The medieval hall of the Merchant Adventurers’ Guild in York has a wonderful crest above the entrance: God Give Us Good Adventure. That motto has always appealed to me, and with its echoes of trade and water-borne journeys from York, it seemed somehow appropriate for the launch of Liam’s Story.
Those connections echoed the modern part of the novel. Through seafaring and family ties, York and London are linked to Australia, Gallipoli and the Gulf War, concluding with the inspiration of Ypres and the Menin Gate.
On publication day in September 1991, publisher Carmen Callil, whose faith and energy had made so much possible, climbed on a chair to make a moving speech about time and place and the part played by Australians in WW1.
Referring to the real Liam’s origins in York, she said he was typical of so many young men of his time: men who’d travelled the world looking for a better life, only to find death on the battlefields of Gallipoli and Flanders and the Somme.
With Liam’s Story, she said, I’d healed the wounds and brought him home.
Those words brought a lump to my throat. It was such an emotional moment, I had difficulty finding my voice to respond.
Catching my husband’s smile, I took heart. He was here: he’d survived his own experience of war and become part of the story. Without his love and support – and, it must be said, without his absence while away at sea – my life as a writer might never have been.
I thought of Will, and the part he’d played; I looked at my daughter, and my son, and knew Will was here with us in every sense: he had indeed come home. I looked at my mother, whose memories and insights, repeated on those long-ago summer journeys across the Vale of York, had sowed the seeds – just like poppies by the wayside – of the novel we were celebrating now.
If I’d worried about Mum’s reaction, now she’d read the book, she understood: it was all about love. About love in its many different forms.
She came up to me as I stepped down, to slip her arm through mine. ‘Your Dad,’ she said softly, ‘would have been so proud…’
That was another emotional moment, with more to come next day. Seeing Will’s face looking out of bookshop windows was as strange as I’d imagined it would be, but not as I’d feared. Carmen was right: I’d brought him home. By a quirk of fate to the very street where he’d worked as a boy. Once, he’d helped to make books: now he was the subject of one, with his wartime portrait on the front.
The original photograph, given to me years ago by my grandmother, was framed above my desk; but for a moment I was fifteen again, back in Grandma’s house, squatting on my heels and gazing at that portrait for the very first time. Then it had been like coming face to face with someone I’d heard about and longed to meet, while in recent times I felt I’d come to know him intimately.
Will and I had travelled a long way together, and here in York it was time to say goodbye. That was hard, but in a sense we’d both fulfilled our promises. I’d done my best to understand what he’d been through, I’d gone the distance with him and recorded his story.
It had been the best adventure ever. Writing about the Elliott family, discovering the past and making links to the future, had brought me friends and even been my lifeline at times. The theme of love continuing, forging links through the generations, had been impressed upon me from the beginning.
In saying goodbye I looked back on ten years of odd coincidences and inexplicable events, gathering force as Liam’s Story came to its conclusion. They added up to one inescapable truth: