Archive | May 2018

Citizen Armies

To begin at the beginning, ‘Citizen Armies’ is the title of my 30th novel, which is the sequel to ‘Everybody’s Somebody’ and follows my heroine through World War 2. She is now in her forties, forty-three when the war begins and forty-nine when it ends, so she’s living in my lifetime (I was eight when the war began and 14 at the end of it) and she lives in the Borough, where the bombing was particularly fierce. But of course there’s a different story behind the title.

My first two books were given titles by my publisher – I didn’t know how to do titles then and sold them as Novel 1 and Novel 2 – but from then on titles tended to leap at me in unexpected places or as this one did, lurk in my memory. It’s been lurking for seventy two years so I reckoned it was time I used it.

The war was an experience that taught us to think about horrors and to face the fact that they were happening to millions of people. There were millions killed in air raids; millions gassed in the concentration camps because they were Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, communists or anybody Hitler didn’t like; millions on both sides killed in land and air battles, or at sea; millions ‘displaced’. And on top of that, millions of houses were destroyed – one million in London alone – and two cities in Japan were reduced to piles of radioactive rubble by the first atomic bombs. The implacable figures are endless. So on May 13th 1945, when it was finally over and we knew that the official announcement would come that day, we took off to our city centres and went crazy with relief. I was among the crowds in Whitehall and Trafalgar Square and remember it vividly, dancing the Hokey Cokey, singing the Lambeth Walk, paddling in the fountains, and cheering, cheering, on and on and on, until our voices grew husky. We stayed there for such a long time that when we finally decided we really ought to go home, the trams and buses had finished running and the Underground stations were closed down. So we had to walk and it took us the rest of the night. But who cared about that? The war was over.

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Wonders came in threes during the next few months. The second one came on July 26th, when the vote in the first General Election in ten years was finally announced and we discovered that although we hadn’t dared to hope that such a thing was possible, we had actually voted in a majority Labour Government and a revolution. The first bloodless revolution the country has ever known. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very Heaven.’

And then on June 8th we had an amazing Victory Parade in London. There were war leaders there naturally, and a long columns of war vehicles of every kind, and contingents from all three of the armed forces, men and women alike, but as well as the fighting troops there was another and very special section consisting of the Civil Defence workers who’d been out night after night and day after day rescuing the wounded during the air raids, wardens, ambulance drivers, fire men, heavy rescue teams, the WVS. They got a mighty cheer. And quite right too. It was well deserved.

The next day the papers reported it all in happy detail, with lots of pictures. But it was the headline in one paper that remained with me from then on because it was so apt. ‘CITIZEN ARMIES ON THE MARCH’ it said. And I thought what a splendid description it was because we were all citizens, conscripted men, civil defence workers, all the men and women who had voted in the new government, all the lot. So now I’m writing about the bravery of these citizens what better title could I choose? Respec’ Citizens!

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This entry was posted on May 24, 2018. 3 Comments

Tooting springs a few pleasant suprises

I had a treat last week. Well actually four or five treats, some of them expected, others out of the blue. Let me explain.

For a start my sister Carole came down to spend a weekend with me, which was a joy, even though we spent Sunday morning doing battle with a hideously difficult Sudoku – howls, groans, manic laughter and far too many new starts..

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Then on Monday morning she drove me back to her house to stay with her, which was another joy, as it always is, and on Tuesday I headed off to London where I had a productive and happy meeting with my agent, whom I like very much and then on to Tooting where I was going to give a talk to the Tooting Historical Society.

They’re a great group, the historical Tootingites and the talk was a lot of fun. I told local stories, which made them laugh and that set them off with stories and memories of their own, which made us all laugh and the time rushed by on roller skates. But they had two unexpected treats for me too.
Before I began the talk and while my audience was arriving, some of the people I’d met in the library last time came up to say hello, which was a happy way to start the evening off. And the fourth person who came towards me was an old school friend whom I’d known since the last months of 1944. It was wonderful to see her and hug her again and she was splendid in the audience because her presence there meant that there were two of us with slightly different views and memories of the school. She’d also brought a copy of the school photograph and there we were, looking so young and standing in among all the other classmates that we remembered. We rushed down Memory Lane together.

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And then, as if that weren’t treat enough, after the talk was over, lots more people came up to have a word. But that time we were bubbling, there’s no other word for it. And one of them inadvertently brought me my second surprise. The Chairman? Secretary? of the Tooting group, who is called Janet Smith and has become a real friend, told me his name, which is John Brown and explained that he was the leading light of the Streatham Historical Society, so naturally we talked about Streatham, which I know almost as well as I know Tooting, having lived there for twenty five years. At one point he asked whether I’d taught in Streatham and I told him I had and that my old darling had taught at Sunnyhill Primary School for thirty years.

