1Do you remember when students did Christmas Post in duffle coats and university scarves? I did many rounds around Bolton lugging a sack into some strange corners of the town (no elf and safety then). You felt the buzz in the Sorting Office to get the cards delivered on time. And great rivalry among students to get overtime in.
2My first experience of close harmony choral singing was at the grammar school carol service in the Parish church sung by candle light. Singing hymns in Latin under such splendour was very strange for a non conformist child.
3The welcome gift of a deceased cockerel for Christmas dinner from Aberdeen (sent by train as a post war treat). Trouble was it squawked when it went in the oven and we all fled thinking it was still alive. I was too horrified to eat any of it.
4The joy of a baby born at home a week before the big day and Father Christmas passing across the window leaving balloons for her little brother.
5Filling pillow cases after midnight on Christmas Eve for four kids trying to make sure they all got the same “bulky” look.
6The special chocolates bought in Milan by my husband and hidden in our wardrobe only to be found in sheds of silver paper as the fattest mouse staggered across the bedroom.
7Dancing with my daughter down the aisle of St Chad’s Lichfield to the haunting music of Hely- Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony as part of a Christmas service with our children. (It did not go down too well, as I recall with the older congregation)
8The Christmas of 81 with a house full of guests when the car tyres were frozen to the path and the water froze in the house so we had no loos but a caravan porta-loo...We drowned our sorrows in sloe gin and mulled wine and managed, don’t ask me how.
9Selling mince pies, Christmas cakes and puddings on Settle market in the snow with only a Terry Lamp for warmth, thick boots and determination to sell all our home made wares. Then back home for a whisky hot toddy with a few pounds in our pocket and rosy cheeks.
10The panic on Christmas Eve after the last post when that card arrived from someone who we’d dropped from our list...
11Singing Carols in the Moravian church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania followed by glu-wein and their special Christmas biscuits.
12The sight of houses down the streets of the small American towns with a single candle in every window, welcoming in the festive season. Give me these any time rather than the garish flashing lights we have to endure but it’s hard to find the right sort of candles in the UK.
These are some of the memories, I’ll never forget.
When did you last send a holiday postcard or in fact any postcard? Only a few years ago it would have been impolite not to set aside time to get them written and sent off usually at the airport on the way home.
In this 1914-2014 commemorative year, exhibitions of local soldiers and war time life will be very popular. Many of us have been searching archives and photo albums for family members involved in the Great War on land air or sea. I found two mysterious postcards in an album with no names to identify them. One is of a Dumbarton kiltie from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders dated November 1914. He stands proud and smiling thanking my young great aunt and the local church for a gift of fruit but his name has been cut away when it was framed.( And she never married?).
The other is of an unknown soldier from the Midlands with no identification ( I can’t read his cap badge) or date him but oh, he looks so young and vulnerable. Thousands upon thousands of these portraits were given to parents and sweethearts and many found their sad way into local papers alongside the casualty lists. Some framed forever on pianos and mantelpieces as the lad who never came home....
It made me think about how popular postcards used to be when posts were delivered many times a day; Soldiers at the front sent them home as souvenirs. Many a dug out was decorated with pin up shots of the beauties of the day like the Dare sisters, Zena and Phyllis.
Gaiety Girls posed in scenes from the Musicals along with actresses like Lena Ashwell . She managed to form a troop of artists who were given permission to perform in hospital stations and rest camps on the northern French coast.
This was the starting point for my own story The Postcard. Theatrical star, Phoebe Faye’s chance encounter with her former beau on a troopship from Calais changes her future with tragic consequences.
I have seen fine albums full of postcards informing of arrivals and departures and “Wish you were here” scenes of tourist sites so postcards hidden for years, mislaid, lost and found, play their part in this story too.
Every author needs a hero or two, especially ones like me who set their stories around World Wars. So I make no apologies for the fact that the heroes in The Girl UnderThe Olive Tree and The Postcard, both men and women are inspired by real life soldiers, nurses and agents whose exploits would seem fanciful in books today.
Take one of my all-time favourites: Paddy Leigh Fermor, who died recently, he was handsome, suave, self educated, a ladies’ man and how…but whose superb prose captured my writing heart many years ago with the wonderful account of his walk to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland in the 1930s as a young student. ;Time of Gifts, Between and Woods and Water and Broken Road the final volume out now.
His exploits on Crete as a Special Operations Officer are legend. His group galvanized the Cretan resistance, kidnapping General Kreipe in in 1944 (fictionalized in the film: Ill Met By Moonlight.) This was a man who sat under the stars quoting Ovid to his hostage, a dare-devil who disguised himself as a Cretan shepherd and roamed the streets of Chania, writing slogans on walls even with a price on his head, He lived a full and varied life, a great raconteur, beloved of correspondent to the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. (Yours In Tearing Haste) He worshipped women but I suspect was a devil to live with. Do they make them like him anymore?
There’s also the legendary New Zealand Officer, Jock Lewes, whose secret service exploits in the Egyptian desert commanded such respect. Letters to his fiancée, Mirren Barford published by her family as : Joy Street are some of the most understated yet romantic love letters I have ever read. He too didn’t survive the war.
No wonder the lost hero is a theme to which I return time and time again in my novels. I’m sure we have similar men and women in this generation, volunteers willing to give their lives to the cause, to sacrifice their own well being and happiness for the greater good.
My heroes in The Postcard, Caroline and Louis-Ferrand, find themselves caught up in wartime subterfuge, sacrificing personal happiness and family for duty. My heroes are always driven, sensual beings, often artistic, dare devils in courage, taking risks, playing hard, loving both life and danger.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, they say. Yes, my male heroes may be of their time, old school, reticent, chauvinistic perhaps but I find them fascinating if not a little daunting, the yard stick to which all my fictional heroes must be measured against.
As for my women e.g. Penny and Caroline, all are inspired by real life examples such as the SOE agent, Eileen Nearne. They have a stubborn courage in facing what life throws at them. Their men may be lost but the girls win through with or without their lovers : To be a hero in a Leah Fleming novel, no wimps need apply.