Thrilled that my manuscript The Fever Box has been shortlisted for the Fictionary unpublished Book of the Year 2022. I have been using the brilliant Fictionary story editing tool to make my story as compelling as possible and am delighted that it seems to be working. A huge thanks to the wonderful Kristina Stanley and her team of judges for this generous honour.
German Wound Medal Discovery
Back in the spring, I had the great privilege of holding a German wound medal. This was particularly exciting for me because it was evidence that, just like my character Lukas Schiller in A Dangerous Act of Kindness, German POWs were working in the fields around my home, the countryside where I set the book.
Durnell’s Farm Camp was a German working camp which stood on the plot where they built the Didcot Power Station. It was from here that I imagined my character Lukas Schiller heading out to work, hoping that chance would bring him back to where he’d felt “a strange disconnection from the chaos, from the war, from his past, as if those few days at Enington Farm were the only life he’d ever lived.”
My book was finished. My publication date set. In a delightful piece of serendipity, an archaeologist, Michael Osborn, was metal detecting in a field ten minutes from my front door. There he found this German wound medal, which must have been dropped by a POW working in the field.
It’s a ‘silver’ medal, awarded for three or four wounds or a more serious wound such as deafness, brain damage or facial disfigurement (Zoller’s maybe?). These were initially silver-plated brass. The one that Michael found is whitewashed zinc, which dates it later in the war.
I know the field well. I used to walk up there with my dogs when I needed a break from writing. I could imagine how Millie must have felt, working in the mud and cold on her lonely farm. When I pass the field now, I can imagine Lukas there too, working on the land and dreaming of peace.
Big Library Read
From 17 June – 1 July, you can borrow my wartime novel A Dangerous Act of Kindness from your local library as an ebook with no waitlist or holds, or download it via Libby app and be part of The Big Library Read, the world’s largest book club. You can then join the discussions online at https://discuss.biglibraryread.com/. More than 19,000 libraries around the world are participating.
Big Library Read is organised by Rakuten OverDrive, the leading digital reading platform for ebooks, audiobooks and magazines. A Dangerous Act of Kindness was Highly Commended in the Caledonia Novel Award 2018 and chosen by a popular vote of readers and librarians worldwide to be the next Big Library Read.
A Dangerous Act of Kindness tells the story of widow Millie Sanger, who finds injured enemy pilot Lukas Schiller on her farm during World War II. Compassionate Millie knows Lukas will be killed if discovered and makes the dangerous decision to offer him shelter from the storm. On opposite sides of the inescapable conflict, the two strangers forge an unexpected and passionate bond. But as the snow thaws, the relentless fury of World War II forces them apart, leaving only the haunting memories of what they shared, and an understanding that their secret must never see light.
Big Library Read is an international reading program that simultaneously connects millions of readers around the world with an ebook through public libraries. A Dangerous Act of Kindness is the 19th selection of this program which began in 2013 and takes place three times per year. Readers can join an online discussion about the book at https://discuss.biglibraryread.com/. The free programme runs for two weeks and only requires your library card to get started.
A Dangerous Act of Kindness can be read on all major computers and devices through Libby or libbyapp.com, including iPhone®, iPad®, Android™ phones and tablets and Chromebook™.
Norway’s ‘German Girls’
In A Dangerous Act of Kindness, Millie Sanger discovers that you can’t always help who you fall in love with. During the Second World War, thousands of Norwegian women faced the same moral dilemma.
Nearly eighty years ago this month, the Royal Navy took on the Kriegsmarine at Narvik. A month earlier, Hitler had ordered the invasion of Norway but during this first naval battle, Germany lost two destroyers and retired when the third was badly damaged. The naval commanders on both sides were killed in the battle.
More determined than ever to defeat the Germans, a new wave of forces arrived in the Ofotfijord on 13 April 1940. Three German destroyers were sunk and the German crews scuttling many of their own ships when they ran out of fuel. These two battles halved the destroyer strength of the Kriegsmarine.
Despite these early victories, the Allies were forced to withdraw their defence of the country when France fell. Norway was occupied by Germany.
SS leader Heinrich Himmler approved of Norwegian women. They epitomised many of the desired attributes of the Aryan master race and occupying soldiers were encouraged to have children with them. It’s thought that 50,000 women had relationships with German soldiers. These so called ‘German Girls’ faced bitter reprisals when the war ended and they were accused of betraying their country.
In 2018 Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg apologised on behalf of the country for this mistreatment. “For many,” she said, “this was just a teenage love, for some, the love of their lives with an enemy soldier or an innocent flirt that left its mark for the rest of their lives.”
The Real Brigsie
The real Brigsie Paterson was a wartime friend of my mother’s. She wasn’t a Land Girl, she was a VAD. I remember her as a strong and independent woman. When I was creating Brigsie for A Dangerous Act of Kindness, hers was the face I had in mind.
