I would never have guessed that an image in my head of a small, terrified evacuee standing in a graveyard over thirty years ago would lead me to write a short story, which grew into a novel (Goodnight Mister Tom), six more novels and research for new ones bringing me into contact with people who have shared their life experiences and knowledge with me.
That first image reminded me of the two little boys my mother had told me about when she was a nurse on a children’s ward in a London hospital during the blitz. One crawled under the bed never having slept in one before; the other had been sewn into his underwear for the winter. That gave me his background. As I was jotting these ideas down, my mother suddenly died.
Her funeral took place on a beautiful day in May. When we arrived at the graveyard I noticed a small house through the trees. I discovered it was where the man who took care of the graveyard lived. I decided that my little boy would be billeted there only I set the graveyard in a country village. It was as though my mother had not only given me William but also Mister Tom.
The story of Goodnight Mister Tom is about two people who have both been hurt by life in different ways. It is through living together that they heal one another.
Most of my novels contain people from my previous books or a seed of an idea for a future one. For example, my novel for young adults, A Little Love Song is set in the summer of 1943 and was triggered by an incident in Goodnight Mister Tom.
Tom, William and a boy called Zach stay briefly in a village by the sea and peer through the dusty windows of a second hand bookshop. Because the sun is out they don’t step inside as Tom sees it as the sort of place to visit on a rainy day. I wanted to return to it and find out why it was so neglected and who worked there. That summer of 1943 also led me to a hidden love story set in the First World War.
Back Home evolved from a photograph I had come across while carrying out research for Goodnight Mister Tom. It was of a group of boys and girls on the deck of a ship arriving in England from America in 1945. They were sea evacuees. Their clothes and their hairstyles looked American. Even the manner in which they stood seemed American.
Most of them had been sent away from England in 1940 when the Germans invaded France. When some of the ships carrying them were sunk, it became too dangerous to continue evacuating them. Churchill also believed it was bad for morale to see people fleeing the country. Their parents had no idea that they would not see them again for five years.
As a seven-year-old child I had travelled to Australia with my parents and little brother. My father, who was in the Navy, had been stationed there. Returning home, two and a half years later I had little memory of England. My culture and my accent were Australian. England was a cold foreign country to me.
My mother sent me to Elocution lessons to get rid of my accent. For years I had believed it was for snobbish reasons. It was only much later that I understood why. I suspect she believed that until I had lost it I would not make friends.
Ignored by the other children I was lonely, and I hated England so much that if we had to sing an English song in a singing lesson I would refuse and mime it instead. Luckily the teachers encouraged my acting side and eventually I made friends.
Knowing the difficulties I had experienced after only two and a half years away from England and accompanied by my parents I wondered how these children coped after five years away from home without their parents.
The photograph continued to haunt me. It was as though the children were saying, ‘ you have to write about one of us. We won’t leave you alone until you do.’
I surrendered and began my research. I met sea-evacuees, listened to them on the telephone and read their letters. This led me to explore American children’s books, American Art, American music, traditional American stencilling and, through two chance encounters in a library in Connecticut and in a canteen in the British Library in London I was able to find out what it was like to be in Junior High in the 1940’s.
Many of these children couldn’t understand why their parents sent them away to boarding schools on their return. They believed that their parents didn’t want them. One woman told me that her first three years back in England was like living in a dark tunnel.
Back Home tells the story of twelve-year-old Rusty. Like many shocked, disorientated and lonely sea-evacuees she is faced with bombed streets and rationing, has to adjust to living with relatives who seem like strangers including her four year old brother born in her absence and she is also expected to behave like an English girl.
But Back Home isn’t only about her struggles to adjust to war torn Britain, it’s also about the relationship between her and her mother. At first they expect each other to be the same person they had been in 1940. Eventually they realise that they need to get to know one another all over again.
Back Home led me to write Cuckoo In the Nest.
I had been offered work playing three very different roles in three Feydeau Farces. During a rehearsal break the Director mentioned that he had read Back Home.
‘It wasn’t just sea-evacuees who had problems adjusting to living with their families again,’ he told me. ‘Evacuees in this country had problems too.’
He had been billeted with two sisters in Devon for four years and had loved it so much that he had wanted to be a farmer. His father wouldn’t hear of it and on his return from serving in the army overseas he found him a job that he hated. His salvation was his evening work in two Variety theatres.
It made me wonder how a working class boy, post war, could get his foot into the ‘legit’ theatre where plays were performed and I began interviewing actors and stage technicians who had worked in weekly repertory theatre in the forties.
