I recently appeared on Cultural Exchanges, a celebration of writers and persons of interest presented by Tony Graves and the students of De Montfort University.
They run the whole shebang and it is so professionally done. They are a credit to the Uni. I spoke about my book, Poppy Flowers at the Front, and here is my talk in full:
Hello everyone. Thank you so much for joining me as I talk about my crime novel Poppy Flowers at the Front. It is the first of a planned 10 book cycle under the Poppy Knows Best series banner. It is set in 1917, moving into 1918. In this talk I will look at the various processes I went through, how I was influenced by one particular book about the First World War, how I got my ideas, and how I got to a published book. Though it won’t be in any particular order! I have always had a strange fixation with the First World War. Even now, I am often moved to tears when I see newsreel, films or read about the period. Since 2014, I have been working on my own novel to show what life was like in those days. Among other sources, I was inspired by “Not so Quiet … Stepdaughters of War.” written by Evadne Price in 1930. It was originally planned to be a parody of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The publisher approached Price to write this work, but having read All Quiet, Price said:
“I wouldn’t want to be funny about this; it’s a message to the world.”
And so she decided to write her own version highlighting the work of women at the frontline. Price relied heavily on the diaries of a woman named Winifred Constance Young, an Englishwoman who had served as an ambulance driver behind the front line. I felt the same, perhaps with not the same grandiose intentions. I wanted to show how women contributed to the war effort and I wanted my book to be as realistic as possible. I researched thoroughly, purchased books high and low, and was on the internet till late at night. I discovered many sources that highlighted the work of women. But none surpassed this piece of work and it has been my guiding light in many ways as I wrote my story. I also wanted my work to be different. It couldn’t help but be influenced by Evadne Price’s seminal work, but I introduced the theme of two women falling in love which had only been hinted at in Prices novel. I also wanted my work to be a crime novel. In All Quiet we read:
“See the man they are fitting into the bottom slot. He is coughing badly. No, not pneumonia. Not tuberculosis. Nothing so picturesque. Gently, gently, stretcher-bearers… he is about done. He is coughing up clots of pinky-green filth. Only his lungs, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawington. He is coughing well to-night. That is gas. You’ve heard of gas. Haven’t you? It burns and shrivels the lungs to… to the mess you see on the ambulance floor there. He’s about the age of Bertie … The son you have so generously given to the War. Cough, cough, little fair-haired boy. Perhaps somewhere your mother is thinking of you… boasting of the life she has so nobly given… the life you thought was your own, but which is hers to squander as she thinks fit. ‘My boy is not a slacker, thank God.’ Cough away, little boy, cough away. What does it matter, providing your mother doesn’t have to face the shame of her son’s cowardice?”
So Evadne Price captures the mood of the time at home and of those who had faced the actuality of war. Just as with the War Poets of that era, it is not a pretty juxtaposition. Even when the evidence of war is laid bare in front of them with mutilated and gas-wrecked bodies becoming a common sight, these women with a hero mother fixation still see war as a glorious adventure for their sons. A lot goes on in my book. It is a true coming of age story, hence the aptness of the title. With her father, Lord Loveday, in the secret service and brother Alfie in the trenches, is it any wonder that Lady Pandora Ophelia Loveday, Poppy to her friends, decided to volunteer to drive ambulances in France? We follow her adventures as she races to get wounded men to the Casualty Clearing Station and then on to the Base Hospital as safely as possible. After a German air raid, she finds Élodie Proux, a French nurse at the roadside clutching the body of a Canadian soldier, and takes her back to her base. Élodie becomes her dearest girl as they fall in love. As the story progresses, our two heroes get involved in a series of scrapes that could mean they were either pathologically unlucky or that they just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. It could be called a picaresque novel as it is quite episodic but doesn’t have the roguish hero, but what it does have is the “appealing” hero. By that, it is not a matter of looks, but they typically adopt a realistic style. Though the idea flourished throughout Europe for more than 200 years, the term “picaresque novel” was only coined in 1810. It continues to influence modern literature. The term is also sometimes used to describe works that only contain some of the genre’s elements, such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, or Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Not that I think my novels reach those esteemed heights. But my story continues: Élodie and Poppy escort Keisler, a supposedly wounded German officer for repatriation, only for him to hijack their ambulance and disappear. A mystery that is never quite explained until the very end of the novel, when a plot to kill the Queen after the Armistice is foiled. We see a sense of normality come as they leave the squalor of the Front for a brief few days on leave together in Boulogne sur Mer and the joys of a hot bath after months of cold showers and carbolic soap. Returning to Lapugnoy a deserter lies in a hospital destined for execution, only to be murdered. Poppy and Élodie struggle to uncover the truth, but not before Élodie faces the horrors of the gory mortuary tent. Élodie tells Poppy her own dark secret, that she had