In the footsteps of Evie in Ross-on-Wye and Bridstow

This is the third and final instalment of my April 2019 Major Tom’s War book tour blog. We have already visited London and Worcestershire – now for a quick jaunt to Herefordshire. Please scroll back for the other stories!

View from near Westfield VAD Red Cross Hospital across the river

We have moved forward in time again, this time to the First World War and the actual period of the main action in Major Tom’s War. After the tragedy of Bessie’s early death in Bewdley, Edward and his five children (ranging from Maud at 12 down to Arthur at 4 in age) were moved, probably on compassionate grounds, away from the family turf in Bewdley to a completely new parish at Ross-on-Wye. Evie would still only have been seven or eight when she arrived in the town. Here the children were looked after by an elderly spinster cousin named Annie (Marianne) until Edward unexpectedly remarried parishioner Harriett Bernard. The town rectory where they all lived initially appears to have been demolished now – but otherwise the town is very much as it was.

Ross-on-Wye has a more open, airy, spacious and perhaps, then, healthy feel than Bewdley, with its cramped, dark streets. The silver Wye flows slowly beneath the long spans of the bridges: it is so easy to imagine Maud and Evie leaning over to drop pine cones into the water from above after market day.

The old covered market, still the heart of the town

St Mary’s Church, with its massive spire, is where, in Major Tom’s War, I set the wedding of Tom and Evie (I have been unable to find any marriage certificate for them anywhere thus far). Even if I find they married elsewhere (many wartime weddings were rather rushed jobs in London) Chapter 36, Double Vision, is staying as it is! There is little trace now of Edward’s tenure at St Mary’s as priest, not even a list of priests, and in fact as his Hereford Cathedral duties increased (as Arch-Deacon) he soon moved on to Bridstow Vicarage, and even more airy and open home.

Bridstow Vicarage

The Georgian vicarage at Bridstow perches on a hill-top looking back over the river to the town, a lovely site.

View from one of the main Vicarage reception rooms, possibly once the library

It has been beautifully restored and John and Sally Ward, the current owners, kindly invited us in for a look round when we timidly knocked on the door. There were little corners – outbuildings, a staircase in particular – and one area of the garden, now laid to lawn, where the vegetable patch once was, which felt very familiar.

Outbuildings, Bridstow Vicarage
Restored staircase, Bridstow Vicarage

Best of all was when our host and hostess opened a door to reveal this stunning Broadway piano. How Evie would have appreciated that!

St Bridget’s Bridstow, a lovely wee sleepy English church

Bridstow Church (St Bridget’s) over the other side of the river is where Edward must have preached on the day war broke out, where I have Evie (in the novel) sit and contemplate the futility of her life as the sunlight pierces the stained glass and catches motes of dust. I walked up the aisle and since no-one was about, sang a hymn or two. The old stones hummed back.

The nave, St Bridget’s

Once back in Ross-on-Wye itself we tried to find Westfield House, site of one of the two VAD hospitals in Ross-on-Wye during WWI in which Evie worked and eventually glimpsed it behind a door and wall right in the centre of the town. It looks like it has been extended and other, later buildings may have filled some of its grounds, but it is still a most healthy site overlooking the river, good for convalescent, weary men.

Westfield House, Ross-on-Wye

The location of the second VAD hospital, Caradoc Villa, has been identified by a local historian, but we only found this out that night at my book talk at Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye so did not have the opportunity to visit. Rossiter Books is rather a special place, far more than the sum of its parts. And how wonderful to hear of a bookshop which is actually expanding its number of branches rather than closing them!

Clearly seeking divine inspiration at the end of a long tour!

Andy Rossiter and his team made me most welcome and I so enjoyed the talk, as I did every leg of the tour.

Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye. Tom’s specs always enjoy finding a new face to try on!

I was fascinated to see that the same historian (who unfortunately was unable to attend that night) had found a fuzzy picture of a group of VAD nurses which actually included Evie. Even more than that one, however, I was thrilled by a picture she provided showing a nurse tending a patient’s arm in an orchard. Neither of these is Tom or Evie, but this is exactly the scene I imagined in Chapter 31, A Question and an Answer, where Tom and Evie share the joy of hearing a wren singing from a rosebush in the orchard.

If I knew the identity of the town’s historian who assembled these pictures, I would be able to say a proper thank you!
This picture of my own shows ‘Puff’ Maud Currey, Evie and Consie Allen sitting on the hospital steps at what I know now to be Caradoc Villa – see picture below for comparison

Well, what a lot I packed into ten long days away. Book tours are hard work but always so rewarding – this is my second. My greatest fear was to find that I had somehow made some kind of locational errors in the book once I visited the real places concerned, but that is not, thank goodness, the case. I am so grateful to all who bought books, to the Kashi House team for their support and encouragement, to Mark Walker and Eleanor Bird for providing me with accommodation and transport, and particularly to Charlie Welch, Kate Groenhelm, Mary Arden-Davis, Paul West, Sally and John Ward, Andy Rossiter and all the strangers who have become friends along the way.

If you have enjoyed this #longread, please follow this blog, comment and share it with others. You’ll find my website at http://www.majortomswar.com if you would like to get in touch. Thank you so much for joining me.

‘Welcome’ said my 3 x great grandfather…

Interrupting Bishop Henry Pepys’ sermon-writing

Part Two of the Major Tom’s War April 2019 book tour blog, in which we visit Hartlebury Castle, Bewdley, Ribbesford House and Hagley Hall. Can you smell something burning..?

Arriving at Hartlebury Castle, former seat of the Bishops of Worcester, including Bishop Henry Pepys

After all the excitement of the London leg of the book tour it was good to arrive in the Welsh Borders and then, with my friend and fellow author Eleanor Bird, meander up through the familiarly-named and yet unknown villages and towns in England where my family once lived.

We began with what my mother would have called a ‘spiffing’ afternoon tea at Hartlebury Castle, once the seat of the Bishops of Worcester. Hartlebury is connected to the ancestors of those you will encounter in Major Tom’s War. It is an ancient building, more of a sprawling, comfortable manor house than a fairy-tale castle. Its pretty arched windows give it a slightly curious expression, as though it is peering at its visitors as if to say ‘Now. Who do we have here?’

The reedy moat at Hartlebury Castle

It feels much more castle-like around the back where there is quite a drop to a proper moat, although I am not sure whether or not it ever surrounded the building completely.

Enjoying the terrific tea and scones!

It was lovely to be drinking tea from delicate tea-cups in a room where 250 years ago or so my family would have done so. Our hosts, Trustees Mary Arden-Davis and Paul West, encouraged us to explore the house which we did, albeit very quickly. As my ‘day job’ is in heritage interpretation I keep an eager eye out for innovations in the field. Imagine my disbelief and delight to be greeted by various members of my family as I made my way around the house. The Pepys family has been chosen as the interpretive medium, and they make a fine job of it. First, Maria Sullivan (3 x great grandmother) greeted me from a portrait in the entrance hall. She was a good fit for the family, dark hair, beautiful diction and a slightly disapproving expression. Then her husband, the affable Bishop Henry Pepys welcomed me from one in the drawing room next door. These talking portraits and the clever diorama further on were quite an experience for a genealogist!

I was especially touched to learn that these parents did not send their children away to school, not even Herbert their son, but had them educated with tutors at home instead. Perhaps as a Bishop Henry had concerns about the morality and harsh discipline of schools at the time.

The family is indirectly related to the London diarist Samuel Pepys (who had no children) but pronounces its name Pepiz not Peeps, allegedly because maiden ladies of the family did not like to be called Miss Peeps. Both parents are sorely tried (and frequently interrupted) by their younger daughter Emily, who left a delightful if brief diary of her life in the house in 1844 which has recently been republished. The original is on display upstairs in Emily’s bed-chamber.

Emily Pepys’s diary, a wonderful archive find (well done, Dee Cooper)
Emily Pepys up to mischief in her bed-chamber

I loved this juxtaposition of digital and historical storytelling. There is a wonderful upstairs room with a magic wardrobe which leads into Emily’s bedroom. I could have spent hours longer exploring.

