1939: In a hotel room overlooking Piccadilly Circus, two young men are arrested. Charles is court-martialled for ‘conduct unbecoming’; Anselm is deported home to Germany for ‘re-education’ in a brutal labour camp. Separated by the outbreak of war, and a social order that rejects their love, they must each make a difficult choice, and then live with the consequences.
2012: Edward, a diplomat held hostage for eleven years in an Afghan cave, returns to London to find his wife is dead, and in her place is an unnerving double – his daughter, now grown up. Numb with grief, he attempts to re-build his life and answer the questions that are troubling him. Was his wife’s death an accident? Who paid his ransom? And how was his release linked to Charles, his father?
As dark and nuanced as it is powerful and moving, The Road Between Us is a novel about survival, redemption and forbidden love. Its moral complexities will haunt the reader for days after the final page has been turned.
‘The Road Between Us’ is a thought provoking novel which touches on subject matter which can make it uncomfortable reading at times. Following the stories of a father and son (one during the Second World War and the other set in the present day) Mr Farndale weaves a picture of love and loss, of discrimination and cruelty, yet also of loyalty and hope. During the war Charles loses his commission for ‘conduct unbecoming’ and spends the rest of the conflict searching for and attempting to rescue his lover, Anselm, who had been deported to Germany for ‘re-education.’ In the present Charles’s son, Edward, is released after eleven years in captivity and is also searching for love and hope, both of which he has buried deeply in order to survive his long period of isolation and deprivation.
Mr Farndale has approached the difficult subjects in his novel with respect and sensitivity. His descriptions of place and character are vivid, making the reader feel as though they are there and drawing them into the story. Even though some of the subject matter is difficult I found myself wanting to read more, to discover what made these characters tick and how they came to terms with aspects of their lives which were so troubling at times. It is the mark of a great novel to keep you reading under such circumstances, the key here being the believable characters who are drawn so sympathetically.
The historical context of ‘The Road Between Us’ has been well researched which gives a depth of plausibility to the story – the ‘re-education’ workcamps, the treatment of homosexuals etc. The dialogue has an authentic ring which brings the characters to life, dialogue which reflects the authors understanding of human psychology and encourages the reader to look deeper into themselves. All in all, this is a very moving story and compelling reading; it has a great narrative, the feel of both thriller and love story, intelligent and literary writing.
If you like historical novels which explore the human condition with depth and sensitivity then I heartily recommend ‘The Road Between Us’ to you.
(I have deliberately avoided going into details of this story as it would be difficult to do so without spoiling it for you!)
Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result.
‘A Town Like Alice’ is a classic which loses none of its appeal with the passage of time. The description of life for the English women and children who are unwanted prisoners of the Japanese, forced to march for months on end by Japanese officers who refuse to take responsibility for them, is harrowing. You would be forgiven for saying that something as inhumane as that could never have happened – but it did, though in Sumatra not Malaya. Mr Shute met with one of those women after the war, and this novel is a tribute to her strength and endurance and that of those who were held with her, and those who died during their long captivity.
You may also be forgiven for thinking that the story must be depressing, it is not. This is a novel of hope not despair. Mr Shute uses his characters to show us the good in humanity, the willingness to help others despite personal cost – Joe, the Australian soldier, who stole to feed the women, with tragic consequences; Jean’s struggles as she tries to cope with the ‘normality’ of England after the war, unable to begin life again because of a burden of guilt she carries from her time as a prisoner; the kindness and support show to Jean by her solicitor, Noel. Mr Shute skilfully weaves a believable plotline which takes Jean back to Malaya and on to Australia, searching for answers and for a purpose in life. Can she re-build her life in a new country in ‘a town like Alice (Springs)’ which Joe told her so much about?
This is a well-researched and well written novel in which Mr Shute immerses the reader in life in three very different locations – war-torn Malaya, bombed out London and the developing outback – with the effortlessness of a master wordsmith. This is a story of ordinary people with an extraordinary tale to tell; a timeless tale of love and loss, of romance and redemption. ‘A Town Like Alice’ is one of the books I’ve read more than once and always enjoy coming back to. If you have never read this modern classic you really must give it a go.
I’d like to thank Stacey for her lovely write up of our interview about my life and writing. I do hope you can take a look and find out a little more about me and my writing.
As most of you know I now live back in the UK but the beautiful photo of ‘where I write’ is actually the view I had from my desk at Lakeside where most of ‘The Cavalier Historian’ was written. I was very lucky to have probably the best view in the world from an office!
Penang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido.
But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei to whom he owes absolute loyalty has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is.
With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.
In ‘the Gift Of Rain’ the reader is immersed in life in Malaya during the 1940’s. Tan Twan Eng writes some of the best prose I have read in a long time, and it pays to take the time to read slowly and savour this poetic and evocative language. Whether he is describing the beauty of Malaya or the brutality of occupation the author places the reader there, in the midst of the action, in such a way that it easy to become lost in this book. Supporting the lyrical descriptions is a cast of characters who are multi-faceted and totally believable. It is easy to sympathise with Philip in his search to find out where he belongs; even when he makes choices which we might not agree with we can understand his reasons and fervently hope that he will find the love, acceptance and peace that he is searching for.
