Friday, 7 December 2018

The War on Chastity -- and Vera Lynn's part in it


"When the lights go on again all over the world ...
Then we'll have time for things like wedding rings"
(from "When the Lights Go on Again" by Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus and Eddie Seiler, Warner/Chappell Music)

I'm still immersing myself daily (on my drive to work) in the wartime hits of Vera Lynn and absolutely loving my fantasy of giving a Stars in Their Eyes type performance one day. My 'set' is up to ten songs now, none of them the ones that Vera is most famous for, and some of them still have the power to reduce me to tears, which is tricky when driving. It used to be "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" that made me blub, but thoroughly learning a song, including the timing of the crisp consonants that Vera always includes at the ends of her words (she has such exquisite diction!), seems to neutralise the devastating power of the lyrics after a while. Currently it's "How Green Was My Valley" and the end of "That Lovely Week-end" that still have the pathos to draw my tears.
     Singing these marvellous songs over and over has made me focus on the lyrics and what the effect of them must have been when they were hits during World War II. Two in particular have made me think about the way the war speeded up changes in behaviour and hastened the dismantling of sexual restrictions that we more often associate with the Sixties.
     When I was writing my novel, Don't You Ever Cry, which is set in 1946, I watched as many Forties films as I could and a strong theme I noticed in several of them was a push-me-pull-you wavering of the morality around women's sexuality and agency (see, for example, My Reputation from 1946). The war effort needed women to step up into men's roles, to do the work that the men had done before they went off to fight which was liberating and empowering. There was also an accelerated social acceptance of the idea that Our Boys should enjoy the love (and sex) of a good woman when they were on leave, to fortify them for their return to the front. Both of those things represented rapid and disruptive changes to the social structures that were in place before the war (such as 'saving yourself' until you were married -- of course not everyone did by any means but that was the social standard). Yet at the same time women were still expected to be good wives and mothers, and once the war was over they had to be able to be corralled back into the home, so that the men could have their jobs back again. To put it crudely, they had to pull off the old Madonna/whore conundrum, an almost impossible challenge. However, some of Vera's songs offer a kind of primer in how to do it.
     I'm going to look closely at two song lyrics. I think they contained interesting messages to the women who first heard them.

First up is "That Lovely Week-end", written by Moira and Ted Heath and recorded by Vera in 1942. It's a narrative song in which Vera takes the part of a woman who has just spent the eponymous weekend with her soldier boyfriend. She's writing him a letter to thank him for "Those two days of heaven you helped me spend". Make no mistake, the song is about the fact that she slept with him during his weekend leave:

"To mark the occasion we went out to dine
Remember the laughter, the music, the wine..."
     Note that the one thing she doesn't mention is the food, which was probably not terribly nice, given rationing. The song continues:
"That drive in the taxi when midnight had flown
Then breakfast next morning, just we two alone."
     The lyrics can't touch on the sex itself, but they symbolise it by referring to the heady anticipation of a taxi ride back to the hotel and then with a jump over the intimate night-time hours to breakfast in their room. This is rather heady stuff.
     The song has already established that the woman's boyfriend is worth risking her reputation for. Not only is he sexy ("The thrill of your kiss as you stepped off the train"), he's also kind ("The smile in your eyes like the sun after rain"). The whole premise of sleeping with your man before marriage is that he has to be worth it and the woman has to trust his commitment to a shared future. She isn't fooling around.
     After the dreamy melody of the verse, there's a bridge with a much more urgent and anxious feel -- the tone changes, there's a kind of crisis in both the music and the lyrics:


"You had to go, the time was too short
We both had so much to say
Your kit to be packed, the train to be caught
Sorry I cried but I just felt that way."
     Emotions are running high, understandably. She has given herself to her man and now, at the point of greatest intimacy, they have to part almost immediately and the chap is heading into mortal danger. But then the melody of the verse returns to pour balm on their wounds:
"And now you have gone, dear, this letter I pen
My heart travels with you till we meet again
Keep smiling, my darling, and someday we'll spend
A lifetime as sweet as that lovely weekend."
     I like the echo of Vera's greatest hit, "We'll Meet Again", recorded three years earlier so already embedded in the national conscience. The song's great payoff is the promise that the "lovely weekend" is just a taster of the long and happy life the couple will spend together. It combines reassurance that one day the misery of the war will be over (though it would be another three long years before peace was declared) with justification of the decision to have sex before marriage -- don't worry, ladies, you're simply borrowing a little intimacy on credit from your expected lifetime with your man. No doubt in many cases this didn't turn out to be the case, but I think the lyric represents a pragmatic squaring of the circle of chastity vs sexual reward for "our boys".