actually killed the Canadian they had found her with as she fought off his attempt to rape her and Poppy has to decide what she should do. Her decision could make or break their fledgling relationship. A relationship that already meant that if they were discovered, could lead to them being sent home in ignominy as some colleagues found when they were denounced. Élodie watches as a nurse, buoyed by the news that her husband is on her ward, rushes to his bedside only to declare it’s not the man she married. When she is later found dead, another investigation opens up for the two as they uncover a plot to infiltrate German agents behind the lines. Élodie puts her life at risk before the denouement in the rubble of a nearby village. They are saved from discovery by two orphans who they help to an orphanage after they defeat the traitors in the cellars of the wrecked buildings. One of the orphans who survives Spanish flu has a recurring role in the rest of my series. Our two heroes then travel to Paris on leave and despite the ravages of war, they are able to visit the fantastical salon of American socialite and poet, the lesbian Natalie Barney. Élodie, as an artist, is at ease in Bohemian circles, and they relish their experiences but soon there is another foul murder as German spies and French secret service get involved and our two heroes have to chase around the tunnels of the metro before they can put things right once again. Recovering on their final leave in Wales at Loveday Hall, Poppy and Élodie are faced with a diabolic threat to the villagers from a woman overcome by psychosis before they are able to return to France.
As the war comes to an end and peace is on the horizon, the two women once again meet Keisler, their old German rival as the Queen of England’s fate lies in their hands. Can they save the monarch from assassination and maintain the peace? What do you think?
I had written my novel and then happenchance took place. At Cultural Exchanges of 2018, I met Phil Tew, a colleague from my teaching days in 1979. I hadn’t seen him since the early eighties, but he was taking part and we reconnected after I visited De Montfort University to hear him speak with Rod Duncan. We, of course, had a drink afterwards and he told me how his work was being published by Brigand Press whom he worked with, and would I be interested. Of course I would, who wouldn’t after a series of rejections so Phil took my manuscript and later in the year said they’d love to publish. Wonderful news I thought. The company would take on the costs and publishing would happen. A dream come true.
“Not So Quiet …” published in 1930 went on to win the Prix Severigne in France as the “novel most calculated to promote international peace”.
It purports to be the diary of Helen Zenna Smith, a young woman who becomes one of “England’s Splendid Daughters”, as a volunteer ambulance driver at the French front during the First World War. I used this extract from “Not So Quiet …” from Helen Smith:
… oh God, a scream this time … another scream— the madman has started, the madman has started. I was afraid of him. He’ll start them all screaming…
as inspiration for the opening pages of my novel when Poppy Loveday writes in her journal:
“It was the screaming that really got to me. I could put up with most things and to be honest, I had done so these past few months. The sound of the bombs didn’t really faze me, nor the constantly falling rain and cloying mud. The fleas I found in my hair or clothes were just a nuisance as long as you caught them early. What I did hate was the screaming. It made my blood run cold, the screaming of men in agony, men who had lost their sight or had lost a limb. It ripped my heart out. Boys who screamed when they should be at home having fun …”
This hopefully sets the scene of my heroes base in Lapugnoy a Casualty Clearing Station in Northern France, based on a real site… At the heart of “Not So Quiet …” is the juxtaposition between the families of the young men and women back in England, who are loving the reflected glory they receive, filled up with pride for what their children are doing and basking in the so-called glory that comes with it, and then the realities of the women’s lives on the front. No details are glossed over and the descriptions are vivid and visceral. We are catapulted into the filth, the squalor, the unrelenting gore of transporting the critically injured soldiers from the battlegrounds to the war hospitals. It doesn’t take long for Helen Smith to become bitter about her mother’s constant boasting about what she is doing and, when Helen is sent home on sick leave, she is faced with repeated encouragement to get better quickly and to get back out there, if not to do her duty then to make her mother proud, the tension is palpable. Wound stripes seem to represent honour to these parents. But for Poppy, her mother is the complete opposite of these harridans, once an active suffragette who broke the law with abandon, she writes to Poppy:
How are you my darling? We all miss you so much. Even cook asked me to send you her love, which I am happy to do. I hope you are safe. We read a lot about what is happening and of course, your father has his contacts, so we know some of what life may be like. We are having to find new ways of eking food out as we are having some shortages. I will still send what we can to you and I hope you enjoy them. Cook will be baking some special cakes she says and we will post them to you as soon as possible. I do love you, my darling Pandora, the house seems so empty without your laughter and your arguments. Yes, I even miss our disagreements. It is strange. I have found it hard to let go of you, my darling, and do look forward to you returning home on leave soon. The village is very quiet. The men have gradually disappeared and many of the young women have gone to the cities for work. Remember, it would not be a bad thing to come home. All is forgiven. We love you so much.
