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Thursday, 19 May 2011

Jubilee by Eliza Graham

I live in a very beautiful part of the South of England, very close to White Horse Hill in what used to be Berkshire and is now Oxfordshire. I’ve always been aware of just how long human beings have lived here. Up on the hill stretches the White Horse itself, which predates Abraham. Wayland’s Smithy, the mysterious Sarcen stone burial site, is about three miles from my house.

My first two novels were set in Dorset and West Poland (formerly German Pomerania) respectively. When it came to my third book, Jubilee, I wanted to write about where I live, about the hills and fields I see every day when I’m walking my dog.

As I strode through fields of sheep I thought back to the families who’d farmed up here in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, as livestock and farming methods improved. Some of them had lived here for centuries. They’d just weathered the slumps after the first world war when the second world war started. Life changed. Prisoners of war from Germany, Austria and Italy came to work on the farms. Evacuees arrived from London. Some of the local young men who’d signed up died or faced years of imprisonment in European and Asian POW camps.

I thought of a protagonist for this new book: Jubilee, He’d be Robert Winter, a young yeoman farmer, not quite gentry, but well-placed in the village. A member of the local cricket team. Someone who’d spent his youth out on the hills with the sheep. Someone who’d seen the tough side of life and probably come across a few people he didn’t much like but generally thought of other human beings as reasonable.

Put a man like this, a man more sensitive and highly strung than might have been imagined, into a Japanese POW camp where he witnesses atrocities and deprivation. Where his own health suffers. He survives his incarceration and comes back to his picturesque farm on the Downs. He knows he’s fortunate, that he should be grateful, that he should pick up where he left off, throwing himself into the rhythms of the farming year.

But he can’t. What happened to him in his camp in Thailand is still replaying itself in his mind. Every night he goes to sleep and ghosts come out to reproach or taunt him. Still living on the farm are the young evacuees who arrived in 1939, now older, but still expecting to pick up the relationship they’d developed with Robert before he went away. They grow increasingly scared as his mood swings and delusions grow more intense.

I’d chosen jubilees as the linking theme for this book, though it has nothing to do with the monarchs themselves. For small villages in this part of the world coronations, royal weddings and jubilees are a kind of glue that binds the community together. People come out and celebrate. Bunting goes up. Cakes are baked. I used the coronation in 1953, the silver jubilee in 1977, and the golden jubilee in 2002 to show how the past informs the present, how people go into the future always half-looking behind them at what’s passed.

Jubilee was at proof stage by August 2009, the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the second world war. On the morning of Bank Holiday Monday I was vacuuming my house before we were to go down to the local agricultural show: an annual family excursion. Someone knocked on the door. A man in his seventies was standing there. He told me he’d come to live in this very cottage as an evacuee in September 1939 and had returned to the area this weekend as there was going to be a sixtieth anniversary commemoration of the evacuees’ arrival in the village primary school.

Goosebumps pricked on my skin as he told me about life in the cottage during the war, about the Italian POWs in the camp 100 metres down the road from us. I’d fallen into my own book! Jubilee had come alive in a way I’d never expected.


Ann Weisgarber said...

There's an uncanny connection between Jubilee and Whisper My Name, the novel listed just above this. A man from the past shows up at Eliza Graham's home while Jane Eagland's novel deals with spiritulism and seances. Coincidence? Not for this reader. These unexpected links are what pull me to historical fiction.

Deborah Swift said...

I loved Jubilee. It is both a mystery story and a harrowing account of what war does - not at the time, but its long-term effects on the sensitive human psyche.

Eliza Graham said...

Thanks, Ann and Deborah, and apologies for my absence this last week. Life has been a bit too busy.