This book is written in two distinct sections. The first, set in Penang in 1939, moves at a gentle pace as Philip meets a Japanese aikijitsu master, and through his lessons with Endo develops a physical, intellectual and spiritual awareness which remains with him for the rest of his life. There is a strange bond between the two which seems to transcend time and space, and the playing out of this relationship is the pivot of the whole book. The second part of the book takes place after the Japanese invasion and is faster paced, dramatic and hard hitting. Philip finds that life puts him in a position which challenges his ethics and morals; does his loyalty lie with his family or with Hayato Endo? Or does he have a much broarder loyalty to the people of Malaya? And where does his sense of self fit within this conflict?
‘The Gift Of Rain’ evokes a real sense of time and place, giving the reader insights not only into the history of Malaya but also of Japan and China. The way that the Second World War impacted on the different ethnic groups and their relationships with each other is the cloth of which this story is woven; it is a testament to the thorough research which Tan Twan Eng has made of the history of these countries, and of the colonial impact which played a part in shaping events. Why does history seem to see British occupation of Malaya as acceptable, unlike the Japanese occupation which is seen as criminal? What responsibility did the colonial power have to the people of Malaya, and they to it? There are no easy answers to this, and the questions raised are played out through Philip’s own personal search for identity.
Tan Twan Eng has created a book which looks at the darker side of life yet which holds an incredible balance. One could almost describe the whole novel as an evocation of the ying and yang of life, the balance of duty and loyalty, the image of a civilised and refined Japan which can be selfish and brutal at the same time. It is a book which is incredibly difficult to categorise. Part historical fiction and part martial arts treatise, part philosophy and part a coming of age story, it is a book which draws the reader in from the very first words and doesn’t let go, even after the last page has been turned. I have read this book a number of times and come back to it again and again, learning something new each time. I heartily recommend ‘The Gift Of Rain’ as one of those few books which will leave a lasting impression on you for some time to come.
The Gift of Rain is available on Amazon
Tan Twan Eng has a website here
You can find more of my book reviews here
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
‘Life After Life’ is not the usual type of historical novel that I review. This is a fascinating story which explores the concept of life and time. What would happen if we lived the same life over and over again? Would it always be the same or would things change? Would we be able to guide our destiny to avoid the bad things which happen in life or to seek to achieve a goal which appears to be out of reach? Ms Atkinson uses the life/lives of Ursula to explore this theme.
Ursula is born one snowy day in 1910. She dies without taking her first breath but then is born again in the same situation with one minor difference which allows her to live. The novel continues to follow Ursula as she is born and dies, again and again. Each time her life is changed in some small way which leads to much larger changes as the years go by. Edward Lorenz asked, ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ In this novel Ursula finds that her choices, as well as the decisions which people make all around her, do indeed lead to great changes – lives saved or lost, war or a chance for peace, all made possible through something as small as the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings.
Knowing, in part, what is going to happen to Ursula leaves you rooting for her, hoping that she will make a certain choice, speak to a certain person, avoid a certain action. In some of her incarnations you find yourself hoping that she survives and is happy, in others you hope that her death comes more quickly and she can start a new and better life. It is a strange novel in this sense, yet compulsive reading.
The reason I am recommending this book as historical fiction is the period in which it is set. Ursula lives during the turbulent years of both World Wars, and Ms Atkinson conveys these times in incredible detail. Her fictional accounts of the London blitz are some of the best I have read – both harrowing and inspiring. In another life Ursula lives in Germany during the Second World War. The descriptions of the changes from pre-war euphoria through nationalism to war and, finally, despair in Berlin during the last days of the Reich bear testimony to the depth of research which the author has carried out.
‘Life After Life’ is a unique novel in its structure. It is also a novel rich in historical detail and, in addition, a compelling portrait of Ursula and her family. Ms Atkinson’s writing cuts to the heart of human hopes and dreams, ambitions, loves and losses; the reader comes to love or hate the characters who are well drawn and believable, the kind of people you could meet almost anywhere.
The author writes with great skill, producing a novel which is thought provoking, moving and at times uncomfortable. It is the sort of book which leaves the reader reflecting on life, destiny and fate. What might be the consequences of our actions? Can we shape the future by a single word or deed or is it all pre-ordained? This is not a light read, but if you are looking for something entertaining and educational which leaves you asking questions and wanting more then I heartily recommend that you read ‘Life After Life’.
This novel won the 2013 COSTA Novel Award, and deservedly so.
‘A Fine Balance’ tells the story of the lives of four individuals who are brought together by circumstances. While we learn a lot about their background the main focus of the novel is the political and social situation in India in the 1970’s. Through their relationships with each other and interactions with other people Rohinton Mistry paints a compelling picture of poverty and prejudice in India. The levels of corruption and injustice portrayed in the novel give a sense of the hopelessness of life for many, yet the fact that the poorest characters can find a joy in their lives which evades those of a higher social standing is humbling.
This is a novel which tells the truth of the brutality if a government which could force sterilization on people in an effort to control the population; and the brutality of people who , by a simple accident of birth, found themselves in a position of power. The title ‘A Fine Balance’ is well chosen as Mr Mistry balances this darkness with a lightness and humour from both the characters and their situations. As one who has lived in India for the last few years I found many of the descriptions incredible accurate – from the chaos of the courthouse and other official institutions to the busy streets, chaotic trains and remote village life.
Sadly, my experience tells me that although the caste system is now illegal in India it is still all pervading, and it would not be difficult to imagine aspects of this story happening today. Yet alongside this the humour, love and hope which Mr Mistry describes are still there and the road to change, which often seems too long and slow, is still progressing.
The only aspect of this novel which I found difficult was the number of coincidences which occurred, bringing minor characters into the story at frequent intervals which are unlikely to happen in life. Having said that, I recognise that these characters and their meetings are an essential part of the story which Mr Mistry is telling, so if you can set aside the coincidences and accept the truths that the characters bring to the story it will not spoil your enjoyment.