The Great Hall at Hartlebury Castle

One room had more impact than any other. The Great Hall with its vaulted roof smelled strongly of smoke, so much so that I wondered if I would be able to speak in there if that were the location (it wasn’t – I was in cosier premises next door). My eyes and throat prickled with it. I also had a strong feeling that it should be much darker in colour with some kind of wooden panelling on the walls. It was all very odd but it was only later that I realised that this was the scene of the fire witnessed by Maria, Henry, Emily and my own 2 x great grandmother Maria Louisa Pepys. It could have killed them all and although Emily’s account is that of a gleeful ten year old, for older Louisa and her parents it must have been terrifying. Genetic memory or an over-fertile imagination? I certainly felt a lot easier when I was out of the Great Hall!

Bewdley Rectory

From lovely Hartlebury we travelled on to Bewdley, where the main street also provided an element of deja vu. In Major Tom’s War there is a sad chapter called ‘Losing Bessie’, where I visualise a seven-year-old Evie (my grandmother) peeping through the door of the rectory and looking out – at a slight angle – down a short driveway to the cobbled street, which had straw spread over it to cushion the wheels of the carriages and reduce noise. There was the rectory and there was the driveway and the gate, with a yew tree beside it to boot, all exactly as imagined.

Bewdley main street with church – it should be cobbled! In my head it was…

The church nearby had beautiful pastel stained glass and again it all felt strangely familiar, although I suspected it might have felt a good deal warmer than it had been in the days of my grandma.

Onwards to Ribbesford House this time, where we peeped through the barriers at what had once been the family stately home.

Ribbesford House (the back bit we couldn’t see from the gate)

A kind groundsman took some quick photographs around the exterior for us. Ribbesford was never much enjoyed by the Winnington-Ingrams: it was let in the late 1800s which is how Bessie came to meet her end at Bewdley Rectory, and not at Ribbesford itself. They were still the ‘squiresons’ – a strange combination of parson and squire.

Ribbesford was sold with little regret in 1900.

Hats off to the young entrepreneurs with deep pockets who have taken it on the house, who are converting it into luxury apartments while keeping the grounds intact. I wish them luck with their courageous investment!

The collapsed greenhouses of Ribbesford Walled Garden

Almost more interesting than the house, for all its turrets and 20 bedrooms, was the walled garden, now privately owned and in the process of being lovingly restored. There were espaliered fruit trees and Simon Gooding the owner is busily tracing the trees (old varieties like Fragonelle pear) and putting them back. I suspect it will be a labour of more than one lifetime but a restored walled garden like that could become a wonderful place to visit. I have sent Simon one of the remaining few copies of the 1810 Cookbook which I printed a reproduction of few years back. Jane Onslow, daughter of the Dean of Worcester, loved her food and collected recipes and remedies in a leather-bound notebook. This proves that the gardens grew apricots and peaches, melons and cucumbers: costly to grow, delicious to consume, all of which may be useful information for Simon.

Jane would soon become the redoubtable mother-in-law of Maria Louisa Pepys, who married one of the succession of Edward W-Is and who in turn gave birth to Edward Winnington-Ingram (the Arch-Deacon) who appears in Major Tom’s War.

I wonder what the relationship between Jane and Maria Louisa was like!

Ribbesford Church

Ribbesford Church, tucked around the corner from the big house, revealed some poignant corners, including stained glass windows commemorating both Bessie (knowing her story, her weeping angel was desperately moving) and Edward Winnington-Ingram, Evie’s parents. The windows were installed by all five children, a loving and respectful gesture.

Edward Winnington-Ingram’s memorial window, also erected by his children
Edward Winnington-Ingram with his children (clockwise from bottom left) Maud, Etty, Arthur, Evie, Tom Westmacott (my grandfather) and Teddy
Weeping angel detail, Elizabeth Winnington-Ingram (Bessie’s) window
Cross with calvary base and fleur-de-lys terminals

Against the back wall there was also an unexpected mediaeval fleur-de-lys stepped cross dating from about 1430, exactly the kind which are displayed in the restored mausoleum I worked on at Kirkmichael hundreds of miles to the north. No wonder they have always felt rather familiar!

Norman doorway, Ribbesford Church

Eleanor identified the carving over the Norman entrance doorway as Herefordshire School Romanesque. How did these designs in carving spread? We think of people staying put in the past but many clearly did not.

Hagley Hall

We ended this exploration with a flying visit to Hagley Hall, as Lady Lyttleton contributed one the the 1810 Cookbook recipes. We realised later that Emily marries her son and is buried in the church there, so that is why there is a connection. It was common for second or later sons to enter the church, and all these ecclesiastical families intermarried, understandably so, when the church for them was a seven day a week, 24 hour commitment. They can seldom have met anyone else.

