Great War Posts

An interview with Xan Brooks ( 5 June 2017)

(I interviewed film journalist Xan Brooks on his debut novel The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times for Bookwitty. It was published on 5 June 2017. Here is the text. ) 

Xan Brooks began his career as part of the founding editorial team at the Big Issue magazine, which is one of the UK’s leading social investment businesses. He then worked at the Guardian newspaper, first as a film editor and later as associate editor, before going freelance in 2015. He published his first novel in 2017, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times. He kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:

Your novel focuses sharply on the darker side of society in the 1920s. It’s so sinister and the plot line is devastating. How did this story come about?

In October 2014, my father recounted a conversation he’d had with his aunt, shortly before her death. She told him that, as a girl, she’d been transported to Epping Forest, outside London, to see (in her words) “the funny men from the war”. My father had the impression that she had never told this to anyone before and she seemed so traumatised by saying it that he didn’t feel he could press her on the details. The novel came out of that conversation. It was an attempt to understand what might have happened to her and why. I would stress that the whole thing is made-up. It’s fiction. It is emphatically not the story of my great-aunt (who I only met three or four times in my life). That said, this made-up story has a kernel of truth.

To create historical fiction did you have to research the period or not? For example the fabled Eye of Thoth Amon, Amulet in the 1920s and 30s, the time of the expeditions to Egypt…

Ideally, you conduct lots of research that you then wear very lightly. I should have spent longer preparing, but I was too eager to start writing. So I only researched for about two weeks (on 1920s Britain and the effects of World War One) and then would just check details as I went along (how much did a pint of beer cost in 1923? How fast would a car typically go?). I’m not sure I’d recommend this as the best approach. There are a few historical inaccuracies in the book and these (genuinely) keep me awake at night. With regards to the Eye of Thoth Amon – yes, the news at the time would have been full of Howard Carter and Tutankhamen. It seemed likely that a fraud like Uriah – the fake spiritualist – would have tried to capitalise on that public fascination by claiming to possess an ancient artifact of fabulous powers.

Did the research extend to getting the language and expressions accurate as far as possible or were you keen to make the story relevant to a modern reader?

That’s an interesting question. On reading back over the first draft of the book, I realised that some of the dialogue was too self-consciously antiquated, almost mytho-poetic, like a parody of how one imagines people would talk “in olden times”. On the second draft, I tried to loosen the speech, roughen its edges; make it more natural and easy – possibly more modern, although I’m not altogether convinced people spoke very differently one hundred years ago anyway. By and large, I trusted my ear. If some phrase or piece of slang sounded too modern, I’d take it out.

Commonplace names like “Uriah Smith” and “Lucy Marsh” are chilling. They lull you into an ease that is horribly shaken by the story. How did you achieve this outwardly placid tone of the story with its violent undercurrents?

I knew from the start that the tone would be crucial. The story is horrible. It’s a thing of darkness and cruelty and it also has a thick vein of operatic wildness, in that it contains masked monsters and flaky magicians and debauched house parties and fiery airplanes. The danger with such ingredients is that the tale risks overheating, becomes hysterical and ludicrous. I had a faint terror of the book turning out like a bad Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with lots of wafting dry ice and plastic foliage, masked dancers and anguished show-tunes. The best way to counter this threat was to downplay everything and observe the events very matter-of-factly, without fuss. Lucy’s perspective was crucial in this regard. She sees and questions but does not rush to judgment – partly because she is still establishing a moral framework to measure all these crimes against.

The Yellow Brick Road is meant to lead to something happy and comforting instead it is dark and twisted in your novel. Why develop a story dwelling on the nightmarish aspect to a beloved children’s tale The Wizard of Oz?

The yellow-brick road leads to The Wizard of Oz but, while not actively evil, the Wizard is a lie, an arrangement of smoke-and-mirrors, so there are some immediate parallels there. Plus I like the idea of false sanctuaries in fiction; the safe haven that isn’t. If the first half of the book is about the abuse and exploitation of childhood innocence, the second is about the gaining of wisdom, a coming to terms with an adult world that sustains and replenishes itself by exploiting the weak and the innocent. In a more traditional fairytale, the girl would survive the ordeals of terrifying forest to find a happy ending at the big house with the handsome prince. I liked the notion that the people in the big house are—at least tangentially—responsible for what has occurred in the forest. Instead of finding safety, Lucy finds herself behind the scenes at the sausage factory.

Trying to read this book, as a straightforward novel does not necessarily work although the opening pages are written in a classical manner. It’s only when one orients the mind to read the text as if it were a film camera in motion, focusing upon some details and panning out in others, that it becomes easier to engage with the story. Do you think being a film journalist has inadvertently affected your literary style of writing?