Cuckoo In the Nest is set in the severe winter of 1947 when England suffered the heaviest snowfall since the 1800’s. Because of the shortage of houses people made homes in abandoned army huts, railway carriages and overcrowded rooms.
The Hollis family are fortunate. They live in a two up two down small terrace house, one of only five left standing in their street.
Dad (John Hollis) sleeps in a narrow makeshift bed in the kitchen. Each member of the family takes turns to sit on it during meals, as there aren’t enough chairs to go round. As well as the Sunday night bath in the zinc tub, the room is also used for cooking, drying clothes and listening to the wireless.
In the front room, twelve-year-old Elsie shares a bed with her seventeen-year-old cousin Joan. Above the kitchen, Mum (Ellen Hollis) sleeps in the double bed with her ex WAAF sister Winifred (Aunty Win). Ellen’s sons Harry and Ralph sleep top and tail in a small bed in a room across the landing where Elsie frequently flees to in the night to escape Joan’s snores, which can be heard in the next county.
Win, who is not a great lover of the male species, is none too happy at the return of her sister’s husband. Bored to death working in a department store she is also finding it difficult to adjust to civvy street.
Ellen, meanwhile, shops, feeds everyone, cleans the house, does the laundry and struggles to keep the peace. Unfortunately, in the midst of the family friction there is a cuckoo in the nest.
During the war Ralph and his brother and sister had been evacuated to Cornwall where they had been separated and taken in by two families. Ralph had been billeted with a vicar and his son. Ellen had missed them so badly that she decided to bring them home. By then Ralph had been offered a place at a grammar school. Realising that this was his chance of receiving a good education she allowed him to remain there.
When Ralph’s father returns home from overseas he is none too pleased to discover that not only is his sixteen-year-old son still at school when he should be out earning a living but that Elsie has also been offered a place at a local grammar school. After several arguments he allows Ralph to remain with the vicar until he’s taken his School cert exam and, because Aunty Win has paid for the uniform, agrees under sufferance to let Elsie take her place at the grammar school.
Ralph returns to his working class nest with a middle-class accent. Within a few months he is sacked from the paper mill where his father had arranged an apprenticeship for him. To make matters worse, Ralph has a secret. He wants to be an actor and work in the local weekly repertory theatre company but even in that world he is a cuckoo in the nest for in the 1940’s the legit theatre was a middle class institution.
As the snow continues to fall bringing trains to a halt, burying vegetables and causing the government to ration electricity, the family dramas escalate and Ralph and his father become ever more entangled in loathing one another. In spite of this, Ralph manages to sneak into the theatre, volunteering to search for props and helping out at the Saturday night striking of the current play’s scenery. One night, on finding a drunken female Assistant Stage Manager unconscious during a performance and thus unable to play the maid, he takes a life changing decision.
As the snow thaws there is widespread flooding and Elsie is nearly drowned, trapped in the rubble of a bombsite.
The following book, A Spoonful of Jam is her story and takes place in the heat-wave summer of 1947. By now, Aunty Win has taken advantage of the recruitment drive for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (Women’s Army) and joined up removing one less cause of friction.
But Jack Hollis, after years of living with men still finds living with females uncomfortable. Elsie longs for him to pay her some attention and to invite her to accompany him to his allotment, a very male preserve. Instead, he continues to be on the look out for any sign of hoity-toity behaviour from her, convinced she might turn out like Ralph. On the advice of her mother she hides her homework and her borrowed pre-NHS spectacles from his sight.
It is for this reason that she decides not to tell him about the gang in the next street who bully her. What causes her to be more frightened is that she will no longer have her fourteen-year-old brother, Harry to protect her from them, as he will be starting work at the paper mill. To avoid being on the streets she auditions successfully for a role in a Victorian thriller, Pink String and Sealing Wax. It is after working with the company for four weeks, chaperoned by a woman who strides through the streets like a highly cultured Sherman tank that she finds the courage to confront the leader of the gang.
A new image catapulted me into my next book, Just Henry. This time it was an old cinema. So that’s where I’m going next I thought and began my next historical journey which included reading more old newspapers, watching old films, paying a visit to a Cinema Museum in London and being invited to see a wonderful collection of wirelesses by a man who lives in a nearby village.
My main character in Just Henry is fourteen-year-old Henry Dodge who loves watching films. He goes to the cinema at least three times a week, more, if he can earn extra money at a local grocery shop. But in 1949 when my story begins, it was quite common to go to the cinema three times a week. Few people had television sets. The wireless was the main source of entertainment, if you could afford one.
