – a further source of emotional stress at a sensitive age. At the 1901 census there were two young half-brothers as well as the three siblings from the first marriage. It is perhaps not surprising that, on leaving school and being apprenticed to a Salford engineering firm, Albert moved out of the family home. He lived in digs with two other young men and a landlady who, according to family stories, treated him in a much more kindly way than his stepmother did.

Albert was almost 30 when he joined up, so was not as unworldly as many of the volunteer soldiers were. His teenage traumas, work experiences and early move to independent living probably resulted in a marked degree of resilience and maturity in his approach to life. He seems to have been a natural leader, as quite early in his army training he gained a promotion to become sergeant of his section.

We can gain some further insights into his character from a very detailed diary that Albert wrote of his war service. He was a motorcycle despatch rider with the 37th Division HQ on the Western Front and so had a wide-ranging role and view of the action. He saw some horrific sights, which he records, often with a comment on his reaction:

‘Higher up the trench I came across the body of one of our men badly mutilated, one of his arms had been blown off and half of his face was missing.  The front of his tunic was shredded like wool and the ammunition in his pouches had exploded. A pretty ghastly sight but it raised no more feeling in me than one feels in a butcher’s shop.  War brings one down to the level of animals.’

He endured some atrocious conditions, spending two winters in the Ypres area and another on the Somme:

‘We are having wretched weather, raining every day … After an hour’s riding we are plastered with mud from head to foot and the only way to clean oneself is to wash down with buckets of water.’ 

‘The snow is melting rapidly and everywhere is deep in mud.  I do not know which is the greater evil, snow or mud.  Snow turns to water but mud sticks closer that a brother.’

The places in which he was billeted were often far from healthy:

‘Last night we slept in a barn … The place was alive with rats which ran over our bodies and sniffed inquisitively in our faces.  One of the fellows awoke with a yell, a rat had bitten his ear.’

‘I examined the bed I have been sleeping in and found every known species of vermin, bed bugs, lice and some I was unable to christen.  I straightaway got leave from the OC to go and get a bath after which I changed all my underclothes.’

Yet he found leave-taking a depressing time:

‘The time hung very heavily, everyone cheerful but a trifle forced. I was glad when it was time to go back to France’.

He seems to have had a well-developed sense of morality and equality. For example, he was very critical of the preferential treatment of officers:

‘Sometimes when we have money we go to Bailleul for a feed but all the best places are reserved for officers, which greatly annoyed us until we found a place of our own. Even the ‘pip squeaks’, who a year or two ago were wiping their snotty little noses on their cuffs for want of a handkerchief, may enter, while the highest NCO may not. This childish snobbery of the old army sickens me.’

Despite this critical view of the officer class, his commanding officer gave him a glowing reference on demobilisation:

‘Sgt Simpkin has discharged the duties of NCO in charge motorcycles and despatch riders

in the Company with marked success. Energetic, keen and reliable in all his work. Exceptionally good disciplinarian and leader of men.  Marked organising ability. Throughout his four years of active service he has set a splendid example of personal gallantry which has greatly influenced the personnel under his command.’

AES 1950s 001
Albert in the 1950s

Albert returned to his old job with Crossley Brothers and was chief engineer by the mid-1920s. He married and shortly afterward was sent to Argentina to set up a branch of the company in Buenos Aires.  He and his wife visited England every two or three years, staying with my family on our farm in Somerset.  In between these visits he wrote to me – long, wonderfully informative letters – with descriptions of Argentine wildlife, farming, local customs and events, and he was always interested to know about our lives in England.  He was like a substitute grandfather to me: both of my grandfathers had died before I was born. Having no family, Albert and his wife Lily made as much fuss of my brother and me as if we were their own grandchildren.

Albert never spoke of the war and at the time I never thought to ask him about it. In any case it is most unlikely that he would have wanted to talk about his experiences with a young boy – I was only 15 when he died. I would have loved to have heard how he won his Military Medal and what he did to earn the commendation “for bravery in the field”.

It is hard, thinking back to the visits to our farm and when re-reading his letters, to find any evidence of the effects of his war experiences. As an old man he walked with a limp which could have been the result of a war injury; in his diary he mentions being slightly wounded in the leg. Mentally, he never showed (or was very careful to conceal) any signs of depression, anxiety or sadness.  On the contrary, I remember him as a jolly, generous and gregarious man, with a twinkle in his eye and a vitality which belied his age. It was as if he was determined to make the most of a life that was spared when so many of his contemporaries were not so fortunate.

