Somme Pilgrimage

Exactly 100 years ago this month, Welsh Fusilier Glyn Roberts fell at La Boiselle in the opening incursions of the Battle of the Somme. His battalion, the 9th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, engaged in an attack, ‘regardless of loss’. Glyn was killed on 3rd July 1916, days before the ensuing battle of Mametz Wood. A collection of moving letters home to his mother and sisters are the inspiration behind my debut novel. To honour the memory of my great uncle Glyn, I journeyed with the South Wales Western Front Association to the Somme battlefields for a memorial ceremony on the centenary of one of the bloodiest battles in British military history. The emotional trip resulted in me receiving, for the first time, a message that never reached our family at the time. This is my account of the extraordinary pilgrimage.

Stranger than fiction

The paper record shows scores, hundreds, thousands, of dead. The front line reports list the locations of silenced machine-gun nests, and the regimental history books log the number of yards gained.

But it is only when you visit a battlefield site that this catalogue of carnage takes on meaning and you get an idea of the difficulty of the task and the enormity of the sacrifices made.

Here in the beautiful tranquillity of the countryside of northern France, the sun caught the deep green leaves of Mametz Wood half a mile distant, the battle that claimed thousands of lives. And here I stood, a month ago, alongside hundreds of others under the blazing sun, at the site of the Welsh dragon memorial.

The dragon is depicted tearing at barbed wire, facing the wood where so many Welsh soldiers died.

Now the grim statistics have real meaning: about 4,000 soldiers died in the five-day fight for the wood, Lt Gen Jonathon Riley reminding us that in just 15 minutes we lost as many of our people here as we did in 15 years of conflict in Afghanistan.

There were hymns, prayers and readings, and the Royal Welsh regimental band played as they marched up the hill, sending a collective shiver down our spines.

Among the crowds, I stood with my new-found friends from Wales and we had our moments of individual reflection, remembrance of family, courage and sacrifice.

I began to think of my own strange journey here. It started in a writing class ten years ago when I joined a University of York creative writing course. I wrote radio plays and poetry but prose and novels were my comfort zone.

I found inspiration in family letters collected by my grandmother after the First World War, and wondered what life had been like for the women of the family back home in Wales. I imagined the characters, some with real family names. I identified with both Glyn, my great uncle, and his devoted sister Bronwyn.

The draft of my story won me a place on a mentoring scheme run by Ffestiniog-based publisher Cinnamon Press. The end result was my first novel, News from Nowhere.

In a day of memorable moments, one stood out above the rest. Historian and archivist, Marietta Crichton-Stuart read an extract from ‘A Mother’s Letter’, written by Mrs Ruby Barrett after her visit to Mametz in May 1920. Her letter was published in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald.

There may be other mothers, like myself, who longed to see the place where their sons had been buried. If these lines can comfort any, I hope they will. Mametz Wood is a lovely place. The shell holes are filled with green growth and Nature’s hand has covered our brave dead with a mantle of wild flowers, grasses and quaint mosses; so we need not feel they live without a flower upon their soldier graves.”

         Later I met Marietta who asked about my relative. I replied: “Glyn Roberts, Royal Welsh Fusiliers.”

“Not C.G. Roberts, by any chance?” she asked. Then she brought out the letter again and towards the end of it I read this message for the first time, originally meant to comfort our family:

“I visited still more graves on the Contalmaison road, replaced many crosses that had fallen down. I took the name of a grave I could read more easily and think, perhaps, someone might recognise and be pleased to hear – Lt.  C. Glyn Roberts, Adj. 9th R.W.F, 3rd July 1916. I wish I could have done more.”

A woman, who’d lost her only son, had taken the trouble to send comfort to another grieving family, in the hope it might reach them someday.

Marietta said: “There are soldiers out there who want to be found, who are waving and shouting ‘over here.'”

Her own great grandfather, the 32-year-old South Wales MP, Lord Ninian Crighton-Stuart, fell at the battle of Loos on October 2, 1915.

So it was with great emotion and gratitude that I laid roses on Glyn’s grave, at nearby Ovillers cemetery. I was moved by the inscription:

He doth not sleep

He hath awakened

From the dream of life

The boy I’d come to know from his letters, the young man who had studied at  Kingswood School, Bath and Ysgol Friars, the chorister  who gained a scholarship to the University College of Bangor, the courageous soldier I had imagined from his vivid and touching letters home, had indeed come to life after nearly a century.

