The guys at the books podcast We’d Like A Word are making quite a name for themselves. Previous guests have included Graham Norton and Anthony Horowitz. I’m honoured to follow in their footsteps. In their mid June broadcast I shared the spotlight with General Sir Peter Wall, the President of Combat Stress. Combat Stress is the premier charity for veterans with complex mental health issues such as PTSD.
Paul Waters and Stevyn Colgan, the show’s producers, had chosen a theme of ‘should trauma influence stories’. Sounds heavy, doesn’t it? Just follow the links below and listen; we laughed. A lot.
We started by talking about Draca, my novel about broken relationships and misunderstandings where one character is a veteran with PTSD. General Wall has read the book and had some wonderfully enthusiastic words to say about it. Paul asked how much trauma can, or should, shape a story. That’s a serious question which prompted serious discussion, but which morphed into reminiscences of Armed Forces life and became just a little explosive. Best line of the broadcast came from Paul Waters, after one anecdote from General Wall: “Just think how far your career might have gone if you hadn’t been caught!”
Where to listen
Sir Peter Wall and Combat Stress
Sir Peter Wall was Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the British Army, until 2014. If you’d like to know more about Combat Stress and their outstanding work with veterans, their web site is here.
There’s more information about Draca, including extracts, on this site here. For Draca’s Amazon pages, go here for paperback and here for Kindle. At the time of writing, one month from launch, it is scoring a very gratifying 4.6 ex 5 with 20 five star reviews. Draca is also available via Waterstones, Foyles, and all good bookshops.
As VE Day approaches I’ve been reading the diaries my father kept as a prisoner or war. In early May 1945 he was in a work group in the Austrian Tirol. British forces were close, but the country in between was occupied by heavily-armed SS troops. Although there had been a local capitulation on 2nd May, locals said the SS wanted to fight on.
For Dad the final days of the war held jubilation, high drama, and needless tragedy. In previous posts I have described the murder of the SS officer’s family near my father’s camp, and the bizarre circumstances of the surrender of the Hungarian division. It was a Hungarian officer who told Dad that British troops had reached Lienz, just 20 miles away. The officer agreed to drive Dad and another sergeant there, through SS ‘bandit country’.
Fortunately the road to Lienz proved clear. Dad’s description of contact with Allied troops is unemotional: ‘on the outskirts of Lienz we ran into a British patrol [and] we found ourselves in the thrilling company of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.’ He’d known 3 years in captivity, escaped once, and endured punishment beatings and a mock execution as a result. He’d known such starvation that he wrote of one camp ‘we marched in as soldiers, we crawled out as animals’. And yet his first contact with free British forces earns only the label ‘thrilling company’.
The local situation was still volatile. In London, crowds packed the Mall to cheer the King and Queen. In Lienz ‘the night was marked by a good deal of shooting; not rapid fire, but well within view a number of houses or other buildings were burning fiercely.’ The Argylls promised to send transport to extract all the British prisoners of war, so after a celebratory beer the two British sergeants returned to their camp. It must have seemed strange to be chauffeured by a newly-surrendered Hungarian officer.
The good doctor
The entry for Dad’s last night in a prisoner of war camp shows more warmth, but surprisingly it is for the local Austrian population. In particular the local doctor had not only cared for their ailments but found other ways of alleviating their situation, frequently at great personal risk. Perhaps a dozen of the British PoWs gathered in his home that night for a farewell bottle, staying until several were incapable of climbing back up the hill to the ‘Lager’. Dad wrote ‘he was a brave and charming man, and I honour his memory.’
I suspect that ‘fraternisation’ stretched way beyond the doctor’s kindness. When the promised transport arrived the following day, ‘leave-taking was a wretched business, everyone seemed sorry to lose us, and all the women and girls were crying. And so we said “Auf Wiedersehen” and not good-bye, and if ever the opportunity occurs I shall most certainly return.’