The other song that seems to speak to the same anxiety -- and even more intimately -- is the wonderful "Room Five Hundred and Four" (lyrics by Eric Maschwitz, music by George Posford). It was written for Maschwitz's 1940 revue New Faces, which also gave us "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square". The sheet music above shows Judy Campbell, who was in the original cast. Vera Lynn recorded it in 1942, with Jay Wilbur and His Band. It's another narrative song in which a woman tells of a night spent with her lover in an expensive hotel. Unlike "That Lovely Week-end", the lyrics don't refer explicitly to wartime, but this story of one night in a hotel certainly fits in to the theme of squaring the circle of chastity vs the "gift of sex".

The first verse establishes the scene:
"Such a big hotel, a very grand one,
Right upon the avenue.
We could not afford it
But, Sweet, I just adored it,
My very first and only rendezvous"
     The modest bank balances of the pair are important to declare, so as not to alienate anyone listening -- this is an ordinary couple, just like you and me. The word "sweet", together with "sweetest" and "dearest", set the tone of non-threatening loveliness: this night of sex is going to be presented in as unthreatening manner as possible and, let's get this absolutely straight, our lady has never done anything like this before and never will again: her "first and only rendezvous". So don't go thinking she's some sort of loose woman.
     Let's go on to the next verse:
"In room five hundred and four,
So sweet a room, so strange and new,
It was romance, a dream come true
That perfect honeymoon alone with you
In room five hundred and four."
     The song is calling this a "honeymoon" but I don't think it's what we conventionally think of as a honeymoon, which is taken immediately after marriage. Rather, it's a kind of symbolic honeymoon -- as good as, a marker for the marriage that will surely follow. In this, it's exactly the same as "That Lovely Weekend" which looks forward to a "lifetime" together. Women were "allowed" to sleep with their boyfriend before marriage as long as they were fully committed to each other and intended to marry. In fact this get-around was socially sanctioned much longer ago than this -- in the 19th century the same quiet blind eye was turned to sex out of wedlock, as long as a couple were betrothed, certainly among the working class. But it was not alluded to in popular songs, as far as I know.
     The couple, no doubt by now anticipating their fast-approaching intimacy, go into their hotel room:

"We turned the key in the door
We hadn't dared to ask the price
That kind of thrill can't happen twice
And who could bargain over paradise
In room five hundred and four?"
     I love the line about bargaining over paradise, and the mention of a "thrill" is the raciest moment of the whole song. Let's not get overwrought, now! 

     Here comes the bridge:
"The lovely night, the starlight above,
The sleeping town below.
And in the dark you said, my love,
The dearest things I know."
     This is it, the actual bit where they, you know, do...it. In the dark. But the song veers away from passion and substitutes words in its place, the rather tame "dearest things I know". I feel this is part of the song's mission not to frighten the horses. The sexual act is like an empty space at the heart of the song, and the lyrics always look away from it rather than at it -- up at the stars, down at the town, at the room itself, which becomes a metaphor for what happens there. The subtext of the song is that a "nice" woman will understandably be nervous about going to a hotel with a man, even if it's the man she fully intends to spend the rest of her life with, and so she can take comfort in the pretty hotel room and the reassurance that her man will only talk to her, not anything physical and alarming. There's a twofold blurring of reality here, firstly the song sells the idea that sex is "sweet" and "dear", but, secondly, it also reinforces the idea that women won't be just as excited and passionate as men when it comes to sex. Mid-century mores are deeply embedded in this song.
     The final verse takes us forward in time and the woman looks back fondly on that night in Room 504:
"We don't live there any more,
But still in memory I adore
The sweetest room I ever saw,
A seventh heaven on the old fifth floor,
Our room five hundred and four."
     What strikes me here is the idea that the couple "lived" in the room. And this is underlined still further by it becoming "our room" in the last line. There's a sleight of hand that makes a single night in an anonymous hotel be part of the couple's "life together", a home. It isn't, but that's all part of the reassuring story which overlays rule-breaking sex with a veneer of photo-album sanctity.
     I love this song -- but it amuses me to dissect the have-your-cake-and-eat-it lyrics that gave women permission to sleep with their boyfriends at a time when no one knew if there would be a happy ever after.