At least it was a slight improvement on the intermarriage of cousins, also something of a habit in the family tree.

Imagine walking through this room and feeling that it was home. I touched the nose of the friendly plaster lion over the fireplace and wondered if one of my forebears had done the same…

Next – Part Three, With Evie in WWI – in Ross on Wye and Bridstow

Locked into Bishop Bonner’s Bathroom…

Libba my aunt, Ann my godmother and Numpy my mum, frequent visitors to Fulham Palace

MAJOR TOM’S WAR APRIL 2019 BOOK TOUR BLOG #1

Genealogists like myself are often the youngest of their generation. We have grown up looking backwards up the skirts of our elders, so to speak! It was therefore eerie for me this April to visit so many places my family has lived in before (many of which feature in my fact-dusted-with-fiction novel, Major Tom’s War). I found so many of them strangely familiar. In this three-part blog we will be visiting (1) Fulham Palace and the Cavalry and Guards Club in London, (2) Hartlebury Castle, Bewdley, Hagley Hall and Ribbesford House in Worcestershire and then (3) the little town of Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire and the village of Bridstow nearby.

This is part one.

Dear old Fulham Palace…

A photograph of Fulham Palace as it was in Uncle Arthur Bishop’s day

Was this simply a case of an empathetic nature and an over-active imagination? Or something stranger, some kind of genetic memory? I am still uncertain myself how it was that unfamiliar places could possibly feel so much like home on my book tour this April. See what you think!

My publisher Kashi House is based in London and I needed to have a meeting with them and with the book’s distributor, Allison and Busby. I thought ‘why not make the most of being south’ (I live in the Scottish Highlands) and the book tour expanded from there.

Stop One was at Fulham Palace of ‘dear old Fulham’ as referred to by my mother’s generation (in fact the phrase ‘dear old’ had to be excised from all over the text of Major Tom’s War by my editor), home during his Bishopric of my 2 x great uncle Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, younger brother of Edward, Evie’s father, who features in the book. Edward was the Arch-Deacon of Worcester but Arthur trumped this by becoming Bishop of London for almost 40 years. It is a comfortable sprawling Tudor building with Georgian and other additions, currently undergoing a Heritage Lottery funded restoration.

In the Tudor gateway of the walled garden at Fulham Palace. Heightwise I was made for Tudor times!

I was invited there by Kate Groenhelm (thanks again Kate!) to do a talk as a fundraising event for the Friends of Fulham Palace who have tremendous drive and vision. I had been there before fairly recently but even on that visit it still felt like coming home, ducking under the warm arched brick in the sunlight and into the courtyard where once a fountain would have played (in fact I missed the sound of the water – something was missing). It was peculiarly lovely to walk though into the walled garden, too, and to see beehives with new swarms, and blossom slathering the fruit trees.

I always carefully tailor my talks to their venue and audience, so integrating ‘dear old (sic) Uncle Arthur Bishop’ into the narrative was fascinating. I learned a lot myself. He had done great work as Bishop of Stepney but was a controversial Bishop of London – terrific at sports, achingly good-looking with a real chiselled jaw, and he knew it, consciously posing for the camera – but considered a gullible and lightweight establishment sycophant by some of his crueller contemporaries. He gave a particularly hideous sermon in 1915 which exhorted young men to join up and kill as many Germans as they could in order to save civilisation as they knew it. He must have been responsible for hundreds if not thousands of young Londoners becoming cannon-fodder. Hard to imagine him being nicknamed
‘Chuckles’ in his boyhood.

And yet, and yet. Hindsight is such an easy position to hold now. We know it as the 1914 – 1918 war. All they knew then was that it had begun in 1914 and had not ended at Christmas as they had believed it would. How must that have felt? Appalling postcards were arriving at home from the front showing cathedrals in ruins. Arthur must have thought that St Pauls could be next if the spread of Germany was not stopped. We can judge, but we were not there then.

