The gentle art of French translation…

…as shared with members of the Franco-Scottish Society of Scotland on the very first Major Tom’s War book tour last week!

Major Tom’s War takes place in seven different countries: India, England, Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Germany and (most of all) in France.

It is therefore natural to me to want to see a French edition published as soon as I can. This book is in many ways also a commemoration of the courage of those who came to be cruelly dubbed ‘les Boches du Nord’. The whole of the town of Bavay wants to read it – as do the many members of the venerable Franco-Scottish Society who came to our talks last week. France needs a symbolic hero for occupied France in the First World War. Gaston Derome provides just such a hero.

On this my first book tour I was accompanied by my friend and translator RK, an academic from Paris I have known for over 30 years. Together we travelled from Inverness to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow before returning to Inverness. Four lectures in four nights, with much discovery of these four fine cities in between plus warm welcomes and generous hospitality from the 100+ FSS members we encountered. For more information about FSS activities see

We learned to switch seamlessly between French and English and back again and found that the presentation evolved entertainingly as the tour progressed. Every audience was different and each drew something new out of us. It was both exhausting and exhilarating!

Many members, like Tom Wight from the Edinburgh branch, tried on ‘my’ Tom’s spectacles.

One issue agreed during our discussion is that Gaston Derome is in many ways the greater hero of Major Tom’s War. While Tom himself volunteers for active service, Gaston has no choice in his role as saviour of Allied soldiers and also of his own small community.’ Or rather he does have a choice and chooses not to betray them, at great personal risk.

In France most memories of the German occupation during the first war were swept away by the second. The few who did remember said the first greatly exceeded the second in terms of brutality. The term ‘Resistence’, we heard from RK barely existed in the first war and yet Gaston and his little town do resist the invaders for virtually the entire war.

Kashi House, publishers of the English language edition, have no network in France so I opted to retain the French language rights. I have been discussing publication with two French publishers so far and am optimistic of a French edition appearing sometime later this year.

It is likely to appear under the title Grande Guerre, Petits Destins, which reflects Gaston’s significance within the novel too.

There is still a little work to do revising the translated text – but a wee rest is in order first!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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


…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.


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?


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.


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.


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


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.



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?


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.


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.


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

Major Tom’s War: from the National Army Museum to Armistice 100

‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old…’

It’s a cliché to describe any moment in life as a whirlwind but it is also hard to think of a better expression for the last two hectic months.

The launch…

The eve of my grandparent’s 100th wedding anniversary seems much longer ago than September 20th 2018. I don’t think I will ever forget the moment when Parmjit Singh, my commissioning editor at Kashi House, proudly presented me with the First Edition of Major Tom’s War for the very first time, just minutes before the launch took place. About 100 friends and family members and – something I am having to become accustomed to – complete strangers came together to celebrate the end of an unusual book’s ten year journey towards publication. Jassa Ahuwalia made the whole thing so easy and I enjoyed the evening at the National Army Museum very much.

As I dropped off to sleep that night, my hand resting on the silky grey covers of my book, my actual, real, wonderful book, I thought, goodness, this is the best thing I have created since my two daughters. It was a moment of perfect happiness.

Of course in the cool light of day like any new mother I examined my offspring with anxiety, ready to seize on any tiny blemish, and of course there are small things which need to be tweaked and adjusted when this long and complex book moves into a second edition. This is after all a first novel not just for me, but for my gallant publishing team at Kashi House too. The reviews have been very enthusiastic and kind thus far and I will be forever grateful to all the pioneering readers who have invested in a First Edition and who can say, with pride, that they were among the very first to read Major Tom’s War. I am signing as many as I can – if you would like one, please get in touch via the website at

What happens next…

The book is here to stay. People are now reading it all over the world, with particularly intriguing early success in India. It is a heady and stressful sensation now the words which have been in my head for so long are out there taking on a life of their own. I know that people are longing to read it in France too but first we have to find a French publisher willing to take it on. Several irons in the fire there, so things are looking hopeful.