If you'd like to read other posts relating to Don't You Ever Cry, my novel about love, sex and murder in 1946, which is currently on submission to literary agents, read "Vera Lynn -- One of the Boys" and "Going Back to 1946".

Friday, 12 October 2018

Vera Lynn: One of the boys?

Vera Lynn, the Forces' Sweetheart
I decided to give my true-crime novel set in 1946 a Vera Lynn song as its title before I had ever actually heard the song in question. The tune, "Don't You Ever Cry", features in the story because it's sung at a talent competition in 1940 by a character whose funeral opens the narrative. It struck me that the four words of the song's title had an intriguing ambiguity (is it an instruction or a question?) which could be applied to the book's narrator, Jean. Jean goes through a great deal of intense emotional upheaval and distress in the course of the novel but is at pains to hide her emotions -- in particular, not to cry. In a sense, the deeper business of the book is to explore why that is. What has happened to her in the past that has, to a degree, locked up her heart?

When I was fully into the writing, though, and really trying to get in touch with the period, I decided I must hear the song I'd named the book after. "Don't You Ever Cry" is fairly obscure as Vera Lynn's recordings go, but I was able to buy it on a double CD, Sincerely Yours, Vera Lynn. The song turned out to be wonderful, with a fabulous big-band arrangement (from Ambrose and his Orchestra) and in fact the whole album was an absolute revelation to me. Previously I had not really known Dame Vera's music, although she recorded many glorious belters that I know anyway, such as "Jealousy", the gorgeously passionate 1925 song by Jacob Gade with its tango rhythm -- this is the song that my Granny would always be banging out on the piano when I arrived at her house with my Mum and Dad and a package of fish and chips on almost every Saturday lunchtime of my whole childhood. You could hear her crashing through the chords and singing at the top of her voice before we even opened the front door of her small house in Darlington.
     I'd always thought that Vera Lynn's music would be rather stiff and clipped but I actually love her versions of the great standards. Her recording of "A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square" is perfect: clear, innocent but beautifully lilting -- you believe absolutely that she has fallen in love on a romantic Mayfair evening. And her rendition of the Inkspots' classic, "If I Didn't Care" is the best version of all those I've been able to find online. I even prefer it to the original. Vera adds just the right amount of yearning to lines such as '"Why do I lie awake all night and dream all day long?" -- I love the way her voice falls away on the long drawn-out 'lie'.
     The upshot of this new love affair with Vera's music has been that I've listened obsessively to my favourite tracks as I've driven to and from work over the last few weeks and I've now learned a short 'set' of songs which I belt out as I wait in the nightly jam on the motorway (Oh lord, shades of Granny!). I've tried to perfect all of Vera's diction and the places where she 'swerves' the notes a little (oh yes, she does, you know!). My set consists of "Don't You Ever Cry",
"If I Didn't Care", "A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square" and "When You Wish Upon A Star" in which I also have to sing the male part of Vera's duet with Jack Cooper. I'm not going to lie, now that I've got these four songs off pat I've started to indulge in a highly seductive fantasy where my novel is being launched at some ritzy venue and I come sashaying in in a long frock and perform the book's 'title song' into an old-fashioned microphone. Don't worry, it's only a fantasy -- I know my limitations.
As I listened over and over again to all the songs on my CD, something occurred to me that also had a bearing on my novel: Vera doesn't exclusively sing lyrics from a woman's point of view. Sometimes there's a degree of ambiguity, where it could be a woman or a man expressing their feelings and sometimes she definitely sing's a man's part. Take "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time", for instance:

“I’ll be with you in apple blossom time,
 I’ll be with you to change your name to mine.
 One day in May I’ll come and say,
 'Happy the bride the sun shines on today'.

