My novel, Far Away, is based on my father, Robert Blake’s memoirs. The only part he wrote related to his war-time experiences, escaping from an Italian POW camp. I wanted to be able to use substantial pieces of his writing as they were but I also wanted to write a novel.
In other words I wanted to have it both ways.
Of course I did I’m a novelist! And this story of my father’s escape was probably one of the first to grip my imagination. When I was a child, it wasn’t usually my father doing the telling. By the time I came on the scene he was 48 and had going on 25 years of repeating what happened to him. I think, understandably, he was fed up with it.
My mother, however, a natural-born storyteller, told it with relish and perhaps a little elaboration for the benefit of her three children. In fact her enthusiasm about the story remained undimmed whereas my father could get rather grumpy when asked to tell it one more time.
The most extraordinary thing for me about the story of course was that my father, a quiet academic man, who did not like to be rushed in any way, had been one of the protagonists in a thrilling escape. After all, given half a chance, every young child will jump at the chance of casting it’s father or mother as a hero or heroine. Within the context of this story, I could do exactly that. His own silence on the matter only encouraged me. It might be the mild-mannered ‘Clark Kent’ taking me to school but somewhere back in his past there was the suggestion of telephone booths and lycra!
But what to do about my structural problem?
Fortunately I found a solution when, in the course of my research on Italian POWs, I came across Dan Billany. He like me was a crime writer. His first book The Opera House Murders had been published by Faber and Faber in 1940. It also came out in America under the title It Takes A Thief and garnered first-rate reviews. He had been a POW in Italy and escaped with his friend David Dowie but they had not made it back and their bodies had never been found. However the notebooks he had written in while imprisoned were sent back to his family and eventually published as The Trap and The Cage. On reading his books I liked Dan immediately. He was witty and caustic and startlingly frank about the strength of his feelings for his friend David. Alongside his honesty, I liked his sarcastic attitude towards Dorothy Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey and I also warmed to him on the basis of his views on both education and politics.
Our backgrounds however could not have been more different. Dan came from a working class background in Hull. He left school at fifteen and after a year as a delivery boy took up an apprenticeship with Humber Electricals. As part of the training he had to do evening classes at a Technical College and thriving there in a way he never had at school he decided to go back into education and matriculated in 1933. He then applied to Hull University to study English and after he’d graduated did a year of teacher training. When war broke out he was working as a primary school teacher.
My background was substantially more privileged. I was brought up in Queen’s College, Oxford and my route through education was as boringly linear as you might expect from those circumstances. The fact that Dan had managed to get published at the age of 27 coming from his background was testament to his ambition, persistence and talent as a writer.
From his story I took the idea of two men writing in the same notebooks. One writing the story of his war so far and the other writing a fairy story. It was a way to use my father’s memoirs as I wanted, give or take a bit of nip and tuck.
One thing Dan’s story did bring home to me was how lucky my father had been. He, like Dan and David, could so easily have died. Reading the work Dan had written while a POW I was also saddened. It seemed to me that the writing in The Trap and The Cage showed greater maturity and depth. I couldn’t help but wonder how his writing might have developed if he had made it safely home.
Dan Billany:Hull’s Lost Hero
If you are interested in finding out more about Dan I recommend Dan Billany: Hull’s Lost Hero by Valerie A. Reeves and Valerie Showan. It’s a warm and highly sympathetic biography about an exceptional young man. Here’s the link to the website about him: http://www.danbillany.com.
Far Away will be available soon as both a physical book and an e-book and here’s the link for that: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292