No doubt about it—but I think I’m only now realising the extent to which it has. I’ve never written a feature-length screenplay and have no desire to. That said, the story primarily came to me as a series of images and bursts of dialogue. I’m aware that I’ve framed it using what might be termed as the traditional tools of film grammar, with the occasional flashback and plenty of cutting between parallel story lines, especially during the opening half. I would stress that I didn’t want to write a sort of flat prose-blueprint for a movie. I wanted to write a novel filled with beautiful writing, interior monologues and shadowy mysteries. But I do recognise that the writing is very visual—and that this reveals my journalist background and my love of cinema. I basically saw and heard the book as I was writing it.

“Terrible things happen all the time and there is nothing to do but hope that whatever comes next will be brighter and better.” Is this what you hope to illustrate with your novel?

Well, that’s specifically Lucy’s feeling at a specific point of the book, when she is arguably at her lowest ebb. I think it’s a decent ethos so far as it goes, but it risks being a little passive—hoping for something better as opposed to actively taking steps to make it so. My opinion is that Lucy eventually does take those steps—although perhaps not entirely consciously—and that her situation improves as a result. But yes, terrible things happen all the time, there’s no arguing with that. Cruelty, abuse and hypocrisy are the constants in any era.

The use of masks by the “Happy Men” illustrates the historical fact of prosthetics being made for injured soldiers from tin and copper. Why did you decide to weave in this little-known aspect of the Great War into your story instead of just having a group of ordinary men?

Again, it goes back to my great-aunt’s account of what happened to her as a child. But it also nicely muddies the moral waters of the story. Yes, the children are the obvious victims. But then (without ever excusing their actions) you realise that the abusers are themselves victims. That they have been made into monsters, that they are cogs in the wheel of a wider, industrialised pattern of abuse. Hopefully the masks serve to make the abusers more frightening – and then more tragic too.

It’s set at the time immediately after the Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th century when there is a perceptible shift in how children are treated. Reading The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times today with the dreadfulness of the sexual abuse of children during the Great War is very disturbing. It is captured dramatically in the conversation between Lucy Marsh and her grandfather. Was this section difficult to write?

Yes, very. I felt it was important that Lucy confronts her grandfather directly about what he is doing. Except that then—in the way characters sometimes have of surprising you with their responses—it suddenly seemed equally important that he didn’t break down and plead for forgiveness. If anything, his primary emotion is irritation at being challenged by a child. Now, partly that’s a self-defense mechanism, him not wanting to admit any guilt. But it also says something about an admittedly fairly ill-educated, un-principled man of that era and class. One, children were often viewed as just a rung or two above livestock on the social scale. Two, evidence suggests that the war had this incredible desensitising effect on the people of Britain (and Germany, France etc.). So although he’s ashamed of his actions, he’s able to brush them aside, or explain them away. Would it have even been described as sexual abuse in those days? I suppose it would—assuming anybody bothered to investigate the crime and deliver a verdict. But would it have even reached that stage? Growing up in the 1980s, I vividly recall the way that sex abusers were typically referred to in jokey, derogatory terms, as though they were pathetic little clowns—with the implication being that the actual abuse was somehow pathetic and clownish, too; some dirty embarrassment that it was best to ignore. If that was how sexual abuse was presented in the 80s, I imagine it was even more easily dismissed in the 1920s. So long as the children came back alive at the end of each day, it was possible to avoid asking too many awkward questions.

Why did you make the leap from film journalism to novel writing?

Partly it was circumstantial. My job (which I loved) was being dismantled and I figured I’d better get out quick, before the situation got any worse. Thinking back on it now, this book came out of a very strange and stressful period. In the space of six months, we had a baby, my wife fell ill, my father suffered a stroke and my job came under threat. Also, we had no money. And so at some point you just find yourself living in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty; it becomes the water that you’re swimming in. So you think, “Forget trying to do the right thing, the sensible thing. Forget trying to play the percentages, because that clearly hasn’t worked out”. Writing a novel, then, could be seen as the equivalent of doubling down, of embracing the fear, of diving even deeper. And yes, that’s partly what it was. But it was also something I’d always wanted to try. I’ve always read voraciously and I love writing too. I loved writing features, news stories and reviews and am still able to earn money doing so. But writing a novel is a richer, more frightening, more exhilarating adventure. It was a wonderful experience. Everyone should try it.

How did you select the intriguing title: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times?