My hero, Poppy has a mother who does not want her to be abroad fighting. She knows the dangers, and she wants her child home. Only the actions of her husband a colonel in intelligence keeps Poppy where she wants to be, but I wanted some tension between mother and daughter. Price writes cynically:
“… war made by age and fought by youth while age looked on and applauded and encored.”
Whilst Poppy and her mother on the other hand can see the folly of her elders, the mother of Helen Zenna Smith cannot when her daughter leaves her post at the Front:
“I think it’s the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever heard,” says Mother. “You, a young, strong woman, determined to slack at home instead of doing your bit, shaming your mother before everybody, your own mother, who is working night and day until she is nearly dropping. Just think of how Mrs. Evans-Mawnington will crow over me now, and Roy with a wound-stripe… We were so proud, Daddy and I, of our two war girls. Every night we used to put your photographs on the dining-tables and tears would come to our eyes…”
Helen Smith interjects:
“I am a coward, mother.” I lean forward and catch her hand to try and make her understand. “Mother, you don’t know what it’s like out there driving those ambulances full of torn men–torn to bits with shrapnel–sometimes they die on the way…”
She pulls herself away. “At least they have died doing their duty,” she says.
There is no understanding there at all. Is it a generational thing, or just a dramatic device? Whatever it is, we see a different take on a mother’s love. I don’t like the expression “The Journey” when writing about a project, but this novel has been a journey indeed. I have written my various projects simultaneously, dipping into one then the other as my mood and ideas take me. I started this project in 2014. I had a complete draft by 2016 after a very enjoyable period of research in London at amongst other places, the Imperial War Museum, The Wellcome Institute, and the British Library as well as dozens of internet searches. I visited the battlefields of Flanders in 2015 and this was amazing, just to get a feel for the place opened my eyes wide to the moods and feelings that must have pervaded there over four destructive years. It was indeed a mood thing. I was able to absorb the air and breath the oxygen that the soldiers of the Somme and Ypres must have breathed. The landscape will be forever scarred as were the bodies and minds of so many. We need to remember their history as the last survivors reach the end of their days. The museums across the Front and in Ypres brought home to me exactly the privations the men and women endured. The Messin Gate was stunning in every sense and emphasised every emotion as darkness crept over the monument and the trumpets sounded the Last Post, war was at the foremost of my mind.
“… all the ideals and beliefs you ever had have crashed about your gun-deafened ears — you don’t believe in God or them or the infallibility of England or anything but bloody war and wounds and foul smells and smutty stories and smoke and bombs and lice and filth and noise, noise, noise — you live in a world of cold sick fear, a dirty world of darkness and despair — you want to crawl ignominiously home away from these painful writhing things that once were men, these shattered, tortured faces that dumbly demand what it’s all about in Christ’s name …”
Evadne Price’s words resonate even today. In my Poppy Loveday novels I have written about life in 1917, then I later found my heroes making their way to Wembley Stadium in 1927, before a return to 1922 and a tour of Europe with adventures across every frontier. They then spring to a meeting with Mussolini in 1931 and confront violent gangsters during Poppy’s reading tour of America in 1934. Did I mention that Poppy becomes a celebrated writer of crime fiction as the series develops and that Élodie is a world-renowned artist? 1968, my final stop has been a welcome visit as I can at least remember some of the things that actually went on then before I career back to 1942 and a look at Paris during the Occupation with my two heroes. It is a wonderful way to write, to discover new things, to enter a world of my own making as well as a world long past.
The novel “Not So Quiet …” is a very personal piece as is mine. I write in diary form and letters as well as using journal extracts and then in the first and third person. This extract here shows a letter from Poppy to her Father and highlights the absurdities of war:
I hope you and mother are well. I am to be expected! Cold and wet a lot of the time but hey ho it is what it is. You’ll never guess what I have been doing for some weeks now… so I will tell you…FIGHTING! Not in a bad sense, but I have been tutored in a Chinese martial art I know not what it’s called as the Chinese coolies don’t speak such good English, but it’s something like tie chee. Yes, it is exotic! Chinese coolies who help out digging and such like are based near us and I saw them out one morning doing what I think they call tie chee. I don’t know if it’s spelled like that. They let me join in and it was really relaxing, then a group started to fight using all the same movements and they let me join in that as well! So, for six weeks or so I have been in the ruins of a village that I cannot name, moving, and holding and grappling in a quite unladylike fashion. BUT I have to say darling father that I feel much safer for it. I can ward off any unwanted attentions. What I do need is something for my hair to delouse it again. Some soap as well, if you could please. I’ve had to cut it short, you had better warn mother about that! If I came home on leave with it like it is, she would have a fit! Finally, if you can spare it can I have something sweet in my next parcel? Not to presume, but I do look forward to my treats, so jam, toffee, chocolate, marzipan, bulls’ eyes… I could go on but will stop there! Your loving daughter,
As Vera Brittain wrote in her Testament to Youth:
Most of my letters home were more human, not to say schoolgirlish, in content. Their insistent suggestions that my family should keep me supplied with sweets and biscuits, or should come to London and take me out to tea, are reminders of the immense part played by meals in the meditations of ardent young patriots during the war.