Despatch riderAn abridged version of Albert Simpkin’s diary is due to be published in April 2015 by Pen and Sword Books, under the title Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18.

 After graduating from Edinburgh University, David Venner had a career in countryside management. He is now a family history advisor in North Devon where he also practises rural crafts. You can follow him on Twitter: @davidvenner4,  and on the diary website:

www.despatch-rider-on-the-western-front.co.uk

Guest post: “Our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths” : A Great War Memoir

cover resizedToday I am thrilled to host a guest post by Susan Burnett, who has worked with her grandfather’s memoirs to publish a moving description of what happened to Norman Woodcock and the men who served alongside him in the First World War. The book, titled On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind  is published by Acorn Independent Press and available from Amazon here. In this post she offers snippets of the fascinating discoveries she made, many of which resonated with me as I recalled the research undertaken for Shell Shocked Britain.

My grandfather, Norman Woodcock, left me three large files of handwritten memoirs including many stories about his time in the Signals in the First World War. He took part in the landings on Gallipoli, served in the desert with Lawrence of Arabia and was there at the capture of Jerusalem. As I researched and wrote the history to accompany my grandfather’s memoirs, I soon realised how different life was for the soldiers in the Middle East compared to the trenches on the Western Front. In the desert they had to deal with extremes of heat and cold, snakes and scorpions were common, sand got into everything including the food, skin became so dry that it cracked and caused terrible sores, and at certain times of the year sand flies bit and caused fever. On one occasion, as they dug a trench in Palestine, some Australian troops came across a Roman mosaic. The mosaic was carefully removed and packed off to be displayed in a museum in Australia. The biggest difference though, was the shortage of water.

Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.
Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.

In his memoirs Norman describes the horrors of the battles he took part in, for example during one battle he describes how ‘some men were afraid, others excited, some were quite mad’. His stories also cover everyday life and in particular the thirst they constantly suffered: ‘our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths’ and on another occasion ‘death by thirst must be terrible’. He describes the problems of not being able to clean anything, including mess tins, so bully beef blended with the taste of tea and jam, and everything had the added flavour of chloride of lime, used for purification. He jokes about how he didn’t wash his shirt for three months but everyone smelled so they got used to it!

Amongst the horror and history of the war there are some great stories in the book, one of the amusing ones is of an intruder to the dugout where three of them slept near the banks of the Suez Canal:

One night we were woken up by noises outside and the sound of someone coming down the dugout steps. Wilkie called out, ‘Who is there?’ There was a sound of footsteps running up the steps. Then they came back again. As we all had our rifles ready, I said I would fire one round at the doorway – so I sighted my rifle and pulled the trigger. There was a sound of feet rushing up the steps and a gurgle of liquid. Wilkie lit a candle. The gurgling continued and I thought the visitor must be bleeding to death. The light of the candle revealed that I had pierced our tank of water, our four days supply. I jumped out of my blankets and tilted it to stop the flow. Next day, we found our visitor, it was a mongoose, an animal that can kill a snake; we had some big snakes about and could have used him if we had captured him. We were short of water until the next delivery arrived, but we were always short of water and became used to the thirst.

Once, in the heat of the desert sun, my grandfather downed tools, refusing to work until the water supply arrived. His comrades joined him and he was arrested and put on a charge. The allowance at that time was 4 pints of water a day, current water rations in the desert are 3 pints an hour! Fortunately Norman was needed for signals work. He could have been shot for disobeying an order but his charge was reduced and he was banished on a one man patrol in the desert for 3 weeks.

Once Jerusalem was captured, troops were despatched to France. Norman set sail in September 1918, arriving in Marseilles:

We had heard some stories of the misery in the trenches from lads who had joined us in Egypt, and so it was with some trepidation that, after two or three days, we boarded the train for the north.

Norman Woodcock in 1985
Norman Woodcock in 1985

Fortunately the war ended soon after he arrived on the Western Front. He wasn’t demobbed until July 1919 and the book ends with him describing the sadness he felt leaving the comrades he had been with every day for five years, and the even greater sadness he felt having to leave his horse called Timbuc: ‘the black beauty that saved my life on so many occasions’.

To find out more, visit Susan’s website at www.susanburnett.me.uk

Teaching the First World War – engaging imaginations with historic newspapers

qnscabijelvfu9dudepk_thumb‘Will Dismal Jimmy Look More Cheerful Today?’

So reads the headline above the Daily Sketch title on Monday September 27th 1915.

I have no idea what that means but it certainly draws me straight in! I have been lucky enough to be sent an example of one of the free First World War packs offered by Historic Newspapers,  the UK’s largest private archive of historical newspapers to educational institutions as the centenary commemorations begin in earnest.

The First World War newspaper book, called 1914-1919 As Reported At The Time, aims to engage with young people in a way that makes the history real, rather than an abstract idea which they feel they have no links with. Reports in the media that kids are already being ‘turned off’ by the Great War are surely greatly exaggerated. Many of the projects being run in local areas are incredibly creative and have no problem involving ages from the proverbial 8 to 80+, but schools sometimes experience greater problems. The curriculum doesn’t always allow for similar expressions of the many feelings the First World War can bring out in the young. Curiosity, fear, anger, laughter (yes there is a place for humour – the troops found courage in it) all these things can make the conflict come that little bit closer – safely of course.

So this booklet begins on September 27 1915 at the Battle of Loos with first reports of British and French soldiers “on the road to victory” and finishes with the end of the war on Monday November 11 1918. Much happens in between, with reports on Gallipoli, and on Edith Cavell. But I love the way this offers a peek into the wider social history of the time. The wonderful adverts for Maypole margarine; how Violette starring Edris Coombs was on twice nightly in Drury Lane and what could be found in the Christmas Parcels offered by Selfridges.  Herrings in tomato anyone?

Thomas Walker, of Historic Newspapers, has said:

“The book can be used to discuss the changing nature of conflict, the cooperation between countries, the shift of alliances and the lasting impact of the war on national, ethnic, cultural and religious issues.”

I think he is right, and it is FREE. If anyone asks me to review something on my blog they have to expect me to be honest, and the only complaint I could have about this book is that it leaves me – an adult writer about the war and its aftermath, wanting more. It is just enough for those who just need to be inspired to find out more.

Hard copies of the teaching packs are currently available to schools, universities, libraries and accredited education establishments, and individual PDF files can be ordered if digital format is preferred. Enquiries should be sent to Thomas Walker from Historic Newspapers at: Thomas.Walker@historic-newspapers.co.uk.

 

What shapes us ~ nature, nurture or experience? A novelist’s view

square peg

Today on No Wriggling I am lucky enough to host a guest post from author Vivienne Tuffnell. Vivienne, who wrote for (and inspired the title of) my book, Dandelions & Bad Hair Days, talks here of family history in the broadest sense, and of the process of writing via the characters in her latest novel Square Peg, which offers the wonderful line ‘She’d seen faces like that before, but on the television, in films and in the history books. The faces of fanatics, cold and blind to all reason staring back at her….’ 

It’s a great debate, nature or nurture, when it comes to who we think we are. While we may think we are our own person, that person is shaped both by upbringing and genetics and the experiences we go through in life. As a novelist, the shaping of characters is a curious process, half unconscious and half deliberate and I’d like to think that the fusion of the two has meant I’ve created some memorable folks amid the pages of my novels.

I was asked recently (several times) if Chloe’s grandmother in Square Peg is based on my own grandmother. My answer is that she’s not based on anyone(as such) but she’s probably how I’d like to be seen when I am granny-aged. I’ve also been asked how much of Chloe is me (just as I was asked how much of Isobel in Away With The Fairies is me) and I’d answer that question in the same way: a good deal of me is in her.

Yet Chloe’s Gran and her unconventional upbringing shaped her and brought her to the uncomfortable place she’s in at the start of the novel. Gran was one of those free-spirited women who blazed trails through history yet get almost no acknowledgements for the work they did. Trained as a doctor, she chose to spend her working life amid the poor, oppressed and marginalised people around the world, travelling and finding new challenges in a risky life. At some stage, she met and fell in love with someone whose child she came back to England with. She never saw him again, and returning to her home town and parents, people assumed she’d married while abroad but kept her maiden name for professional reasons. A generation before it would have been a massive scandal and a generation later, something fairly unremarkable, yet at the time the birth of a son out of wedlock was something she needed to keep private. As soon as her son was independent, she left to return to the work she loved, only returning when her son lost his wife in an accident.

In the intervening years, she visited her family and sent presents home, usually gifts that reflected the community she was living in. Chloe and her sister are sent a colourful Pendleton blanket, packed with white sage, suggesting that Gran was living among Native Americans, perhaps acting as doctor on a reservation. The battered sandalwood Buddha that sits on the hearth is another such fixture in Chloe’s home.

