Chronicle of Youth

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Testament of Youth (1933) is perennially moving and, for better or for worse, still helps define our response to #WW1 but for an authentic and visceral insight into what it was really like to (a) be Vera Brittain and (b) live through the early years of the War in a provincial English town, a chilly Oxford college and a miserable nurses’ home, then read her diaries, published as Chronicle of Youth in 1981. —- Reading Chronicle, I alternated between wanting to slap the young Vera for her snobbery (almost obligatory at the time) and superiority (in her defence, she bewitchingly pretty, seriously clever, and unbelievably hard-working) – and hug her for being so unpopular and uptight, so emotionally vulnerable, so naïve – and so desperately unhappy so much of the time. Like the author of Testament, the author of Chronicle demonstrates no understanding of the wider causes of the Great War and holds no strategic overview; she simply describes, day by exhilarating, excruciating day, the creeping onset of hostilities and gradual realisation of horrors. And, since there is no benefit of hindsight and no poetical honing of emotions, the cruel spikes of sudden death and each crashing wave of grief are all the more terrible in their rawness and incomprehension. (Although, as when watching Titanic for the umpteenth time, one desperately hopes that just this once the iceberg may float on past…) —- There is a further fascinating difference between Testament and Chronicle; the telling of VB’s relationship with Roland Leighton. Whilst Testament revisits this into a sweetly conventional love story, the latter hints at the tangled web of emotions and uncomfortable ambiguities on both sides – and it is precisely this untidy authenticity that makes this book (usefully read in tandem with Berry and Bostridge’s biography Vera Brittain: A Life) so gripping for a novelist. —- I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, nothing – not even Alicia Vickander looking beautiful in her beret or Sam Claflin acting tortured in his dugout – beats reading contemporary accounts of the #GreatWar all their bigotry and bravery, heartbreaking idealism and false hopes. #amreading

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Pilgrimage

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Love is Blind (reading-as-a-writer 15)

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I’ve liked William Boyd ever since I read A Good Man in Africa when I was myself a good woman in Africa. We’ve had our ups and downs but Love is Blind is a definite Up. Smart, elegant, gripping story-telling; no more and no less. When I grow up I want to write like William Boyd. —- Gifts for the writer/reader? —- (1) Character. No big exposition. Built up little by little, layer on layer; subtle hints, delicate clues – and, suddenly, we really care about this selfish, short-sighted, chain-smoking young Scotsman and his peripatetic life in the first decade of the 20th century. —- (2) Understatement. Act 1: Brodie falls in love with the woman who will define the rest of his life. Act 2: Brodie wins and then loses the love of his life. Act 3: No spoilers; let’s just say it’s not quite Happy Ever After. Could the love affair be more, um, passionate? Could the lost love be a bit more tragic? Possibly – and, in the wrong hands, probably – but the telling is perfect as it is and I’ve learnt a lot; the impeccable lens of the story-teller, the telling details, the significance of what is left unsaid. —- (3) Time passing. As a novice, I am particularly challenged when required to describe the passing of time or the passage of a physical journey. How to avoid ugly jumps in the narrative style? How to maintain dramatic tension? How to describe yet another train journey? (There were so many train journeys in the early 20th century!) #amwriting #amlearning #bookstagram

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Shellshock case notes

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Another afternoon @nationalarchivesuk immersed in #WW1 medical records, this time for victims of neurasthenia (latter #shellshock) admitted to various English hospitals. I feel for the doctors; faced with a catalogue of vague physical symptoms (commonly abdominal pains, headache and shaking), no modern imaging or other diagnostic tools, under pressure to declare men fighting fit. Not easy, either, for men in France who may themselves be endangered by a dithering colleague – as one memo from an exacerbated commanding officer suggested: “This man is absolutely useless and we are anxious to get rid of him”. Many of the medical assessments are detailed and holistic; written by doctors who clearly listened to their patients. Peacetime occupations are noted (bookmaker, motor mechanic, engineer), precipitating events analysed (“continual heavy fire … stupefied him”, “father drowned on Lusitania, brother killed in France”) and other anxieties – often domestic or marital – are remarked on. Treatments included sedation with bromide or valium, rest in bed (often “outside”), milk diets, hot baths, massage and (occasionally) “faradic” or electrical treatment (often refused). Sometimes a senior opinion is sought, with pithy outcome: “I think soldering doesn’t agree with him” (discharged unfit) and “always complaining … the idleness of hospital is certainly not improving his mental condition” (returned to regiment). On one occasion a more experienced MO intervened and apparently sat down and talked to the patient after noting: “no abnormal mental symptoms – he has seen notes and naturally worried – he has not been reassured and the whole circumstances explained to him”. Some of the records are particularly sad: The 22-year-old 2nd lieutenant found in “state of exhaustion”, the 17-year-old private who “fainted when shells came over” – and the soldier hospitalised who went for a walk, returned “quite cheerful” to hospital and then cut his own throat. These aside, many of the men appeared to recover after a couple of weeks of milk diets and bed rest and were then sent either to convalescence or on sick furlough, often with advice thereafter for “light duties”. #GreatWar