And that’s what I wanted mine to look like. I hope I have achieved this as a lot of information in the novel is portrayed through letters home. The period was a time when so-called forbidden love flourished. Men had never lived in such close proximity to each other before, and passions were roused. The threat of death being ever-present young men wanted affection from where they could get it, to not put too fine a point on it. But Gay soldiers who were open about their sexuality were often ostracised and reported to their superior officers for “indecency”. At least 230 fighting men were court-martialled and sent to prison. In my novel, a pair of Tommies are brought down by their love for each other. Prepared to accept a conviction for cowardice, rather than for the disgrace to their families of them being accused of homosexuality. It is an irony and fairly damning that Robert Graves should write:
In English preparatory and public schools, romance is necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex is despised and treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion.
A well-known homosexual, Graves had only self-loathing here, and this is a common theme, though Wilfrid Owen puts a more amusing slant on his own sexuality when he writes to a cousin in 1918:
‘There are two French girls in my billet, daughters of the Mayor, who (I suppose because of my French) single me out for their joyful gratitude for La Déliverance. Naturally, I talk to them a good deal; so much so that the jealousy of other officers resulted in a Subalterns’ Court Martial being held on me! The dramatic irony was too killing, considering certain other things, not possible to tell in a letter.’
It is of course a cliché to say that war changes everyone, not just physically, but mentally. Appearance changes as well to fit into the duress of work. At the heart of Evadne Price’s novel is the juxtaposition between the families of the young women back in England, who are puffed up with pride for what their girls are doing and the visions of glory that come with it, and the realities of the women’s lives on the front. Details are not skimped here (nor should they be) and we are plunged with Helen Smith into the filth, the squalor, and of course the unrelenting gore of transporting the critically injured soldiers from the battlegrounds to the war hospitals. One of the most compelling aspects of the book is seeing Helen gradually stop caring what her family thinks. In particular, there is the matter of hair. In an amusing diversion, Helen Smith has big decisions to make. One of Helen’s new friends, Tosh, has chopped her own long hair short, to the horror of some of the other volunteers. How ghastly and unfeminine! But in the filth of the situation, dealing with long hair is nothing more than another inconvenience in a life filled to the brim with them. The difference with hair is that you can do something about it. Yet, Helen is reluctant to do the same, and that reluctance comes from one place: her mother. The moment, about halfway through the novel, when she does chop her hair off, is an important symbol of her increasingly fractured relationship with her family, and more importantly, her family’s expectations.
I cannot bear the filth and worry any longer. What Mother will say I do not dare contemplate, but as I will probably never get leave it seems futile to worry. I get the scissors and begin to snip … The deed is done. I burn my hair in the chamber and examine myself in the mirror. Not bad. Makes me look about sixteen. Something quite pleasant about the feel of short hair. Boyish.
Evadne Price thinks this seems to desexualize her body, and with it comes a release from some of the many chores of female appearance. For me, it is more a case of coming to accept her surroundings and the necessary evils needed to combat the invasion of lice At this moment there is no need for these women to pretty themselves up in order to snare a husband as they are much too busy saving their once potential husbands lives, so that in the perverse manner of war those men may be sent back to the front to repeat the entire cruel cycle again. Their socially created ideals of gender cannot be adhered to when there is mass carnage to be cleaned up. Women get sent home from the VADs because of their sexuality: When Poppy tries to argue their cause, she has to be careful but doesn’t think twice about intervening. She knows what is right in a very black and white way:
Poppy stomped through the mud and the rain. So bloody typical to get filthy before she could even start work. She banged on her door and was welcomed inside and offered a seat. As if she had been expecting her.
“My hands are tied Loveday …”
“But Ma’am, you have discretion…”
“Until the higher ups find out and I’m afraid someone has spoken to them. It’s out of my hands.” She was adamant.
