Followers of my blog will know that a little WW1 diary inspired two big novels, Louisa Elliott and Liam’s Story. Written a long time ago, yet recent comments and reviews tell me the characters are still touching people’s hearts. For any writer, that’s a delight, but it makes me deeply thankful to the man who inspired them both.
It’s thirty years since my first visit to Ypres in Belgium. On 20th Sept 1987, I brought my mother here to see her Uncle William’s name on the Menin Gate. It was the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Menin Road, in which the Australians were heavily involved.
Will, a York man who’d emigrated in 1913, was just one of almost 55,000 allied soldiers who lost their lives in the battles for Ypres, but have no known grave. Being there was a momentous occasion, not least because we were the first members of our family to visit the memorial. I’ve visited several times since with my husband, but this year, marking the centenary, was special. That our son was able to join us, made the visit even more poignant.
In a previous blog, “Poppies”, I’ve written about how poppies blowing by the wayside prompted my mother’s story of the man who inspired the novel. How he’d left York for a new life in Australia – and, after barely a year, enlisted with the 8th Battalion in August 1914.
Years later, when Will’s wartime diary came into my possession, I set forth on a research trail that revealed an extraordinary family history, and led to a series of strange coincidences which went on for almost a decade. One after another, like a series of clues in a treasure hunt.
Perhaps most important of all, were the people met ‘by chance’, all keen to help in my mission to discover the facts and write the books. The first novel, set in 1890s York and Dublin, took five years to write, but Louisa Elliott caught the imagination of the right agent; and, by another jaw-dropping coincidence, exactly the right publisher, Carmen Callil.
In the UK publishing world, Carmen Callil, an Australian, was already a legend. At the age of 34 she’d founded Virago, with books by, for, and about women, and ten years later, in 1982, became Chatto’s MD. I imagined my agent had contacted her direct, but it came out later that this was not the case. In August 1987, he was surprised to receive a call from her at the end of the working week, saying she was bored, everyone was out of town, and did he have anything for her to read?
Well, as a matter of fact he did. He sent her my manuscript.
That Carmen Callil loved the book and couldn’t wait to hear about the second, was breath-taking news. Suddenly, my first novel was leaping the hurdles like a racehorse, but I’d barely had time to think of the second. Yes, I knew the story, but how to tell it? That was the question.
At heart, it was the tale of an ordinary soldier’s experience of the worst war in modern history. My inspiration was a tiny WW1 diary, but the man who wrote it wasn’t a hero, he was the Aussie equivalent of Tommy Atkins, an ordinary man just struggling to survive. Fortunately, he wrote it down. Not emotionally, just factually – and for me, those facts spoke volumes.
Somehow his diary survived and made it home. Sadly, the real man didn’t. Knowing the demands of fiction, how was I to make his story into a novel?
Months before news of Louisa Elliott’s acceptance came my way, I’d booked, with my mother, to visit Ypres in the autumn. It was a small group tour which coincided with 20th September 1987. My intention was to pay heartfelt respects to the man who’d inspired my research and writing – the man who’d shown me the way forward, dropping all those clues along the way.
By the time September came around, our trip to Ypres had assumed even greater importance. We toured the former battlefields and visited cemeteries at Tyne Cot, Langemark, and the Australian memorial at Polygon Wood. Being there with my mother made it even more significant. Like poppies by the wayside, she’d sown the seeds of my interest when I was still a child.
That evening in 1987, we were present at the Menin Gate, to hear buglers of Ypres’ Volunteer Fire Brigade sound the Last Post at 8pm. It happens every night of the year, and – barring the years of WW2 – has done since the 1920s. Traffic is stopped, people gather to pay their respects, holding the silence while that moving ceremony takes place.
After laying our wreath – as I wrote in one of the blogs in my memoir: – ‘We had to leave; the coach was waiting. A few yards down the road, I turned to look back at that massive monument to the fallen – somehow more meaningful because it stood in the midst of a busy, bustling town. Just like York, I thought, the past marching side by side with the present… Suddenly there came a moment of dazzling clarity. In my mind, as clearly as if it had been written, I saw the new novel in its entirety: parallel lives; past and present running side by side; two wars, two sets of lovers, one pair destined never to be together, the other hoping to survive the present, hoping with love to overcome the tragedies of the past… It was like a blast of oxygen, banishing fatigue, lifting me like a feather…’
Thirty years later, at the Menin Gate with my husband and son by my side, I was thinking of that moment, still so clear in my mind. It fuelled the writing of Liam’s Story, a novel that has touched many hearts in the succeeding years, and continues to do so today.
And I thought of my mother, how pleased she would be that another generation was here, promising not to forget. Thinking of my daughter too, whose interest in WW1 was recently sparked by a horseshoe tie-pin, and a photo illustrating something that escaped us before. Will’s brother – my grandfather – was not a driver of motor vehicles, but the driver of horse-teams with the Royal Field Artillery. He too served in France and Flanders, from 1914-17, and was no doubt here in Ypres during that terrible battle for Passchendaele. Thankfully, he survived to have a family, and to keep the memory of his brother alive.
A century later, the memories and the respect go on, illustrated by the school parties we encountered while touring the battlefield cemeteries this year, and the numbers of people present each evening at the Menin Gate. Here, in Ypres, history is still alive. May it always be so.