 What a wonderful wedding there will be,
 What a wonderful day for you and me.
 Church bells will chime,
 You will be mine
 In apple blossom time”

There can be no doubt that the 'voice' of the lyrics is a man when he says he'll change his betrothed's name to his. 

And in "Don't You Ever Cry", the 'voice' of the song is clearly a soldier who has gone to war and who tells the girl he has left behind not to worry about him:


 "Don't you ever cry, don't ever shed a tear.   Don't you ever cry after I'm gone.  Promise me you'll smile, darling, all the while  We'll be back together later on.
  Don't you ever cry, don't ever worry, dear,  Soon each care will be a memory.  Tears are all in vain, we will love and laugh again  So don't you ever cry for me." 

Vera Lynn is and was so profoundly identified with the War effort that she was a highly effective propaganda weapon. Her radio broadcasts held the battered nation together and were a familiar voice from home for British troops overseas. Her lyrics repeat over and over again the longing for the war to be over, looking forward to the time when 'love and laughter' will start up again. She kept us going in a very real sense, I believe.
     I find it interesting that the role she plays in her songs' narratives could be relatively fluid and she could sing both to and as men and women. My gut feeling is that this may have been made more possible by the fact that she was a relatively plain, straightforward person who didn't go to great lengths to appear glamorous and ultra feminine. When Vera toured Burma to visit British troops in 1944, at no small risk to herself, the men were thrilled to see and meet her and treated her like a kind sister in whom they could confide their fears and hopes. She said they behaved towards her with great respect.

I've become more tuned in to fluidity between male and female roles since writing my novel. In it, the three main characters all find their gender identities under pressure for different reasons: in particular the two men's masculinity is undermined, one because of his sexual activity and the other because he can't conform to the rather rigid norms of masculinity expected by mid-twentieth-century British society for health reasons. Meanwhile Jean, the narrator, is forced to take on a role more usually played by men. It was very interesting to write. 
     I'm currently asking writers if they'll read my manuscript so that I can build up some endorsements with which to 'wow' prospective literary agents. I'm in this for the long haul so am taking all the time it takes to contact authors and beg them to read my manuscript. Understandably, a good few have declined, but I'm slowly amassing some precious positive comments. I want to find an agent who absolutely loves my novel and who will represent it with passion and I see this as part of the process.
     