“They were good girls Loveday, too good to lose really, but there is nothing more I can do. If they are your friends …”
“I don’t know them ma’am.”
Returning to the theme of homosexuality being a perversion and typical of the Hun, John Buchan in Greenmantle, first published in 1916, describes Richard Hannay’s first encounter with his adversary, the German officer Colonel Ulrich von Stumm, in a fashion which hints at a hidden strain of sexual deviance within the German armed forces. It would be funny save for it was taken so seriously in the period. They meet in the Germans rooms:
At first sight you would have said it was a woman’s drawing-room. But it wasn’t. I soon saw the difference. There had never been a woman’s hand in that place. It was the room of a man who had a fashion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things. It was the complement to his bluff brutality. I began to see the queer other side to my host, that evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army.
This may make us smile now at the incongruousness of it all, the irony of using the word queer which in 1930 merely meant odd. but in those days it was an actual psychological theory and seen as a threat to English manhood, whatever that was! Perhaps I am writing about homosexual love from a modern perspective, or perhaps it was because it was not illegal for women to fall in love, though it was frowned upon I am able to take my heroes in a different direction. They could still not be open, they could face dismissal or be charged with gross indecency, but they could be in love and this is key in my series of stories. As Poppy writes in her journal, it is all so confusing, so bewildering What exactly is love, especially between two women as seen in my text:
How can I explain? I see her and my tummy turns upside down and all I can feel is a sensation of loveliness. I cannot describe it, but my heart beats faster and I find it hard to breathe. My cheeks go red. I don’t feel clumsy, but I feel something. A honey glow inside me, a shiver on the outside, it’s so strange. Then we touch and I tingle everywhere, especially… I cannot write where. But I feel different, special, chosen. She seems to occupy all my thoughts. Her touch… how is this so? What does it all mean? I do know, but should I say it? If this is what I think it is … Girls get sent home for this… Is that a disgrace or is it just wrong to punish them for their feelings? What are their feelings? Do they love each other? Should they love each other? We will have to talk. What does she think? I see her watching me and I feel as if a ray of sunshine is on me, warm, peaceful, excited… How can it be all those feelings? We need to talk, but how…
After the acceptance of my manuscript, I met up with one of the owners of Brigand Press at the British Library whilst attending the Bodies in the Library conference. Quite appropriate, I thought. Unfortunately, what came out of our discussions was that it would cost me to print with Brigand as they could not keep covering the costs of their authors. I had to think, but having self-published already, it didn’t seem a step too far and I agreed after further conversations with Phil Tew.
My visits to London museums were so stimulating. The Imperial War Museum exudes gravitas and the staff are so helpful. I was able to look through letters and photographs of VADs and Nurses. Looking through a dozen or so books at the British Museum was also fascinating. I discovered facts about rations, driving, nurses, and VADs again. The Wellcome Institute had many medical documents I was able to read. All these institutes are amazing and such a boon to writers and the whole community. We have access to so much and the insight we can gain is invaluable. During my research at the Imperial War Museum, I read a letter home from a Casualty Clearing Station written by a K M Latham in 1917. She was reporting to a charity back in the UK, telling them how it was at the Western Front. She gives a great insight into how things actually were and was a helpful aide memoir for me to use:
“Ambulance convoys usually arrived about 10 am, the men in their muddy clothes as they left the trenches, very good and patient, taking everything as a matter of course. The medical officers started on their dressings at once, and we changed their wet things and washed faces and hands, and more if there was time. Then came dinner and a short rest before the ambulances arrived to take them to the hospital train. The serious cases remaining were then taken to the acute ward, and we kept them for three days to a week, or longer if necessary.”
“A very useful institution in emergencies, and when convoys arrived, was a St. John Ambulance Motor-kitchen, which lived temporarily outside one of our convents. Water was always boiling, and we had only to ask for Bovril, tea, milk, etc., to get it at once, steaming hot. We missed that kitchen sadly when it moved elsewhere.”
I had one of these kitchens in my novel serving soldiers outside the railhead but run by nuns rather than the St John Ambulance and finally:
“I knew the Germans had got within range. We only got small shells that day and the next, and most of them fell beyond us, though there was one hole in the road opposite the College which we had taken over from the French Red Cross. As I was coming from our billet to the hospital one passed directly over my head, and my hair seemed to rise up to meet it, a most unpleasant sensation.”
I am able to use these descriptions in my work. Not as plagiarism, but as a way of getting a feeling of what life was really like for the young women who worked at the Front.