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Armistice 1918

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The Mars Room (reading-as-writer 14)

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The Forbidden Zone

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Mary Borden is one of those women who help make the early 20th century such an exciting, terrible time to be alive. Born in 1886 the daughter of a Chicago mining millionaire, Mary married a British missionary and moved to London where she raised three daughters. She started writing and had a brief affair with modernist writer and painter Wyndham Lewis (founder of the Vorticist group and a man who Hemingway described as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”). During most of the #FirstWorldWar Borden funded and ran a highly efficient field hospital caring for French combatants – and found time for a passionate affair with a British officer (who she subsequently married after divorcing the long-suffering missionary). All this – and a wonderful, lyrical, gritty writer and poet! (Her second World War, serving in Palestine and North Africa, was equally exciting.) The Forbidden Zone is a collection of short stories concerned with life in wartime France and caring for the wounded. Most of the pieces were drafted in brief respites from work; the whole is both a bewitching portrayal of the ugliness, ironies (and sometimes awful beauty) of war – and an intelligent and authentic description of wartime nursing. Perhaps the most powerful piece is Moonlight, in which the writer lies awake in her tent listening to the whimpering of a dying man in a nearby ward. “Pain is a harlot in the pay of War … she consorts with decay, is addicted to blood, cohabits with mutilations … She is shameless. She lies in their beds all day. She lies with the Heads and the Knees and the festering Abdomens … she lies beside them, to tease them with her excruciating caresses, her pinches and twinges that make them moan and twist in sleep … she lies there to spoil their dreams, when they dream of their women and little children, of their mothers and sweethearts … “ #amwriting #writinginspiration #amresearchingformynovel #WW1 #GreatWar #modernliterature

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The Lie (reading-as-a-writer 13)

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The Lie by Helen Dunmore (2014) is up there on my list of Top 20 #WW1 books (and that is not a place easily gained). Accolades abound elsewhere so I won’t reiterate; suffice to say it’s a book to which I will return. Three Gifts for the writer-reader: (1) A masterclass in first person, present tense narrative. (2) Another masterclass – in building tension and gradual reveal. (3) Vivid, accurate period and historical detail. And because The Lie is such a strong exemplar for a writer of historical fiction, I looked a little closer and identified three more useful techniques: Foreshadowing: The seeds of Dan’s destruction are sewn in the early part of the book, and reiterated with a memory from his childhood. Ambiguity: Is there something more to the old woman’s death? What is the significance of the revolver and bayonet references – and the dog scene? What exactly happened to Felicia? And is Frederick a ghost or hallucination? (And, no, it doesn’t matter!) Narrative voice: Impeccable match between character and his world view, all nicely constrained by the tight frame of his surroundings and experience. #amreading

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#100 days of writing 4

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Virginia Woolf (reading-as-a-writer 12)

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This is one of my Desert Island Books! Every time I read Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925) I gain some new nugget of understanding, spark of inspiration, fresh writerly knowledge. This most recent reading was prompted by a short course in #WW1 literature at The British Library. Oddly enough, I hadn’t previously thought of Mrs Dalloway as part of the WW1 canon, but of course it is: from the early mention of Lady Bexborough “who opened a bazaar … with a telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed” to poor Septimus Smith’s terrible breakdown. Three gifts for the writer-reader? Every sentence – every word – is a gift but if you insist: (1) Descriptions: What could be more perfect than “the leaden circles” of the chimes of Big Ben “dissolving in the air” – or the character of Lord Gayton, in whose hands “ponies’ mouths quivered at the end of his reins”? (2) Control: it may seem like a delightful, mad, meandering stream-of-consciousness but of course it’s not. Apart from the recurring motifs of Big Ben, the “strange high singing” of the aeroplane, and the baton-carrying continuity of the action zig-zagging across London, there is the full circle meeting of Mrs Dalloway’s first loves. (3) Enigmas: the singer (“the voice of an ancient spring”) outside Regent’s Park Tube Station – and the OTT repulsiveness of Miss Kilman (and her not-so-subtle name). What does she represent? Emancipation or repression? Should we pity her or fear her? I’ve also just read (for the first time) Jacob’s Room (1922) – and then followed this up by an overdose of online literary analysis. The central character is supposed to be based on Rupert Brooke, who Woolf described as “jealous, moody and ill-balanced”. (Search the London Review of Books archive for a review of three 2015 biographies and a photo of Brooke looking distractingly handsome, even by his standards). I’m not sure about the Brooke connection; I just know I read Jacob’s Room in 24 hours, I’m bewitched by the concept of a character known only in the fragments of other’s connections – and the beginning and the ending are (in turn) beautiful and heart-breaking. #amreading #amresearchingformynovel

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