WHEN YOUR CHARACTER IS INTERVIEWED

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Robert Blake: January 1939 

Today Michael Armstrong, the main character in my book FAR AWAY is being interviewed by writer Helen Hollick. Helen has been interviewing 26 characters in historical novels for the A2Z Blog Challenge. The historical part of my book is set in Africa and Italy during the Second World War. The interview was fun to take part in although also slightly alarming since my main character is based, ahem, loosely on my father, the historian Robert Blake, and so it turned into had the potential to turn into a bit of a Freudian nightmare.

As the A2Z has advanced I have been experiencing that well-known disease ‘character envy’. Oh, why wasn’t my character a nineteenth century Romany footballer (Steve Kay’s Rabbi Howell), or a seventeenth century pirate (Helen Hollick’s Jesamiah Acorne) or a Greek soldier in 5th century BC (Nick Brown’s Mandrocles) or an Ancient Egyptian Queen (Inge Borg’s Nefret). Well, the reason why not is because one of the purposes of my book was to publish the part of my father’s memoir which he managed to complete before he died; the part which covered his experiences of being in the Royal Artillery and being captured at the fall of Tobruk in Africa and his subsequent escape from a POW camp in Sulmona, Italy. And because I’m a fiction writer I wanted to use a novel to do it.

One of the complications in doing this was that I had quite a large body of writing already in existence before I started and was confronted with the question of how best to utilize it. In none of my other writing have I started off quite so constricted. Throughout the book I battled with whether I should cut or not cut some of his material. Finally I cut very little and for the most part the details of the escape described in FAR AWAY are what happened to him.

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Robert Blake in later years

Of course, the Michael Armstrong of my novel is not my father. He couldn’t be because I have no idea what my father was like as a twenty-five year old soldier imprisoned in an Italian POW camp in 1942. I was born when he was forty-eight so I got to know him in the last forty years of his life. If I think back to what I was like in my twenties that person appears to bear little relation to who I am now although my sisters might beg to differ! There is, of course, a perennial fascination to the question of who our parents were before we turned up and maybe that in the end was part of what fueled my desire to write this book. In life my father was not a man to be open about his fears or his passions. He was a charming, brilliant and staunchly private man. FAR AWAY is perhaps my attempt to get to know him a bit better and to shine a light on the young man he once was.

If you’re interested in historical fiction these interviews give an incredible range of characters to choose from. A nineteenth century American spiritualist, a Viking, a Roman soldier, an Egyptian Queen … Great interviews and brilliant books. Thank you, Helen!

If you want to know what Michael Armstrong has to say about me you’ll find him here. Oh, he does go on … and the comments are worth reading just to watch me getting into a whole load of trouble!

http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk

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THE TITLE THAT GOT AWAY

I make lists of possible titles as I go along. The crime ones came easily enough. Bloodless Shadow (my first crime novel) was from a book of poems, The Rooster Mask, by a friend Henry Hart and he had it from Homer or Virgil. At any rate one of those scenes when the classical hero goes down to the underworld and the bloodless shadows (the dead) cluster around him.

Poetry is a particularly good source for titles because of the way poets crack open language. They jam words together in arresting and muscular ways and that’s what you want from a title. Something that grabs the attention, unsettles , fizzes.

The title of my most recent book Far Away is the least dramatic of my titles but  it persisted and in the end I was satisfied with it.

On occasion regrettably you can come across the perfect title for your book after it’s published. This happened to me the other day when I was reading Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. I came across this quote from Uys Krige, a South African war correspondent, captured in Africa like my father and a POW in Italy. Here’s his description of what being a POW was like:

“This is a dead world, a lost world and these are lost men, lost each in his own separate limbo, banished from his memories, exiled even from himself. Here even dreams are dead.”

From this short passage I found four titles: Dead World, Lost Men, Banished From Memory and Even Dreams are Dead.

Even Dreams are Dead is the one I like best. That is the title that got away!