Like so many women called upon to care for those who need it, Chloe’s grandmother reluctantly returned but never fully settled into a life of a suburban general practitioner and her restlessness was only assuaged by working with the fringe communities, like Romanies and other travellers. Chloe spent enough time as a child among these communities that she grew to identify unconsciously with the marginalised and the outcasts and not with respectable middle class values of those more expected to be her peer group. She also learned a lot of very dubious skills, like how to fight and use a shotgun. Combined with her plain-speaking grandmother’s influence, who taught tolerance for differences of faith, ideology and race but resistance to blind convention and mealy-mouthed maintenance of a status quo of injustice, Chloe arrives in a place where she’ll be tested to her limits simply to survive without going under or losing integrity by acquiescing to the kind of hypocrisy that would make her grandmother spin in her too-recent grave.

It’s not only her grandmother’s influence that has brought her to this turning point in her life. Her childhood and her student days shaped a woman who is combative and uncompromising, yet her choice of husband has also changed her. Clifford has not tamed her, but rather has seen her wildness as something to cherish. He sees her plain speaking as a virtue; not as the college wives do, as rudeness and a lack of community spirit. He’s not the kind of ordinand who wants or expects his wife to be a stereotypical help-meet, organising prayer groups and baking scones; it would bore him senseless and the spark he has with Chloe would gutter and die if she became meek and conventional.

Chloe isn’t someone who needs a horde of friends, but she does need kindred spirits to keep her from sliding into despair, and she’s lucky to find one in her first year of college who keeps her from the darkness of total isolation. But it’s not until their final year when the anarchic Isobel arrived with her ordinand husband Mickey, and a bond is formed between two square pegs that will endure some terrible times. Isobel is someone better able to walk the line between being outrageous and acceptable. She’s had a bit more practise, swapping from a degree chosen to placate her father to a degree in art to please herself, and somehow keeping it secret long enough to produce work her father can see is potentially a career builder. She’s also able to accept some compromise, cutting off her dreadlocks and removing her piercings before she and Mickey start at college. She sees them as peripherals and not really that important to her identity; she can go ‘plain clothes’ for the duration and not see it as infringing on her core identity. She makes the perfect mole.

Authors sometimes talk about back story, of knowing who your characters are, and how vital that is even if little of the background appears directly on the page. It’s about knowing marrow-deep precisely who they are and how they came to be that way. Chloe inherits her grandmother’s not-inconsiderable intelligence, her red hair and her questioning nature, but perhaps not her tough and resilient hide, impervious to the opinions of most other people. Her time growing up with such a role model taught her not to suffer fools gladly but it’s only experience that teaches how to spot rogues and frauds, and only experience that can teach self preservation in impossible situations.

There’s a saying that the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go, and that’s the one secret that Chloe’s Gran really needed to have taught her.

Vivienne Tuffnell
Vivienne Tuffnell

My sincere thanks to Viv for this post. To read more of her wonderful writing, go to her blog, Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking. Square Peg, as well as her other novels The Bet, Away with the Fairies and Strangers & Pilgrims, and short story collections The Moth’s Kiss and The Wild Hunt are available from Amazon by following the link.

The ‘First Blitz’ – Terror Comes To The Home Front

220px-It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bulletsHow many people know anything of the ‘First Blitz’ – war waged by Germany from the air between 1915 and 1918?

As I researched Shell Shocked Britain : the First World Wars’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health I was surprised that so few of the stories from that time were well-known. I discussed the subject with a number of people and they had little or no knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by first the Zeppelin airships and then enormous fixed wing aircraft.

By 1914 Germany had several Zeppelins at the disposal of the armed forces. They could fly at speeds up to 85 m.p.h. with the capacity to carry approximately two tons of bombs. The first raid was on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in January 1915 and continued across areas in the Midlands and along the East coast, including Hull where raids in June 1915 caused devastation.  I was lucky to discover letters describing these raids in the Liddle Collection held by Leeds University Library, and those from Mrs Nell Hague to her husband George, who had remained in London whilst she visited her mother, offer a fascinating insight into the mix of horror and excitement many felt:

“The Zeps are here! And from mother’s bedroom window the whole town seems on
fire…..

It is no exaggeration to say that there were thousands of people in and around the fields and houses… the dear little children –the cripples, the aged – oh my dear it must be seen to be realised…”

The raids became a tool to boost recruitment; many men so disgusted  that the enemy had brought war to the homes of Britain that they felt compelled to join up in response to official posters, such as the one illustrating this post, above.