‘A Fine Balance’ is a well written novel with deeply nuanced characters, all the more real to me as I see in them much that reminds me of the Indians I know and love. It is well structured, invoking a sense of place so that we can almost feel the heat, smell the streets, taste the food, bathe in the dust or rain. This is a novel which shows the real India, where life can be hard for all but the most wealthy; it is therefore interesting that the character who has the easiest life, the best situation, finds it the most difficult to cope. As for the reader, I think we can all learn from the attitude of the main characters, and Indians in general – life is not easy, we all face difficulties challenges and heartaches; what defines us though is how we face what life throws at us, and move on.
‘A Fine Balance’ is up there as one of my favourite novels about India, alongside ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. Anyone who wants to try to understand the complexities, mysteries and universal truths of India presented by an author with an exceptional command of language should read this novel.
A Russian grand duchess and an English journalist. Linked by one of the world’s greatest mysteries . . .
Love. Guilt. Heartbreak.
1914 Russia is on the brink of collapse, and the Romanov family faces a terrifyingly uncertain future. Grand Duchess Tatiana has fallen in love with cavalry officer Dmitri, but events take a catastrophic turn, placing their romance – and their lives – in danger . . .
2016 Kitty Fisher escapes to her great-grandfather’s remote cabin in America, after a devastating revelation makes her flee London. There, on the shores of Lake Akanabee, she discovers the spectacular jewelled pendant that will lead her to a long-buried family secret . . .Haunting, moving and beautifully written, The Secret Wife effortlessly crosses centuries, as past merges with present in an unforgettable story of love, loss and resilience.
‘The Secret Wife’ is an engrossing read which takes the reader back to the days of the Russian Revolution and on through the years of the 20th century. It follows the life and loves of Dmitri, an aristocrat who has to flee from the communist regime not knowing where the woman he loves is, or even if she is still alive. It is a tale of war, romance, lost love and redemption. The book also follows the troubled life of Kitty, Dmitri’s great-granddaughter, whose research into the life of her ancestor helps her to come to terms with problems in her own life and helps her to make a decision about what she wants for her future. The two stories are expertly woven together into a novel which I found difficult to put down.
Ms Paul has written a truly captivating novel with strong characters and a strong, believable story line. The history, particularly the turbulent times surrounding the lives of the Romanov’s, has been well researched and is presented in a style which is easy to read yet immerses the reader in the political intrigue and violence of revolution and the life of a political refugee. Ms Paul also expertly delves into the psychological impact that such events would have on an individual. It is easy to sympathise with Dmitri as he struggles to come to terms with his changed circumstances, with Tatiana as she copes with violence and loss, and with Kitty as she understands why she is the person she is and finds a new direction for here future.
Many of the characters in this novel are actual historical figures about whom we know quite a lot, but historical evidence for what happened to some of them disappears after 1916/17. We do know the fate of some (no spoilers!), but it would be nice to think that Ms Paul’s story could be true!
If you like historical fiction, sagas, intrigue, strong characters and a story which draws you in right from the start then please give this book a read. I will certainly be reading more of Ms Paul’s books in the future.
We have just marked Remembrance Day, honouring those in the armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. But we should never forget the civilians who gave their blood, sweat and tears during past wars. The people of Coventry loom large amongst those who should be remembered.
As darkness fell on 14th November 1940 the citizens of Coventry wrapped themselves against the biting cold. There was a full moon and the usual autumnal fog had not materialised, leaving clear skies dotted with bright twinkling stars. A beautiful evening. Until the bombs began to fall.
Even before the Second World War Coventry had been an important engineering and manufacturing city; with the outbreak of hostilities that role was massively increased as the factories played an important part in supplying the military in preparation for an expected German invasion. The civilians who worked in the factories lived close to their places of work, leaving them vulnerable if the factories were attacked. Yet despite the importance of its industry Coventry was poorly defended, with less than forty anti-aircraft guns and only about fifty barrage balloons.
It was early evening, 7.10pm, when the first sirens began to sound and the German Pathfinder planes began to drop parachute flares. The bright lights floating down were beautiful but with a deadly purpose – to mark the target for the wave after wave of bombers which were not far behind. The first bombers dropped their cargo of incendiary bombs, creating over 200 fires which lit the night sky, making any more flares unnecessary. In one long night 400 enemy planes attacked Coventry in four massive waves, flying east to west then making a return run west to east, trailing endless lines of bombs behind them. The fires were so fierce that they could be seen from 100 miles away. Guided by the destruction below them the enemy planes passed over again and again, dropping land mines and high explosives. In all 30,000 incendiaries and 500 tons of bombs and land mines were dropped, nearly 50,000 houses damaged and 20,000 rendered totally uninhabitable. Three quarters of the city’s industry was put out of action; telephone, water, electricity and gas supplies were all totally disrupted. The tram system was unusable and 156 out of 181 buses were out of action. During the attempts to bring the chaos under control 26 firemen were killed and over 200 injured; almost 1,000 civilians were seriously injured, more than 550 killed. Only one German bomber was shot down despite the thousands of anti-aircraft rounds which were fired. The raid on Coventry reached such a new, previously unimagined, level of destruction that Joseph Goebbels later used the term “coventriert” (“coventried”) when he described other mass raids which caused similar levels of destruction toenemy towns and cities.
