A book not to be missed

The Skylark’s War by Hilary McKay

Roughly once a year I seem to come across a book that is utterly perfect and that I can’t stop talking about and recommending, often these seem to be books ostensibly published for children or young adults but that are so sublime they cross all boundaries. Last year that book was Sally Nicholl’s Things a Bright Girl Can Do and this year the book is The Skylark’s War by Hilary McKay.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of this book from Macmillan and I found myself totally unable to put the book down – I know that this is said a lot about books but I promise that in this case it is the absolute truth, I spent about 10 hours devouring this book from cover to cover on a recent Sunday.

It is a family book that covers roughly the first quarter of the twentieth century and touches on many of the social and political issues of the time but without ever being didactic or preachy. Our main characters are a brother and sister who live in almost neglect for various reasons, this goes mostly under the radar however because they are from a family of class with money.

The two are not the archetypal children who have adventures because they are orphans but the lack of parental support does allow them a lot of freedom in their home life plus idyllic summer holidays with grandparents by the seaside give a (mostly) bright spot in their lives.

As the story unfolds more characters are introduced to the plot – a cousin, and then another set of siblings met through school as well as a few adult mentor figures. All of these characters are as alive as Clarry and Peter and are people in their own right not mere ciphers or plot devices. The story moves sedately through the years (echoing the tedium of the siblings’ lives) until everything everywhere changes when war breaks out and then how it changes again with peace.

I am trying to keep this description vague because I hope that as others read this book they will fall in love with Clarry and Peter just as I did.

Although I have been immersed in all things WW1 for the past few years I did learn some new things from this book and while I did find one tiny plot strand a little bit stretched the rest of it was sublime and managed to get across a feel of both the Front and Home Front really well.

Clarry’s fight to be educated was also a strong theme through this book and in 2018 when we are commemorating both the end of WW1 and (some) women gaining the vote and stepping towards equality this was great to read.

This is a children’s book and as such isn’t as ‘full on’ about the war as people like Pat Barker write but I found the story to stand up to being read by an adult and I think that it will be a great read for different generations to share – I know that I’ll be recommending it to everyone.

You can reserve your copy on the Norfolk Library catalogue now, and the book was published yesterday (20th September 2018).

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A well read war

As a volunteer I have been helping research aspects of World War One that are to be included in the forthcoming Armistice: Legacy of the Great War in Norfolk exhibition and I have been drawn down all sorts of fascinating research paths.

As ever when I get interested in something I research far more information than is practical to share in a limited physical space but the Norfolkinww1 blog allows me to share this in longer form.

My main areas of research have been into agriculture, Conscientious Objectors and popular books and I have become fascinated by all three areas – much to my surprise with the agricultural research as I have the least green fingers around.

This piece will share some of my research into books and authors publishing during World War One. Continue reading

A Family WW1 Event at the Millennium Library

Sister Poppy Day

Nursing in World War One – a story, craft and heritage event for the whole family.

Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library

16th August 11am-2pm.

It has been a little while since we’ve told you about a World War One event at the Millennium Library but we think that this one makes the wait worthwhile.

Author Brenda Gostling and illustrator Mik Richardson will be in the library reading their wonderful picture book ‘Sister Poppy at the Front,’ and after this there will be the chance to make a poppy for our Poppy Project and to colour in a specially created picture featuring Sister Poppy.

Sister Poppy at the Front is based on research that Brenda has undertaken into her family’s history during WW1 as well as drawing on first hand nursing accounts from the Front and to bring this historical aspect to the fore we are pleased that representatives from the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum will also be in the library with some items from their own unique collections.

This event is a drop in session and is suitable for all ages. Copies of the book will be on sale during the day and Brenda and Mik will happily sign copies for you.

Sister Poppy is shown as a hare in this book and she is also part of the 2018 GoGoHares trail and can be found in Norwich Cathedral grounds – why not take a break from your hare hunting and join us in the library?

 

Play vs Film vs Novel

A new film version of R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End was released a couple of months ago and I was very keen to see it.

I saw the revival of the play in London’s West End back in 2011 and it remains one of the most profound experiences I have had in the theatre and so while I was very keen to see the new big screen version I was also a little nervous.

For once I needn’t have worried, in director Saul Dibb’s hand the claustrophobia, tension and fear came through wonderfully. While the action did leave the dugout, which it didn’t in the stage version I saw, this didn’t alter the feel of the film. You went on that journey with Stanhope, Osborne, Raleigh absolutely, from behind the lines to going over the top you were with the men completely. The claustrophobia, fear and futility all came through thanks to the incredible cinematography and music score.

Despite a pretty starry cast the actors very quickly became their characters and I didn’t notice any anachronisms at all. Some reviews have been sniffy about the comedy brought to the film with the character of Mason – the long-suffering cook/batman/soldier.  He has been called a pale imitation of Blackadder’s Baldrick which is absurd – the original material for Journey’s End was written in 1928 and so rather than Mason  it is of course Baldrick who is the copy.

The film added some background detail to Stanhope and Raleigh’s relationship which was new to me, both from seeing the play and then later reading the script. I did bristle slightly at this because it didn’t seem authentic – however the joke was completely on me…

I wasn’t aware that the 1928 play had been rewritten into a novel by Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett and this is where the details of Stanhope and Raleigh’s pre-war friendship, and the romance between Stanhope and Raleigh’s sister, are fleshed out. To be honest I am not sure that the film needed to make these things explicit – they were perfectly clear in the stage play but I’ll allow them some dramatic license!

