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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The War Letters of a Light Infantryman

When thinking of First World War writers of poetry and prose we often think of people such as Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Charles Blunden. However, Norfolk has a man who wrote letters home full of warmth, courage and humour to rival the finest of his generation.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James Edmund Henderson Neville (1897-1982), of the Neville family of Sloley, served in France and Russia during the Great War with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He wrote and received regular letters to and from his family at their home at Sloley Hall, not far from Worstead in north Norfolk.

In a book entitled The War Letters of a Light Infantryman, published in 1931, Neville recalls:

We are under fire. The only time I felt funny was at 6.30am on 17th…. The strafe lasted three quarters of an hour, we got no sleep all night, and I had a terrible shivery feeling and could not control the shaking.

This was in January 1916 in Bouzincourt, France. He and his friend Harry agreed they were shaking because of the cold.  Neither wanted to admit to feeling scared.

There were funnier moments:

The Hun always relieves the front line by day and saunters along with his hands in his pockets from post to post.  On the 18th (January, 1916) a party of them waved to us and invited us over for a beer.  They are never armed.  I simply longed to have a shot at some of them to pay off a few scores.

It was of course very cold.  Their accommodation was just a piece of canvas nailed to upright posts, not waterproof, with nails for hooks.  Mud was his constant companion.  Nevertheless, he says he enjoyed some of the marches through the woods at Fontaine-sur-Mer.  But at night:

The sky and inky trees were lit up every other second by yellow flashes coming from far away, yet not a single sound to disturb the stillness of the night.  And I realised that probably each one of those flashes might mean that some poor man, friend or foe, was being blown to bits.

The book is available at Norwich Heritage Centre at the Millennium Library in Norwich.  The Norfolk Record Office also has a short story written by Neville entitled ‘Boots and Shoes’ (Catalogue Reference: NEV 7/74, 589×9), accompanied by a rejection letter from a publisher in Edinburgh.

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First page of the short story: ‘Boots and Shoes’. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: NEV 7/74, 589×9

Told in the first person, the story tells of a murder, where the guilty party is identified by the gumboots he was wearing, rather than the brown canvas shoes of the author.

Rejection letter from Edinburgh publishers. Includes: '' Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry:

Rejection letter from Edinburgh publishers. The letter writer says the story is ‘well written’ but ‘too artificial’. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: NEV 7/74, 589×9

Neville finally made it home on 4 October 1919 by ship to Liverpool in the middle of a strike.  He says:

A good many hoots and jeers from the strikers though some people seemed pleased to see us. And we have eaten abnormally, making up for the bully beef and sardines we ate with a rusty penknife. The next thing is leave, aye, LEAVE!

Fact and Fiction meeting.

It Started With Cycling…

Author Tessa West has sent us this wonderful piece about how she went about the research for writing her World War One novel As Best We Can.

 

best we

 

It started with cycling. I’m keen on cycling and, having read a bit about military cyclists, I had begun to envision a novel about a character in a cycling battalion. It was a bonus to find that Suffolk (where I live) had such a battalion, so I didn’t have to invent one.  WW1 was not a key feature for me as I planned the book, but when I found that the Suffolk Battalion was founded in 1911, I decided to use its actual movements.

To begin with, I decided that my cyclist (who would have to be a man, unless I was going to write a very different story from the one I had in mind), would grow up in Bury St Edmunds. This local setting was important because my three other novels are set in East Anglia, and I wanted to sustain the interest of those many readers who have told me how much they enjoy this feature. I soon created a family around this man and began to get a feel for him and for his family members.

My narrative started in 1916, but although I was not sure how or when it would finish I was happy to start writing as I was confident that a suitable end would present itself.  The book began to take shape, and I soon saw that it was by no means the story of one man, but rather about the impact of war on each person in a family.

I realised at once that I needed a detailed knowledge of the geography of the area, of local affairs and issues, and about the Suffolk Cyclists. This meant researching in three directions. Firstly, I studied maps and visited places that had some particular use or relevance at the time of my story. I went to Elveden where Duleep Singh had lived, to Hawstead church, along the Lark. I read about the Ampton Military Hospital, troops arriving at Ingham station, about early tanks.

Secondly, I found an extremely helpful website which told me all about the 25th London Cyclists, which is the battalion into which the Suffolk Cyclists were eventually amalgamated as infantrymen.

Thirdly, I became a regular user of a microfiche in the Bury Records Office because I needed to work my way through numerous past copies of the Bury Free Press and its predecessors.

I enjoyed all three tasks, but it was the research into newspapers which gave me the best picture of what life was like in the war years: shock when Britain was attacked; the changing role of women; Zeppelins; reactions to conscription; the film “The Somme”; the lists and lists of the dead, the missing and the wounded.

But significant chunks of the story are told through letters from France and the North-West Frontier. I focused on the latter because the London Cyclists were involved in a situation there which few people know about. The word “war” only just stretches to encompass what happened both on the soggy Western Front as well as amongst terrain which became scorched and frozen in turn.

My fictional characters developed in the face of shortages of food and fuel, together with an overload of grief and loss, as well as getting on with their ordinary everyday lives.  I found them trying to cope “as best they could”.

I extended the time frame of the book to the end of 1921, as I wanted to include the Amritsar Massacre (which the Cyclists were very close to). I also had in mind a particular event in Suffolk, in November 1921, which would provide, I believed, a fitting end.

Writing “As Best We Can” caused me, as writing my others books did, to read, learn, think, feel and understand more about the human condition.  I’m hoping the book will find plenty of readers who enjoy this combination of an East Anglian setting, domestic family life in wartime, and letters home from two different theatres of war.

January 2015

For more information about Tess please visit her website, and As Best We Can is available to borrow from Norfolk’s libraries.

We hope to arrange a talk with Tessa during 2015 and would also love to feature reader reviews of her book on the blog so please do drop us a line (norfolkinworldwar1@gmail.com) or leave a comment below.