Although the target of the attack on Coventry was the war industry, Hitler also wanted to try to break the moral of the British people. Very few of those on the ground were in the armed forces – mainly those who manned the ack ack guns and other air defences – the majority of people involved in the rescue operations during that night, and the days which followed, were members of the Home Guard and voluntary agencies. The victims overwhelmingly civilians. In my novel, ‘Heronfield’, I pay tribute to the civilians who were caught up in that terrible night of 14th November 1940; their courage and sacrifice, their endurance and strength should not be forgotten.
An introduction to the characters: Sarah Porter is an auxiliary nurse who is home on leave and staying with her mother, Alice. They share an Anderson shelter with their neighbours, the Cooks and the Normans. Sarah’s boyfriend, Joe, is a member of the Home Guard…
Joe met up with Bob Dean at seven o’clock. They made their way to the roof of the factory which was their spotting position for the night. Bob rubbed his hands together briskly.
“It’s going to be a cold one tonight.”
Joe nodded as he picked up the binoculars and slowly scanned the sky for enemy planes. “It’s just the sort of night when I’d prefer to be snuggled up close with a pretty girl to keep me warm!”
“And we all know which pretty girl that would be!” Bob laughed.
Joe smiled ruefully. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I could see her more often, but she’s hardly ever here.”
Bob’s reply was lost in the wailing of the siren at the other end of the roof. The two men covered their ears with their hands until the deafening sound ceased. Even then their ears still rang, and they felt the echo of the siren roll around inside their heads. Joe shook his head to clear it, then pointed out over the city.
“My God, Bob! Look at that!”
Away to their left the sky was full of planes, like clouds of midges in the air above a still pond on a hot summer’s day. But these midges grew and grew until the shape of the enemy bombers could be see ndistinctly in the clear, moonlit sky.
“How many do you think there are?” Bob had to raise his voice as the awesome roar of the plane’s engines reached their still smarting ears.
Joe shrugged. “I don’t know. At least seventy or eighty, I would think.”
In fact there were a hundred, closely followed by three waves of equal number. The two members of the Home Guard watched the leading planes drop flares attached to parachutes, to light the targets for those who followed. Then the bombs began to fall.
Joe saw the ack ack open up, sending what looked like little puffs of cotton wool into the air, and the shells seemed to have no more effect than cotton wool on the armada of aircraft above them. The roar and thump of falling bombs was still distant, but as the planes drew closer Joe felt the vulnerability of their position.
“I don’t think we’ll be much use up here spotting tonight,” he called over his shoulder to Bob, as he ran towards the roof door that led to the stairs. “Let’s get down to ground level and see if we can be any help there.”
“Don’t worry! I’m right behind you!”
Within moments they were running out into the street and away from the tank factory, which must surely be a target for the enemy aircraft. There was a high-pitched screaming sound as a bomb hurtled down close by. The two young men dived into the relative safety of a doorway just as the bomb struck. It destroyed the end house of a terrace and left the adjoining one only half standing. As they left the doorway and ran through the clouds of dust, Bob saw the first flickering flames of fire spread along the fallen roof timbers.
“Quick! Let’s put that out before it spreads!”
It was easier said than done. The two men ran to the area of devastation that had once been a kitchen, and began carrying water from a ruptured pipe in two bowls they found lying nearby. It was hard, hot work, running backwards and forwards across the heaps of broken bricks, tables, chairs and pictures. At last they had the flames under control and, finally, they were out. All the time, Joe had been aware of the roar and thunder of the planes, the echoing explosion of bombs, the thump thump thump of the ack ack and the wailing of sirens. Now he stopped for a moment to look around him and stood rigid with horror. The factory where they had been on watch was situated high on a hill, and the whole of Coventry was spread before him like a map. The air was alight with searchlight beams, and full of aircraft raining down bombs in an endless stream. On all sides he could see the yellow glow of fires started by incendiary bombs. He saw that the raid was not confined to Coventry’s factories alone. Fires were burning in all areas of the city.
“There’s no point trying to make it back to HQ through this lot,” he muttered. “Let’s just get down there and see what we can do.”
As the two men made their way down the street a woman ran round the corner ahead of them, screaming as she came.
“My baby! My baby!”
Joe ran to her. “What’s wrong?”
“My baby was asleep so I didn’t go to the shelter. My house is gone! Where’s my baby?”
She turned and ran back around the corner. Joe followed close behind. A whole row of houses had been flattened by a stick of bombs, leaving little recognisable behind. The woman ran to the rubble and began to dig with her bare hands.
“She’s here somewhere! I know she is!”
Joe pulled her gently away.
“Wait in the street, love. Bob and I will see what we can do.”
Over to his right a ruptured pipe spurted flaming gas into the air. Somewhere behind a weakened wall toppled, and fell with a crashing of bricks as the two men carefully began to remove the rubble. It was not long before their bodies were soaked with sweat, their hands bruised and bleeding. After almost half an hour they found the family’s pet dog, a mongrel whose skull had been crushed by falling masonry. Joe looked at Bob, but said nothing. They both knew that the chances of a child remaining alive in this were remote. They dug on, slowly clearing an area of the more moveable debris. Then Joe stopped, his head to one side as though listening to something.
“What is it?”
Joe held up his hand, and Bob fell silent. Then Joe began to dig frantically, a little to the right of where they had been before.
“I’m sure I heard a baby cry,” he whispered as he removed part of a roof timber. Sure enough there was the edge of a white lace shawl, covered in red brick-dust. They were close to the child. Joe began to move more carefully now. A door had fallen against a partially demolished wall, leaving a small triangular space at its base. Joe reached carefully inside. To his immense relief his hand made contact with a warm, moving bundle. Gently he eased the child from its sanctuary and handed it up to Bob.