Uys where were you when I needed you?

If you’re a writer how do you find the titles of your books or short stories? Does it come easily?

If you’re a reader tell me some of your favourite or least favourite titles.

ESCAPING CAPTIVITY WITH CROWS AND STEVE MCQUEEN

In 1949 the following paper was published in Ibis the official journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union. The title was: Rook and Jackdaw Migrations Observed in Germany 1942-1945.

1942-1945? Wasn’t something else going on in Germany then?

So who exactly was doing the observing while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War? The compilers of this article were John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston, who were POWs in Germany at the time. There were many ways POWs sought to escape the boredom of captivity: reading, acting, playing music, painting, doing academic courses of various different sorts, sports, escape activities and yes, bird watching.

The amount of time they put in was extraordinary. Here is a run down of an average day’s bird watching during the summer :

6-8.30 watching

Breakfast/parade

9.30-12.30 more watching

lunch

1.30-5.30 watching again

Tea

6-9.30 more watching with a break at 19.30 for supper

That is a great many hours to look at the sky. These men were incarcerated in Germany where most of the camps were situated away from towns and cities and many were in wooded areas. In addition officers, unlike the ORs, did not have to work and therefore had time on their hands. The 16 page note they produced had the occasional wry aside that bore witness to the extraordinary circumstances of their observations. For example it was noted that the rooks enjoyed feasting on fields covered in human excrement!

In his wonderful book Crow Country Mark Cocker has this to say about the obsessional aspects of bird watchers:

‘Perhaps all monomanias … are a way of offsetting some deeper pain in life.’

Well, I think in this case it’s highly probable that the pain was that of captivity, hunger, boredom, and anxiety about loved ones back home and how the war was progressing. Looking into the air, looking at birds which were free to fly where ever they wanted maybe gave them some reprieve from their incarceration.

Waterston suffered severe kidney damage when he was captured in Crete in 1941 but took an active role in the Dössel camp bird watching. However in 1943 he was allowed to go home because of his ill-health. Another bird man, his friend Ian Pitman, demanded to be repatriated at the same time. When he was challenged as to the fact that he seemed in perfect health, he took out his glass eye and slammed it down on the German Commandant’s desk and was thus sent home with his friend. After the war the two of them bought Fair Isle in the Shetlands and established it as a migration study site. Condor and Waterston became two of the leading environmentalists of their age. John Buxton became a distinguished Oxford don and poet.

In the film The Great Escape  there’ s a scene where the prisoners are being given a lecture on birds and it’s a cover for them forging documents.

Finally, for those of you who like your escapes a bit more physical. Here’s that famous attempted escape sequence with Steve McQueen and the stunt he executed himself. An iconic film star, a tasty motorbike, some beautiful mountains and quite a nifty bit of music to accompany it as well. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score. He also wrote the film scores for The Magnificent Seven and Thoroughly Modern Millie amongst many others. If you’re interested in finding out how crows figure in my book Far Away here’s the link:

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

How do you escape? Motorcycles or bird watching? Or … ?

Sources: Mark Cocker: Crow Country, Midge Gillies: The Barbed-Wire University.

A COMPETITION – A PRIZE

So here’s the question. Part of my novel FAR AWAY is set in a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War and part of the escape described there (based on what actually happened to my father) involves five men hiding in the roof of one of the prison huts.

So in order to win a copy of my book answer this question: How long did they manage to stay in the roof? This includes the day they got in and the day they got down.  The camp was in Sulmona in southern Italy and the month was October 1943. The roof’s proportions were as follows: 14′(L) x 6′(W) x 3’6″(H) – yes, that’s right they couldn’t stand upright.

Here’s a rough sketch from Beverley Edge’s diary; he was one of the five. I’ve coloured the men in orange.