Gotha_RG_im_FlugBy 1917 Zeppelins had been replaced by fixed wing aircraft – the Gotha, and, shortly afterwards, the ‘Giant’, with a wing span of 42 metres (138 feet) and tail roughly the same size as a Sopwith Pup. It is hardly surprising that British planes had such difficulty countering these fearsome attacks.

In his recent series Britain’s Great War Jeremy Paxman briefly touched on the physical and emotional trauma experienced by the populations of towns along the East and South East coasts of England and in London, the target of many of the raids. He focused on the first daylight raid of June 1917 during which (amongst a total of 162 people) eighteen pupils of Upper North Street School, Poplar, in East London were killed. Sixteen of them were aged from 4 to 6 years old. In Shell Shocked Britain I develop the story of that day, and others, to consider some of the lasting mental scars of the air raids.

In total, around 1,500 civilians were killed by air raids over the period of the war.

My Great Uncle Alfred Hardiman was a conscript into the 31st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, a works battalion, and spent his short service in the army in London. At some point in 1917 he was involved in the aftermath of one of the Gotha raids on London and his experience marked him so deeply that he spent several months in hospital. He was eventually discharged ‘unfit for service’ due to enuresis – he had become,at the age of 27, incontinent. In 1922 he would finally break down, killing his ex-girlfriend and himself. By all accounts a previously gentle man, he was not alone in finding the terrible sights of war on the Home Front impossible to forget.

wwi-british-policeAs always, one has to be wary of imposing present day values and responses on those living 100 years ago. When the bombs of July 2005 went off in London we were given minute by minute accounts of the situation by all media outlets. In the First World War, coverage of raids was actively suppressed, ostensibly to avoid panic. When we look back just the few years to the terrorist attacks, we can recall fears of further attacks, utterly unpredictable and our lives endangered simply by virtue of the train or bus we boarded. In the war, the suppression of news reports had the undesired consequence of heightening rumour and suspicion. No accurate reports resulted in a population constantly on the alert and the continued official resistance to proper air raid warnings (even to the point where policemen could only warn people by wearing a placard around their necks) resulted in more disruption rather than less.

In Shell Shocked Britain I discuss the ensuing ‘collective trauma’ in more detail, looking behind the reports of calm responses and stoical public at the deeper, personal terrors. On the Kent coast, particularly in the town of Folkestone, severely battered by Gotha raids in 1917, doctors had already begun to describe a form of shell shock amongst the families involved. I found reports of suicides both during and after the war due at least in part to continuing air raid shock.

Of course many were left unmarked by such events; some even found them exciting. But others, such as Alfred Hardiman, were left so traumatised that the anxiety became impossible to bear.

I have not yet been made aware of many planned events to mark those lost in the air raids of the First World War. Discussions on twitter suggest that thus far these horrors have so far been neglected. I hope that, in the next four years, places affected will take time to remember the horrors of the days when death first came from the skies..

Talking Books on why we should all want ‘Little Creative Days’ for our children

What are seasons but children’s soft dreams, and
Sunrise, their opening eyes?
Seeing at a glance
The days and years open…waiting,
Fringed with softness, or
Laced with abandon…

(From Children’s Eyes and Children’s Toys by Elysabeth Faslund)

The incredible Pojo
The incredible Pojo

This is SO late going up but I thought it important to make sure you got the opportunity to listen to my Talking Books show on 10Radio.org from February 14th. It wasn’t a ‘Valentine’s Day’ themed show – I have featured poetry and prose that expresses our romantic yearnings on past shows – but it was one that should be of interest to anyone with children, or who is involved with children’s education. I started this post with an excerpt from a poem that sums up for me how important it is to see the world through a child’s eyes and to give them the tools to make the most of a time when their imagination should be allowed to fly.

Tonya Meers kindly came in to the studio to talk about the business she has established with her sister, Natasha Dennis. Little Creative Days started with the provision of craft kits for children, but when Tonya decided she would like to write children’s stories the sisters decided to combine the two. Between them I think they have come up with something that can really bring out the creative side of all children and perhaps inspire them to be the writers, dramatists, artists and even theatre impresarios (well let’s think big!) of the future. Working with and in schools they have developed kits that work across the curriculum; Pojo and the Chest of Dreams for example can support work in geography and Pojo Saves the Rainforest uses puppets to tell children about the impact of deforestation.