Sunday, 19 August 2018

Lady Pigott's album

Lady Pigott's album (in front) and sketchbook, August 2018
David and I love going to auctions and bidding on job lots of stuff, mainly ceramics and glass. We take our boxes of heaped-up objects home and then really enjoy sorting through it to see what's of interest. Cleaning dusty old things until they sparkle again is very gratifying.
A couple of weeks ago I bought a box of bits and pieces because I had spied two interesting-looking books in it. They are both heavy, leather-bound albums, tooled in gold leaf. The dark-brown one has silk panels on the inside of the covers and a bookseller's sticker (above) from Carl Lehmann's shop in Gertruderstrasse, Berlin.
     The red book is a sketchbook. Most of the pages have been torn out or the sketches taken out of their mounts and only two pencil sketches remain, neither of very much interest. But the other book, a scrapbook of prints which has also had many items removed from it, still has lots of lovely things in it. Both belonged to Georgina Pigott. Her name is written in both of them in her own hand (the sketchbook has her signature in it twice (once her maiden name and once her married name -- helpfully!) and the scrapbook has an inscription in the same handwriting):
Inscription in the front of the album
A gift, then, from a friend. Mrs George Pollen was born Elizabeth Primrose Hall in 1797 and married George Pollen Boileau-Pollen in 1824. She died in 1873. But, more importantly, who was Lady Pigott? She turns out to have a fascinating background.
     She was born Georgina Anne Brummell on 8 August 1802 at Donnington Grove house in Berkshire. Donnington Grove is the most exquisite 'Strawberry Hill Gothic' house built in 1763, now a hotel. I would love to go and see what it's like inside. The Brummells moved there in 1783.
Donnington Grove house
The Brummell family were clearly wealthy, but they had come by their money in a very unusual way. Georgina's great grandfather, William Brummell (1709–1770) was a very ordinary man, but he had the good luck to be employed as a valet by Charles Monson, the MP for Lincoln in the mid 18th century. Proving to be a very good servant, by 1746 he was able to marry Jane Garrett. They lived in Mayfair on the corner of Bury Street and Jermyn Street. They had two sons – William (known as ‘Billy’, Georgina's grandfather) and Benjamin – and a daughter Mary. Occupying only the ground floor of their house, they let the floor above to Charles Jenkinson (1729–1808), the MP for Cockermouth, and he gave William’s son Billy a job as a clerk in his office when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Then Lord North took over the post in 1767 but kept Billy on as his private secretary, even when he became Prime Minister in 1770. By such a chain of events the family gained prestige and in 1769 Billy married Jane Richardson, the youngest daughter of the Keeper of the Lottery Office.
Lord Frederick North
Billy’s position as Private Secretary to the Prime Minister came with a grace-and-favour apartment in Hampton Court Palace. He and Jane had three children, Maria, William (Georgina's father, born in 1777) and George Bryan (born at No 10 Downing Street in 1778). He moved in smart circles and was friends with the playwright Richard Sheridan (1751-1816) and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds painted this portrait of Billy's sons, William and George, and it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783:
Georgina's father William Brummell (behind) and younger brother George by Sir Joshua Reynolds
In 1783 Billy bought Donnington Grove, near Newbury, Berkshire, but within a decade both he and Jane died within a year of each other, in 1793 and 1794 -- Billy's legacy was divided equally between his three children and in 1800 his eldest son William married Anne Daniell, who had been born in Cuddalore, India in 1778. Meanwhile Billy's other son, George, Georgina's uncle, was becoming one of the notorious figures in Regency England -- had you already guessed? Having gone to Eton and then to Oxford, he became known as 'Beau' Brummell for his peerless dandyism.
Beau Brummell by Robert Dighton
He is credited with revolutionising men's fashion by dressing in full-length trousers rather than breeches and stockings, setting a trend for tight-fitting jackets and, above all, for making elaborate cravats all the rage. He used his personality to overcome snobbery at his 'vulgar' family roots, rising to the heights of London society -- before tumbling all the way down again after being ruined by gambling debts and syphilis.
     It may have been to distance themselves from Beau Brummell's notoriety that his brother moved his family to Wivenhoe House near Colchester, Essex in 1811. By that date William and Anne had two daughters, Frances Amelia (1801-1862) and Georgina Anne (1802-1886). Georgina Anne is the owner of the album and sketchbook. In the sketchbook there's a page entitled 'Wivenhoe House Feb 10, 1841' but sadly the picture itself is missing. The house itself is no longer standing -- it was dismantled in about 1861 and the land divided into plots for around 80 houses, which now make up the centre of Wivenhoe. It shouldn't be confused with the Wivenhoe House that stands in the grounds of the University of Essex and is run as a hotel. If anyone is interested, this is a very interesting article about the various big houses in Wivenhoe. And Pat Marsden's other articles on Wivenhoe history have also been very helpful for this blogpost.
St Michael's, Berechurch, by Jonathan Greig, 1823
The first print in the album is local to Wivenhoe, it's headed 'Bere Church', but what must have been a village is now subsumed by Colchester. Perhaps this is somewhere the family liked to walk to from their home -- it looks as though there would have been a nice riverside walk to get there.
     Georgina got married in 1831, when she was 29 (relatively old for those days). She married a baronet, Thomas Pigott, and they lived at Denston Hall in Suffolk.
Denston Hall, Suffolk
 I think she may have passed her timing sticking prints into her album before she got married and started having children, because I've been able to date most of the prints to the 1810s and 1820s. Such as this print of the actress Elizabeth Billington.
Mrs Elizabeth Billington as St Cecilia, by Anthony Cardon, from a painting by Joshua Reynolds, 1812
Or this little print of my hometown, Richmond in Yorkshire. I wonder whether she went there?