All in all I found this to be a thoroughly overwhelming (in a good way) film. The immediacy and emotion of the play will always be my favourite way to experience Journey’s End but this is a film adaptation that hasn’t spoiled the original for me.

If you’d like to know more about RC Sherriff and Journey’s End then I recommend browsing through Roland Wales’ RC Sherriff…and more website. I am now saving up to see if I can make a trip to Belgium this autumn to see the MESH Theatre Company perform Journey’s End actually in Ypres.

In the meantime do try to catch this film on the big screen if you can, the DVD is due out in June.

WW1 on Stage – The Wipers Times

A review of the New Wolsey Theatre matinee performance, 9th November 2016

Official poster for the play

Official poster for the play

The Wipers Times is a new play (based the TV drama of the same name) created by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman and apart from calling it a wonderful watch putting into words what I saw on the stage is proving very difficult.

The original Wipers Time newspaper was the brainchild of two officers serving on the front-line who realised that perhaps the best way to survive the horrors of the war was to do so by making them comical.  Their newspaper was written and printed by men actually serving in the trenches rather than those sitting behind desks behind the lines or back in Blighty. It was a firm favourite with the men and and a thorn in the side of those officers bravely fighting the war from their desks a long way from any bombs…

The comic scenes of the men writing the articles (these would start by simply being read and turn into action scenes upstage or shown as full vaudeville acts) were interspersed with scenes from behind the lines in staff HQ, the men on leave in France and the bittersweet moments of home leave or letters.  Then there were also the scenes of the men in the trenches waiting for the big pushes – the Somme and 3rd Battle of Ypres for example.

I found the play managed to show the absurdities and horrors of war very effectively without ever feeling as if it was playing with my emotions, it was sad at times but overall very uplifting.

I’ve seen the play described as a cross between Blackadder Goes Forth and Oh! What a Lovely War but I did also see a hint of Journey’s End in there – it wasn’t all comedy.

Some of the lines, puns and jokes were terrible and were signposted a mile off but these weren’t necessarily the lines from Hislop and Newman and neither were the lines about press accuracy interestingly enough.

What I found the most interesting about this play however was how much the later World War One satires such as Blackadder owed to the Wipers Times even if this was unintentional and they knew nothing about the paper.

All of the original editions of the Wipers Times newspaper were reprinted in a facsimile edition and you can borrow this from Norfolk’s Libraries but I really do hope that this play will return to the stage soon – it has an important story to tell.

Book review

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of David Snell’s new book Sing To Silent Stones: Violet’s War recently after responding to a request for readers on Twitter. It sounded just up my street being sold as “a stunning historical debut from David Snell, based on his own family’s journey through the wars.

snell

It arrived with quite a thump as the book is over 500 pages long but once I’d started it I found it almost impossible to put down – even the recent successes of TeamGB competitors couldn’t drag my nose from the pages.

The story starts just after the First World War with a little boy playing in the snow, his world is about to be turned upside down as he discovers that the people he’s called mum and dad are just foster parents and that the newly appeared Violet is in fact his mother.

The main book then takes up back in time to just before the war and a sheltered young lady, and only daughter of a wealthy, snobbish business man falls in love with an unsuitable, lower class man.  Their actions on the day before Frank leaves for war reverberate through the rest of the book as Violet falls pregnant…

Whilst a fiction novel the story draws heavily on the family stories from both David and his wife; and I’m glad to know both of these things. The story is so details and well written that it felt real, I was almost convinced I was reading a biography at times but yet, just sometimes the plot becomes just a little too coincidental and I was worried that family stories had been embellished, and taken for real whereas  it was just narrative licence.

If I’m honest I did prefer the part of the book set during the First World War and just after, it felt more real than the bits from the 1930s but once I got to the end I realised that this build up was necessary to create atmosphere for the sequel – Frank’s Story which is published in 2017 and that I can’t wait to read!

 

Many thanks to the publisher for offering the chance to discover a great novel, the book is now published and copies can be reserved from Norfolk’s Libraries.

T E Lawrence and his legacy on stage pt. 1

Lawrence After Arabia, a new play by Howard Brenton

lawrence-after-arabia

T E Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, has been mythologized greatly since the end of WW1 and with the 100th anniversary of the Arab Revolt being marked 2016 seems to be ‘his’ year.

I was lucky enough to attend the second preview of this new play about Lawrence and I really enjoyed it.

While the play is actually set in the early 1920s a lot of the story is told in flash back and centres on Lawrence’s involvement with the aforementioned Arab Revolt.

The play itself was a simple story and although it imparted a lot of information about Arabia in WW1 I didn’t feel like I was attending a lecture and I thought that the foreshadowing of how events in 1916 still influence life in 2016 were very well handled.

Sadly the play has finished its run in London now, but I hope that it transfers or tours soon as I’d certainly like to see it again. The play script is available to buy and make a great read and of course there are plenty of books on Lawrence of Arabia published – many of which can be borrowed from Norfolk’s libraries.

Jack Laskey (T E Lawrence) and Khalid Laith (Prince Feisal) in Lawrence After Arabia by Howard Brenton @ Hampstead Theatre. Directed by John Dove.
©Tristram Kenton 05/16
tristram@tristramkenton.com