This isn’t a sponsored post, or a review of the products Tonya and Natasha offer but it is something of a plug for anything that fires a child’s imagination and after this show you will be in little doubt that Tonya’s stories, and the opportunities the kits offer to children as part of their primary school education, are exactly the sort of thing to engage children across ages and abilities.

When my children were much younger they both had issues with certain aspects of their school day. My son would daydream and lose concentration; my daughter is dyslexic and found phonics a real challenge. They both found an outlet in performance – my son in drama and my daughter in sport – and finding a way to express their true selves, away from the challenge of tests and league tables proved invaluable.

Creative storytelling uses ‘creative group activities to bring stories alive’ and in our interview Tonya describes how puppet making for example can  enable all children to explore a story and become engaged with the story and its message. The drama activities can build confidence and offer children a way to express themselves in their own stories. Do take a listen; I am sure you will be as inspired as I was by Tonya’s enthusiasm and by the Little Creative Days ethos.

Find out more by going to the Little Creative Days website at www.littlecreativedays.co.uk

Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain’: how war trauma casts a shadow across a century

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegI can hardly believe that Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health has been out and available for almost a year. The time has passed so quickly and I am still talking about the book to various groups and being asked to answer questions about shell shock and the lasting trauma of war. The book has 5* reviews and universally praised for its compassionate approach, which is very gratifying. I thought I should just update this post, and of course offer a link to purchase the book – available in hardback or on eReader from Amazon or from the publisher Pen & Sword. Thanks to all who have bought it so far; it is much appreciated and I would love to know what you think.

I know that some readers of my blog (and thanks for that!) already know that throughout 2013 I was writing a book called Shell Shocked Britain commissioned by Pen & Sword History. We are now in the final edit stage, with proof-reading to come before it is finally published in October of this year, marking both the Centenary of the start of the First World War but also the month in which World Mental Health Day falls.

The publisher has given a sub-title to the book –  ‘The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health‘. I cannot argue, as it is exactly what the book is about.

I was thrilled when I was commissioned to write Shell Shocked; not simply because I got my first ever advance and felt truly ‘professional’ as a writer, but because I would have the opportunity to take the Great War and offer up an alternative view of the bloodshed and horror. There have been, and will be, many television programmes, books and academic papers released this year and rightly so, but my book examines the wider, emotional implications of the war, not just for the shell shocked troops but for the civilian population and for the nation as a whole in the inter-war period and takes a fresh look at why we may engage emotionally with WW1 over and above other conflicts. Jeremy Paxman addressed some of the same issues in his recent four-part documentary Britain’s Great War, but in a superficial, and dare I say it of the great man, rather bombastic way. Those he interviewed  must have been shocked at questions such as that asked of a relative of a conscientious objector – ‘If I suggested he was just awkward…?’ I hope I have been a little more sensitive, whilst remaining objective and accepting of realities.

Myths about the war abound and by the end of this first year of commemorative events there is a danger that arguments by politicians and media opinion will sully what should be a sombre time of reflection.  Dan Snow published a wonderful list called ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked that highlights how far we have strayed from what may be called ‘a truth’ about that war. It is important we recognise what was universal about WW1 as well as what was unique and for me, having just ‘completed’ Shell Shocked Britain it was a relief to see him write

By setting it apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general. We are also in danger of belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day.

Having read widely and having spoken to those who have had a role in the modern-day Armed Forces as well as the Army of the 1940s and 1950s, it seems to me that the response to the horrors of armed combat are as difficult to comprehend today as they were for those first soldiers faced with mechanised and trench warfare. As civilians we simply cannot understand the bonds between men and women in war zones; we can’t imagine what it is like to see one’s friends blown to pieces before our eyes, or sit to eat our meals with the numbers around the table dwindling as injuries and fatalities increase. We see the names but we don’t know the people, or understand what took them to that front line in the first place.

netley-shell-shock-1917Combat stress and PTSD  are the descendants  of  shell shock. Many (though not all), of the responses to the trauma of battle are the same now as they were then – anxiety and depression, anger expressed as aggressive and impulsively dangerous behaviour, alcohol and other substance misuse and nightmares and flashbacks. Currently the national charity Combat Stress is helping 5,000 veterans deal with their symptoms. By the end of the Great War some 80,000 men had been diagnosed with shell shock but there were thousands more affected, to some extent by the trauma of war.