“She must be the luckiest baby alive. There isn’t even a scratch on her. That door saved her life.”
Bob made his way carefully across the rubble. He handed the baby to her sobbing mother.
“There you are, love. Now you get yourself and your little girl to a shelter. Fast.”
She smiled up at him through her tears.
Bob turned and called to Joe. “Come on. Let’s see what else we can do to help.”
The hours passed quickly. Sometimes the two men helped to dig in the rubble for survivors, though they lifted out more than one for whom the raid had spelt death. At other times they helped fight the fires which raged throughout the city, a task made increasingly difficult now that the water supply was totally unreliable. Clouds of choking black smoke hung in the air obliterating the stars, and also the waves enemy planes, but the drone of their engines could still be heard, along with the explosions of their bombs. Joe lost all sense of direction and had no idea where he was. The scale of destruction was so awesome that he was lost in the city which had been home to him all his life. Midnight came and went with no slackening of the raid. Dirty and exhausted, Joe thrust his face into a bucket of water for a moment, then shook it to send drops of water flying in all directions. Feeling only a little revived by the icy water, he surveyed the carnage surrounding him, and prayed that Sarah and her mother were safe.
There was a shocked silence in the Anderson shelter as the first bombs fell. Then Alice spoke.
“Well, it looks like this is going to be the real one we’ve all been waiting for.”
“How far away are the bombs, Mummy?”
Mary smiled reassuringly at Tommy.
“Don’t worry, love. We’re quite safe here.”
“Can Daddy hear the bombs?”
Mary shook her head.
“I shouldn’t think so, he’s in the army now. Remember?”
“He’s a long way from home, so a few bombs here won’t worry him.”
There was the sound of more explosions, seeming to be closer, and Sarah felt a tingling in her feet, as though the very earth was trying to tell her of its pain.
“How long will this go on for?”
Alice looked at Mrs. Cook and shrugged. There was no answer.
For a time they listened to the droning aircraft and the crash of bombs, at a loss for words. Then they heard the screaming sound of a bomb tearing through the air close by. It landed not far away with a terrific explosion. This time Sarah did feel the earth shudder. Moments later, debris rained down on the shelter, the thumps and bangs waking little Lucy who began to cry fearfully. Mary lifted her down from the top bunk and held her close.
“There, there, darling. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The strange noises, and obviously nervous adults, filled the child with fear, and she continued to cry, despite her mother’s best attempts to quieten her. For a time the child’s sobbing was the only accompaniment to the awful cacophony from outside. Then a small, frightened whisper came from the top bunk.
“I’m scared, Mummy.”
Mary’s hands were full with little Lucy. She looked pleadingly at Sarah, who nodded reassuringly. She got up from the lower bunk and climbed up next to the little boy, having to lie down so she did not hit her head on the curved roof.
“It’s all right, Tommy. We’re quite safe here.”
The six year old looked at her with frightened eyes.
“Really. Would you like me to tell you a story?”
The small boy nodded and snuggled close to Sarah as she began to tell him the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The whole city seemed to be ablaze. Streets were blocked by rubble, hampering the fire engines and ambulances in their work. Even if the vehicles were able to get through, there were far too few to make the slightest impact on the devastation. Joe and Bob attached themselves to a fire-fighting team and their whole world shrank to the size of the small road where they were working. It was a world of heat and flames, roiling black smoke, screams and cries, the shouts of men trying to bring order to the chaos. All the time the planes droned overhead. The barrels of the anti-aircraft guns followed them through the sky until, locked in the cross beams of the searchlights, they fired at the monsters which were spewing so much death and destruction on what had so recently been a calm, ordered world.
Joe was exhausted after a day of working in the aircraft factory and half a night lost in the confusion of the air raid. Working under the orders of the senior fireman on the scene, he moved from one task to another like an automaton. The carnage no longer broke through the barrier his mind had erected to carry him through the night. The sight of a doll, its head crushed by a falling brick, touched him with a tinge of sadness, but as he helped yet another injured person from the ruins of her home and bandaged her wounds, the pain and blood moved him not at all. Joe wondered at this total detachment. He could only see it as a mental escape valve to enable him to preserve his diminishing energy.
The dark night was moving slowly and inexorably towards dawn when the ‘Raiders Past’ signal finally sounded at nineteen minutes past six, almost twelve hours since the first bomb dropped on the unsuspecting city. For a moment the rescue workers paused and raised their weary eyes in relief. The sky was now empty of planes, but they did not halt for long. The raid might be over, but the task of clearing the devastation would take days, probably weeks, of continued backbreaking effort.
Joe and Bob were directed into a house with part of the roof and wall missing. Their instructions were to search for survivors. Initially there seemed to be little damage. Dust hung in the air like a midsummer haze, but it did little to impede their view. The front room was undisturbed. The embers of a fire glowed in the hearth, a mug of cold tea stood on the table. As the two men moved out into the hall they heard a sound, perhaps a groan, coming from the direction of the partially demolished staircase.
“Is there anybody there?
Joe listened to the silence for a moment, then the groan came again. Within seconds Bob and Joe were at the staircase, carefully removing the shattered remnants of the banisters. They had soon uncovered part of a torso, a man, and Joe began clearing towards the head. The injured man was old and frail. A blow to the head had rendered him unconscious, but Joe did not think he was seriously hurt. A sudden intake of breath from where Bob was uncovering the man’s legs caused Joe to turn and look.