Return, and afterwards
Dad reached home in June 1945. His own parents had suffered, in a different way; Dad was an only child, and comrades in his unit had seen his truck hit by tank fire in 1942, during the retreat to El Alamein. My grandparents received the dreaded telegram ‘Missing, Believed Killed’. They endured six months of uncertainty before they knew he was alive and a prisoner of war.
I always thought it strange that Dad talked so warmly of Austria, the country of his later imprisonment. Perhaps it came from the deep camaraderie of that work group, which endured for decades afterwards. Perhaps it was the warmth of a local, rural community largely untouched by Nazi politics. The Tirol had been kind, but I think some of his earlier experiences as a prisoner damaged him. His generation, though, did their best to pull themselves together and get on with life.
Dad lived to be 93. One of his fellow escapees in Italy, a man who stood beside him facing the firing squad in that mock execution, was Best Man at his wedding. They became lifelong friends.
Posted on VE Day, 2020, in honour to all those who served in that war, and those who waited.
Counting down to Draca’s release in ten days. The main character is Jack, a flawed hero of Afghanistan. He’s a veteran with PTSD, but the book is not universally dark. Suzie Wilde, author of Sea Paths and Obsidian said in her review, ‘Tension release, tension release, fear, laughter, fear, lust, so you don’t notice the tightening of the noose … the story sucks you in and won’t let go.
Yet to understand the man you need to know what’s going through his mind. Here’s a glimpse:
(Extract from Chapter One)
Getting to sleep was usually easy, with a little liquid help. It was staying asleep that was the problem.
One summer when Jack was a kid, the family stayed on a farm for their summer holidays, and the farmer set a magpie trap in his yard. In the centre, in a little cage within a cage, was a live one. The ‘call bird,’ the farmer said. He’d left it a dish of water and even a bit of dead pigeon to eat, but the thing flapped around making a lot of noise in that harsh, rattling way of magpies. As Jack and the farmer watched from inside his barn, three more magpies arrived and hopped down through the wire door to see what all the fuss was about. They went frantic when the farmer walked over and they couldn’t get out, and he shot them, one by one, with a .22 rifle he kept for vermin.
The Taliban hadn’t killed Jack outright because he was their call bird, but they’d used Dusty Miller for target practice. It was usually Dusty who woke Jack in the black hour before dawn, and always with the same pleading look, that way he’d stared at Jack as if he could do something. Dusty had come running back for him through the firefight in a mad, heroic, suicidal dash, and he was still coming back for him, pulling him out of the fug of sleep when the alcohol drained from Jack’s system and all that was left was the sour taste of guilt. Sometimes, in those first moments of wakefulness, Jack could smell roasting meat. Then he’d have to walk outside and breathe clean air, whatever the hour, whatever the weather. He’d have run, if he could. Even in summer, the air just before dawn can be pure as snow.
You need to meet ‘George’
Only about 2/5 of Draca is in Jack’s ‘voice’. There’s almost as much written from the perspective of Georgia, ‘George’, the feisty yachtswoman who runs the local boatyard. She’s an orphan with attitude, the light to Jack’s dark, and I’ll introduce her in a couple of days.
Draca can be ordered now
There’s more about Draca here, including some stunning early support from very distinguished generals. Meanwhile, if you’d like to order the book there are links to many UK and international retailers including Waterstones and Foyles via the ‘buy’ link here, or if you’d like to go straight to Amazon UK then click here for a paperback and here for a Kindle version.
My E-book of short stories has now been published by Solaris, and is available for free download in both Kindle (.mobi) and iBook (.epub) formats.
MUSE: A powerful, emotionally charged story where old lady teaches a young pianist the true, evocative power of music. Winner of the ‘Get Writing’ Prize 2011.
THE OTHER WOMAN: In this light-hearted and amusing tale, a sailor becomes obsessed with restoring a vintage sailboat, which seems to have a character and a mind of its own.
SHORT BURSTS: The poignant story of an elderly veteran confronting his demons in an old people’s home.
Click the links to download. Enjoy!