‘Wait there,’ he said. ‘There are two men here tonight who were pupils there. You must meet them.’ And he went off to get them. And oh what memories they had. For a start they’d been taught by my old darling and remembered him fondly. Then they got on to the school nativity play that they’d been in. It was in the year that Hywel Bennett had played the recorder in the school orchestra instead of being one of the actors, which they said had surprised them when they thought about it afterwards, given what a good actor he’d become. I gave them another surprise by telling them I remembered that play very well because I’d written it.

I went back to Carole’s house, much later than I’d planned but as high as the Shard. What a great thing it can be to go back to your roots.

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This entry was posted on May 16, 2018. 4 Comments

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS. AN ADMIRABLE NOVEL AND A BUMMER OF A PLAY.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the way so many politicians say one thing and do another, and how often their actions contradict their words. They brag and bray about the wonderful things they are going to do for us – they’re very good at ‘jam tomorrow’ – and all the time, behind our backs and secretly, their actions are destructive and hurtful and often the exact reverse of the wonderful things they talk about. Words are all very well but ‘by their deeds shall ye know them’. But sometimes the words people use reveal more about what they think and believe than they realise. All of which has made me return to an excellent and entertaining novel.

It is called ‘Various Pets Alive and Dead’, is written by Marina Lewycha and, like all her books, is warm, quirky, perceptive and wonderfully funny. This one deals with a grown up family who were brought up in a commune which, according to them, was all high ideals and endless lentils, and are now earning their living in a variety of ways. Oolie-Anna, the youngest who has Down’s Syndrome, works in a factory and is often wildly and unintentionally funny; Clara her big sister is as socially aware and responsible as her parents and works in a run-down Primary School in a very poor district; big brother Serge, on the other hand, is aiming to be one of the moneyed elite and works in the City in a finance house called FATCA gambling with figures on the screen in front of him. He already has £1.21 million in a bank account and wants more. His boss, who is nicknamed Chicken, makes no secret of his philosophy. He spends a lot of his time in Downing Street. ‘trying to firm up the Government’s commitment to the role of the financial sector in the national economy’ and reminding the politicians ‘that what’s good for the banks is good for Britain.’ Sound familiar?

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He has open contempt for anyone who works but doesn’t make money for the financial sector. ‘They’re not productive,’ he says. By which he means, ‘Nobody’s making money out of them. Think – if it was all in the private sector. Schools. Universities, Prisons. Hospitals, Sheltered Housing. Residential homes. Think of the business opportunities.’ Sound familiar? This is the world we are all living in.

But of course it isn’t just millionaires and politicians who say one thing and do another. Lesser mortals do it too. We have a horrible example of it in Felpham. But to begin at the beginning.

Earlier this week Facebook reminded me that this Saturday is the second anniversary of a talk I gave in the Museum at Worthing. It was part of a ‘Blake evening’ and I was telling the story of Blake’s three years in Felpham and his trial for sedition. The audience was rather small but a few of them had come specifically to hear about Blake in Felpham, which was gratifying. The rest were self-styled poets who had come to read their poetry to one another, and a team of actors who had come to give a read-through of a new play about Blake’s death. The organiser thought very highly of this play because it had been given the seal of approval by the Chairman of the Blake Society, no less. I wondered how the playwright was going to make a drama out of a death that was so peaceful and joyous. Our Blake welcomed his death and died singing hymns because he believed he would ‘soon see Jesus’.

But sadly the playwright’s Blake was a very different character. He spent his time ranting about a ‘Tic’ that was plaguing him. Hmm! And Kate, who in real life was a gentle quiet woman, was portrayed as a 21st Century harridan, screaming and arguing with anyone who came her way. Hmm! And as if that weren’t bad enough, there were anachronistic mistakes at every turn. The worst was when a character who was apparently ‘an amalgam of John Linnard and William Hayley’ burst onto the death scene, screaming at Kate. ‘He’s ill. You must get a doctor. He needs a blood transfusion.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Hayley died seven years before Blake; poor people couldn’t afford to call a doctor until 1948; and blood transfusions didn’t come in until WW2. Treble Hmmm!

And who was the man who gave this appalling play his seal of approval? You may well ask. He certainly didn’t know much about Blake whoever he was. Well, it was none other than Tim Heath, the man who now ‘owns’ Blake’s cottage and spends his time and energy feeding pipe-dreams to the local press about how he’s going to erect a wonderful, million pound building in the garden of the cottage where he will encourage and foster ‘thousands of geniuses’. And the local papers lap it up while the cottage falls further and further into decay. His message is simple and familiar. ‘Pay no attention to what I’m doing – or in his case not doing – just listen to what I’m saying.’

What a world we live in!

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This entry was posted on May 6, 2018. 1 Comment