Sunday 22 January 2017

Interview with Frederik Nath on his novels set in World War II

What led you to writing your fiction set in World War II?

Although like a lot of people, I’ve always had a vague interest in the French Resistance, it was not something I ever had a burning desire to write about until I was on holiday in the Dordogne and was in the market square in Bergerac. I found the inscriptions on the war monument very moving and thought – well now there’s a story in there somewhere. 
The early morning sunlight flickered from behind the high clouds and reflected golden and crisp from the monument in Bergerac’s market square. Around me, shoppers bustled and in the roadway a car beeped its horn. The grey stone pillar rose fifteen feet above me, its shadow pointing away towards the elm trees that line the roadway. A smell of garlic wafted as I read those brave words that showed the strength of the French and France’s indomitable leaders. The monument was a reminder of the valour and sacrifice of those brave local partisans who gave up their lives in the struggle against the occupying Nazi forces all those years ago.
Yes, it is moving. Surely there’s a story here.
In my head a story began to form. What would it have been like to have to make the choices needed to protect oneself and one’s family yet still remain French? The main character would need to do something admirable. He would need to depart from the norm. If you became a partisan you would endanger the people nearest you. What if you were caught? 

I began to think of how it would be to be the one who is rounding up the local Jewish people. Would you hate it? Of course you would, even if you were forced to it for fear of endangering your family. For a religious man it would be even harder. Surely one would do anything to avoid such ‘duties’ if you had a conscience?
The story began to form. A Vichy French policeman, a man of conscience, a family man working with evil Nazis whom he secretly hated. I created Auguste Ran, a good policeman, but in essence weak, until a certain event tips him over the edge and slowly he begins to fight back.
That’s where THE CYCLIST came from and it was my springboard for the other books in my French resistance series. Each takes a character and makes life hard for them, allowing them to become. In the end, THE CYCLIST sold 30,000 copies. It was Editor’s choice in the Historical Novel Review in 2011.

You can catch all six books on Amazon: a policeman, a teacher, an artist, a chef, a philosopher and in THE PROMISE a medical student.
THE PROMISE is the last and most recent of the series. Jean Valois, a medical student before the war, swears to his sister he will protect her. But in war, who can keep such promises? Trained to kill by SOE, in a desperate bid to save his sister Rebecca, he undertakes a mission deep into enemy-occupied Poland, risking all for the sake of a promise made long ago. A story of love, war, hatred and revenge, THE PROMISE tells a tale of courage and staunchness.

Why is this era so important to so many people?

Important may not be the right word. I think many people understand and empathise with what the French put up with during the occupation. It takes little imagination to see how those terrible time wove a fabric of anger and resistance. In the second book (Farewell Bergerac) one of the characters says in relation to a child he had seen painting out a German slogan: ‘That child is what the resistance is all about. Each of us must do what we can do. No one expects you to become a soldier. What use would a fat innkeeper be against the Hun? Not fighting, but resistance in every way, subtle or obvious, it doesn’t matter. Resist, object and show it, then die.’ I think that particular sentiment is applicable to many countries and many people who feel oppressed. It creates a kind of kinship with the past which in our minds we interpolate with our present.

Did you have to do much research?

One can do too much research and end up with a history instead of a story. I tend to write picturing the scenes and the action and when I need to make the picture in my head vivid enough to relate, I look up details which give the feel of the time. So, I guess I do much of the research as I go along.

 Which is your favourite book about this era – either one of your own or one by someone else?

My favourite book that I have had published is Francesca Pascal. Its written from the perspective of a woman who is an artist and describes how she believes in her country and seeks revenge in her way against the Nazis. Ive lived with and loved women all my life, but have no understanding of them, so writing from a womans POV was daunting to say the least.

Could you give us a two line summary of that book?

When Francescas daughter is killed by the German invaders, she vows to obtain vengeance in any way she can. She discovers that vengeance is no source of closure and there are better things in life with which to become obsessed. 

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Seminar 3 The House on Schellberg Street

You will find it easier to follow this is you have read the book The House on Schellberg Street  

The German girls’ story

Hard times

Why was life so hard in Germany for these girls?
·         The 1930s were hard for most of the world.
·         Germany had lost World War I (The Great War). This made things even worse in Germany. 
·         The girls were born just after the hyperinflation in Germany during the 1920s. They may well have had siblings who remembered it. Their parents certainly would have done.  Imagine: you have to spend what you are paid as so as you can before it loses value.
·         Their parents were damaged by war. 
·         When World War II starts it get even worse.  
Read some extracts about this.  Try:
Helga, 18 February 1939 
Imagine what it must have been like for the girls. As well as what they mention remember also that they had no internet, no moblie phones and no social media. Most of their news in fact came via the round robin letter. They couldn‘t buy sweet, chocolate and other snacks as easily as we can.
To do:
Read some of extracts mentioned above and write a short letter or a diary entry as if you were one of the girls.     

The BDM – Bund Deutscher Mädel

The girls would certainly have been members of this group. This was compulsory for girls aged 14 and above. You can get a flavour of what it was like by studying their magazine – see cope here:
Things to bear in mind:
·         This smart uniform and interesting club came at a time when there was  shortage of money and a lot on unemployment.
·         It taught the girls a lot about homemaking.
·         It made the girls feel as if they were doing their bit towards making Germany great again.
You can also see some of the unifroms here:  

To do:
Write a letter or a diary entry about your first visit to the BDM.  Talk about some of the activities you did, what the other girls were like and how much you like your uniform.

