Friday, 11 November 2011


My father, Charles Gillard
My father lost his leg at the age of 19 whilst serving in France with the Royal Artillery. His bullet-shattered leg was amputated in a field hospital and he was lucky to be one of the early beneficiaries of penicillin. From an early age, I grew up with tales of horror and heroism told as I sat at my father’s (artificial) knee, but thanks to his macabre Spike Milligan-esque sense of humour, Dad’s war stories were full of black comedy and devoid of self-pity.

His own father had come home physically intact from the trenches of WWI, but of his experiences on the Western Front we knew nothing, since he never spoke of them, not even to his wife.

So it was possibly on the cards that one day I would write a novel about a soldier. But the aspect of military service I’ve written about is one that, if Dad had understood, he wouldn’t have wanted to discuss. Nor would he have heard it talked about much. Dad might have referred to “shell-shock”, but he wouldn’t have had much sympathy for it. In his day, you just “got on with it”. 

Apparently British servicemen and -women still “get on with it”. The military veterans’ charity, COMBAT STRESS reports that the average time it takes for a veteran to seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder is thirteen years. I’m going to repeat that, just in case you missed the salient points: the average time it takes for a mentally ill veteran to seek help is thirteen years.

I didn’t know that appalling statistic when I started writing my fifth novel, UNTYING THE KNOT. What I did know – and thought as many people as possible ought to know – was that 256 British servicemen died in the Falklands War, but at the last count, more than 300 have committed suicide since they returned home.

So for a variety of reasons, I decided to write a book ­– of all things a dark romantic comedy – in which the hero, Magnus, is a military veteran (ex-bomb-squad), suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the heroine, Fay, is his long-suffering ex-wife. She narrates much of the novel and here she talks about the strain of being an army wife:

“You learn to live with the idea that your husband might die in combat, or even accidentally, as a result of handling ordnance or so-called friendly fire. You know he might pay the ultimate price. What you don’t reckon with – how can you, until you actually live with it? – is the daily toll that knowledge takes on a marriage, on your happiness, even your sanity.

That’s how it is for a regular soldier’s wife, but Magnus’ job was in EOD. Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Bomb squad, in layman’s terms. The initials also stand for “Everyone’s divorced”, referring to the fate of many of the marriages. The cracks began to show in ours. I told Magnus if he wanted us to stay together, he’d have to leave the army. I said I couldn’t cope any more with the long separations, his moods, the terrifying flashbacks, the his’n’hers nightmares. It was easier for me to say all that than admit the real reason I wanted him to quit. Magnus deserved the truth and probably could have handled it, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I wasn’t prepared to spend any more of my life waiting to become a widow.

In the end it was taken out of our hands. In 1994 he was blown up by a booby-trapped bomb in Londonderry. Surgeons and psychiatrists pieced him back together again, but Magnus said the bastards had had eight of his nine lives, so he was quitting while he was ahead. Once he’d recovered from his injuries, he began training men to do the job he used to do. He stuck it for a couple of years, then resigned. I was relieved he’d finally made the break, but he became profoundly depressed and his nightmares (which we now knew were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder) got worse. The doctors knew what was wrong with him and the cause, but they appeared to have no idea how to treat it. (Magnus used to joke that the military had in fact made great strides in their understanding of PTSD. Now when a soldier went to pieces, they no longer took him out and shot him.)

9/11 changed the world and it changed Magnus. He sat for days watching the same footage of the catastrophe, saying nothing, his face completely impassive. I feared the worst. Then some of his old army mates got in touch and told him they were off to Afghanistan. They asked him what he was doing with himself. He said he was going to find a ruined castle and restore it.”

That in essence is what UNTYING THE KNOT is about: a ruined castle (Tullibardine Tower, a 16th century tower house on a Perthshire hillside), a ruined marriage, shattered lives and minds, and their restoration.

Kindle e-book £1.90/$2.99
My father died in 2005, so I’ll never know what he would have thought of my novel. I doubt he would have approved. He would have thought it was making a fuss. He thought doing your bit meant suffering in silence. (Apologies for all the clich├ęs, but that’s how a man of his generation talked about pain and self-sacrifice.)

But Dad would surely have approved of UNTYING THE KNOT becoming another Kindle bestseller, which thanks to one of Amazon’s promotional emails, it has. (Great to see Amazon doesn’t discriminate between indie and mainstream e-books. Their selection criterion appears to be good reviews.)

The manuscript of UTK did the rounds with editors for two years and was universally rejected, even by those who raved over the writing and the characterisation. The genre was mixed (well, yes, decidedly) and one editor said the book was “rather earnest”. (And there was me thinking I was being cutting edge, writing a romantic black comedy about mental illness!) So I went the indie route and published it myself on Kindle. Because I really think someone should make a fuss.

The charity COMBAT STRESS refers to post-traumatic stress disorder as “the enemy within”. Our servicemen and -women deserve our support and understanding. They fight our wars. We should help them fight their battles.

COMBAT STRESS ( delivers dedicated treatment and support to ex-servicemen and women with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety disorders.  Their services are free of charge to veterans.


dirtywhitecandy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dirtywhitecandy said...

Brilliant post, Linda. I worked with a special forces veteran and discovered much the same thing. Badly coping soldiers may not be shot any more, but there used to be a long tradition of 'pull yourself together and get on with it'.

Dan Holloway said...