The real Brigsie didn’t have a secret like the one in my book. My Mum met her at Boyce Barracks where they were both being trained to serve overseas. They instantly clicked and stayed chums all through the war and for the rest of their lives.
When they were out in Graz, Brigsie fell in love with a doctor called Mike Sutton. He was in charge of the Blood Transfusion Service and was known as ‘Blood Sutton’. They shared a love of riding. One Christmas, Mike rode his horse through the hospital, blasting away on his hunting horn to wish Brigsie a very Happy Christmas.
Unfortunately for Brigsie, Mike had a wife waiting at home. One evening in Graz, my Mum was in her bedroom and she heard a hunting horn playing Gone Away. She rushed off to find Brigsie and said, ‘Isn’t that Mike out there at the edge of the forest?’ Brigsie said, ‘Yes. He’s playing Gone Away. It means he’s leaving.’ He was demobbed the next day and she never saw him again.
Brigsie didn’t marry. After the war, she found a new life, farming in Limuru, Kenya. In many ways, she became the Land Girl of my story. I rather think my fictional Brigsie would have done the same sort of thing when the war was over.
My mother and father married and settled in Hereford. They named their first boxer dog Graz, after the town where they’d fallen in love. In 1949, Graz had a litter and one of the puppies, Ranee, was sent out to Brigsie.
When Brigsie retired, she came back to England and settled in Southampton. I visited her during the 1980s and remember that her house was filled with exotic pottery and carvings from her time abroad. I wanted to pay homage to her in A Dangerous Act of Kindness as a thank you for all the wonderful stories and wartime adventures that she had with my Mum.
Franz von Werra
Franz von Werra was the only German prisoner-of-war to successfully escape British captivity and make it back to Germany during the Second World War. He was shot down over Kent on 5 September 1940. He told many different accounts of his capture, sometimes crediting the Home Guard with old-fashioned shotguns and at other times Tommies in full battle dress, bayonets fixed. In truth he was captured by an unarmed cook who dashed out of the kitchen of the searchlight battery near to where von Werra’s plane came down.
Von Werra was taken to the Kent County Constabulary. Police Sergeant Harrington was on duty. He described von Werra as ‘quiet, polite and correct,’ although, ‘a bit conceited’. Von Werra claimed to be a Baron and to prove he was an aristocrat, he wore a signet ring bearing a crest and coronet. He also said his father owned several castles in Switzerland. Despite these extravagant claims, Harrington found him, ‘confident, alert and highly intelligent.’
Von Werra lost no time trying to escape. He made several audacious attempts, once managing to stay on the run for three days in the Lake District. On another occassion, he got as far as the cockpit of an aeroplane at RAF Hucknall near Nottingham, having convinced a number of people that he was a Dutch pilot trying to reach his unit. They arrested him as he was desperately trying to work out the unfamiliar controls before taking off for France.
It wasn’t until he left Britain that he was successful. Along with many other Germans, he was shipped out to Canada in January 1941. He escaped through the window of the prison train in Ontario and made the perilous crossing to then neutral America by walking over the frozen St Lawrence river.
When he returned to Germany, Hitler awarded him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. He returned to active duty but his plane went missing over the ocean north of Vissingen in the Netherlands on 25 October 1941.
During the Middle Ages, the practice of surgery and medicine was carried out by the clergy but at the beginning of twelfth century, Pope Alexander III banned them from performing any procedures that involved blood. As blood-letting remained a popular treatment for a wide range of illnesses, the clergy turned to their barbers. Barbers traditionally worked in the monasteries, keeping the monks clean-shaven at all times, as decreed by Pope Urban II a hundred years earlier. The barber-surgeon provided a range of services such as tooth extraction and minor operations as well as bloodletting.
The barber’s pole was originally a symbol of the pole the patient held in their hand during bloodletting, the brass ball at the top of the pole symbolising the bowl used for collecting the blood or for holding leeches. After treatment the bandages were washed and wrapped around the pole to dry, giving it the traditional striped pattern.
The Black Plague of the 14th and 15th centuries had a devastating effect on the number of university-trained physicians (with a doctorate) and in 1540, Henry VIII united the Company of the Barbers and the Fellowship of Surgeons with a royal decree, the Company of Barber-Surgeons, to alleviate the shortages. (Even today, a hospital doctor loses his or her ‘Dr’ title and becomes ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Ms’ or ‘Miss’ once he or she has acquired higher surgical qualifications.) With no formal training, many barber-surgeons resorted to quackery, and discord between the physicians and the surgeons increased, which explains Dr Argyll’s antipathy towards barber-surgeon Mr Barker in The Red and the Scarlet.
