Second Lieutenant P.E. Thomas

Edward Thomas grave

…otherwise better known as the poet Edward Thomas, and whose grave we went to visit earlier this year, in the little cemetery at Agny, near Arras.

Edward Thomas was a strange and difficult man,  depressive and quite unsuited to  domestic life, despite the attempts of his adoring wife Helen to make it a perfect one for him. He went for long, gruelling walks through the English countryside, during which he absorbed more than most people ever could, of its  sights and smells and sounds, although he didn’t start writing his poems until the last years of his life. Yet he was not a gloomy companion. Eleanor Farjeon, who also loved him, wrote: Edward lived thirty-nine years. In all of them he kept his senses fresh and liked what he saw. He saw more than anybody I ever knew and he saw it day and night. The seasons and the weather never failed him. It made him wonderful to walk with, and to talk with, and not to talk with.

            As an older married man, he could have avoided enlisting, but he joined the Artist Rifles in 1915. In many ways the life of the army camp suited him – it gave him a kind of liberty and a purpose in life, and we was popular with his men. In 1916, he was sent to France.  He died at Arras on Easter Monday 1916. The story that Helen believed was that he had just paused to light his pipe when a shell whizzed close to him, and he died from the blast without a mark on his body. Apparently, though, there may be other versions of this story, and I believe there is a new biography in preparation which I shall await eagerly.

After the war, his reputation seemed to dwindle, maybe because unlike the other war poets, he chose not to write about the horrors of war, except indirectly. He was also tarred with being that terrible thing, a ‘Georgian’. But I’m glad to say that seems to be over now, and his poetry is admired for the subtle and complex thing that it is. Ted Hughes described him as ‘the father of us all.’

Here’s a short and moving poem from 1915 about the losses of war and what is left behind.

 

In Memoriam

 

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood

This Eastertide call into mind the men,

Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should

Have gathered them and will do never again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Girls of Troy

owl

I bought this little owl in Nauplion in Greece a few years ago, and ever since then, she’s been sitting on my windowsill, watching me as I write. We were then on our way to Mycenae, where I stood under the Lion Gate and thought about Agamemnon and Troy. The Iliad is the strangest of epics – it doesn’t begin at the beginning nor end at the end, the heroes die, and anyway don’t behave heroically. War isn’t depicted as something splendid and manly – quite the opposite in fact. The Iliad must be the first great anti-war story.

Of course, as you’d expect , from the time and the culture in which it was composed, it’s an overwhelmingly male story, full of dark age masculine values,  killing, looting, revenge. Women don’t have much of an active part to play. Yet it seemed to me that lurking in the nooks and crannies of this great male epic, there were a number of stories of women and young girls that would be be fascinating to explore. For example, what about Helen’s only daughter Hermione.  What was it like to be the daughter of the most famous beauty in the world? How must it have felt to her when her mother deserted her? Were they close? Were they affectionate? And things became even more intriguing when I found that Hermione was also linked with Achilles’s son Pyhrrus. Two children of impossibly famous parents. There must  be a story there.  And then poor Cassandra, cursed with the gift of making prophecies that no-one would believe . She  must have seen what was happening to her, and maybe tried to prevent it, but could do nothing for she was under the control of the powerful god Apollo. And finally, Electra, driven by the constraints of honour to seek that horrifying revenge on her own mother.

These stories gave me the idea for my Girls of Troy trilogy. The first volume, Helen’s Daughter, is the story of Hermione, and leads up to the start of the war and the sacrifice of her cousin Iphigenia. The second, The Burning Towers, tells the story of Cassandra, through the eyes of her slave-girl, Elissa.  There are no happy endings for anyone in the Trojan story, especially poor Cassandra, whose final days are particularly gruesome, so without giving too much away, Elissa will find a way out and a life of her own.  Athene’s little owl will play an important part in her story.  And finally, Electra, whose story I am still working on.  She sees her beloved father murdered by her mother and her mother’s lover – and feels that she and her brother Orestes have no choice but to seek revenge in their turn.  It’s a difficult story, and one that is  challenging to write about, but I’m enjoying the challenge.

I’m lucky to be working with http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/    to bring this dream to fruition and I hope to write about the process from time to time on this blog,

History again.

medieval painting

 

Let me introduce you to a piece of artwork by Frances Thomas aged twelve-and-three-quarters.  As you can see there is a lot going on in this picture, and I can assure you that all the detail is accurate. I was obsessive about detail, and still am to a certain extent. I can’t move on until I know what my character is wearing, is seeing and how they’re going to get about. Luckily it’s so much easier when you can find stuff out in ten minutes on the internet rather than spending a morning in the library. In those days, my bible was  the Quennell’s marvellous  History of Everyday Things in England, which I still consult. I  was also obsessed at that time with the Middle Ages – it must have been a particular book which triggered the obsession but I can’t remember now which one.

As you can also see from the painting, I was more of a story teller than an artist, though in those days, I longed to be both. There was always a story or seven running through my head, though I didn’t start writing them down till much much later. And of course it’s obvious that without books, I wouldn’t have been either. As a slightly nerdish only child, the trip to the library was one of the high points of my week. I read anything that attracted me- not so easy as in those days library books were stripped of their dust jackets and blurbs and bound in drab library bindings, so finding out what you were reading was always a bit hit-or-miss. I’ve put what I can remember of my favourite childhood reading list below. I also read historical fiction as an older teenager, where it filled the gap between childhood reading and the more difficult world of adult books – then I devoured Mary Renault,  and Robert Graves’s Claudius books. I also read a lot of romantic stuff by people like Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer, though I was aware that these weren’t quite, er, top-class.

Anyway, though I shall probably wake up screaming in the middle of the night as I remember the really really important book I’ve just left out, here are my top ten childhood historical books:

 

Rosemary Sutcliff  – anything and everything by. But if I have to single out:

Simon

The Eagle of the Ninth

The Armourer’s House

 

Geoffrey Trease    – again anything and everything by. But let’s go for:

Cue For Treason

Crown of Violet.

 

Barbara Leonie Picard  – Ransom For a Knight   A beautifully written story by a writer whose translation of The Odyssey was one of the seminal books of my youth.

 

R.D.Blackmore  -Lorna Doone    Oh, how many of those stories-in-my-head involved wild moonlight rides over the moors and fearful blood feuds and beautiful maidens.

 

Dorothy M Stuart – A Child’s Day Through the Ages. Probably a little dry. But I loved these stories, especially the one about the little priestess, of which I was reminded when I later read  Ursula le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan.

 

Henry Garnett  (not Henry Treece, as I misremembered, though I enjoyed Henry Treece too)  Thirteen Banners.   Set in the days of Simon De Montfort. The usual brave children escaping with a message. Can’t remember much about it now but I know it was good fun.

 

Meriol Trevor   Sun Faster, Sun Slower.  Time travel. Re-reading it recently, I realised how very Catholic it is, which I was then too, though am no longer. But the story of the escaping Jesuit priest is still very exciting.  Meriol Trevor wrote fine poetry too, which I’ll try to post on this blog some day.

 

Some historical stuff, like Flambards and Barbara Willard’s lovely Mantelmass series didn’t come out until I was too old to read them as a child. But I reckon that we children of the fifties lived through a golden age of children’s historical fiction. Do let me have more of your own lists of favourites – I’ve loved reading your comments.