Tag Archives: Vera Brittain

EIBF and me, 2014

It is here. The programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Book festival. And I’m sorry, but all I can think of is that Sara Paretsky will be there. It’s been three years, and she is finally coming in the summer rather than freezing her nether regions off in February/March. Which is so sensible.

OK, there must be a few other authors scheduled for the two and a bit weeks. Think, witch, think!

There are some very interesting looking events where authors one admires talk about authors one admires. I’m going to have to see if I can catch one of those, because they look like tickets might sell out fast (small tent). Then there is Patrick Ness who will give the Siobhan Dowd talk and Val McDermid will pretend to be Jane Austen.

Wendy Meddour is coming and there is a lovely pairing of Francesca Simon and Irving Finkel. Another interesting pair is Caroline Lawrence with Geraldine McCaughrean. Elizabeths Laird and Wein will cooperate, and Gill Lewis is also making an appearance.

Many more excellent authors like Sophie Hannah and Arne Dahl, Tommy Donbavand and Liz Kessler will be at the festival. I have to admit to paying less attention to the ‘grown-up’ authors again, in favour of my ‘little ones.’ Those who are given orange juice instead of wine (although I am sure not at EIBF!) because they write for children.

Have to admit that many of my hoped for events are school events. I am glad that some of the best looking events are for schools, because it means someone thinks school children deserve the best. I want to be a school child on a very temporary basis at the end of August.

Deck chair

I’m hoping for plenty of stamina on my part. I have planned a number of full or nearly full days, for about two thirds of the festival. (I was thinking of having a holiday at some point.) The event I am fairly certain I won’t be able to go to but wish I could, is Eleanor Updale talking about Vera Brittain. That would be really something.

Perhaps I will see you in Charlotte Square? (If my eyes are – temporarily – closed, just give me a gentle nudge.)

Tilly’s Promise

Would that going to war as a soldier were as hard for someone with special needs as it is for them to read books about war. But we know from Private Peaceful that this was not the case, and here Linda Newbery gives us her version of WWI and those who should have been allowed not to be sent out at all.

Linda Newbery, Tilly's Promise

Linda has written this dyslexia friendly book for Barrington Stoke, the first one out this year of remembering 1914 and all that came after. Tilly’s Promise is very much a similar story to what Linda has already written about for able readers, and it’s good to see that this can now be made available for others as well.

Tilly and her sweetheart Harry promise to be true to each other as first he goes to war, and then she joins as a nurse. But what it is mainly about is Harry’s enforced promise to look out for Tilly’s ‘simple’ brother Georgie, once he is made to join up as well.

The inspiration for Georgie came from a Siegfred Sassoon poem, and like Linda’s other WWI novels, it’s losely based on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

This is of necessity a short book, but all the suffering and the real history of war is in here. I don’t like the need for these remembrance books, but it’s there if you want to find out more. One of the things Tilly learned was that the Germans were the same as the British. No monsters.

(Beautifully embroidered cover by Stewart Easton.)

Remember

I couldn’t help noticing that Thomas Keneally has a new book out about WWI, about two sisters who are nurses. It’d be easy to think that this is a bit of a cliché, because so many WWI novels feature nurses. But that’s what you have to have, if you’re going to put your female characters in Europe during the war.

Theresa Breslin, Remembrance

I’d already dug out some of my WWI nurse books, because it’s time to remember that they exist. It’s not a topic I’d expect to find in new books right now, but it’s not as if these are all that ancient.

Linda Newbery, Some Other War

My first one was Linda Newbery’s Some Other War, which I bought as it was re-issued about ten years ago, although first published in the early 1990s. Linda came to Offsprings’ school, just before Remembrance Sunday, so very timely. She introduced me to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, also about a nurse.

Linda has two more books about the same characters; The Kind Ghosts, which starts during the war and ends after it. The third book is The Wearing of the Green, set in Ireland. After this I always get confused, because I tend to think her Shouting Wind trilogy is set in WWI. It isn’t. It’s one war later, about a descendant of the two main characters in Some Other War. So that’s two sets of trilogies about the same family, over many years.

The second nurse story is Theresa Breslin’s Remembrance, which Linda strongly recommended. Similar plot, in a way, with girls going off to war as nurses, and with a love story somewhere, as well as being about the village left behind. Realistic, and enjoyable, if you can say that about so much suffering.

Marcus Sedgwick, The Foreshadowing

My third nurse is only pretending. Marcus Sedgwick’s The Foreshadowing has a female character who is too young to go to war, and she’s not a trained nurse. She has ‘only’ dabbled a bit at nursing at home, before she runs off to Europe, hoping to save her brother’s life. She can ‘see’ things, and she has seen her brother’s death in her mind. With one brother already dead, she’s desperate not to lose her other brother as well.