However, advances in surgery had gradually improved, pioneered by innovators such as Ambroise Paré. Originally apprenticed to a barber, this famous Frenchman served as army surgeon for thirty years, pioneering and inventing a range of procedures, in particular the treatment of war wounds. When his book Les Oeuvres was published in 1575, his ideas spread across Europe and respect for surgeons began to build until, in 1745, the surgeons finally dissolved their centuries-old partnership with the barbers to become the well-respected profession they are today.
The Forgotten Battle
Throughout my time at Blenheim Palace, I was intrigued that the Battle of Blenheim was overshadowed in English history by the Battle of Waterloo. Not infrequently visitors thought the famous tapestries showed the Duke of Wellington fighting the French whereas they show the Duke of Marlborough fighting the same foe a century earlier. Visitors were far more interested in Winston Churchill (who was born at Blenheim Palace) than in his ancestor, John Churchill who won the ‘glorious victory’ on the fields of Bavaria at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Winston himself tried to set the record straight, believing that John Churchill’s defeat of the armies of Louis XIV in 1704 changed the axis of power in Europe more dramatically than the defeat of Napoleon.
Marlborough and Wellington are both regarded as brilliant generals but Wellington always seems to steal the march. The poet Robert Southey in 1796 wrote an anti-war poem about a skull found by children in the fields of Bavaria, highlighting the pointless human sacrifice.
In fact, the death toll at Blenheim was half that of Waterloo, a battle Southey praised in a later poem written in 1816. And the sacrifice at Blenheim was certainly not in vain. The victory destroyed Europe’s belief in the invincibility of the French, saved Vienna from invasion and stopped the expansionist policies of Louis XIV.
In his history of the British army, John Fortescue wrote that Marlborough, like Wellington, ‘was endowed with a strong common sense that in itself amounted to genius’ but thought that ‘there was a bond of humanity between Marlborough and his men that was lacking in Wellington,’ and yet Wellington remains in the national consciousness and Marlborough is all but forgotten.
It’s a puzzzle. The two generals shared other attributes: they were both handsome men, although perhaps Wellington’s more contemporary look captures the nation’s imagination better than Marlborough’s (the Brian May wig doesn’t help). Another reason may be that the history curriculum in this country tends not to focus on the early part of the eighteenth century. But my favourite reason was put to me by a visiting historian. He reckoned Waterloo was more famous because it was an easier battlefield for tourists to visit, standing just outside Brussels, and because it had a catchy name that people remembered.
Smallpox and the Gothic
Horace Walpole is credited with coining the term ‘Gothic’ in 1764. The Castle of Otranto was subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’, warning the reader that his tale was from a darker age, one of barbarity and cruelty. In his ‘attempt to blend the two kinds of romance: ancient and modern,’ he believed he had created ‘a new species of romance. I was at liberty to lay down what rules I thought fit for the conduct of it,’ – a gloomy setting, a sense of imposing doom, disturbing visions or dreams, melodrama, women in distress or threatened by powerful men. Those rules still play out, restyled through the centuries to appeal to the reading public of the day and make it relevant for the times. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein contains many of those elements although she uses science as the driver. Danny Boyle’s starting point for his production of Frankenstein was his research into a time when ‘the age of science begins.’
The Red and the Scarlet is set at a similar pivot, the dawn of the age of enlightenment. Doctors were beginning to distrust a system of medicine based on the humours, which had guided medical practice for centuries. Treatments compromised survival among the rich (read Sir Charles Scarborough’s account of the death of Charles II) and more enlightened physicians were studying folklores to find new cures.
If the enjoyment of the Gothic comes from an acting out of irrational fears in a safe environment, smallpox offers the perfect subject. It is the only human disease ever to be completely eradicated from the world’s population and yet, despite advances in modern medicine, the horror of sickness, of things erupting from the body, of disfigurement and pain still grips us.
The Gothic tradition is continually evolving: Emily and Charlotte Brontë pitted a new type of damsel in distress, one that rises victorious from male oppression: the feisty Cathy in Wuthering Heights and the strong, intelligent Jane Eyre. In this century, Stephanie Meyer repackaged the genre in the form of vampire Edward Cullen, an ‘Edward Rochester with fangs,’ according to clinical psychologist Dr Cecilia d’ Felice. Cullen is a man who threatens the heroine but also arouses feelings of sympathy, a longing to heal his wounded heart. D’ Felice believes that at that same time as harbouring these more lofty emotions, the teenage girl subconsciously wants to be chased and caught, absolved of the responsibility of controlling her desires.
Literary critics may be snobbish about the Gothic genre but it remains perennially popular with well respected authors creating gripping narratives within it: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979) and Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger (2009).