The blood-curdling warmonger, Bishop Arthur, was also a deeply kind man and priest. He was unmarried (the story goes that he was once engaged, but she decided he was already wedded to the church!) but devoted to his young nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews and in the habit of taking in various odd and unsuitable waifs and strays to live in the vast palace, which also triggered criticism. My aunt and mother when tiny endured rather than enjoyed visits and got locked into Bishop Bonner’s bathroom. No-one heard their cries (the stuff of gothic horror) so my aunt courageously flung herself out of the window and into the rhododendrons beneath. My snivelling mother heard her wail off into the distance to get help. They were of course roundly scolded for Making a Fuss.

Many of those present mentioned the tremendous children’s parties he held at Fulham Palace – how we would love to find a photograph of one!

It was a thought-provoking discussion with the audience and such a memorable evening. I was particularly touched that some of my Winnington-Ingram cousins turned out to meet me at Fulham Palace: here is another Tom wearing his great-great-uncle’s specs.

My young cousin Tom Bartlett sports another Tom’s specs (Tom’s specs need their own blog!)
Gleaming brass plaque in front of the Cavalry and Guards Club

The following lunchtime I gave a short talk after a wonderful meal with the Central India Horse Association, held annually in the Cavalry and Guards Club.

Charlie Welch (in the apricot dress) and her family – three happy generations of close association with the Central India Horse

If only I had known of the existence of this fabulous group of cavalry descendants I would have found them so supportive while I was writing Major Tom’s War (a website has now just been launched and can be found at www.centralindiahorseassociation.co.uk ).

Charlie Welch (Honorary Secretary of the CIHA) addressing those present at the regimental luncheon – what a lovely meal and such nice people

Again, sitting at a long table decorated with flowers and polished regimental silver surrounded by charming people was like stepping back in time. A message of loyal support had been sent to Her Majesty the Queen who had reciprocated with a letter wishing us an enjoyable lunch.

Wherever I talk, I spend a lot of time explaining Tom’s presence in the Indian Cavalry at the beginning of a Great War. It was rather lovely to be among people who simply understood. The Indian Cavalry were a remarkable body of men of many faiths who fought for a colonial power, often to the death. Unlike the infantry which left the western front in 1915, the cavalry stayed almost until the bitter end, leaving for Mesopotamia only in March 1918.

The CIHA still has very strong links with India and many members visit annually. Thank you Charlie Welch and everyone else for making me so very welcome. I am looking forward to becoming an active CIHA member.

Whenever my back is turned, Tom’s specs find their way to another face!
Wonderful Bengal Lancer lead soldiers used to decorate our table

I had another odd moment of deja vu as I left the Club, walking into the entrance hall and thinking, ah, yes, there’s that statuette of Douglas Haig. I have never been there before, but when I looked more closely, it was indeed Earl Haig.

COMING NEXT: #2, Hartlebury Castle, Hagley Hall, Bewdley and Ribbesford House

Engaging schools in Major Tom’s War

Great school, great pupils!

My ‘day job’ for many years has been in engagement of people and especially young people in all aspects of heritage: natural, historical and cultural. What a delight to be invited to Avoch Primary School on the Black Isle to talk about Major Tom’s War to the P5, P6 and P7 classes.

Tom’s real-life diary on which the novel is based – more of a scrapbook really!

Out of curiosity I asked around about what others spoke to school classes about. Rats, lice and latrines in the trenches was the general advice (thanks Jeremy Banning and others) and certainly all three went down well, but I was also able to talk about punishment and execution with some classes, explaining how hard it was to command a firing squad for example, and we discussed the concept of a self-inflicted wound – a ‘blighty’ – which Tom talks about too – and how losing a hand might be preferable to remaining there and fighting.

It was clear that the staff of Avoch Primary have worked hard with the pupils during the Armistice commemorations to get across the magnitude and awfulness of war.

It was good to de-bunk a few commonly-held myths.

A. Not everyone died (one in 10/11 or thereabouts were killed, which is bad enough, though many injuries were mental and invisible)

B. In the trenches there was no constant firing (there wasn’t enough ammunition to allow this and there were long, depressing spells of inactivity)

C. It was not constantly muddy (on the contrary, in summer it became hot, dry and dusty and water supplies were an issue)

D. Not all the people who fought against Germany in the war were from Britain. Tom for example fought alongside many Indian troops of many different faiths: Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims for example

The pupils asked great questions (including ‘did Tom your grandfather meet Adolf Hitler?’ – not quite the error it seems at first, as Corporal Adolf Schiklgruber, who would go on to become Adolf Hitler in the Second war, was an undistinguished corporal during the First World War – but as far as I know Tom never encountered him).