And these cinemas weren’t like today’s studio cinemas housing 150 people with only one main film and trailers. They were magnificent pieces of architecture with paintings and ornate windows on the walls and soaring ceilings. Some were like cathedrals, others like grand Tudor mansions, breathtaking Greek temples or Art Deco edifices. Outside where there were still bombed buildings and rationing, many people were living in crowded rooms in dreary conditions. Imagine what it must have been like to leave that world, enter a vast red carpeted foyer with gold chandeliers hanging above it and walk up a wide marble staircase. It was like being in a palace. And in fact the cinemas were called Picture Palaces. They housed up to two thousand people and often had an orchestra pit left over from the days of the silent movies. A massive organ called a Wurlitzer would emerge majestically from its depths with a man in evening dress pulling out all the stops (literally) as it rose, and the film programme consisted of two full-length films with trailers, advertisements, newsreels and cartoons. And if you were really clever you could remain quietly in your seat and watch the whole programme all over again.
But Henry knows that soon he won’t be able to see so many films. The summer holidays are nearly over, his last year at school is looming and he is dreading it. The previous year, when the school leaving age had risen to fifteen, the pupils in the brand new Form IV had been so angry at being forced to stay another year that the doddery old teacher in charge had been unable to keep control. This resulted in regular canings by the headmaster and detentions after school. Detentions would mean that Henry would be unable to do odd jobs at the grocery shop and earn money for more cinema tickets.
But when Henry returns to school he is surprised to find a new teacher waiting for Form IV. An ex-navy man fresh from Teacher’s Training College Mr Finch is a man who will brook no nonsense and who is also full of new ideas. Henry is just beginning to believe that his last year is not going to be so bad when his form are put into groups for a history project and asked to carry out research for an end of term presentation about life fifty years back, in 1899. Henry is teamed up with two boys he has ignored all his school life, following his grandmother’s advice that there are some people you mix with and some people you don’t. One boy is the son of a deserter, the other, the son of an unmarried mother. When Henry asks if he can be put with another group Mr Finch refuses his request.
Henry finds a way of avoiding them during the break times by volunteering to help the school caretaker clear out a room which is full of junk. It is to be a dark room so that Mr Finch can teach any interested pupils how to develop films. However, his teacher is not fooled. He confronts Henry, gives him an envelope containing the phone numbers of the two boys’ lodgings and warns him that if he doesn’t make use of them during the half term break he will be prevented from taking part in the presentation.
Henry eventually visits them and is surprised by what he discovers. The two boys help him paint the now empty room using a precious pot of black paint that a woman called Mrs Beaumont has managed to obtain for him. Later, while developing a roll of film in this dark room, Henry makes a shattering discovery and his world begins to resemble one of the thrillers he has seen on the big screen.
My latest book has evolved from A Spoonful of Jam where my main character makes an appearance. It is her story twelve years later in 1959.
Middle-aged Winifred Lindsay, now an ex WRAC Major, is paying for her niece Josie, a working-class tomboy, to attend a finishing style London stage school where she is led to believe she has little acting ability.
Fortunately, being in the right place at the right time, she is cast in an American comedy. Unfortunately, being in the wrong place at the wrong time she is flung into danger and hides with a fellow runaway in the Theatre Royal, Stratford East where she spies on the rehearsals of the revolutionary director Joan Littlewood. This experience leads to more work but unbeknown to her, her life is now under threat and she and her aunt find themselves fighting for their lives in the polluted waters of the Thames.
For those who can remember the Ealing Films or who are film buffs, it has a smattering of the comedy thriller The Ladykillers about it. It comes out in November and is called Impossible!
And what about now? Have I grown tired of delving into the past?
Not quite yet.
In Just Henry we briefly meet the two sons of Mrs Beaumont, the woman who helps Henry gain entrance to the cinema and lends him a camera. I want to write a book about them when they were boys, which is how I came to watch a stunning 1928 silent film Underground with a wonderful new score by Neil Brand. Well, that’s my excuse.
I also have the first scene in my head of a novel about Auntie Win and am collecting DVD’s of more old films. Then there’s that book set in the forties …
So many questions needing so many answers. Lovely, isn’t it?
Michelle Magorian’s first novel Goodnight Mister Tom won awards in the UK, America and Australia and been translated into eleven languages.
It has adapted for the stage, screen and radio. In her CVHF talk on 26th June at 5pm, Michelle will discuss Goodnight Mr Tom and these adaptations so that writers can understand that there are many different ways of writing a story as well as exploring this heart-rending tale of an evacuee during World War II.