Georgina seems to have shared the period's interest in exotic expeditions as there are a number of prints of 'primitive' peoples such as these 'Tunguse' priestesses:
I'm not particularly interested in engravings as a rule, but looking at this album it's hard not to be charmed and impressed by the beautifully delicate detail. Here are a few more:
I especially like this page of tiny engravings, which remind me of the miniatures made by Thomas Medland (1765-1833) for Peacock's Polite Repository. I only know about these because I had to look through them for a recent book on Humphry Repton that we published at work.

Here's one closer up:

I'm hazarding a guess that this picture, in such lovely colour, was painted in by Georgina herself:
I feel that something of Georgina's personality comes through the images she so carefully curated in her album. I haven't been able to find a picture of Georgina herself nor very much about her life. Georgina and Thomas had two children, as far as I know -- Charles Robert, born in 1835, and Mary Elizabeth, born in 1837. Unfortunately Georgina's husband Thomas died at the age of 50, in 1847, leaving Georgina with the children to bring up alone. She probably had enough money to live in comfort, though. She remarried in 1855, a John Frederick Baillie, who had gained Ley's Castle in Invernessshire through his previous marriage. I don't know if she ever lived in the castle -- I think there may have been some unhappy circumstances because John died in Flemings Hotel in Half Moon Street, Piccadilly in 1865 and it doesn't seem as though Georgina inherited anything from him. (Flemings is still a hotel!) She lived on into considerable old age and when she died at the age of 84 in 1886 she was living in Richmond, Surrey with her spinster daughter Mary Elizabeth. Georgina only left £652 so had perhaps had to eke out her savings all through her widowhood. Interestingly, even though she had left the Pigott family when she remarried, she was buried at Dullingham near Newmarket, where her nephew Christopher Pigott lived in the big house.
     I've saved the most interesting thing about the album until last. There is a photograph between two of the pages. Georgina lived largely before photography was invented and the photo clearly dates from much later, after Georgina's death:
I should say that the original photo has been scribbled on by a naughty child, so above is my slightly cleaned up version (via Photoshop). The original looks like this:
I believe I've worked out who is in the photo. Georgina's son Charles Robert married and had two children, a boy and a girl. The boy was Charles Berkeley Pigott, born in 1859. He married Fanny Ada Pigott (incidentally his cousin) in 1886 and they had two children, Florence Ada Cecile Pigott, born in 1890 and Berkeley Pigott, born in 1894. Charles Berkeley Pigott died prematurely, aged 38, leaving Fanny a widow with fairly young children, just as Georgina had been. I think this photo shows the widow Fanny with Florence and Charles at their home, 'Broadlands' in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, probably around 1905-8, to judge by the children's apparent ages. It looks as though they're having breakfast. Charles Berkeley Pigott never became a baronet, because he died before his father and the title is passed on at death. But the boy in the photo became the fourth Baronet Pigott when his grandfather (Georgina's son) died in 1911.
     I think the album must have stayed in the family for generations but finally found itself in a box of nothing very much in a provincial auction sale -- at least now that I've got it, I will extend its life a little further.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Going back to 1946 -- a work in progress

Celia Johnson and Cyril Raymond as Laura and Fred in Brief Encounter (1945)
Since just before Christmas last year, I've been researching and writing a novel. I've just finished my first polished draft, provisionally entitled Don't You Ever Cry. That title comes from a fairly obscure Vera Lynn song (even the original release date isn't certain, but it's from around 1940). It's a poignant song of longing and courage from wartime, and as the book goes on, the lyrics become increasingly relevant:

"Don't you ever cry, don't ever shed a tear. 
Don't you ever cry after I'm gone.
Promise me you'll smile, darling, all the while
We'll be back together later on.

Don't you ever cry, don't ever worry, dear,
Soon each care will be a memory.
Tears are all in vain, we will love and laugh again
So don't you ever cry for me."
     The song has a connection to a key sub-plot in the novel and here I need to explain how I came up with the idea for the book and how I've gone about writing it. 
     In 2016 I published a literary true-crime book, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane (Quercus), with the paperback edition coming out the following year. I'm very proud of this book and I feel I did the most thorough research possible, bringing all sorts of interesting connections and theories to bear and shedding light on the early years of forensic pathology and the treatment of sex crimes in the 19th century. However, sales of the book were modest and I think two reasons for this (apart from my not being a very well-known author) are, firstly, that true-crime, however literary, is still seen by many people as a 'grubby genre' (meaning also that it perhaps doesn't get reviewed as much), and, secondly, that the book's setting in Gateshead and the North East meant that, in other parts of the country, it was easy to dismiss it as a 'regional' book which would not be of interest to readers in London, Bristol, Birmingham or wherever. Frustrating on both counts. 