In addition, they came home to a nation where almost everyone knew a bereaved family, even if they had been lucky to welcome their own sons home. Many felt guilty; many were themselves scarred by anxiety as they waited for the dreaded telegram, ran for cover as Zeppelins or Gotha aircraft flew over their homes bringing death behind the Front Line, or welcomed young men home only to find them taken from them by Spanish Influenza, or later manifestations of shell shock that drove them to suicide. Relationships had changed in a fundamental way and many found it hard to adapt. It can be argued (as well as challenged of course) that there was a sense of collective trauma, as the prelapsarian world of the Edwardian era was shattered

But as Dan Snow rightly points out, many young men actually found the war offered them a way out of grinding poverty and unemployment and offered them opportunities to enjoy freedoms denied to them at home. Now, we still find young men and women signing up to find a career, to gain respect and take themselves away from a damaging home situation. These young people live 100 years apart but (despite the caveat that we cannot attach 21st century mores to 20th century lives), they are not so different.

And this is what I wanted to express something of in Shell Shocked Britain; that we are a world apart now, as the last veterans pass on and the numbers who lived through that time dwindle, but we are in many ways the same people. We talk of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and the stoical way many veterans dealt with their experiences, but for many this was not simply the British way. There were simply no words to express the experience to a world that seemed desperate to get on with living.  And it is still that way today for veteran and civilian alike – the trauma has no words and if unaffected it is hard to comprehend.

However, failing to deal with the issues the war raised stored up health problems that reverberate even today. Work has been undertaken by psychologists that shows how far the memory of war can cause mental health issues not only in first generation, but second and third generations of a family. A grandchild may remember an angry grandparent, perhaps reliant on alcohol, aggressive and unkind. Or there were men in the family, like my great uncle Alfred Hardiman, whose acts changed the lives of sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces. Some of them are alive today. Ask them.

If all the work over the next four years of commemoration is to mean anything, we must try to understand, and I hope Shell Shocked Britain may help, just a little bit.

A Very Poetic Happy Christmas from No Wriggling & Talking Books!

Merry-Christmas-EveWell – just two more sleeps till Christmas Day – why does the time pass so quickly when you are an adult, yet Christmas seems to take forever to arrive when you are a child? Even though our children are now at University there is still an Advent Calendar pinned to the door and it seems barely a week since I opened the first door – yet here we are – on the Eve of Christmas Eve….

My final Talking Books show for 2013 was on 10Radio on Friday and it was a very festive edition, with other presenters chiming in with a reading. There was music too, and I got a request in, at last (I usually offer my guest the opportunity to choose the track we play out with). I chose ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ by Jon and Vangelis, which was a Christmas record back in 1981, although it is rarely played as one. It certainly makes me feel wonderfully Christmassy, as does ‘Gaudate’ by Steeleye Span and ‘Stop the Cavalry’ by Jona Lewie, which we also played. With poems by Carol Ann Duffy and John Betjemen and readings from A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens we linked through the music to the last reading. I chose a piece by Elizabeth Bowen, from Home for Christmas, and read it just before we played the Jon and Vangelis. Home is somewhere we all seek at Christmas, whether physically or metaphorically and the reading offered a wonderful (a word I use too often on my show, I realise – I must get the thesaurus out…) message.

We also got a little bit political when the piece from A Christmas Carol – where Scrooge is approached for money for the poor at the start of the book – was resonant of recent Government policies and the proliferation of food banks. Alongside the Carol Ann Duffy poem about war it became clear that the very nature of our humanity can be reflected upon at this time of year, and should be.

As a celebration of the season I would also like to add a lovely poem, called ‘little tree’ by E.E. Cummings, a poet who could be controversial – in both style and subject matter. Even the printing of his name is the subject of scholarly discussion. However, here he writes so precisely that one can almost hear the child’s conversation with the tree about to grace the house and we can feel, with him, a solace in the loss of it’s natural habitat as it takes on a new role at the heart of the home. Simple and real.

LITTLE tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

I love it. It is my Christmas message to all those of you good enough to read my blog (which I admit has had less of my attention this year as I concentrated on writing Shell Shocked Britain) and to all my friends on social media. Thank you for your friendship – it means such a lot to me.

What does it mean to dream? On Victorian thoughts & the 21st century soul…

VBODWhilst on holiday in Suffolk a few weeks ago I bought a small book at a second-hand stall at the market in the lovely little town of Framlingham. Called The Victorian Book of Dreams, it is clearly a forerunner of the little books you might have picked up at the till in Past Times as a desperate last moment Christmas present for someone who has everything (other than a book about Edwardian manners or tips for husbands).

