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.