“What is it? Are his legs badly hurt?”
Bob shook his head. “No. They’re just trapped under the thing that made such a bloody great hole in his roof, and demolished this staircase.”
Joe felt his throat go dry and his hands clammy. He licked his lips.
“You don’t mean…?”
“Yes.” Bob nodded. “A damned great German bomb. I doubt it was brought all the way over here just to make a hole in a roof, so I guess that it’s liable to explode at any moment.”
“Then we’ve got to get this old fellow out.”
Bob sucked in his lower lip thoughtfully, then nodded.
“I think we can do it. The bomb’s resting on a pile of timbers and tiles and is trapping the leg against the wall. If I prop it up with a few more timbers, we should be able to ease him out.”
Joe nodded. “The poor old fellow must have been sheltering under the stairs.”
“That bomb certainly seems to have had his name on it.” Bob gently eased the timbers aside, his forehead beaded with sweat, his brow furrowed with concentration. Joe watched, unable to offer more help than to hold the man’s shoulders and keep him still. The seconds ticked by, each one seeming an hour, each minute a day. At last Bob looked up.
“I think we can get him out now.”
Joe released his breath. He had not realised he was holding it. Gradually he dragged the old man clear. One of his legs was lying at an awkward angle, obviously broken, and Joe was relieved that the unconscious man could feel no pain.
“Come on then, Bob. Let’s get out of here.”
“That could be a bit of a problem.”
Joe looked across at his companion, who spoke fearfully through gritted teeth.
“The timbers have slipped. The bomb is only supported by me now. I’m afraid that if I move it will go off.” He licked his dry lips. “Get the old fellow out of here. Then send someone in to prop up this bomb.”
Joe hoisted the man over his shoulder. “I’ll be back before you can say Jack Robinson.”
“You don’t have to come back, Joe.”
“I do. You’re my mate. Now just hang on a minute.”
Joe began to make his way along the hall. His burden was light, for the old man was frail, and it only took him a few seconds to reach the front door. The blast took him there, throwing him and the old man through the door with the force of the explosion, leaving them lying there on the pavement like two discarded rag dolls.
After what seemed an endless night. Sarah looked at the watch Joe had given to her the previous Christmas. 6.16. As she gazed at the watch her thoughts were centred on Joe. Where had he been through the long, dark night? Was he safe? For a moment her anxiety for him held her frozen. All night long she had prayed for the air raid to end, and now that it had she was afraid to leave the shelter to face the unknown. None of the others moved. Eventually it was Tommy who broke the tense silence.
“Can’t we go now, Mummy? I’m hungry.”
His mother smiled indulgently
“Of course. Come on, my dears.”
She picked up little Lucy, still sleepy and clinging tightly to her mother. Tommy climbed down from the top bunk and took her free hand. Alice rose stiffly to her feet as Sarah opened the door of the Anderson shelter. The early morning air was cold, and she shivered. It should have been dark, it was still over an hour before dawn, but an eldritch orange glow streaked the night sky lighting it so brightly that Sarah could see her surroundings clearly. Her home still stood, though the force of an explosion had blown some of the windows in. On one side Mary Norman’s house was intact, but on the other, where the Cooks lived, some of the walls were cracked and all the windows were shattered. The house next to the Cooks’ had no roof left, and the walls leaned at dangerous angles. One of the bombs that had landed close by, probably the one that had shaken the very foundations of their shelter, had scored a direct hit further down the street. It had demolished three houses and badly damaged four more.In others curtains billowed out from shattered windows. For a moment the small group of people stood in silence; then Sarah spoke.
“If it’s like this here, what will it be like in the city centre?”
Alice shivered. “Worse no doubt. Let’s get our place cleaned up first, before we go to look.”
Sarah shook her head. “No. You should stay here. The fewer people wandering about the better. But I must go. I have a feeling my training is going to be needed.”
Alice looked long and hard at her daughter. She feared for her safety, yet knew she was right. Finally she nodded.
“Just be careful.” Without waiting for a reply she turned to the old couple, who were staring speechlessly at their damaged home. “Come on, Mr. and Mrs. Cook, there’s plenty of room for you in my house.”
Sarah watched the small group split up, Mary Norman taking her two children home while the elderly couple gratefully followed her mother up the garden path and through the kitchen door. Sarah turned and made her way towards the centre of the city.
There was death and destruction everywhere. Houses lay in ruins. Shops and factories burned furiously and there were not enough people to put out the raging fires. People wandered injured and shocked through the streets, and Sarah felt she had awoken in hell. She was stunned and walked aimlessly through the destruction, not knowing where to go or what to do. Then she saw two ambulance men carrying a stretcher towards a bombed house and ran towards them.
“Wait!” she called. The two men stopped and turned towards her.
“If you’re looking for someone, I’m afraid we can’t help you. We’re very busy.”
The young men looked exhausted. Sarah guessed they had been working all night.
“No, you don’t understand. I’m an auxiliary nurse at home on leave. What can I do to help?”
The young man smiled gratefully. “Thanks, love. We could do with all the help we can get. Injured people are being taken to the local schools. Do you know where the nearest one is?”
“Good. Go there. I’m sure they could use your help.”