As the memorial service ended under a clear blue sky and the notes of the Last Post drifted off towards Mametz Wood, the silence fell, pierced only by heart-breaking birdsong.

News from Nowhere, by Jane Austin, will be published by Cinnamon Press, February 2017. It can be pre-ordered from:

Meeting Kate Evans

Yesterday, I met writer Kate Evans, who talked about her murder mysteries set in Scarborough. It was the perfect setting – the Clock Café on a cliff-top, overlooking a windswept bay.

After some years as a writer and no publisher in sight, Kate went independent with a local press. Her first murder mystery, The Art of the Imperfect, available on Amazon, feels and looks good. This debut novel set in the world of therapists, layers motive and intrigue in gripping fashion.

Kate keeps a regular blog and is part of a network of Indie writers, who guest blog for each other, creating ever wider networks. Over cheese toasties and hot-chocolate, we talked about ways of building a readership. In addition to blogging, Kate uses Facebook and Twitter to keep up her profile. I asked, how important is it to keep a regular online presence. She said, it depends what you’re comfortable with. It serves as a valuable marketing tool, alongside talks and signings.

We spoke about the York Novelists Workshop on Sat 11 June 10.30 – 12.00 at York Explore Library, which is part of the Festival of Ideas. The aim is to share our methods and encourage others to form their own groups. We ran the same event in March, as part of the York Literature Festival, and a writers group has sprung from it.

York Novelists have recently formed a marketing group for Indie and small press authors, which aims to build networks, followers and sales.

Over tea and cake, Kate and I agreed on the importance of fostering a readership, and collaboration with other writers is enormously helpful. Writing is solitary, but when it comes to selling our work, we need to join forces.

New Cinnamon Press Short Stories

Read the new anthology, The Day I Met Vini Reilly, now available from Cinnamon Press:

‘From the pop buzz feel of Will Kemp‘s award winning ‘The Day I Met Vini Reilly’, brimming with light-touch social commentary, ironic personal reflections, sharp dialogue and insights about the author and his hero, to Jane McLaughlin‘s ‘Common Ground’ in which the narrator finds emotional release through an unexpected encounter; and from the dramatic first paragraph of ‘Eclipsed’ by Kate Mitchell, opening a story full of psychological entanglement that leads to a chilling conclusion, to the deft first person voice of Jane Austin‘s historical and personal drama in ‘Les Petites Curies’, these are stories that will delight, grip, entertain and intrigue. From 1970s pop buzz to hi-tech Saigon, Jeremy Worman has selected ten extraordinary stories.’

My story traces the tense relationship between mother and daughter, Marie and Irène Curie, who used X-rays for the wounded at the battlefront in the First World War. The X-ray vans were dubbed Les Petites Curies.

The inspiration for this story was a spin-off from my novel, News from Nowhere, to be published by Cinnamon, March 2017. The novel is based on family letters from the First World War. It takes the point of view of a young woman whose life is changed forever by the letters she receives from the Front.

As I researched the byways of women’s achievements at that time, I came across peace campaigners, doctors, journalists, scientists, and the extraordinary career of Marie Curie. There was a side of her life, little known today, that I found quite fascinating.

Marie Curie was a world famous twice Nobel Prize winner, yet fighting to salvage her reputation. Vilified for her affair with fellow scientist, Paul Langevin, she was under severe stress and in poor health, when in the summer of 1912, Hertha Ayrton offered her respite in Dorset. The two had a lot in common; both were physicists, widowed, and of Polish origin. Marie had been hounded as a ‘foreigner’ by a rampantly xenophobic French press.

Two years later, the world was at war. Marie was determined to play her part in defending her beloved France. She turned her energies to establishing a fleet of X-ray vans, learned to drive, and took her machines to the frontline. The equipment she used produced images of shrapnel in the body and greatly increased chances of survival. Irène, her daughter and assistant, accompanied her at the tender age of seventeen.

What was the relationship between mother and daughter? How would Irène survive the experience of war, witness to horrific injuries? And what of the daughter left behind? These are the questions that drew me to their story.


Starting a Novel from Scratch

2016 sees the start of my new novel with the provisional title, Father of the House. It’s been brewing for a while, and started as a story based on the reverberations of war down the generations. I’ve since shifted focus but kept the main character, Justin, whose youthful involvement with radical politics comes back to bite him and his family in later life.

