What inspired you to write this book?
I had already attempted the family history. And although my father was often mentioned in accounts of military history, nobody had ever told the story of his wartime experiences at Pegasus Bridge and beyond. Certainly not his feelings; as far as I could possibly imagine them. The initial result was modest; just a short story about my family and my mother’s ability to cook wonderful apple pies. It was Kent after all. Just a few pages. No more than that but it was the necessary single step on a greater journey that has been moist-eyed, laugh-out-loud, exciting, cathartic, demanding and so revealing
What were the challenges of writing about your own family?
The first challenge was simply about writing. I had written academic research before but this was different. This was fiction. This required attendance at writing classes and the setting up of a writing group, plus hours of reading and reading and reading and thousands of words written just to find myself. And of course it was to be about my family; my parents, my brother and as I quickly discovered, a great deal about myself. Sometimes that was an uncomfortable realisation. And how do you cover an eighty year period of social change without the result feeling like a history book. And how much could I really tell about my own parents? Could I expose their strengths, their frailties, without being disloyal? And what is the truth anyway? And what are the deeper issues? What were their lives all about? What about the fortune or misfortune of being born at a certain time? Can I really understand the standards and attitudes of their time and understand, after seventy years, what their impact had been on me as a boy? Will my family ever talk to me again? Would Ted and Florrie be the same people I knew and loved at the end of all this? I realised very quickly that any opinions that I had and which I presumed were well determined were actually very fragile and elusive. Like shoals of little fish, one moment they were bright and silver and the next they would dart for the deep shadows. My pen on paper however left physical marks which I was forced to confront – they were staring me in the face – and they often took me to places which were dark and difficult. My father had been a war hero – no doubt about that – I had read the official military accounts, seen the film. He fitted the black and white war films of my 1950s childhood perfectly. Handsome, square jawed, resolute, prepared for sacrifice, defeating the nation’s enemies, steeped in glory. I even knew about the horror of war – in a remote sort of way – that was part of the package, although never expressed. But how had he really felt, this strong man, my father? Had he trembled with fear, wanted to hide, run away? Had he felt satisfaction at killing the enemy? These were powerful emotions for me to deal with. My mother, overwhelmed with joy on his return, quickly realised that she no longer knew the man who now inhabited his body and didn’t/couldn’t understand for nothing was spoken about in the buttoned -up culture of the time. But she coped, stood by him, even though she was excluded. So was she the strong one after all?
What kind of research did you have to carry out?
The technical challenge was to develop the historical background over eighty-plus years without the result feeling like a history book or a lecture (and resisting the temptation to put in every hard earned fact). This involved a lot of research both in reference books and on the Internet. I also visited specialist packaging collections and hop farms, looked at the architecture of the period, tracked down newspapers of the time, scoured family photograph albums, spent days on muddy allotments, visited football grounds, read reams of poetry, made many train journeys that Ted and Florrie would have made and also went to some of Ted’s army reunions in Normandy and Oxford. I also had the joy of discovering the actual letter written to Ted by his father in 1940. In all my research, I was determined to soak up the atmosphere, the sights, sounds and smells; to look for those golden nuggets of history and their personal lives that can say so much in so few words.
Ted was typically private about the trauma of war. How do you think men like him coped when they returned from battle? Has that changed today?
I had been with Ted to D-Day reunions in Normandy and watched him grow and change. Noted the respect – almost reverence – that people from across Europe gave him. It was like being with John Wayne. I also met many of his former comrades – men whose names I had grown up with. In many ways they were my heroes. How wonderful to have your own father as a hero. Many were disabled but together they had an irrepressible spirit and a sense of comradeship that would always bond them together. It was a bond like no other in their lives. For theirs had been a just war, a war that had saved Europe and beyond from an awful tyranny. They were proud of what they had achieved. Of course they were still sad at their losses and, importantly, so was their country because they really had all been in it together: civilians and military. Sink or swim. Maybe it was that acknowledgement that kept them sane, unlike the forgotten veterans of Korea and Vietnam and the divided issues of Iraq and Afghanistan still to come.