The picture on the front cover is magnificent and reading through it has been fun; but it has made me realise that the interpretation of dreams has come a long way in the past one hundred and twenty years or so.

For example, one entry in the book states ‘Bagpipes – to dream of this musical instrument is always unfortunate; it denotes extreme poverty and you will have to labour hard all your life.’ I can’t help feeling there is some stereotyping involved in that meaning. Another suggests that should you be unfortunate enough to dream of a butcher cutting up meat, ‘some of your friends will be hanged and you will experience much misery and poverty’. However, if you dream that you or a friend is being hanged, it means you will become very wealthy. Work that one out.

Continue reading “What does it mean to dream? On Victorian thoughts & the 21st century soul…”

University as a ‘rite of passage’: On becoming an empty-nester

institution_full_545__winchester_CENTRE_hero (1)On Saturday my lovely daughter Evie is starting her first term at the University of Winchester. She only made her mind up to go to Uni at all at the beginning of August, having had a year out to focus on her athletics and train with the GB high jump coach Fuzz Ahmed in Birmingham. Her friends came home after their first years of study, extolling the virtues of the Student Union and her determination to avoid the debt of a student loan went out the window.

Evie & James in 2000
Evie & James in 2000

Both children (and won’t they always be our children?) will now be at University. James lives with his partner is London and all being well is fully fledged and on his way. Now Evie follows – promising to come back in the holidays, but only until she graduates and can find a job ‘anywhere but Taunton’. I don’t blame her, frankly. But I am sorry, and sad. I actually feel, for a little while anyway, that I will be bereft.

Don’t misunderstand me – I am full of pride, along with the usual parental fears about safety and concerns that they both have enough money (because to be honest we haven’t enough to help them much and it is SO expensive). But not only is it a real rite of passage for Evie, it is a significant one for Peter and I too. We are now on our own for the first time in more than 22 years. We can do as we please; we can swing from the chandelier (if our old bones would let us and we had one); we needn’t buy Oreos and Coco Pops any more or smell endless pepperoni pizza on the go. James isn’t here to play World of Warcraft and Evie won’t have ‘Sex and the City’ DVDs on repeat. Neither will now be here to leave towels all over the floor of the bathroom or underwear festering under their beds, at least not in our home. Oh dear….

Winchester student accommodation
Winchester student accommodation

We have never sought to influence either child in their decision, but we are really pleased Evie is following her brother to higher education. I don’t think it is for everyone and I loathe the idea that anyone would value a degree ‘for the sake of it’ over a valuable vocational course. But when you have a son for whom Philosophy is an obsession and a daughter who can jump higher than the top of her mother’s head, the life skills they will learn and opportunities they will have away from home will be invaluable. Winchester Uni has great athletics facilities and a good Law faculty (who would have thought Evie would ever follow my example in anything...)  We have visited the city with her and although I knew it of old, as one of those places forever associated with the poet John Keats and ‘Ode to Autumn’, (there is a wonderful ‘Keats Walk you can do now) I saw it through new eyes – imagining what it would be like to be a student there. Put it this way – I was green with envy and I continue to be so. How different the experience is from ‘my day’. The Polytechnic of Central London was great (it is now the University of Westminster and maybe not so great) but there was no central campus and no ‘student village’.

Lots of parents are packing their offspring off for the first time at the moment. The lists of what to take are so long we know we will forget something. At least we know Evie can cook and do her own washing and is ok-ish with money, but it must be a huge step to take for any young person. The accommodation seems to be lockable rooms in small flats with a shared kitchen – at Winchester all very new and very nice (and apparently compared to Manhattan…) – but surely a challenge if you are shy, have concerns about privacy and personal space or an aversion to washing up. Evie is very gregarious, but is already worried she won’t be ‘clever enough’. She will be, but the workload will be unlike any study she has done before and to be certain you come out with a degree worth its name you can’t just do ‘enough’ any more. You have to stand out. It truly is a stress-filled time, but hugely exciting and full of promise and opportunity. No wonder so many parents ask if they can enrol when they turn up with their offspring to Open Days.

James 2013
James 2013
Evie 2013
Evie 2013

So Saturday will be a day of mixed emotions for us, as for so many other parents this autumn. We have gone through all those ‘first days at nursery’,  ‘first days at primary school’, ‘first days at secondary school’ and would like to encourage all those parents in the blogging community to cling on to those memories and have a thought for those of us who have no more ‘back to school’ shopping trips to negotiate, or assemblies to attend. It will be graduation next – and then they really will be on their way,

Bless them.