I’m delighted to welcome J.G Harlond today, for a post about memory and research, and the writing of her cosy Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries.
J.G Harlond is a British author of historical crime novels. After travelling widely, Jane and her Spanish husband are now settled in rural Andalucía, Spain. Do grab a coffee and sit to enjoy this interesting insight into a writer’s process.
Over to Jane:
Like Deborah, I write fiction set in the 17th Century and World War Two. I enjoy the hard work that goes into writing about both epochs, but I have to admit my new story, Private Lives (set 1942), has been challenging. On the surface, writing a cosy historical crime with a touch of black comedy should have been easier than writing The Chosen Man Trilogy, for example, but it wasn’t.
Ludo da Portovenere’s wicked adventures in Europe and India in the mid-seventeenth century are all based on documented history. Each story includes facts, researched social and commercial data, plus a few lesser known historical details such as what happened to some of the most valuable English Crown Jewels during the English Civil War: what happens to Bob Robbins in Devon and Cornwall during the nineteen-forties also includes researched data and surprising facts, but Bob’s stories also draw on personal memory. Not that I lived through the Second World War: I’m not that old! The background and ambience of Local Resistance and Private Lives, however, rely to an extent on how I interpreted wartime life from my parents’ and grand-parents’ references and anecdotes. This in turn involves a certain amount of speculation on how other ‘ordinary’ families lived in small towns, rural and coastal communities.
In my mind’s eye, while I am writing, I can see what is happening in those days: the hand-knitted cardigans and walnut-laminated wireless sets, wooden draining boards and rolled newspapers fanning flames out of a few bits of coal. I was a post-war baby, born while the war and food rationing were a recent memory. Little was said in my hearing about the war itself, but the Home Front, that was a different matter. Tales about how goods fell off the back of a lorry, reminders to wear something white at night (to avoid getting run over in the black-out), to make do and mend; anecdotes about fire-watch duties, poker games and local dances . . . These must have settled into the back of my mind the way popular song lyrics do.
Nobody belittled the difficulties they endured, but in the daily struggle – and it was a struggle – there was a lot of humour. Life was dangerous and unpredictable, even in rural or coastal areas where a random bomber might dump unused bombs on the way back to base. This happened. I remember distinctly being told about a primary school where the only child to survive had been at home in bed with a sore throat.
People were stoic, but not passé, although a survey conducted in London in November 1940 revealed only 40% of the population went into an air-raid shelter on a regular basis. Most Londoners preferred to risk sudden death in their own beds. Anderson shelters constructed in back gardens were chilly, relatively flimsy affairs, and must have been very unpleasant on winter nights. Morrison shelters, large steel tables with inbuilt cages that took up most of the floor space of the average sitting-room were preferable, but offered only limited safety. Larger homes created well-prepared refuge rooms in basements. Londoners who had access to none of these installed themselves in underground Tube stations, where there was no sanitation or comfort beyond the company of strangers. The inhabitants of Plymouth pushed blankets and thermos flasks into babies’ prams or garden wheel-barrows and trekked out of the city to sleep under the stars on Dartmoor.
Think about that for a minute: how did mothers with young children cope? How did the elderly cope with the long walk and discomfort? Yet cope, they did.
In both town and country, people relied on the black-out to keep them safe. Thick black curtains were hung at all windows: no home, no car or bicycle could show a beam of light for fear of attracting enemy bombers. Road accidents on winter evenings were commonplace.
Daily life, the basic domestic round, goes on under the most extreme of circumstances everywhere, of course, even today. Children have to be fed and educated; homes need to be clean and kept warm. Parents in every country involved feared for their offspring at the front between 1939 and 1945, and they themselves had to get to work in appalling circumstances after sleepless nights. But life went on.
In Britain, there was the added, critical risk of imminent invasion. Cinema news reels showed footage of Poland, the Netherlands and Channel Islands: this could happen in Britain. It was a terrifying thought. Something modern film-makers and writers frequently overlook. The detail about the German U-boat surfacing off the Cornish coast to take on fresh water in Local Resistance was taken from a German sailor’s account. I didn’t invent that.
With all these threats and challenges, how on earth did the British maintain a positive outlook, or morale as it was called then? The answer lies largely in our idiosyncratic sense of humour and capacity for self-mockery, bolstered by light entertainment on the wireless and at the cinema.
Mrs Miniver demonstrated how even the most polite of middle-class women can be as tough as steel when a Nazi appears at their door.
All this, family anecdotes, academic research, and a particularly English brand of humour slips into my Home Front mysteries. How a Cornish fishing village called on its ancient smuggling tradition to evade rationing while preparing to defend their country when ‘Jerry’ landed forms the background to Local Resistance; how people as diverse as Land Army girls and unemployed London actors coped with the daily drudge three years into the war underlies the shenanigans and criminal activities in Private Lives.
The Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas has a wonderful line in the opening of his memoir about growing up in Wales during the Great War: beyond his Wales, he says, “lay England, which was London, and a country called ‘The Front’ from which many of our neighbours never came back”. The Front was obviously perilous, but how life went on in unoccupied Britain, how people coped in the face of incessant difficulties and dangers required its own form of bravery, which deserves to be celebrated.
READ THE OPENING CHAPTER! Read the first chapter of Private Lives
Read about ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ in Local Resistance: http://getbook.at/LocalResistance
Read about the criminal activities of Devonshire farmers and London actors in Private Lives: http://viewbook.at/PrivateLives
Find Jane on: www.jgharlond.com
Blog – ‘Reading & Writing’
Picture Credits: The picture of Mrs Miniver’s kitchen
The picture of a farm kitchen is from the Museum of English Rural Life
PRIVATE LIVES – Cozy crime with a sinister twist in wartime England.
While reluctant wartime detective Bob Robbins is enjoying a few days’ holiday he becomes involved in a shooting incident on a derelict farm. An elderly farmer lies injured, then disappears. A young man is found dead in the barn. Bob reports the incident to the local police but they are so over-stretched with Home Front duties he finds himself in charge of the case. In urgent need of assistance, Bob requests the help of the young police recruit Laurie Oliver. They take rooms at Peony Villas, an unusual sort of guest house where a troupe of London actors are in residence, and where Bob soon finds himself involved in yet another peculiar mystery.