Probably the highlight activity was trying on my pair of Tom-era glasses. Looking through those was quite sobering for the pupils who tried them on.

Peeping through these thick lenses helped the children realise that Tom was just an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances

Major Tom’s War is NOT a children’s book, but various bits of it could be read aloud. Parents who are interested in acquiring a copy should have a handout about this (with a discount offered if I don’t have to post it to you!).

Well done to all the classes and staff concerned, thank you to Mrs Goldie for arranging it and let’s just hope that these fabulous children live their lives without ever knowing the kind of warfare Tom experienced in France.

Merry Christmas and a happy and above all peace-full 2019 to all.

WARNING – if you have read Major Tom’s War these images may make you cry. Gaston Derome’s family photographs circa 1902 – 1914

‘Look closely and as the children build their sandcastles, the battleships are massing on the horizon line…’

Madame Catherine Telle, Gaston’s grand-daughter (Catherine’s father was Alphonse Derome, Gaston’s second child and elder son) kindly allowed me to copy photographs from her family photograph albums on a recent visit to Bavay.

Gaston loved technology and clearly adored to take photographs. They show a privileged, wealthy and happy family at leisure – so poignant when, as readers of Major Tom’s War will know, fate has other plans in store for Gaston, Louise and their four children.

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At heart the Derome family were farmers. Their agri-business, the Engrais Derome, was already seeing some success in the earliest years of the 20th century, but it was still rooted in the fertile family land in and around Bavay. This old lady (possibly Gaston’s mother) is feeding poultry.

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Beautiful Louise Derome has had her first child, a little girl, Thérèse. Note the wallpaper, the bassinet with lace hangings, the quilt, the beautiful bed and the vase of flowers.

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Gaston looks as thrilled as any father with his little firstborn. This would have been taken in the garden of their Rue des Juifs town house.

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Gaston breaking up ground, perhaps in his vegetable patch, much to the delight of a group of chicks.

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Louise and Thérèse enjoying a quiet moment on the daisy-studded lawn – possibly even a picnic in the woods.

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Gaston on horseback. And the horse’s name was…

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…unbelievably, Daisy. Why his horse A. has an English name and B. the same name as one of Tom’s horses history does not relate, but this is long before Tom and Gaston met.

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Louise (or is it their young English friend Watsie, the future ceramicist Dorothy Watson?) with Thérèse and baby Alphonse. Could it have been Watsie who named the horse Daisy?

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Rather a stilted family shot taken in Rue des Juifs – the wicker parasol over Madame Derome senior is rather splendid. Louise looks as though she is expecting again, probably her third child, Léon.

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Business is booming and a huge new factory is being built. This is likely to be the building used as a billet by troops of both sides during the war, and where Tom spends the nights of 7/8/9 November 1918.

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This photograph was taken near Volvic – was Louise perhaps taking the waters there after the birth of her third or fourth child?

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Another good portrait of Léonie, right, but the identity of the other two family ladies is not known. No Louise, unless she was taking the photograph.

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These photographs taken in the garden at Rue des Juifs show the younger children entertaining themselves but Thérèse is now clearly wearing black and the adults look sombre. Was this taken just after the funeral of Louise, who sadly died in childbirth?

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The clouds of war are gathering on the horizon. There is a sense of the family pulling together to take their children for a healthy seaside break on a windy day just before the calamity unfolds. Alphonse has scrambled up the wall, Léon following suit.

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The four children – Thérèse, another cousin, possibly little Marie-Félicie, Léon (on the sandcastle) and Alphonse face a rough incoming tide.

Beyond Gaston’s children and their cousins, battleships mass on the horizon.

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The following week, the First World War will begin and their little lives will be changed forever.

Turn the first page…

‘Closer inspection revealed… dark, surprising and tragic secrets, which provided the release I needed to begin again and write Major Tom’s War as a novel.’ 

My mother first showed me the fat, dog-eared, faded-pink album in the early 1970s. My grandfather’s First World War ‘diary’ looked like one of the family photograph albums I already loved to leaf through on rainy days because, like those, it had been made by my clever grandmother Evie, from card and cloth and glue.