A sketch from Beverley Edge's diary of one of the huts in Sulmona POW camp in Italy

A sketch from Beverley Edge’s diary of one of the huts in Sulmona POW camp in Italy

The person who gets closest  will be the proud winner of a signed copy of FAR AWAY. I mean how can you resist? I would particularly encourage people to enter who have never won anything in a competition before – that would be me, by the way. My father, on the other hand, only had to sneeze on a raffle ticket to have a bottle of sherry winging its way to him from the church fête.

A great deal of luck was involved in his escape and maybe it stayed with him afterwards.

If you’d like to read about the book please click the link below for a lovely review from the Manchester Military History Society:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1360145221

POWS AND CIGARETTES

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Cigarettes were an important part of the POW camp economy. In the 1940s the link had not yet been made between smoking and lung cancer and it was very unusual for soldiers not to smoke. My father didn’t but that didn’t mean he wasn’t interested in being sent cigarettes because cigarettes were a form of currency.

The aim of the Red Cross was to send each man 50 cigarettes every week. From 1941 to the end of March 1945 the Red Cross sent 6 million ounces of tobacco and almost 1.5 billion cigarettes to Italy and Germany.

As well as these, families and friends could also send cigarettes to POWs using tobacco companies which held special permits. The favourites were Woodbine, Players and Craven A.

Most things could be bought with cigarettes and a sophisticated Exchange and Mart system developed and as the war went on only cigarettes and food held their value. In gambling cigarettes were used as chips. Even the packets were used. They could be turned into packs of cards which were popular because they were easily portable.

If there was no tobacco, dried leaves, coffee grounds, grass and even manure was smoked and the leaves of a Bible or Pears Encyclopaedia were used because they were particularly thin. The aim was to produce something that gave the pretence of a cigarette.

Towards the end of the war when deliveries became more sporadic the value of cigarettes rose. A watch was worth 30 cigarettes, a gold ring 20 cigarettes and a safety razor 1 cigarette.

My father never did smoke cigarettes but he did take pleasure in the odd cigar. There was a phase when an ex-student of his used to supply him with Montecristo Cuban cigars, which he enjoyed very much despite being on the other end of the political spectrum to the Castro regime. The cigars came in wooden boxes which, when empty, were handed over to his children. I loved the smell  and the colourful labels  and used them as  pencil boxes or as a store for marbles.

FAR AWAY JUST GOT CLOSER!

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FAR AWAY HAS ARRIVED!

An entirely gratuitous picture of me and my book! In fact it arrived a few days ago now but here’s the photo of me and FAR AWAY! If you’d like to buy it I’d be delighted and if you read it I’d love to know what you think. It’s available as a paperback: ISBN 9781784623401 and also as an e-book: eISBN 9781784629953.

Here’s the link: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

You can also order it through your local bookshop.

THE MOST AMAZING ADVENTURES

On the 18th January 1944 my father, Robert Blake, wrote this letter to his father, William Blake, a Norfolk teacher:

Dear Daddy

As I hope you know by now – indeed this letter may well be preceded by myself in person – I am safe, well and back with British forces. Unfortunately the laws of security prevent me telling you the full story by letter. Suffice it to say that I have had along with my two companions, the most amazing adventures, and we are extremely lucky to have got through all right. Apart from a bad cold and a very bruised right foot I feel quite well. I am still very tired.

The last few months since the Armistice with Italy must have been very worrying for you all. I hope you took the news that no news was good news as is certainly the case of Italian POWs since the Armistice …. They say we get 28 days leave as soon as we can get back to England and that should be before this letter.

Lots and lots of love to all of you especially Daddy ( he’s forgotten who he’s writing to!) and Jill. It is marvelous to be seeing you again after all these long years.

Love from Bobby

My compliments to … (this bit is torn but I think he is intending to send his compliments to his Uncle Norman) … am hoping to drink … (I assume he meant that he was hoping to drink his Uncle’s wine cellar dry although I’m sure he would have put it a lot more elegantly than that!)