I had no idea how they were when they left the shining collective of each other and returned home but together they seemed outwardly to cope and without any apparent official help. With Ted and his lads, I was never aware of any counselling apart from what they offered amongst themselves, for they talked, to each other and to me, despite us being a generation apart because I had served with the Parachute Regiment and had therefore joined their elite band of brothers. But they did not often talk about it to anybody else. So did their families quietly and stoically put up with these damaged men behind the private net curtains of 1940s and 50s suburbia? Almost certainly. They were intensely private men and suffered for it.
At Pegasus Bridge, one of Ted’s comrades won the Military Medal and for many years afterwards never even told his wife. Would that be possible with today’s mass media? Probably not. Today, would the medal-winner still want to return to the security of their home, pull up the drawbridge and retreat from the public world? Quite possibly, and not only the soldier. It was evident that it took the formation of a choir to encourage the Army Wives to move from the intense but exclusive support and confines of an army base to the public gaze. And for everyone’s mutual benefit. Post Second World War, there were no choirs, no official support; so they returned, buttoned-up, unwilling or unable to talk about their experiences, and yet they seemed outwardly to manage. Ted’s comrades never ended up sleeping on the streets. Maybe they were more mentally and psychologically able. Stephen Ambrose (who also interviewed Ted) in his book Band of Brothers makes the point that the typical American airborne soldier came from the hard existence of life in 1930s USA and was used to taking orders. Certainly there and in the UK at that time, men might have had a poor and restricted upbringing but they also had the advantages of a solid family background unlike so many of today’s seemingly dysfunctional families. When you then add the inevitable trauma of war it is not surprising that today many crumble. Of course it might also be true that those who did crumble in the 40s and 50s were simply taken way and never spoken about.
How do you think society has changed its attitude towards the military?
Until recently, many mourners arrived at Royal Wootton Bassett to offer their respect for the fallen. Their actions were intuitive, silent, heartfelt and with a timeless dignity. They also had a positive impact on those still serving so far away. We have not forgotten you. We support you. Maybe it takes the actions of ordinary people, willing to display difficult feelings openly to allow servicemen and women to do the same. And not just serving servicemen and women. The pain and pride expressed via national media by the families of those who have fallen in current conflicts has a positive impact on everybody. There is now an acute understanding that these men and women are prepared to give their lives for their country. Whatever one’s political views that is an awesome thought. That must engender pride. That has made me search for my veteran’s badge, fix it to my best jacket lapel and walk just a bit taller.
What made you want to become a writer?
I now realise that I have been writing and storytelling all of my life. At school of course (well we all had to do that); as a teenager trying to understand the strange world around me through my own poetry (just angst); learning the dictionary and stumbling from A to somewhere in B (just learning); as a twenty year old paratrooper, describing the deserts of the Middle East (just letters home of course) and soon after, keeping a diary in the middle of a bloody conflict in Cyprus (just a record. A piece of history). Then married, telling stories in images by day as a graphic designer (just a job) and by night, trying to satisfy a small daughter’s voracious appetite for dinosaurs (just parental love). And then encouraging year after year of students at the University for the Creative Arts with well practised anecdotes (often much repeated. Did I ever tell you about…? (Just guiding)).
My going to a 1950s grammar school didn’t help, with its narrow academic direction but at least it opened my eyes and allowed me to read and read and read although sometimes I was fearful that it would be impossible to read everything in a single lifetime. A working life later came early retirement and the chance to step aside from the hurly burly, to look around, reflect and to join up all the dots. Of course. I want to…need to write. Always have. But what?
What effect did writing this book have on you?
I think that everybody should write about their family. So often our perceptions swill about inside our minds and it takes the act of placing words on paper or screen to focus them. Sometimes that act can come as a shock and a challenge as you stare at the words that have arrived from within you. Like aliens. I really learnt about my parents as far as that is ever possible. There were times when I feared for them, times when I laughed out loud – even after the umpteenth draft – times when I wept for them, times when I admired them and times when I raged in frustration. They had become real. And what about me? Why had I left the top ten per cent of a grammar school, well qualified, bound for university, coached for high office maybe and discovered Irish labourers on building sites instead. Why had I been so restless? Was I just rebellious? Why had I then joined the Parachute Regiment? To emulate my father? To severely test myself? To learn who I really was? For adventure? One hundred and twenty thousand words later I felt at last I had begun for the first time in my life to know them and also myself. Where I had come from, who I was – good and bad -how I had been affected by a World War that I could barely remember.
For the writer, there really is no hiding place.