Actually, it was something my wife said. We were sitting in the living room, midway through writing the book, and she made this throwaway remark, which stuck in my head. I used it as the opening line of the chapter I was writing—but then we started thinking of it as a good, resonant working title for the whole book. I didn’t think it would survive because it’s too long and strange; I thought we’d certainly end up calling the book something else. But my publisher (Salt) either came around to the idea, or generously decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. Now, of course, I can’t imagine it being called anything else.

Who are the storytellers (in any form) who have influenced you?

I’m going to stick with novelists otherwise I’ll still be coming up with names in November. Off the top of my head and in no particular order: EL Doctorow, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Stone, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, John Steinbeck, Richmal Crompton, Stephen King, Nathanael West, Willa Cather, Denis Johnson, Bernard Malamud.

Xan Brooks The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times Salt Publishing, London, 2017. 
11 June 2017 

Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

Anthony DoerrAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is set in Sant Malo, France during the second world war. It is primarily about three people — Marie-Laure LeBlanc, her great-uncle Etienne and Werner Pfennig. An elegantly written story about conflict especially between the Nazis and French, what happens to lives of ordinary folk, the emergence of the French Resistance, how circumstances force people to explore their limits without overreaching and the importance of communication. The young and blind girl, Marie-Laure is brought to Sant Malo by her father from Paris. She learns the routes around town after exploring the miniature, true-to-scale, wooden structure her father recreates for her on their bedroom floor. Her great-uncle Etienne fought in the Great War, but ever since was too shell shocked to venture outside. Yet he would every evening go to the attic in his house and from there using an amateur radio set up transmit recordings he had made with his brother explaining science. Etienne had been doing it for years. Unknown to him the radio waves could be caught as far as Germany, where two young orphans — Werner and his sister would wait for them every day. Years later, Werner Pfenning was sent by the Nazis to France to locate illegal radios and other modes of communication.

All the Light We Cannot See is a novel that is placed in a physical and real world, rather than relying upon emotions to propel the story forward. It is a story that has been a decade in the making and as Anthony Doerr says “he is something of a magpie”, when it comes to tell a story. ( Martha Schulman “How the Story Comes Together: Anthony Doerr”. 11 April 2014  http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/61823-how-the-story-comes-together-anthony-doerr.html ) Over 1 million copies of the book have been printed so far and it continues to sell. Understandably it has been longlisted for the 2015 NBA longlist. As historical fiction goes, this is an immensely readable book, believable too to some extent except when one comes across tiny slips such as Etienne boasting to Marie-Laure about his eleven radios. ” I can hear ships at sea. Madrid. Brazil. London. I heard Pakistan once. Here at the edge of the city, so high in the house, we get superb reception.” ( p.135) This is said in section three, set in June 1940. Pakistan did not come into existence till August 1947. Faux pax like this leave you wondering about how accurate are all the other details in the book, yet you cannot help but appreciate the story for what it is. A fine blend of history, politics and science with a sensitive account of three people who are marginalised by society and yet in a curious way come together, joined by technology of 1940s– a blind girl, a terrified old veteran and an orphan boy. Not an unfamiliar concept in the twenty-first century, is it?

A book worth reading.

Anthony Doerr All the Light We Cannot See Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , 2014. Pb. pp.540 Rs 899 

Sarah Waters, “The Paying Guests”

Sarah Waters, “The Paying Guests”

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests“…men never do want women to do the things they want to do themselves, have you noticed?” 

( p.80)

The Paying Guests is Sarah Water’s sixth novel. It is about a middle class family, the Wrays — a mother and daughter, Frances— who have fallen upon hard times and are forced to taken in lodgers or as they would prefer to call them “paying guests”. Mrs Wray is pained when her daughter refers to themselves now as landladies. The story is set in the inter-war years, so the Wray household like many others around them have lost their two sons in the Great War, and soon after the war, Mr Wray passed away, leaving a mountain of bad debts. Mrs Wray continues to manage her life, a pale semblance of what she was used to but her young twenty-six-year old daughter has no qualms behaving like a char woman, if required, to maintain the house and manage expenses. All though Frances had begun to recognise “the look very well–she was bored to death with it, in fact–because she had seen it many times before: on the faces of neighbours, of tradesmen, and of her mother’s friends, all of whom had got themselves through the worst war in human history yet seemed unable for some reason to cope with the sight of a well-bred woman doing the work of a char.” ( p.25) The young couple who arrive are Lilian and Leonard Barber are obviously from a different social class ( “Len said you’d think them common”), but have the means to pay the weekly rent ( “fifty-eight shillings for two weeks”). Mr Barber is described as having a “clerkly neatness of him”. Mrs Barber on the other hand is “all warm colour and curve. How well she filled her own skin! She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle.”