Here are the words of another contemporary writer, Matron-in-Chief, Maud McCarthy, who reported after the war in 1919 how things worked at the railhead:
“The walking cases were fed and dressed, and immediately returned to the train. Those in too critical a condition to be moved, remained in the shed on stretchers. Many were brought dead from the trains, and the bodies were taken to a small mortuary, attached to a convent close by. What nursing could be done was carried out under extreme difficulties and consisted chiefly in reviving the patients with hot feeds and in changing their dressings.”
And later what to us would almost sound trivial, but to the nurses at the Front Line was to prove very helpful Maud McCarthy tells us:
“One of the greatest boons was the provision early in 1915, of trestles on which the stretchers were placed … and they were not only a comfort to the patients, but an assistance to the Nurses in the performance of their work.”
I mention in my work how towards the end of the fighting the Casualty Clearing Stations had to pack up at a moment’s notice as advancing into enemy territory became a daily achievement:
“During the Retreat of March and April, these large well-established hospitals all along the Front, at a moment’s notice, closed rapidly, packing up all equipment possible and retired in some parts almost onto the Lines of Communication. During the Advance, the units moved very quickly indeed, and in some cases were not in the same spot for more than two or three days … How this was done, and the perfect way it was done, was a complete surprise to everyone.”
In my novel I write about Poppy meeting the nurse, Élodie Proux, who is to become the love of her life, by the side of a road in a bombed-out Dressing Station:
I first met Élodie Proux by the side of a sunken road near Lebeuvrière in Northern France a mile or so from the Dressing Station near the Front. Her face was battered and bruised. She was huddled under a blood-soaked nurses’ cape … and we had no idea how long she had been there.”
I hope that this extract can show the everyday horror that blights lives. Our introduction to Élodie who is to become Poppy’s lover continues in this part of the novel. She has the body of a Canadian soldier in her arms:
“Élodie sat in silent horror in the mud as we eased the body from her hands. Her auburn hair was cut short and was plastered onto her skull. Her emerald green eyes were dull and lifeless. She was deep in shock, her nurses’ uniform stained … her face an unnatural white mask creased with the track lines of tears and mottled bruises. The fragrant orange blossom scent she wore seemed incongruous as we slithered through the mud and the rain towards what I called home.”
On re-reading “Not So Quiet …” I realised that Price writes about a similar event, but this time her colleagues are all killed when their base is bombed as they peeled potatoes and this forever changes her outlook on the war and on human nature:
“Her soul died that night under a radiant silver moon in the spring of 1918 on the side of a blood-spattered trench. Around her lay the mangled dead and the dying. Her body was untouched, her heartbeat calmly, the blood coursed as ever through her veins. But looking deep into those emotionless eyes one wondered if they had suffered much before the soul had left them. Her face held an expression of resignation, as though she had ceased to hope that the end might come.”
Such a mundane task being carried out leading to death. The absurdities of war again. Reality has altered. The world has cracked and nations are trying to exterminate nations. This war, an industrialised war has changed lives forever and has given unthought of hope to millions. Would women get suffrage, an equal chance in the job market? Would women stop being subservient? Would the patriarchy be smashed at last? The hope was there, but it was to be dashed. But at this stage in 1917-1918 people, women did not know this and could live their lives in hope that once the war ended, if it ever did, that they would gain the rights that were their due. Poppy drives the ambulance from the front to the Rail Head and back again. Helen has the same task. As she writes through Price:
“I am the last ambulance home … which means no hot cocoa. My luck has been dead out this convoy.”
I continually refer in my novel to the difficulties of eating and sleeping under the duress of the war. Helen continues:
“The others struck it fairly easy, but I started off badly. I got Number Thirteen Hospital at the station gate–not only the farthest out of camp, but the one on top of the hill with a rough, detestable, badly-winding road, dotted with irregular heaps of snow-covered stones hard enough to negotiate by daylight, but hell to drive up at the crawl with a load of wounded on a pitch-black night in a hurricane of wind,… when the slightest jar may mean death to a man inside.”
Meanwhile Poppy works through rain and snow, blood, and mud:
“She thought she had finally finished her shift and drove back to Lapugnoy and went through the revolting ritual of cleaning the ambulance out. She washed out the back with the water freezing as it hit the floor. This will be a death trap she thought then almost smiled as she thought about how many were dead at the end of each journey. It was usually at least one, sometimes more. Poppy poured the foul-smelling disinfectant onto the icy floor and it managed to turn it back to water and she pushed it all away out of the bus.”
