A tale of two covers…

Left, the hardback cover; right, the paperback

This blog post was inspired by my Canadian cousin Cathy Brydon, who is related to me through my grandmother’s side of the family. After congratulating me on the paperback of Major Tom’s War, she asked, slightly ominously – ‘but – the cover – whatever has happened to Evie?’

What indeed. One minute my beloved grandmother is there on the hardback, clutching a rose, and the next, on the paperback edition, she has vanished.

Cover anxiety is a very real thing!

A cover exists to protect the book within, but should also to communicate the essence of the book to the reader. The original cover’s beautiful artwork is by the Canadian Sikh artist Keerat Kaur (www.keerat-kaur.com). Evie stands tall in her red cross uniform, offering a (highly symbolic) rose to Tom. He gazes down at her through rather spooky white spectacles.

We had a tight launch date for the hardback and the last editorial and cover choices had to be made at a bewildering speed. I remember seeing the final version for the first time at the book launch at the National Army Museum and it being a bit of a shock. The whole process had felt, understandably, rather rushed, and I was jittery (and authors very seldom love their covers at first, apparently).

The process of cover design had however begun months before, with a completely different concept – a bright red background with the silhouette of a horseman emerging from it, face on. It seemed oddly familar and yet I could not work out how. I posted it on the Women In the Arts Scotland Facebook Group and the answer soon came back – it looked (entirely coincidentally) very like the cover of this popular edition of Michael Morpurgo’s fabulous book War Horse.

The WIAS responses were divided in those early days on whether this similarity would be a good thing or not. Some thought the instant gut response – WWI! Cavalry! Man and horse! – was appropriate. I felt, probably a bit arrogantly, that I wanted the cover for Major Tom’s War to be unique, just like the book.

A word here about my extraordinary publishers, Kashi House (www.kashihouse.com). Their creative team had quickly come up with the initial Morpurgo-esque cover based on a photograph they had and some clever computer design. If I had just said yes to it – and I almost did – it would have saved them all time, stress and money. And yet, even though Parmjit Singh and his team were already operating beyond full stretch (setting up for their massively successful London exhibition, Empire of the Sikhs), they politely took on board everything I had said and scrapped the prototype. We started from scratch, and Parmjit commissioned Keerat to produce something far more original and memorable. Not just that, but they also added shiny copper lettering for the title – and a silky dust-jacket. Both hardback, and, now, the paperback, look – and feel – sensational.

As I mentioned above, Keerat’s initial design did not in fact have Evie on it – her figure was added in response to my feedback. Back in 2018 I had been anxious about going with Tom alone – would it alienate my female readers? Would it look like a work of non-fiction?

I have learned a lot about the process of bringing a book into existence over the past two years. I now understand that a book cover’s job is to make you want to pick it up/click on it and ideally take it home/order it, simple as that. We were trying to do a bit too much with the first edition cover – and that was my fault.

The paperback gave us the perfect chance for a rethink. No-one wanted to start from scratch, thank goodness – the hardback cover had built the foundations for the book’s identity well – but it was clear that shrinking it to fit the paperback would result in some detail being lost and would not work.

After Major Tom’s War won a prize at the SAHR Military History Fiction Awards, and several other reviewers had Said Nice Things about it, there was also the need to give space to some of those Nice Things Said on the paperback cover. Dame Penelope Keith DBE, DL wrote me a beautiful letter from which we quote just one compelling word on the front – ‘Unputdownable.’ This is also a subliminal suggestion of course – ‘please don’t put it back down – take it to the till instead!

When I realised we would have to lose Evie to make way for the Nice Things Said I thought the rose would have to go too – and that made me sad. As you will know if you have read it, roses crop up as a bit of a leitmotif in Major Tom’s War. The rose is also symbolic of the unlikely tenderness which blossomed between Tom and Evie. Designer Paul Smith (www.paulsmithdesign.com), who gave both editions their classy overall look and feel, cleverly isolated the rose and lifted it to the title above, allowing its petals to fall, and settle, on Daisy’s neck.

The single petal lying on Daisy’s neck, to me, symbolises all the horses who died or were injured in the Great War.

The beautiful SAHR prizewinner’s rosette, bottom left, matches the title colour and catches the eye – but sadly would not do so as much if set against Evie’s dark uniform.

Still pinching myself!

The spooky specs were a bit of a surprise at the book launch and were possibly the result of crossed wires between my desire to make Tom look more human and last-minute discussion with Keerat or Paul. Again views on the specs are divided: Daniel Scott at the book’s distributors, Allison & Busby, said he thought they might draw the eye and so attract sales.

Now you see them…

Others thought they were ghostly and offputting, myself included, and so Tom’s specs are less intimidating on the paperback. Who is right? Who knows?

…now you don’t.