Bavay is a real place…

I have just returned from an extraordinary fortnight spent in France for the Armistice 100 commemorations. This was my fourth visit to the little Franco-Belgian border town of Bavay, home to the mayor Gaston Derome, one of the book’s main viewpoint characters, and also intimately connected with Tom Westmacott, my Indian Army cavalry officer and APM grandfather. I have made friends for life in Bavay, and all because one conscientious man wrote a thank you letter to another, and that other (with a little help from his wife) kept it. Whenever I walk across the Grande Place from Gaston’s Mairie to the deceptively saintly Queen Brunehaut’s column, I can hear horses’ hooves on cobbles, although no cobbles now remain.

My day job is as a museums and heritage consultant, and the town asked me over two years ago to create an eight-panel exhibition for them about Major Tom’s War for the Armistice 100 commemorations. I called it ‘Grande Guerre, Petits Destins’ (literally Great War, Small Lives) which may well be the title of the novel in its French edition, which we hope to see published soon.

I made the exhibition a comparative study of Tom and Gaston and in doing so realised that there were more similarities between these two mild-mannered men than I had at first thought. Both wore spectacles, both faced and triumphed over personal tragedy immediately before the war, both put their lives at risk for the sake of others, both believed more in the power of kindness than violence. Two ordinary men doing their best to survive extraordinary times.

The exhibition was attended by over 600 people in the seven days it was open, including classes from almost every local school, and is now the property of the town, for use in schools, libraries etc. Almost every child in Bavay now knows the name of Gaston Derome. Before I wrote Major Tom’s War, none of them did. Gaston is important to the book but also to France. His story of courage rehabilitates the WWI areas of occupation whose inhabitants are still sometimes cruelly nicknamed even within their own country as ‘les Boches du Nord’.

My cousin and sister and their families joined me at the end of my fortnight in Bavay to commemorate the 11th November, so all three of Tom’s surviving grandchildren were present. We also were most touched that the great-great-nephew of one of the dead buried in the cemetery came all the way from England by motorbike to pay his respects. My friends Loic and Martine came dressed in period costume, Loic as the priest-interpreter, Tom’s friend Luneau.

Bavay’s mighty procession, led by the town band, marched around the war memorials, the dignitaries wearing tricolor sashes and our family members wearing poppies, which are most coveted in France and should be sold there set off in the drizzle. We stopped at every war memorial in the town, including one to the resistance fighters of both wars, who have their own hymn. It all ended after an hour in Bavay’s bleak little cemetery, now bedecked with red, white and blue flowers as bouquet after bouquet and our own simple wooden poppy crosses were placed on the graves of the 12 men who lost their lives in Bavay either at the very beginning or in the last days of the war.

As we stood beside them, hoarse from repeated singing of the God Save the Queen, the Marseillaise and, in a touching tribute to Tom’s country of birth, the Indian National Anthem Jana Gana Mana, pondered on the lottery of war which meant that our grandfather came through the liberation of the town largely unscathed, while Kev Disspain’s great-great-uncle Clarence did not. Clarence Lionel Disspain was one of the ‘six men of the North Staffordshire Regiment’ Tom found dead, still warm, felled by a shell blast as they left the billet (in Gaston’s factory) which Tom himself was about to enter.

We were commemorating the end of a brutal war in a small town and in a small-scale way, not at one of the huge events at the Arc de Triomphe (where the lack of a high-ranking British politician or member of the Royal Family was noted with dismay) or Ypres or the Cenotaph. This was a conflict which derailed millions of small lives and it was good to stand there quietly, shoulder to shoulder with the ordinary townsfolk, as in the person of today’s mayor, Alain Frehaut, they said a genuine and heartfelt thank you for their liberation 100 years before.

And then we slaked our parched throats with champagne, and toasted ‘a la France, aux Allies, et a la Victoire’ – just as Tom did 100 years before.

In my next two blogs, I will be looking through Gaston Derome’s photograph album and following in the footsteps of Tom and the Indian Cavalry on the Western Front


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 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  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