If you would like to read of some of his amazing adventures then please buy my novel FAR AWAY.

Here’s the link: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

RETURN OF A DIARY

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Robert Blake

My father, Robert Blake, was one of a group of five men, consisting of Arthur Dodds, George Burnett, Ken Lowe and Beverley Edge, who were involved in an escape from Sulmona POW camp in Italy in September 1943. When Dad wrote his memoirs he relied on the diary of a fellow escapee, Beverley Edge, because as my father wrote on the outside of the copy it was ‘kept at the time and probably the most authentic of all.’ This is a short post on what happened to that diary.

The diary itself was written on a small paper calendar which had been handed out to all POWs in Italy the previous Christmas, prefaced with a goodwill message from Pope Pius II. As Edge comments, ‘No Christmas pudding and turkey!’ He wrote on the few blank pages between the lines of music and hymns and along the margins. The first part of the escape involved hiding in the roof of one of the huts in the camp. At the point where they were about to get down from the roof, Edge began to rip up the diary but then he changed his mind and wedged it between the tiles of the roof and the rafters.

It wasn’t until July 1961 that an attempt was made to find it. Ken Lowe another of the five men wrote to the mayor of Sulmona asking if he might help. The mayor wrote to the Italian War Office in Rome because the camp was still under the administration of the military and Ken was then contacted by an Italian, Colonel Georgio Bonoli, saying that he would try to find it   but that the POW camp had been 75% demolished. Ken and Beverley then sent a plan, marking the hut they thought they had hidden in.

In January 1962 they received from Colonel Bonoli some notes, which had been made by another of their cohort, Arthur Dodds. This meant that the Colonel was looking in the right roof! They wrote to him again and asked if he might investigate further which he did. In July 1962 the diary was handed over to the British military attaché in Rome and in September it was sent back to Ken nineteen years after he had originally written it. It was a little bit nibbled but otherwise in very good condition. They were lucky because the end of the hut they had hidden in made up part of a brick wall which surrounded the camp. So presumably the hut was left standing because if it had been demolished it would have created a hole in this wall.

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

If you’re interested in reading a book which is set against the background of escaping POWs in Italy my novel FAR AWAY is available here:

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

THE IMPORTANCE OF TINS

The importance of tins

The importance of tins

Yes, you read that right. Tins played a very important part in my father’s escape from Sulmona POW camp in Italy in 1943. I’m not going to give away the details of how they were used here. To find out you’ll have to read my book Far Away!

There were approximately eleven tins in each Red Cross parcel. They contained foods like condensed milk, meat roll, cocoa powder, salmon, sardines etc and they were prisoners’ sole source of metal. The Red Cross even produced a helpful leaflet written by The Metal Box Company titled: Useful Articles from Empty Tins – Hints on How to Make Them.

And make them they did. Here are some of the items:

  • drinking mugs
  • frying pans
  • soap trays
  • armour for use in plays
  • ashtray
  • the ferrule of a paint brush
  • ventilation system to help tunnellers breath while digging
  • cooking stoves or ‘stufa’ for brewing up their own drinks and warming food
  • chess pieces
  • xylophone
  • mousetrap
  • theatre spotlights
  • barometer

The brand names were powerful reminders of home: Spam, Nestle, Rowntree, Crosse & Blackwell. And some of the labels, like the one with a leaping salmon were removed and stuck into log books to drool over.

The most coveted tin was a KLIM tin (milk spelled backwards) which came in Canadian Red Cross parcels. When fitted with a handle this would hold more than a pint of liquid.

So next time you casually take a tin opener to a can of tomatoes, use the contents, swill the tin out and trying to avoid slicing open your thumb, chuck it in the recycling, pause for a moment and think how precious that once was to bored yet ingenious young men, imprisoned far away from home during the Second World War. Just pause and think what you could make with it.

ON WRITING ‘FAR AWAY’

Robert Blake

Robert Blake

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

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