     However, I still love true crime, which I have read ever since reading In Cold Blood as a teenager, closely followed by the terrifying Helter Skelter. More recently, though, I've been reading around a very interesting sub-set of true crime, namely novels based on real crimes. I've read some brilliant books.

     The photo above shows some of these books and also some of the non-fiction crime books related to them (for instance, not many people are aware that Graeme Macrae Burnet's great book, His Bloody Project, is quite closely based on a book of essays edited by Michel Foucault, called, in translation, I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother... which is a study of a true crime in eighteenth-century France). Denise Mina's The Long Drop is an incredible re-telling of murder and corruption in 1950s Glasgow while Emma Flint's compassionate first novel takes us into 1960s New York. Perhaps the book I found the most moving, in this period of intensive reading, was Jayne Anne Phillips' 2014 novel, Quiet Dell, about the murder of a mother and her children in Chicago in 1931. The combination of my experience as a non-fiction true-crime author and of reading so many fantastic books inspired me to write up the new crime story that I had become obsessed with as fiction.
     I had come across an absolutely fascinating crime committed in 1946, so not long after the end of the War. The crime itself was a sensation at the time and I was able to glean a huge amount of detail about it from contemporary newspaper reports. But another aspect of the appeal of writing fiction is the freedom it allows you to speculate about the reasons why a crime was committed, which lie as much in the personalities of the people involved as in the cold facts. With this story, it seemed to me that the drivers towards murder lay in attitudes towards particular 'deviations' from conformity in English society during and immediately after the War and this was something I found absolutely compelling. I began to feel that I was breaking new ground with some of my material.

     So, to return to my title, Don't You Ever Cry. It comes from this newspaper cutting, from 1940:
     You'll see that I've blanked out the girl's real name. That's because I made a decision, quite early on, to change the names of the real people when I wrote about them in a fictionalised context. A huge amount of the book, of necessity, is speculation, and it didn't seem right to use real names when my characters might well be quite different from the reality. So, I make a strong disclaimer that the novel is "sparked by real events but is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
     In the novel, the young girl who was the only competitor in a talent context in 1940 is named Connie. The book opens with her funeral, six years later, as Connie very sadly died on August Bank Holiday 1946 while on a date with her kind-of-boyfriend, who I've named Harry Gates.
This is part of the report (again, I've blanked out Harry's original name):

     At the funeral Harry meets Connie's aunt, who I've named Jean Barker. He is 24 and she is 34, and married with a young child. Connie's death is tangential to the main direction of the novel which imagines the relationship that evolved between Harry and Jean with shocking consequences.
     In imagining the events that led inexorably to a murder, I kept to a 'real' timetable, even though this doesn't always need to be explicit in the book. But it means that, if Harry and Jean go to the cinema on a particular day, then they see a film that was actually showing nearby on that day in 1946. 


     They go to see Dulcie Gray and Eric Portman in the 1946 movie Wanted for Murder, which I have also watched and which turned out to have unsettling resonances with the story I was creating in the novel. I'm being careful, at this point, not to give away too much about the plot of the book, but I saw in the film something of the same attitudes towards non-conformity and 'difference' that underlie my story.
     The still from Brief Encounter at the very beginning of this post reflects the way that that film was also particularly relevant to my theme, with its detailed portrait of married life during the Forties. The film was released in 1945 and was a huge box-office success. My character, Jean, has seen the film twice and when she goes to the pictures with Harry, she very much hopes that they'll have a similarly happy experience there as Laura (Celia Johnson) does with Alec (Trevor Howard) in the film:
     But, for various reasons, it doesn't play out in quite the same way. In the past six months, I've watched at least 25 movies (both British and American) released in the UK in or just before 1946, as part of my research for the novel. It has been a wonderful experience and I've seen such interesting themes emerging. In particular, you can see how women were both offered various freedoms (freedom to work, during the War, and greater sexual freedom, for example) but then were either punished for taking what was offered (see, for instance, The Wicked Lady, biggest film of 1946) or 'voluntarily' gave up the new freedom for the sake of their children (see, appropriately enough, My Reputation with Barbara Stanwyck), or their marriage (Brief Encounter) or some other similarly value-laden part of the social structure.
Lady Barbara Skelton (Margaret Lockwood) gets a kick out of highway robbery in The Wicked Lady (1946)...

