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.

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