The first paperback I lifted out of its nest of tissue paper (and stroked, crooned over and sniffed – come on, don’t we all with a new baby?) convinced me that the book is now, if not perfect, certainly as I had always imagined it. I think we have taken the right cover decisions – but of course only time – and future sales – will tell.

Enjoy the read – within whichever set of covers you have chosen. And thank you to Parmjit and Keerat and WIAS and Paul and Daniel and everyone else involved in the wild ride thus far 🙏🌹.

Major Tom’s War by Highland author Vee Walker will be out in paperback via all good booksellers from 19th November priced £9.99. It is already available as an e-reader edition and in hardback.

Vee will be signing advance copies of the paperback at Storehouse of Foulis near Dingwall from 11am to 3pm on Saturday 14 November 2020.

Remembering remembrance…

The poignant CWGC war graves of those British soldiers who died liberating the town (Bavay cemetery). They so nearly survived the war.

My earliest memory of Remembrance Sunday involves my mother at the wheel of her green Morris Traveller, a redoutable half-timbered vehicle, half car, half cupboard. We lived in Kirkhill then, it was Sunday and we were late for church in Fortrose and so she was driving faster than normal. We came round a bend and there, to our mutual horror, was the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the war memorial at Tore. Dignified veterans scattered as we unintentionally roared through the centre of the parade at precisely 11am. Mum was so mortified she wept – but she kept her foot and head hard down for fear of being recognised as a respected local teacher. ‘Oh, what would your grandpa have thought?’ she gasped.

This was over fifty years ago now. The road layout by the church has been changed to correct the blind bend, and the church is no longer even a church. Things change. Life has moved on and yet, at this grey time of year, as autumn crumbles into the cold earth of winter, we continue to remember those who have died as a result of war.

Evie, daughters Libba and Numpy my mother, Tom

The Armistice is commemorated with even greater solemnity in France than it is here. 11th November is a national holiday. In Bavay, a small town devastated by two world wars, children lay bouquets adorned with tricolor ribbons. The difference is invasion. Channel Islands apart, the UK did not suffer the agony and humiliation of military overthrow and control by a hostile foreign power. In France they remember the fallen but also the relief of a double liberation just 26 years apart.

Tom, my mother’s father, was in Bavay for the very end of the war. Even though he was then married, the last year of WWI was the hardest of all for him: he returned from convalescence after gassing to find his Indian cavalry brothers had all been sent to Mesopotamia. He was now an Assistant Provost Marshal (a military policeman) for a division and could not accompany them. He would never see his Indian cavalry friend Amar Singh or his right hand man Arjan Singh – or any of them – ever again.

The statue of Risaldar Major Amar Singh near Takkapur in Punjab, with my poppy cross.

During the retreat from the Somme in March 1918, Tom held back men fleeing in chaos at gunpoint and tried to stem the flood of desperate refugees. These scenes remained with him as recurring nightmares to the end of his life.

When the Armistice was announced on November 11th he was one of the first to know via a signal he then copied out by hand and distributed to the maires within the area.

Talking with the pupils of Amar Singh High School

How do I know this? Back in 2018 during my Armistice Day visit to Bavay, an elderly lady knocked on the door of the Auberge de Bellevue where I was staying. She was the grand-daughter of Gaston Derome, the maire of Bavay, who wrote my grandfather the thank you letter which led me to Bavay on the first place. She handed over a cardboard box. Inside were Gaston’s diaries.

Short of time before my departure I found the entry for 11th November. This paper fluttered out at his feet – and I bent and picked up Tom’s note to Gaston giving details of how the Armistice was to be conducted.

Gaston’s war as a civilian was arguably worse than Tom’s as a soldier. Widowed just before the war, and with four young children, he was arrested, threatened with execution more than once, imprisoned and interned.

Tom rode into Bavay on 7th November and the battle to liberate the little town lasted two days. A shell exploded at Gaston’s house, narrowly avoiding both Gaston and Tom. I have stood beside the door where it happened.

Tom’s name in Gaston’s cramped handwriting – a little misspelled but no doubt about it- appears under the words le prevôt maréchal – the provost marshal

In a way the writing of Major Tom’s War has been a personal journey of commemoration. I hope the paperback will soon reach the descendants of Amar Singh and Arjan Singh in India, and, one day, once the French translation is complete, of Gaston Derome in Bavay.

Over 74,000 Indian Army soldiers died in WWI. And of the 40 million casualties worldwide, 10 million were civilians. Lest we forget.

Vee Walker’s award-winning novel Major Tom’s War can be ordered now from the publishers Kashi House (www.kashihouse.com), Waterstones and Amazon RRP £9.99.

‘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

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 www.francoscottish.org.uk.

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.

DSCF2749

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.

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 http://www.majortomswar.com.

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

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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