Another day, another endless set of draining, frightening return trips to the Front. There is no glorification of war, in “Not So Quiet …” nor in my Poppy stories, there are no heroes in the traditional mold. Certainly Poppy and Élodie do not go out looking for crimes to solve. They just find themselves in these situations, they stumble across accidents or misunderstandings. Crimes just happen as if they are the norm, which we, of course, know they are not, it is of course a simple dramatic device to keep the reader engaged. But this is wartime, usual service has been disrupted and we can see how this disruption has contaminated the real world:
“Poppy just couldn’t get warm anymore. It seemed endless. Wet and cold, cold, and wet, she’d stand by a brazier, the burner in our barn or a fire outside and rub her hands, but all that would happen was that she’d get smoke in her eyes. The cold just stayed with her deep in her bones … Poppy had her woolen mittens on with a pair of leather gauntlets over them and still they were frozen.”
Then when Poppy is driving the ambulance:
“Her hands seemed numb. She looked over the windscreen through screwed-up eyes feeling the snow set on her eyelashes. There was so much snow the wipers could not clear it so she had to face the elements with the windscreen down to have a clearer view. It was blowing a real blizzard and her chest was covered in snow. It didn’t help being so tired. It had been a double shift with another pointless push at the Front which meant that there were also more trips from dressing station to clearing station as more severely wounded needed moving on quickly. It was like some horrible conveyor belt. No matter how many of Alfie’s scarves she wrapped around her it was always cold.”
Laura Doan argues in Topsy-Turvydom: Gender Inversion, Sapphism, and the Great War how gender expectations have almost been inverted:
That the new labour expectations of these women, combined with caring for the men they ferried every night created tasks that were “distinctly cross gendered:”
While the work required physical strength and a “masculine” aptitude for mechanical work, drivers also needed to be exceptionally gentle and attentive in carrying wounded soldiers on stretchers. Thus the job required an odd mixture of rudimentary nursing skills combined with the technical expertise of motoring maintenance and driving skill.
I am quick to point out the femininity of my heroes, though Poppy for one is taking on such an arduous task. Like nurses, ambulance drivers were required to adapt extraordinarily quickly to their new physically demanding work and the vile conditions they would face. Lyn Macdonald, in The Roses of No Man’s Land, told us that:
Illnesses that may have been minor at home became chronic with lack of rest. Their faces were cut to pieces by the winds that slashed through the open-air front seat of the ambulance. Their hands and fingers were covered in cuts and chilblains, which very often became infected, as Gladys Stanford relates about her time as a VAD: If you got the slightest prick it always went septic … in their rundown condition— with too much work, too little sleep, and precious little time to snatch a meal before they were too exhausted to eat it— the nurses’ minor ailments often turned into major ones.
It is against this backdrop that Poppy knows that the war is pointless, but she still does her bit. She sees this as carrying on her mother’s work, work that she had given up too soon. Although there were cases of nurses breaking down under the strain of war, it was the conditions in which they lived and worked that affected them most. Their physical ill-health was caused by tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia, heart disease, arthritis, and injury, which, since 1914, had been the most common causes of long-term sickness and retirement from the military nursing service. Later of course was the threat of the Spanish Flu which killed more people than the war itself. Élodie is the brightest thing in this dark furnace of war. An artist, she does indeed bring colour to the scene. The crimes my heroes face are all to do with the war. At the end of the novel when they foil Keisler’s plot to kill the Queen. Élodie finally puts a halt to his plans by shooting him in the leg and Poppy asks:
“Why did you shoot him?”
“Because he was going to get away, because he had hurt you and that should never happen.. Because he frightened me when we were in France. Because he killed your German friend. He was horrible.”
“Is that all?” Poppy laughed.
“And did I say, he nearly got in the way of an appointment a deux to meet the Queen of England for tea!”
Another of the incidents in my novel is “borrowed” from another text. My heroes return to Wales on leave and are involved in a case where an arsonist threatens to kill and maim people in the village of their ancestral home, Loveday Hall. I based this place on Scraptoft Hall in the village where I used to live but moved it to Mountain Ash in Wales as a homage to my parents who lived there as children. It helps to have place fixed in ones mind’s eye. I can still see the house standing at the top of the hill near the church and can imagine the roads made of cobbles or mud leading to framed cottages and a few allotments. In this story for a change, they solve this problem by intuition, a nod to the work of spiritualist detectives like Solange Fontaine written by Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse in 1918. I loved the fact that I was able to transport my characters around a world of my making. A visit to Paris sees Poppy and Élodie visiting the salon of famed American writer Natalie Barney and then to be painted by her on-off lover Romaine Brooks.