Wonderful. Sadly "pull yourself together" is still an attitude rife within far too many sectors of society, and the pressure not to seek help can be overwhelming. When faced with a statistic like your 13 years, too many people answer "why don't they just ask for help" (again, something we see in all walks of life, and said most cruelly - but commonly- of all when suicide has made it too late). The answer is that before we can even start to ask people to ask for help we have to make sure both that when they do the help they receive is first rate, and they are in an environment where those around them - from family and friends to employers and neighbours - will support them and recognise the courage it takes to seek help, otherwise we could be sending them to something worse (I know too many people who have been rewarded for taking their bravest step and admitting their mental health problems only to be rewarded by losing friends, families, and jobs)The latter of these is something we can all help with every day not only bychallenging stigma wherever we find it but in positive ways through our treatment of those around us. The former is something we can do by supporting excellent causes like this one (alongside any political lobbying we may feel moved to).

catdownunder said...

In my teens my father became the principal of a very large rural area school in the middle of a "soldier settlement" that had been set up by the Australian government after WWII. The idea was that soldiers without jobs to return to could apply for land to farm. The scheme was never a good idea for a number of reasons and even in the mid-sixties these men were often still highly traumatised. I have, all these years later, never forgotten watching grown men cry at the first Anzac Day service we attended in that community. There are things they can never talk about, never forget - and when the last of them has gone then it is up to us to remember for them as best we can. Combat stress is a terrible, terrible thing.

Francine Howarth: UK said...


Lovely post, and yes, the old folks did "get-on-with-it". My mum was a WRAC on field guns, she was a spotter identifying incoming aircraft. It was on her word whether they fired or not, especially when a Brit or American bomber was late or badly shot up after a night raid, because often it had a German bomber or fighter coming in on it's tail in stalk mode as was common practise. The idea being the Jerry couldn't be shot at whilst hidden behind an allied bomber. She couldn't leave her post, she had to stay same as the gunner-girls, but inevitably there were those that ran and hid. And, like she always said, who could blame them? The team covered for them, literally, but in most cases those girls had to be transferred from gunner duties. The strange thing, though, she never really talked about the bad things, and instead talked of good times like when she had 24 hour leave and would meet up with her brothers who were in the RAF! The funny things that happened, like nicking a few sugar cubes from a cafe's sugar pot and pocketing them. :)


Linda Gillard said...

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your memories and experiences and thanks also for your kind words about the post.

madwippitt said...

Excellent post.
My Mum and her brother were evacuees during WWII, but her father (my grandad) was in SOE. She was old enough to have very real worries about his safety, and when evacuated and out of contact with her mother too, nearly had a nervous breakdown: in the end she was sent back to be with her mum in London. He refused absolutely to talk of anything that happened in the war, other than the very occasional veiled comment: Mum never knew whether it was because of the official Secrets Act, or because he just couldn't bear to recall what he'd seen. Probably both.

Rosalie Warren said...

Linda, your book sounds wonderful. My father served as a rear gunner in WW2 and his attitude, then as now, was 'Get on with it; don't make a fuss.' My mother, who was a WAAF, was just the same. In some ways they were great examples, but thank God, at last, the mental scars of those who fight in wars, as well as those they leave behind, are beginning to be recognised.

Linda Gillard said...

Thanks, Rosalie. My dad was a gunner too! Mum was also a WAAF. She lost her fiance in the war and Dad's stoical attitude was coloured, I'm sure, by the fact that the guy next to him was killed by the bullets that only shattered Dad's leg. He was also sent to recuperate in Roehampton Hospital where once again he was "lucky". He had one working leg. Other men had none and some had lost arms as well. (It's perhaps not surprising that as a teenager I became obsessed with Wilfred Owen's poetry, especially the poem, DISABLED.)

Dad never complained about anything. He suffered terribly from "phantom leg" and the way he dealt with the pain was a cocktail of whisky and painkillers (which doctors said probably caused the stomach cancer from which he eventually died.)

One of his sayings irritated me as a child, but I see the truth and wisdom of it now. When I whinged about wanting something new, he'd say, "I used to wish I had a new pair of shoes until I met a man with no feet."

He must have met a few of those at Roehampton.

Karen said...

Linda you book sounds brilliant and well done for bringing attention to this. It's appalling that some many soldiers have committed suicide, we should be looking after our forces and their families better than this.

Linda Gillard said...

Thanks, Karen. I couldn't believe the statistics when I read them and assumed there was some mistake. So I checked and checked again (because I quote this in UNTYING THE KNOT.)

But actually we shouldn't be that surprised, because this is what has happened with Vietnam veterans. But I didn't know those stats either! So take a deep breath and read this (which I feature on my website): Penny Coleman, author & widow of a Vietnam vet wrote, "CBS News contacted the governments of all 50 states requesting their official records of death by suicide going back 12 years. They heard back from 45 of the 50. From the mountains of gathered information, they sifted out the suicides of those Americans who had served in the armed forces. What they discovered is that in 2005 alone - and remember, this is just in 45 states - there were at least 6,256 veteran suicides, 120 every week for a year and an average of 17 every day.”

17 a day!

Could I ask you all to do what you can to spread the message of UNTYING THE KNOT? These stats are out there in the public domain but people don't know them. (I didn't know them and I have a strong interest in mental health issues.) I thought a novel was a good way to get this info out there. (A Hollywood film would be better, but novels I can do.)

Thanks to you all for your interest. With my self-promo hat on, can I just say that, for all its dark subject matter, UTK is nevertheless an entertaining read and a lot of it is darkly - blackly - comic.