Sarah watched the two ambulance men making their way towards the bombed house, and wondered if Joe was as tired and dispirited as them. That was if he was still alive of course. As Sarah made her way towards the school buildings her fears for Joe increased, and she was tempted to try to find him. But where should she look? Where could she start? His job of spotting would have been over as the first wave of planes came in. What had he done for the rest of the night? Sarah looked around her at the destruction, which stretched away in all directions. She realised that to search for him would be a waste of time and energy. If he had survived Joe would go to her house. She hoped and prayed that would be the case.
As Sarah rounded the next corner, she saw the local school. Part of the classroom block was destroyed, but the hall was still standing. She was in a state of mild shock as she made her way across the piles of rubble and through the open door where she stopped, stunned by the sight which greeted her eyes. Those not too seriously injured were seated on children’s chairs, waiting patiently. A doctor and four nurses laboured incessantly amongst the more seriously injured, who were stretched out on tables that had recently held nothing more gruesome than school dinners. After a moment’s hesitation, Sarah made her way over to the doctor. He was completing the amputation of the leg of a teenage girl. It was a mercy she was unconscious for Sarah could see no anaesthetics and precious few other medical supplies. The doctor spoke without looking up.
“Wait with the others please.”
Sarah did not want to spoil his concentration but knew that she must speak. “I’m a nursing auxiliary. What can I do to help?”
This time the doctor did look up. His face was haggard but determined, and there was a look of intense gratification in his eyes.
“Thank God. Do you think you could deal with some of the less seriously wounded, while we do the operating?”
Sarah picked up a nearby first aid kit and made her way towards the injured. Most had superficial cuts which she could deal with, and she set to work. The number needing her attention seemed endless, and she worked long and hard, the needs of those around her driving all fears for Joe from her mind.
Sarah worked unceasingly throughout the day and on into the night. Long before the injured ceased to make their way to the makeshift hospital, they had run out of everything – dressings, sutures, disinfectant, bandages, painkillers, antiseptics. The list was as endless as their needs. Able-bodied people who had brought their relatives for treatment were sent home to search for any first aid supplies they could find. Clean sheets were brought in and torn up for bandages, then sterilised in an old tin bath of boiling water placed over a fire made from roof timbers. Water was collected from broken pipes, which dripped incessantly. There was no electricity, so light was provided by a few candles scavenged from nearby houses, but their light was barely sufficient. The windows were broken allowing the chill November wind to sweep in, and the hands of the doctor and nurses were numb from the cold. Some of those who were uninjured came to offer their aid. The blankets they brought were gratefully received, some being used to cover the windows, while the rest were distributed to the patients. There seemed little chance of evacuating any of the wounded to a proper hospital. So far there had been no communication with anyone in authority, and the destruction was so great that it seemed unlikely that there would be any improvement in communications for some time. An able-bodied young man in his twenties was sent to the Town Hall, in the hope that someone there could tell them what was happening and send them some aid. But as the day wore on they were still awaiting his return.
With facilities so limited, all those not seriously injured had been sent home, including those with broken limbs, but that still left almost fifty seriously wounded people laid on the school tables: a baby with a fractured skull and severe internal injuries, the teenage amputee, a mother who had given birth in the debris of her home and almost died from loss of blood, a man with a broken back, an old woman suffering severe shock and pneumonia. The list was endless. By late evening, more than twenty-four hours after the bombing had begun, there had been six deaths, two of them during emergency operations. The bodies were removed to a small classroom to await identification and burial.
The night drew on. Sarah had been working in the school for sixteen hours when she looked up to find that no one else was waiting for treatment. She straightened up slowly, her back aching from so many hours bending, her fingers numb with the cold, her head aching with a pounding, throbbing pain that had been going on for hours. As she rubbed her tired eyes, she looked around her at the people whose lives had been so dramatically changed in the space of just one day, but she could find no tears for them. She did not know why. Perhaps she was too exhausted, maybe she was in shock. She did know, however, that her family had been remarkably lucky, and for this she was extremely grateful. Mixed with this gratitude was a gnawing fear about what had happened to Joe. There had been so much death and destruction. Everyone who came into the school had their stories of bombed houses and shelters, raging fires, rescuers injured by booby trapped bombs and land mines. Her fears for Joe’s safety increased.
As she rubbed her freezing hands together, Sarah was approached by the doctor she had spoken to when she first arrived. He looked exhausted, his face haggard and grey, his clothes covered with his patients’ blood.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t even know your name.” His voice was weak and shook with exhaustion. Sarah guessed he was little more than thirty, but the day’s experiences had aged him immeasurably. She wondered if she looked as bad as he did; perhaps that was why she could find no tears for the suffering around her.
“My name’s Sarah Porter. I’m based at Heronfield House near Marlborough. I was home on leave last night.”
The doctor took a deep breath. “I’m Charles Bailey. I’m just an ordinary G.P., but somebody had to do this.” He looked around him. “God knows how long it’s going to take to make some sort of order out of this mess. If we don’t get some of these people to a proper hospital soon, they’re going to die.”
“Have you heard anything from the messenger you sent to the Town Hall?”
Bailey shook his head. “I doubt if he’ll be back before morning. I told him not to come back until he had some firm news.”
“I’ll stay on as long as you need me.”
Bailey smiled weakly for the first time. “Thanks, I don’t know what I would have done without your help, or that of the other nurses who came here. They all live locally. I suppose you do too?”
“Is your house damaged?”
She shook her head. “No. We were lucky.”
“Then I suggest you go home and get some sleep. I’ve sent two of the nurses home too, the other two will stay and help me tonight. Perhaps you can come back in the morning to relieve them?”