“They sat in the shade of an arbour and drank champagne from the flutes presented to them from another nymph with a tray. This was heaven or Arcadia or what was the Greek? Poppy had lost her thread. It was starting to chill, not too much, but soon they would have to go indoors. For now, it was just a delight to sit next to her love, almost skin to skin as the sun lay low in the sky. Here they both were at the court of Natalie Barney. Élodie had been invited, her reputation as an artist going before her. She seemed to know everyone … Music started to play again. This time it was from a real lyre player and flutes, though they couldn’t see where they were. More half-dressed dancers appeared and threw rose petals as they weaved in and out of each other making patterns with their bodies as if floating on air.
Having real-life characters in my story seems to anchor it in a time and place, and if I am not taking liberties with their characterisation, I think they add to the story. Some become recurring characters in later books and take on larger roles. For example, they meet Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar, who features in a few of my future novels, but here had a strange meeting with Élodie when she was visiting Paris. Elodie writes to Poppy:
My Sweetest Poppy
I have been to a delightful soiree at Madame Barney’s. It was exquisite. So many artists and writers. They danced and everything. Even though times are hard here it was a true celebration. I met the artist Romaine Brookes and she gave me such good advice and Dolly Wilde. She is also driving ambulances and is a wild creature. She is beautiful in that strange way her uncle was and is fascinating in everything she does.
You are ma mie,
Escapades in Paris of course mean dodging German spies and the French secret service as they mix business with pleasure and attempt to get secret papers to their own government: They return to a dirty garret in the city to meet a contact:
As they entered the building, they started up the stairs. The familiar smell hit their nostrils as they reached the head of the steps and there was Nougé lying on the floor, his face a pulped mess and his lifeblood emptied onto the dirty carpet that lay underneath him. Flies buzzed and Poppy felt sick.
Lady Loveday is named in honour of the famous female detective Loveday Brooke written by Catherine Louisa Pirkis. I don’t know why, it just amused me. Small things do make me laugh.
Inspiration from another book of the period about handling bodies with innards spilling out which simply become messes to be cleaned up made me think about the desensitizing of war and how strange things become the norm. Mary Borden writes in The Forbidden Zone about unintentionally pulling out part of a man’s brain, but she and the orderly are not horrified, only practical:
When the dresser came back I said: ‘His brain came off on the bandage.’ ‘Where have you put it?’ ‘I put it in the pail under the table.’ ‘It’s only one half of his brain,’ he said staring into the man’s skull. ‘The rest is here.’
I was able to write:
“I held a brain in my hands last night,” Élodie said out of nowhere.
“My God, that’s awful!” Poppy said.
“He had all this bloody bandage on his head and I was holding him steady. Matron removed the lot and his skull had gone and I was just left holding this pink and bloody brain. It was incredible. All this time and I’ve never seen one in one piece. Poor boy died of course. I didn’t know what to do with it. Matron was a bit stunned as well.” She smiled with the grim stoical humour that war had brought to us all.
“Bloody hell Élodie! What did you do with it?” Sophie squealed.
“Put it in a basin. Hurried to the next bed.”
I hope that can’t be called plagiarism. I caught the inkling of an idea and expanded it. It fits into the text as one of the horrors that would just make people laugh uncomfortably, as they drank their cocoa. Some dates are memorable for more than one reason. Poppy Flowers at the Front was published by Brigand Press on March 23, last year. A time of celebration and wine-filled launches you would assume. But no. It came on the very first day of the very first national Covid 19 lockdown, so that put paid to almost a dozen events that I had arranged in various parts of the country. Memorable indeed. Then of course self-doubt set in and I wondered whether this was the best book I could have written. I re-wrote it changing the point of view and taking out some scenes that I felt in retrospect hadn’t worked and then put it out for a Blog tour where over a dozen bloggers reviewed it and were universally positive. This didn’t convince me though and I then started to get some mentoring from the wonderful Tana Collins, author of the excellent Inspector Jim Carruthers series set in the picturesque East Neuk of Fife, and was able to refine my work even more. This is where I realised I had done everything wrong that I possibly could have done. The book could have been so much better than the finished article I had rather rushed onto the market. Consequentially, I asked Brigand to withdraw the book with the hope it could be republished. They did withdraw it, but could not reprint as were very busy. Mine had been the prophetic thirteenth book published by them, and they now have a considerable catalogue. Unfortunately, I will not be part of it. I am now self-publishing this novel and hope to see the revitalised title taking off. Writing crime is such a pleasure as you can meet so many evil characters along the way who brighten up the page. To see how your protagonist solves the crimes is amazing, as they can get up to all sorts of things you’d never imagined them capable of. It is true that your characters lead the way and Poppy and Élodie run a fine race with me chasing just behind. My novels show the true spirit of the post-war woman as she evolves into the 1920s flapper and beyond. If you enjoy the writing of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, and Frances Brody I think you will love Poppy.