LEST WE FORGET - by Dennis Hamley

Well, we've paid our respects, the Cenotaph is once again just a big stone in the middle of a busy road and our poppies are no longer in our buttonholes. But don't throw them away yet. They may be needed before next November. Because 2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, that act of gross stupidity which sentenced the world to seventy-five years of upheaval, dread and violent death. 'Wars are caused by the vanity of those who don't have to fight them.' Who said that? Read on to find out.

Anyway, I have my own way of marking the centenary.  Remembrance Day seems a good time to announce it.  In 2006 my novel Ellen's People was published in the UK by Walker Books and in the USA by Candlewick Press under the title Without Warning.  It, and its sequel, Divided Loyalties, didn't do as well as we hoped (how often have we heard that?) even though both were shortlisted for awards.  I now have the rights back. So, in 2014 it will appear on Kindle and later as a print edition as my own tribute to our grandparents, great-grandparents and even earlier generations who had to endure such monstrous folly.

I have Walker Books' permission to use the original cover. Great!

For many years I had wanted to write a novel about the First World War, the unreasoning cataclysm which marked the proper beginning of the twentieth century, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked its real ending, only to give way to yet more upheaval, dread and violent death. The Great War, as they hopefully called it, always had a firm hold on my imagination.   In spite of old people's family stories told when I was very young and uncomprehending it first really came alive for me through the poets – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Francis Letwidge (the conscience-stricken Irish Nationalist who knew he shouldn't be on the Somme when Pearsse and O'Connell were at the Dublin Post Office and 'a terrible beauty is born.' I once contemplated writing a novel about him), then through the great memoir writers - Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That, Edmund Blunden in Undertones of War, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

The works of scholarly historians followed, notably Barbara Tuchman with The Guns of August (absolutely brilliant book, later retitled, for some needless reason I can’t comprehend, August 1914) and The Zimmermann Telegram.  I also read, with varying degrees of satisfaction, the accounts by Martin Gilbert, John Terraine, Norman Stone and others whose names I can't remember. And then of course there was Lyn MacDonald, whose 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War, is a wonderful, resonant book. As is her The Roses of No Man's Land, the story of nursing in the Great War, which gave me the perfect answer to a disturbing factual problem which, if unsolved, would have ruined the novel's credibility.

Also I read the great novels – Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and, in our generation, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Sadly, I hadn't even heard then of Parade's End.  These really cowed me: how could I hope to write anything to approach their power and imaginative sense of actuality in the hecatombs of the trenches? I told my editor at the time, Pam Royds, about my ambition. She confirmed my thoughts. How could I compete with these? Who would read my book in such company? Discouraging words, the only ones she ever gave me. But I soon realised how wise they were. They made me realise that I had to find my own way through. 

I’d written a book set in 1914 already – Very Far From Here (Andre Deutsch) - about two boys in a south coast village thinking they’ve found German spies. The war here is always present but as something happening over the hill where the characters are not allowed to go. Later, I wrote Billy Warren: the Diary of a Young Soldier in World War 1 (Franklin Watts) for schools and later still a history of the First World War for children.  But none of them satisfied my ambition to write a long and serious novel trying to capture that long-ago experience of so many people.

Then I remembered Ellen, a 15-year-old girl in a failed short story written and discarded twenty years ago, watching the recruiting officers come to town in 1914 and taking her all-too-willing brother away. And I suddenly realised that though she hadn't worked in a short story she might well be strong enough to control a novel. After all, Vera Brittain's is the most complete and moving First World War testimony there is. Perhaps her example might be my way through.

But the seeds for Ellen’s Children/Without Warning had been planted many years before, though I didn’t know it at the time.  In 1981, when I was County English Adviser for Hertfordshire, the lady who ran the local Women’s Royal Voluntary Service asked me if I would judge a handwriting competition for old people who received the Meals-on-Wheels service. I told her that I was the very last person she should ask to judge anyone's handwriting, but I would judge a writing competition. I set the subject “Sweet Sixteen”, so they could write about their experiences at that age. Many of them were in their 80s and so they were sixteen during the war.  I received two accounts which stuck in my mind and wouldn’t go away.

The first was from a woman who was taken by her boyfriend to the Watford Palace Theatre to see the last performance on stage of Charlie Chaplin before he left for America and films. I don't, by the way, think that can be right: Chaplin was in the USA before the war started. It must have been another comedian. This doesn't invalidate her story. Her boyfriend left for France next day and she never saw him again. I wondered how many thousands of times that happened and it brought home to me the true magnitude of the loss of almost a whole generation.  Another told how she was a servant in a great house. The lady of the house refused to let the servants have a dance, even in the servants' quarters, for the soldiers from the nearby camp. However, she'd already welcomed the officers in. Angry at the unfairness, the servants went on strike, won and had their dance. When I read that, I realised that these were the very first cracks in the ceiling of the British class structure: after this nothing could ever be quite the same again, though it took many years for the cracks to widen further. I went on thinking about these accounts for years, knowing that one day I would use them, but it was a long time before the character of Ellen swam into my mind and I knew these same things were going to happen to her .

This isn't Downton. But it could be Ellen, Beatie, Enid, Cissie and Meg.