Sarah smiled weakly. “Thanks. I don’t mind admitting I’m exhausted.” She looked around at the patients. Some were unconscious, many more sleeping, others lay groaning in unrelieved pain. “I’ll see if I can get hold of some food when I come back.”
Bailey’s eyes lit up. “That would be fantastic. These people must eat if they’re going to survive.” He smiled warmly at her. “Now get off home. I’ll see you again in the morning. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Doctor Bailey.”
Sarah wrapped her coat tightly around her against the cold night air, and made her way over the mounds of rubble in the school playground. When she reached the road, she walked down the middle where there was less rubble to impede her progress, though still enough to prevent motor vehicles from knocking her down in the blackout, though the blackout was in no way complete. Fires still burned where houses, shops and factories had once stood. Rescue teams still worked amongst the rubble, although with diminishing hope. Work parties were beginning to clear some of the rubble from the roads. Sarah could not believe that these were the streets where she had played as a child, where she had shopped with her mother and walked with Joe. Coventry was unrecognisable. She had an empty feeling deep inside when she thought of how long it would take to get things back to normal. As she turned into her own road she saw for the first time just how bad the damage from the bomb had been. Six houses were totally demolished, while the Cooks’ next door to her mother’s was in very poor condition. The damage to her own home was superficial, and she was glad that her mother still had somewhere to live.
As she walked tiredly through the front door Alice came out of the kitchen.
“Sarah! Where’ve you been? I’ve been so worried about you!”
Sarah hung up her coat and made her weary way to the kitchen. She slumped down at the table.
“I’ve been at the local school, they’re using it as a makeshift hospital.” She looked across at her mother, who was filling the kettle. “It was awful, Mum. There are so many people injured and nothing much we can do to help.”
Alice took her hand and helped her up from the table. “I’ll have to boil the kettle over the parlour fire, there’s no gas. Come on, love.”
The two women made their way to the front room, where they sat in front of the fire as the kettle began to heat.
“Have you heard anything from Joe?”
Alice shook her head.
“Sorry love, I’ve heard nothing. But don’t worry, I’m sure he’s out there helping to sort things out. We’ve been busy here today, first clearing out the glass and boarding up the windows, then helping to clear the road. Mr. and Mrs. Cook are upstairs asleep at the moment.” She smiled encouragingly. “Your Joe is a good man. He’ll know you’re worried, but he’ll put his duty to help others first. He’ll be back, when things begin to get sorted out. Wait and see.”
Sarah nodded. “I’m sure you’re right, Mum. I suppose I’m just tired.” She tried to bury her fears deep inside as she began to tell Alice of all she had experienced during the day. The death and destruction, the pain and suffering, the feeling of helplessness. The tears began to flow at last, partly for Joe but mostly for Coventry, her home; for its people, for what they had been and what they had become.
If you had lived in the 17th century would you have backed King Charles I or Oliver Cromwell during the Civil War? For a bit of fun why not answer these questions and find out?
What is your view of politics?
A An elite should govern us
B Every-one should have an equal say in government
What is your view of the monarchy?
A The Queen should have much more power to set laws
B The Queen should be a figurehead only
What is your view of religion?
A People should follow a structured form of worship set by the state
B People should be free to worship in an informal way
Mostly A’s – You would have been a Royalist. You would have said that the King is a divine ruler appointed by God. He should be able to rule without Parliament, choosing what laws and taxes he wishes to impose without interference from a Parliament which represents the people. You would also have said that the King is the Head of the Church of England which should be the state religion; form and structure is required to worship God, informality shows a lack of respect.
Mostly B’s – You would have been a Parliamentarian. You would have said that the King should only be a figurehead for the people, he is not divinely appointed by God and so should rule according to the wishes of the people. You would also have said that it is the role of Parliament to set laws and taxes; members of Parliament should be elected by the people. You would have believed that worship should be simple and from the heart, arguing that Jesus criticised the religious leaders of his day for their insistence on form whilst ignoring the needs of the people.
Of course, it was not quite that simple! Although Parliamentarians wanted the people to have more of a say in government it was only a limited number of people from certain classes in society who had that right. There was no universal suffrage – no votes for women or for men who did not belong to the right social class. As for religion, it went without saying that you would have been a Christian. Also, both Parliamentarians and Royalists felt the need to impose their form of worship on everyone whereas people today would say that there should be much more freedom to choose, and acceptance of those who choose to worship differently or not at all.
So, now you know which side you would have been on why not read ‘The Cavalier Historian’ and see what might have happened to you if you had lived through the English Civil War!
Marston Manor is an old manor house in Oxfordshire which the new owner plans to turn into a ‘themed’ attraction based on the years of the English Civil War. When historian Robert Hardwick joins the project he is delighted to discover a family link with Marston dating back to the time of King Charles I and the witch persecutions of the 17th century.
But right from the start disturbing events raise mistrust and fear on the estate. Who, or what, is trying to halt the plans for the Manor? Can the disruption and sabotage be linked to the traveller camp in the woods or to the more sinister appearances of a ghostly old woman? And just who is Rebekah, and why does she have such a hold over Rob?
In his haunted dreams Rob finds himself living through the turbulent years of the English Civil War, experiencing it all through the eyes of his ancestor, Simon. Dreams which begin gently enough in the days leading up to war in 1642 but which become ever more frightening, ending with the terrifying events of the witch trials of 1651.
The Cavalier Historian is a novel which follows characters separated by more than three centuries, living in the 17th century yet somehow linked through time to present day events. Over the centuries they live through war and peace, experience love and loss, suffer fear and persecution yet, at the very end, is it possible for them to find hope for the future?