Tom’s war diary is more of a large scrapbook really, into which Evie carefully assembled typed-up versions of his letters, photographs, cartoons (like the ones shown here) and other war-related material collected by him at random during 1914 – 1919.

As a child I looked only at the pictures of fine horses and alien, stiff, uniformed men with bristling moustaches. Deciphering the fading typescript and cramped annotations was beyond my capabilities then.

In 1975 or thereabouts an inspirational history teacher at my school, Fortrose Academy, John D. Campbell, legendary for his classroom digressions which were always even better than his lessons, introduced us to the First World War. Mum retrieved the diary from my aunt’s cupboard and I brought it into school, feeling a frisson of pride when John D. spent most of one class reading aloud from it. With fine joined-up thinking the English department of Fortrose Academy then gave us the War Poets: Sassoon and Brooke, Owen and (especially) Edward Thomas have been my companions through life ever since.

I found myself working for the Imperial War Museum in the mid-1980s and showed the diary to Phillip Powell the librarian there. He asked leave to copy a few unusual and shocking sections from it to the museum archives: these brief extracts have already appeared in a few non-fiction works on the Western Front.

I must add here that geneaology is a shared family passion and my sister Steph and cousin Pippa are the joint custodians of a great deal of family archive material.  When my own daughters began to study the First World War I remembered the diary and borrowed it back from Pippa to show them.

All this happened to coincide, for various dull reasons, with a convenient period of acute insomnia and so for something to do in the wee small hours, I began to transcribe the diary from beginning to end.

This soon became a compulsion which threatened to take over daily life. There was far more to the diary’s content than I had realised and this was almost certainly the first time that anyone had read all of it in detail (with the exception, probably, of Phillip Powell) since my grandmother had created it in 1919/1920. I also translated the documentation in French contained within, with a startling outcome (more on that in another blog). Action within the diary unfolds in England, India, Belgium and Germany as well as France and I caught my first glimpses of the many characters who will share your journey through the pages of Major Tom’s War.

There were also envelopes of letters. Reading these alongside the content of the diary made me realise that Evie had ever so slightly edited Tom’s stories, but why? Finding a stuck-down entry and steaming this top layer off to find a shocking story she had typed up then thought better of hidden underneath gave me the answer.

Once I had completed a version of the diary/letter content in Word for people to read, Pippa, Steph and I agreed that we should digitise our grandfather’s diary as a safeguard, which would allow its content to be easily read by future family members, historians and others. The result is http://www.majortomswar.com which combines the archive sources with complementary material on the book, including chapter notes.

I finally began to write Major Tom’s War as a work of non-fiction around 2009 but soon found that Tom’s voice alone was not enough to sustain it. I became immersed in work and family and gave up for a time. My grandmother’s voice in particular was missing, I felt, and I suspected either that her letters to Tom had all been lost in France; or, more likely, she had considered them of no interest to posterity and binned them.

About three years later the diary summoned me back. Sure enough, among a brown envelope full of loose letters and photos, I found a single surviving second page of a very different kind of letter from Tom which I have included in the book: an agonised crie de coeur at Evie’s rejection. Why?

Closer inspection of the diary itself and other archive documents began to yield some dark and tragic family secrets. This helped to provide the release I needed to begin again and write Major Tom’s War as a novel. It is a fact-based work only lightly dusted with fiction. Many of the words of Tom and others are used verbatim. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new genre, family history fiction?

Major Tom’s War was published by Kashi House in London on September 21st 2018 (no random date, but more on that another time), in a beautiful hardback first edition.

I must thank Parmjit Singh and his dedicated publishing team for taking on such an unusual project (and its eccentric author) and for being prepared to produce it against the clock during 2018, as a commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice, just as in had hoped.  If you need to purchase it online you can do so direct from them at http://www.KashiHouse.com.  As a non-profit publisher which is part of the UK Punjab Heritage Association they would really value your support.

Thank you for reading my first-ever blog.  Feedback and questions always most welcome. It will be good to have company at last, as the working life of an insomniac writer can often be a very solitary one.

Enjoy the read.

Vee  x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“He goes: I follow: no release                                                                                                     Until he ceases.  Then I also shall cease.”                                                                                   The Other, Edward Thomas