War fascinates me.  I hate and detest the very thought of it.  Colonel Cripps’s estimate of it, for he is the character in the novel who knows what he's talking about from bitter experience and who speaks the quotation in the first paragraph, is mine as well. Yet also I’m deeply interested in its technology and its tactics – I used to read a lot of military history. Of course, that might just have been the male obsession with large wheeled objects which make loud noises. The greatest piece of luck in my life was to be born when I was so that I didn’t have to fight in any war, though when I was doing National Service in the RAF in the 50s there was a nasty rumour that we would all be sent to Suez, that ridiculous fiasco which illustrates Colonel Cripps’s opinion perfectly.     

Humanity is seen at both its best and its worst in war.  Issues seem straightforward and emotions run high, which makes war fertile ground for any novelist. But it’s not just the soldiers who experience the war.  That’s why Ellen seemed such a natural character to follow: a girl who learns who she is, who grows half a lifetime in four years and lives at a higher level that she otherwise would, always surveying and thinking on what happens to her, a girl who is made by and almost defined by the war. A reviewer in the Observer said that Ellen had an “incongruously modern” viewpoint. I dispute this strongly. She has a natural, questioning, reasoning intelligence: she is not afraid to act bravely though inwardly she is fearful.  I found her growing under my hand into someone far more complex and satisfying than I had ever contemplated when I started writing.   I hope I don’t sound foolish when I say that I was half in love with my own character by the time the book was finished.  But that's what seems to happen to all my main female characters, poor things.

Photograph of British Army nurse (catalogue reference: INF 6/985)

This could be Ellen.  The injured man could be Matthias.
Who he? Read the book.

And this is something like where she might have worked, though less sedately than  this picture suggests.

When Ellen is safely republished, I'll reissue its sequel, Divided Loyalties, which is about the inter-war years and the Second World War. If I don't do it straight away I shall have to wait until 2039 and I might not be around then. Neither of course, might Kindle. And after that will come the completion of the trilogy. When? God knows. I've only written about a third of it. When Walker declined to publish it I lost heart somewhat - and besides, there are some knotty structural problems to solve.  But Kay has just insisted that it must be my priority, and of course she's right. So we shall see.

When this blog appears we shall be away in a place in which, I am assured, wi-fi is something of a wandering planet. I'll be able to see if it's come out OK but may not be able to write.  So if there are any comments I may not be able to answer them at once, though I will try. If I can't and if any are needed, I'll do them when we come back on the 20th, either on the blogspot or on Facebook.

Here are some reviews of Ellen's People (UK).

...A harrowing account not only of war's realities but also of the unthinking prejudices that breed the evils of unfair judgement and warmongering...it is also a book for reading on several levels - the way society used to operate: the mental anguish of a returned, badly wounded soldier: how former enemies can build bridges and the deeply ingrained resistance to be faced by the bridge-builders.   The Bookseller

This is a wonderfully crafted novel...Hamley does not hold back on the graphic description of the hellish moments experienced by each character, which creates such sympathy as you read an account of a pain you hope you never have to experience... highly appropriate to...anyone who wants to read a novel that keeps them hooked from the outset.   Writeaway

Reviews of Without Warning (USA) 

...Ellen's first-person, sometimes present-tense, narrative is terse, dramatic and never messagey, bringing close the struggles of class and feminism as well as prejudice and the hell of battle. There are unforgettable vignettes of conflict and bonding.     Booklist

This is an artfully written, layered novel that goes deeper than a lesson about the folly of war. It's about people standing up to the prejudices in a small town, people being good in the midst of so much bad and a young woman transcending the expectations of class and gender to find strength and truth, even if the truth is the understanding that 'one day everything we have just been through will start all over again.'
Kirkus Review


Bill Kirton said…
A powerful piece Dennis. And you're so right, despite the time that's elapsed and the millions of words that have been written about it, there are still lots of relevant things to be said about it all and definitely lessons to be learned. A couple of years back, we were on holiday with friends who have a place near St Tropez and one night went to a sort of cocktail party crawling with rich boat owners. The talk turned to WW1 (can't remember why) and I said that I didn't know what I'd have done if I'd been an 18 year old when it started. One of the women, whom I'd never met before, was absolutely certain that I'd have enlisted and when I pointed out that there'd been plenty of conscientious objectors, her disdainful reply was 'Oh yes, there are always a few cowards'.
Jan Needle said…
lovely, fascinating piece, dennis, thanks. incidentally an internet friend of mine, who is apparently a general in the nigerian army, says that if you send him your address he'll look after your house and valuables while you're away. an offer too good to refuse, methinks. love to you and kay. xx
julia jones said…
Really interesting piece and Ellen's People will certainly be something to look forward to in 2014.
That cover reminds me of "War Horse" without the horse - could be good for your book, if people associate the two?
glitter noir said…
I'd love for Ellen's People to be my intro to your work. Till it comes on Kindle, I'll scout around for another title that grabs me. There's a cool-sounding paperback...for just $299! Fascinating, and heartfelt, post, Dennis.
Lydia Bennet said…
lovely post Dennis, look forward to seeing your books. My play on Gallipolli should be relevant next year for that centenary I suppose. These really were World Wars, they touched the lives of so many people, there are so many stories still to be told. My great-uncle-in-law was wounded at the Somme, he lived, and limped, to 101. he told me some fascinating things. my maternal grandfather was in the trenches, he died when I was four, but I remember him vividly, it was years later I saw his photographs before and after the war, which he'd never talked about, and I could see in his face what it had done to him.
Kathleen Jones said…
Can't wait to read it Dennis!!

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