...but pays the ultimate price in the end.

Meanwhile Jessica (Barbara Stanwyck) is very turned on by Major Landis (George Brent) but her son comes first (My Reputation).
     This blog is intended in part to be a record of the research I did for my novel. As well as watching all those wonderful films (of which some of my favourites were The Postman Always Rings Twice, Wanted for Murder, Gaslight -- I watched both the original and the remake-- and The Spiral Staircase), I also researched radio programmes, so that, for example, when Jean, Harry and Ray, Jean's husband, sit and listen to The Barretts of Wimpole Street with Peggy Ashcroft and Gordon McLeod, it's because that was actually on the radio on that day in my timeline.
     I also researched the food that families ate in 1946 (when rationing became even more severe than it had been during the War. Bread went on ration in August 1946), going so far as to cook the recipe for turnip soup given in the October 1946 edition of Housewife magazine (on the hottest day of the year so far!).
Turnip soup made to the 1946 recipe in Housewife magazine -- quite tasty

     I researched interior design, clothes, hair styles, and popular books of the day too. One book in particular -- a pre-War crime novel re-issued as a green Penguin in 1946 -- became central to my plot. When I read it, I became convinced that 'my' characters had also read this book and that it had influenced the modus operandi of their own crime quite significantly. Jean and Harry's relish for crime novels and also Harry's unhealthy interest in recent real crimes around Bath and Bristol, where the novel is set, play an important part in the book. Again, I'm being rather coy about mentioning which novel is so key -- I don't want to give too much away at this stage.
     Finally, as my book is a first-person narrative (the story is told by Jean Barker), I've taken great care with the language I've used. The films I watched were very instructive in giving a flavour of how people spoke in the mid 1940s, but they were scripted and so I turned to Simon Garland's edited collection of entries from Mass-Observation diaries from the end of the war, Our Hidden Lives, to get a flavour of how people thought and wrote more naturally. It's a fantastic book, but the most notable thing about the diaries is that, perhaps surprisingly, the writers sound very much like we do -- not quaint or stiff or prudish, but almost the same as us. And it's that natural-sounding language I've really tried to achieve, although I also feel that someone reading a 'period novel' perhaps wants to see some pointers to the period in the language -- so there's a little of that too.
     Early in the novel, Jean and her husband Ray go to Paignton for their holidays (during which we start to find out about the particularities of their marriage). I found a postcard sent from Paignton during the actual week I had them go there, which made me very happy. It also told me what the weather was like, although I have also researched the weather in 1946 and into 1947 in some detail from other sources -- it was an exceptionally hard winter.
   

My book deals with the seamier side of life in the 1940s and I've assiduously researched that too (I have had my eyes opened as to what was available in the Forties) -- let's just say that Jean's husband Ray has certain 'proclivities' which cause havoc in the household. I have had to watch quite a lot of original 1940s 'stag movies' to see what was available at the time -- quite a lot, it turns out.
     This film-still gives just a flavour. The book explores how someone into transvestism and masochism at the time might have expressed themselves.
     The book explores themes of unconventional sexuality, disability (including pain that is deliberately sought out versus the pain caused by disability), the influence of mothers and upbringing on one's sexual development and ideas of privacy and exhibitionism.
     My focus, now, is to find a literary agent to represent me and to help me to find the perfect publisher for my novel. To finish, then, here's my imagined cover for the book -- this is something I like to do when I'm writing, to give myself something to focus on. If/when the book is published, the cover will be down to the publisher and no doubt will look nothing like this, but for now, this is what it looks like in my head. I hope I've made you want to read it.