The story moves at a leisurely trot. There is a very slow build up to the crux of the plot– the love affair between Lilian and Frances. But once there the novelist focuses upon these two character, shutting out all other interactions and references to the outside world, save for the occasional visits by the butcher boy, fishmonger, milkman and news headlines from The Times. Then suddenly the outside world is very present in the story, with a murder, police investigation, media reports, a courtroom drama as the story develops into a murder investigation with many unexpected twists and turns.

The Paying Guests is a wandering and an exploration of women’s lives, what it means to be a lesbian in 1922 when it was barely discussed or even acknowledged openly. The empowerment of women was happening in small ways, the Suffragete movement had happened, at the Wray house such as “Nelly, Mabel, or any other live-in servant since the munitions factory had finally lured them away in 1916”, Frances’s friend Christine was living in a building run by a society offering flats to working women — all very revolutionary for a society that was emerging from the prudish and conservative shadows of Victorian England and the socio-economic devastation wreaked by World War I. In a recent interview with The Independent, Sarah Waters acknowledges paying attention to women’s secret lives and history. ( The Independent, 6 September, 2014. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/sarah-waters-interview-i-pay-attention-to-womens-secret-history-and-lives-9715463.html ) In the same interview, Sarah Waters admits that writing about a lesbian relationship was a conscious decision since she “missed writing about love”.  This novel is a good example of historical fiction meticulously researched, another fact the author acknowledges. As the news about her new book filters through social media platforms, conversations are erupting on various platforms focused upon the well-written sex scenes that Sarah Waters is known for writing. In The Paying Guests she has apparently surpassed herself for creating scenes “electric with passion”. ( I use the word “apparently” advisedly, since this is the first book of Sarah Waters I have read.)

For period fiction written by contemporary authors to focus upon lesbian relationships, a murder mystery and engagement with the law is not new at all. Most notably Emma Donaghue’s novels especially Frog Music released earlier this year tackle similar issues raised in The Paying Guests. Ultimately it is the treatment of the story, the atmosphere created, the plot development and an understanding of the period where the writer’s strengths lie. While comparing these two novels — The Paying Guests and Frog Music — it is evident that the pace of storytelling and settings are very different, but The Paying Guests requires huge dollops of patience to read and appreciate.

Sarah Waters The Paying Guests Virago Press, London, 2014. (Distributed by Hachette India) Pb. pp. 580. Rs. 599

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Mr Mac and MeMac is working on a bright purple grape hyacinth. He has it laid out on a sheet of paper and is examining its tiny solid head. ‘No.’ he mutters to himself, ‘no.’

I’ve let myself in, but now I’m not sure whether to disturb him.

‘Hello.’ He looks up and catches me at the door, and he tells me that never has he spent a morning with a flower and known less about it when he was through. ‘Look,’ he lays it out. And together we peer at the dense purple blocks of it, solid as wax above its stalk of blazing green. 

(p.195, Mr Mac and Me)

Thomas Magg, the crippled twelve-year-old son of the Blue Anchor owner, lives on the coast of Suffolk. A little before First World War breaks, Tom befriends a new visitor to their village, who it turns out is the renowned architect, Charles Rennie Macintosh. The two develop a  cordial relationship, primarily focused upon their common love for painting. Thomas or Tom as he is often referred enjoys doodling ships and boats in the margins of his notebooks, much to the exasperation of his school teacher. Whereas Mr Macintosh or Mr Mac as Tom calls him exquisitely paints water colours of the local wild flowers. ( In fact the cover of Esther Freud’s novel uses a detail from a beautiful 1915 water colour and pencil drawing Charles Macintosh made of Fritillaria.) Soon the two men “bond” over their love for painting and are able to share the silence of working together in peace. ( “There’s a thick, warm silence as we work. I’ve sense that silence, when I used to watch them, but now that I’m inside it, it’s as solid as a coat.” ) At times, Mrs Margaret Macdonald, an accomplished painter herself specialising in the technique of Gosse, joins her husband in Suffolk. ( Her most famous Gesso work was a set of panels, larger than doors, commissioned by a private collector and called The Seven Princesses. ) They are from Glasgow where along with Margaret’s sister, Frances and her husband, Herbert MacNair, they were known as The Four. Mr Mac was also responsible for designing the new Glasgow School of Art, commissioned in 1897 by the School Director, Francis Newberry. (His descriptions of the project are a pleasure to read in the crm-pansynovel.) With the Great War breaking life in Suffolk is also affected. Soldiers come and stay, refugees arrive, and locals living near to the sea move to safer places  inland and with the turmoil suspicion falls upon Mr Mac. The locals, goaded by Mr Gory, a newcomer himself, rapidly come to believe that Mr Mac is a spy since he moves around with his binoculars or spyglass observing the coastline. Before the war is over, Mr Mac is arrested and Thomas leaves Suffolk to travel the world.

Mr Mac and Me is a stunningly beautiful novel. All fiction is ultimately a labour of love, butMargaret Macintosh, Seven Princesses this is infused with love and beauty on every page. Every description is magnificent such as of the child observing Mr Mac paint — “I smile because he’s painted the river as if it is his own”. The descriptions of the wild flowers, even of the sweet william blooms on Tom’s mother’s table in the pub add a dash of colour, it is as if you can almost get the gentle and sweet fragrance of the wild flowers. While reading I kept wondering if some of these observations about watching a painter at work stemmed from Esther Freud’s own experience of seeing her father Lucien Freud at work. An answer was to be had in an interview she gave to the Guardian. She says “It’s funny, I didn’t even think about that until my publisher pointed out that the book describes how an artist works through the eyes of a child. And that was exactly my experience with my father; I slowly came to understand the artistic process through watching him paint. I’d have these little realisations like: oh, it’s going to take years! Or, as it says about Mackintosh in the book, that he was showing the insides of something – he hadn’t just abandoned it halfway through. I enjoyed trying to follow his thought process.”  ( 31 august 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/31/esther-freud-author-interview-mr-mac-and-me  )

Sadly the buildings of Glasgow School of Art that Charles Rennie Macintosh designed were severely damaged in a fire on 23 May 2014. In fact, Esther Freud “heard the news on the last day of checking the proofs. The timing did feel extraordinary. I felt so connected to him and so aware that he had had enough bad luck already.”

Mr Mac and Me is a pleasure to read. It has the knack of drawing  you in to the early twentieth century world of Suffolk without seeming like historical fiction, yet it leaves a warm glow of discovering a new world, creating a new space in one’s mind and introducing the reader to a significant designer of the post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain.  There is a lovely article published on 16 August 2014 in the Guardian describing how Esther Freud came to write this novel: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/16/esther-freud-houses-ghosts-inspired-new-book .

Please buy it! You won’t be sorry. This is a book for keeps.

Esther Freud Mr Mac and Me Bloomsbury India, 2014. Pb. pp. 300 Rs. 499

Sean McMeekin “July 1914: Countdown to War”

Sean McMeekin “July 1914: Countdown to War”

July 1914

When we studied about WWI as children, our school textbooks would dismiss in one sentence the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary as being responsible for the war. In comparison Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War is a big fat book of nearly 470+ pages documenting the assassination, the aftermath in the month of July 1914, and the complicated politics. His account is packed with detail. It does not matter if one is unfamiliar with the nitty-gritties of the Habsburg Empire, the rising power of Russia etc. He makes the claim that the Great War  was “The War of the Ottoman Succession”. It will require a historian, especially of this period to do a scholarly critique of the book, yet it does make an important contribution to the avalanche of books being published in 2014–the centenary of World War I. 

July 1914: Countdown to War is packed with information without getting tedious, is strong on storytelling, making it very accessible to a lay reader too. It is worth reading. I found a print book useful to scribble notes in the margins but a book like this would do well to have a digital interactive edition.

Here are some links related to July 1914: Countdown to War and WWI literature. ( Now for similar articles from different parts of the world.)

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/feb/06/greatest-catastrophe-world-has-seen/ A review article by R. J. W. Evans on NYRB on a bunch of WWI books, including two by Sean McMeekin. ( 6 Feb 2014 issue)

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/05/27/the_house_of_habsburg_revisited_empire_nostalgia_austria_hungary_central_europe An excellent article on Foreign Policy by Simon Winder, “The House of Habsburg Revisited”. ( 27 May 2014.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOwaYNiJ6G8 In a discussion of his book, July 1914: Countdown to War,  historian Sean McMeekin reveals how a small cabal of European statesmen used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to initiate a long-awaited showdown among the Continent’s powers, ultimately leading to the start of World War I. In this talk he also says that many of the contemporary conflict flashpoints/battlefields are the same as those during WWI. (29 January 2014, The Kansas City Public Library. )

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/62227-the-war-that-fractured-history-100-years-on-wwi-books.html#path/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/62227-the-war-that-fractured-history-100-years-on-wwi-books.html A round up on Publishers Weekly of books on WWI, but does not mention any of Sean McMeekin. ( 9 May 2014)

Sean McMeekin July 1914: Countdown to War Icon Books, London, 2013. Pb. pp. 470. Rs. 599

3 June 2014