This time round I promised myself not to launch in without an outline, however sketchy. My own experience of left activism in the 80s gives me a framework, though Justin was busy rocking the establishment in the early 70s. I now have a cast of characters with name, age and life history; I don’t always know how they will pan out until they appear on the page. I’m excited to be bedding them in and watching them grow. In the first flush of enthusiasm it feels good to ride the wave of making things up as you go along. Then comes the grind of rewriting, editing and brutally deleting.

I may have a plot, but confess I don’t know how it ends. I’ll just have to keep writing to find out.

Edwin’s advice about goal setting, Jan 06,, is timely. My goal is to write the first draft over 12 months, allowing for background reading and research. Achievement awards are a great idea!

Will let you know how it’s going.

Canadian Transcontinental October 2015

Three days turn into four as we accumulate stoppage time for mile-long freight trains thundering down the track. We are passengers on Canada’s VIA service, where time, it seems, is no object.

‘This is stretching a friendship,’ as a fellow traveller puts it.

Rockies and prairies, lakes, forests and chiffon skies, a panoramic sweep from Kamloops to Toronto of this vast and beautiful country is ample compensation.

Most daunting are the prairies: sandless desserts that suck you in and threaten to tip you over the horizon. No parcelling of land into squares and strips with hedgerows and dry-stone walls, no relief of hill or tree. In these unconfined spaces the eye must shift dimension to find subtle shades in yellows and browns, fix on a distant tractor or trace telegraph wires in parallel lines. With steady gaze and firm foothold, I may yet distill this vision into words; like a blank page, the landscape cries out for delineation which only the mind can impose.

The Rockies have other qualities. Excitement bounces round the viewing dome as we happily snap our digital imprints of these stolid and graceful giants capped with snow; from distant heights they shed crystalline waterfalls. I’m put in mind of the flow that occurs, on a good day, after chiselling at the surface of language – an unforgiving material at the best of times – into some recognisable shape. Whether with camera or keyboard, we chase the shadows of nature’s commanding presence and perhaps our own half-expressed dreams.

Brakes creak as we grind to a halt to let an oil train pass – again. I have an intimate view of a pine forest and observe a spectrum of green as variegated as any sea. The trees stand close and tall, branches sweep skywards like dancers’ arms, spreading feathered hands to spiny tips. Mature trees are a muted bottle-green, others lead-green or verdigris – sometimes only a borrowed word will do. Younger specimens shimmer apple-bright with lime green shoots, light shining through still sparse growth.

There’s a jolt as the train moves forwards, to general cheering.

‘The destination is the journey,’ chirps a neighbour, which after ten hours’ delay, sounds like a gem from Forrest Gump.

Meanderings in York Cemetery

There’s something down to earth about picking blackberries in a cemetery.

My friend and I go equipped in wellies and waterproofs on a wet bank holiday Monday. We skirt the neoclassical chapel and walk along a tree-lined avenue past gravestones ancient and modern, to where the blackberry bushes are. They are thick and lush. Treading on graves, we reach for the plumpest fruit.

‘It’s not quite the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but it won’t be long,’ says my friend.

‘I visited Keats’ house in Hampstead this summer,’ I reply.

She pops a blackberry into her mouth, eyebrow raised.

‘I didn’t know he died aged twenty-five. His epitaph reads, Here lies one whose name was writ in water. He thought he’d be forgotten.’

We stop a moment to try and decipher the writing under our feet, but it’s long since worn away.

‘There’s an independent bookshop round the corner from the house,’ I continue. ‘Daunt Books, where novels are shelved by country. I found Kamila Shamsie’s, Burnt Shadows, under Pakistan.’

My friend, who’s a librarian, shakes her head in wonder.

Salthill beach, Galway, Connemara 26 August 2015

The Atlantic pounds and roars against the rocks as I stand and stare at a lone windsurfer skimming a turbulent sea. Salt spray lashes my cheeks, feet soaked, I’m transfixed by a silhouetted figure holding fast to a transparent wing, a triangle of sail. I watch as he dips and darts, leans and braces, a filament of light flying back and forth, defying the elements. The sun is bright and cold as a diamond and the sky palely unforgiving.
Is it the thrill of risk, the display of consummate skill that fascinates? Yes, that, but there’s something more. When my writing comes unstuck, which is quite often, I’ll remember the lone surfer and wait for the fleeting moment when words fly and dance across water, shimmering into being.