So, there are similarities, but only because the war was fought in a limited geographical area, and the nursing of soldiers won’t vary much. We are now a long way away in time, but through these books it’s possible to feel something of what it was like.

We have no soldiers left to talk about it, but we mustn’t forget.

How can they not know about the war?

Occasionally I feel the need to apologise, quietly, for my fondness for war novels. It doesn’t always feel right. It’s like crime novels. It ought to be wrong to enjoy something that’s based on someone dying. In war lots of people not only die, but millions more are miserable. How can you enjoy that?

But you need some sort of conflict in a story, and what can be better than war? You don’t even need to blame an individual. We know who or what caused the war, and then the characters can get on with what they have to do.

I’m on this topic again, after the shock of hearing Peter Englund talking about the background to his WWI book; that his history students at Uppsala didn’t know that the war had happened. I felt a bit like, if they didn’t learn about it during history lessons, then surely they must have come across war fiction at some point?

But apparently not.

So I shouldn’t feel bad about war novels. They not only entertain, but can potentially give history lessons where history lessons are needed. In actual fact, I feel I learn more about many school subjects by reading fiction, rather than school books, or listening to teachers droning on and on.

Linda Newbery is someone who has written many WWI novels, and I might not still remember all the fictional details (I am a terrible forgetter), but they still provide me with a good feel for the war as such. The same goes for Theresa Breslin and Marcus Sedgwick. In fact, when my forgetfulness works full time, I find some of the plots blend into one, and that is pehaps because they are all pretty true, and they all share the same basic settings.

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

Leaving fiction behind, there is the marvellous Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. That, too, is similar to the novels mentioned above. Presumably because it is about the same period and similar activities.

There is Michael Morpurgo’s tale about the football match played at Christmas between the British and the Germans (based on something real?). I have come across it many times, and would guess many children or former children also have.

I wonder if there is a difference between neutral Sweden and countries which took part in the war? (This in turn makes me think of Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts, featuring the destiny of all the Indians who fought in Europe in the Great War.) Now that no one has a living great grandfather who fought in WWI, it must still be well known. Newspapers write about it often. I imagine families still talk about those who died. And for that matter, those who came back.

Recently I had cause to look at the family tree again (British side), and was reminded of the Resident IT Consultant’s great uncles. He had many of them, but two he never met, because they died within days of each other in July 1916. I keep thinking of how their mother must have felt.

Generations of girls

The Bookwitch Upheaval continues. In recent days I’ve been getting all my books from the dusty rows where so many of them have been sitting for far too long, and I am actually putting them in order on actual shelves. Though I do believe that I will run out of shelves before I run out of books. Even putting some doubles in a back row behind the front row. Obviously.

One thing that happens under circumstances like these is that you re-discover books. Not that I forget them or forget that I have them, but they slip from my mind.

I carried all the Ns the other day. I recall Linda Newbery saying how before she was published she had looked in bookshops and felt that there was a space next to Edith Nesbit where Linda’s books could sit. Well, that was true until Patrick Ness came along. He is now piggy in the middle, surrounded by two great ladies.

So, I happened upon this trilogy of Linda’s, that I read quite a few years ago now. They are The Shouting Wind, The Cliff Path and A Fear of Heights.

When I began reading them, I expected the generations to take in both world wars plus something more modern. I was wrong. It starts with WWII and continues with something closer to my generation and finishes with ‘today’. Grandmother, daughter and granddaughter.

The thing is, that at the time I was so taken with Linda’s WWI novels, that I wanted them to go on. And in a way they did, as the grandmother in this trilogy has a connection to Linda’s book Some Other War, set in WWI. So from that point of view I got even more than I thought.

There is something irrationally satisfying about encountering characters again, seeing what’s become of them, and so on. And an honest author lets his/her characters have real lives, which means it’s not always been a bed of roses since the book before. So the reader can be disappointed to hear that someone died rather early, or that the romance/marriage didn’t last. Or the child quarrelled and left home and they stopped speaking. It’s real.

Linda is good at this. Her characters always feel as if I might know them in real life. And this generational series thing could actually be taken a lot further. Start early enough, and it’d be possible to take in a fair bit of recent-ish history.

It’s books like these that will tell future generations what the 20th century was like. You don’t get that from wand-wielding wizards. The trilogy doesn’t seem to be available to buy, and Linda’s website doesn’t list the books either. But if you find them, try them. And definitely start with the Vera Brittain inspired Some Other War. (If only because you’ve found the idea of nursing wounded soldiers quite charming, by watching too much Downton Abbey.)