The Reichsarbeitsdienst

This was compulodory work experience for young German women, from 1935 onwards.  Often they would work on farms but not as Land Girls as we had in Britian.  They would take over the houeshold chores and childcare whilst the farmer’s wife carried on looking after the farm.
If they had attended one of the special schools that trained them in domstic duties, they only had toi do six months RAD.  
You can read about this in the follwing extracts from Th House on Schellberg Street.
Hani, 19 April 1940
The girls’ letters generally form 1942 onwards give quite a good idea of the work they did, even if they don’t mention the word RAD.   
You can also read more about it here:
To do:
Pretend you are another German girl and write a letter or diary entry about your RAD.

The Kriegshilfsdienst

This was tagged on to the end of the RAD and often involved similar work but also could sometimes be more closley related to the war. Girls were often invovled in:
·         Working in munitions factories
·         Looking after hospital supplies
·         Looking after the post
·         Working a telephone exchange  
Here are some examples from The House on Schellberg Street:
Hani, 19 April 1940
Charlotte 18 August 1943
Anika 22 October 1943

Two themes came out in the original letters I read:
1.      Camaraderie
2.      Duty
Are these worthy qualities or is this Nazi propaganda?  What is good about this? What is less good?
In groups make two lists.

Would you like this as a handy PDF?  Download it here. 


Tuesday 3 January 2017

Interview with Gillian Mawson about her book Guernsey Evacuees

What led you to writing about evacuees?


Blue plaque to mark arrival of Channel Island evacuees in Stockport, Cheshire

In 2008 I was helping a friend to undertake research on the December 1940 Manchester blitz. Quite by chance, I found a newspaper from June 1940 which described the arrival of a thousand Guernsey evacuees in my home town of Stockport. I wanted to know more about these rural people who had arrived in our industrial English towns. In the history books there was a great deal written about the occupation of the Channel Islands but scarcely a mention of the 17,000 children and adults who had fled to England with the clothes they had on and one small bag. Owing to the advanced age of the evacuees I realised if something was not done immediately to gather their memories, those experiences would be lost forever. 

Wartime Guernsey evacuee group photograph, outside the Stockport War Memorial

What is so important about the Guernsey evacuees?
These children, mothers and teachers were evacuated to England just days before the Channel Island of Guernsey came under Nazi occupation. Imagine leaving the rural idylls of Guernsey island life and being plunged into a world of factories, rows of terraced houses, smog and air raids! In 2008, there was no memorial in Guernsey to the evacuation of almost half the population, so many of the evacuees I interviewed felt as if they had been 'hidden from history.' Some even told me that they were treated as 'cowards' when they returned to Guernsey in 1945, because they had 'run away to England whilst others had stayed and suffered under German occupation.' Yet countless evacuees had been killed, injured or psychologically scarred during air raids on the UK mainland.

London evacuees practice for evacuation, August 1939

What was most difficult for the evacuees and their families?

They had to adjust to a completely different way of life in our noisy, heavily-populated cities and towns. Also, because Guernsey had been occupied by Germany, there was no postal service between the England and the Channel Islands. This lack of contact with home was traumatic, but eventually, evacuees were allowed to send short Red Cross messages to their families. Anne Le Noury, told me how important  these letters were to evacuees, “The rare occasion when Mum received a Red Cross letter was the biggest event ever. The few censored words meant that my dad and the family in Guernsey were still alive.”

Peter Hopper with the Willis family – he did not return home after the war and the family looked after him for 17 years

Tell us a little about how you researched for your book Guernsey Evacuees.

I placed letters in English newspapers, asking, 'If you knew any Guernsey evacuees during the war, please contact me.' I also placed one in the Guernsey Press, asking surviving evacuees to contact me. Within a week, thirty people wrote or telephoned. Some evacuees had written from Guernsey but others wrote from England, stating that they had not returned home after the war.  The research snowballed - I had a full time admin job at the University of  Manchester so I spent evenings and weekends interviewing evacuees and those who had cared for them. Twice a year I visited Guernsey and spent a week rushing from house to house, interviewing evacuees. I also interviewed Guernsey mothers, in their late 90s, and was given access to the diaries of mothers and teachers who have passed away. This adult testimony gives another dimension to the story of wartime evacuation.

Have you written any other books set in this era? 

Yes, Gill. Upon publication of my Guernsey book, evacuees from all over Britain, Gibraltar, Jersey and Alderney, contacted me, to share their stories. This led to my second book, 'Evacuees: Children's Lives on the World War 2 Home Front' which contains 100 evacuation stories with personal wartime photographs. By 2015 I had gathered a huge amount of information from over 500 evacuees, their wartime carers, billeting officers, local archives and wartime newspapers. I began my third book, 'Britain's Wartime Evacuees', published December 2016. It contains testimony from children, mothers and teachers evacuated from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney and Gibraltar. Chapters focus on the difficult decisions made by parents to send their children away,  the journeys by train and ship, adjustment to life in a new area and the kindness shown to evacuees by British communities.

The darker side of evacuation is also revealed - some households refused to care for evacuees, others were cruel or neglectful. Evacuees died within days of arriving in supposedly 'safe' areas. They drowned, perished in air raids or were killed by military vehicles driving too quickly around narrow streets. An MP in the House of Commons voiced his fears that, if these incidents were revealed to the public, mothers might demand that their children be sent back home! The book includes emotional letters written between evacuees, their parents and their wartime 'foster parents.' Evacuees describe going home in 1945 after five years of separation from their parents. Some did not want to leave the 'foster parents' they had come to love -  to them, this was 'evacuation' all over again and extremely traumatic.

Why is it important that we read and write about this era?

The evacuation was a remarkable feat of organisation, dedication and sacrifice and forms an important part of the British Home Front story. It also tells us a great deal about the British population and the different ways in which they received strangers into their midst - a story that is still relevant today. Owing to the advanced age of our evacuees, and those who knew them, their testimony must be collected now, to be shared with people of all ages and future generations.

Gillian's books can be found here:
Gillian's Wartime Evacuation blog  is here: