‘If you are a person who is drowning, you put all your efforts into trying to swim.’
As it’s International Women’s Day, I thought I would pay tribute to Eileen Nearne, the inspiration for the character of Marièle in my recent novel Swim Until You Can’t See Land.
Eileen worked as a secret agent for the Special Operations Executive during WW2, however this was only discovered after she had died and her flat was being traced for next of kin.
She was flown into France in 1944, just days before her 23rd birthday, and worked as a wireless operator for five and a half months, sending and receiving messages, until she was arrested by the Gestapo.
While researching my novel, I discovered her file in the National Archives in which she describes, quite matter-of-factly, her capture, torture and subsequent imprisonment in a labour and concentration camp.
‘They put me in a cold bath and tried to make me speak but I stuck to the story.’
Eileen ended up part of a work gang who ‘worked on the roads for 12 hours per day,’ however she and two French girls managed to escape by hiding in a forest and then receiving help from a priest. Even then Eileen’s ordeal wasn’t over as, without her papers, she was interrogated by the American Intelligence Service who thought she might be a German agent – ‘subject claims…that despite being tortured she did not reveal any information detrimental to the British Intelligence Service.’ Eventually, after being held for over a month ‘in the camp with the Nazi girls,’ they were able to confirm who she was and she was flown back to the UK.
Eileen was an extraordinarily brave woman, who was awarded an M.B.E. and a Croix-de-Guerre for her actions during the Second World War. She was badly affected by her wartime experiences and, like many of her generation, didn’t talk about her past. There’s a very poignant entry in her file dated November 1945, in which she is recommended for work after her return to the UK – ‘In view of her extremely valuable war service and the hardship which she suffered at the hands of the Germans we are anxious to see her re-established in a suitable peace-time occupation. She is extremely keen to train in beauty culture and I have no doubt will work very hard on making a success of it if she is given an opening.’
I hope that in my novel I’ve been able to honour Eileen, and the other women like her, who gave so much during the Second World War.
I spotted this phone in the window of a curio shop in Morningside. It drew my interest because, not only is it gorgeous, but it has an old-school Dundee number on it.
My mum’s family are all from Dundee; I was born there and my grandparents lived there till the late ‘90s. Somewhere from the depths, a number popped into my head: 65798 – my grandparent’s old phone number. I found it amazing that I’d remembered it all these years later, a strange but wonderful trick of the human brain.
When I was in the Brownies, we were taught how to use a public telephone. We had to take 10p with us and then we went out in small groups to the nearby red telephone box. My folks didn’t have a phone at the time, so I phoned my grandparents in Dundee. 65798 – I had the number written on a scrap of paper.
Looking at the phone, I started to think about so many different things. Who had it belonged to? Maybe it was someone my Granny knew – perhaps the owner had held the receiver and listened to my Granny’s voice on the other end of the line?
What sort of conversations had the phone overheard – declarations of love, secrets, gossip, arguments? Was the receiver slammed down in anger? Maybe the owner received bad news on it? Cried tears which slid down the white Bakelite. Or maybe it was good news – a pregnancy confirmation, a daughter phoning to say she’d got engaged? Perhaps the phone was just used for mundane things – booking a hair appointment, phoning a plumber, a business phone used to arrange meetings?
How had the phone ended up in Edinburgh? And what had happened to its original owner? It made me feel slightly melancholic as I wondered all these things. The person who once used a finger to spin the dial, who breathed into the mouthpiece, who laughed and cried while gripping the receiver, is probably no longer with us. While this white Bakelite phone still remains, so far from home and no longer in use, looking out at me from behind a pane of glass.
As part of Book Week Scotland, the Scottish Book Trust have launched a hunt to discover the best loved character in Scottish fiction.
It’s a tough choice as there are many characters dear to my heart on the list (Chris Guthrie, Prentice McHoan, Hermione Granger) but my vote goes to Alan Breck Stewart from Kidnapped.
My Dad gave me my copy of Kidnapped when I was eight and in hospital. He was an extra in the movie version with Michael Caine and signed an inscription inside it for me – from the man who starred in the film. It’s like a hug from my Dad every time I open it.
I re-read it recently after holidaying on Mull and was reminded of what a great character Alan Breck Stewart is.
Our introduction to Alan goes like this:
He was smallish in stature, but well set and as nimble as a goat; his face was of a good open expression, but sunburnt very dark and heavily freckled and pitted with the smallpox; his eyes were unusually light and had a kind of dancing madness in them, that was both engaging and alarming…His manners beside were excellent…Altogether I thought of him, at the first sight, that here was a man I would rather call my friend than my enemy.
Like all great characters Alan has virtues we aspire to – he’s brave, loyal and he stands up for what he believes in. He’s also flawed which makes him all the more human and therefore all the more likeable – he’s quick-tempered, vain and childish.
He has a touch of the Han Solo about him – a loveable scoundrel, who doesn’t necessarily always do the right thing but his heart’s in the right place.
Although David Balfour is the main character in Kidnapped, it’s Alan who steals the show. His friendship with David is pivotal to the book. My favourite scenes are definitely when Alan and David are together, and I think it’s the lack of this interaction which makes Catriona (my namesake sequel) a poorer book.
They don’t always see eye to eye and have different political opinions – Alan’s a Jacobite and David a Whig. I read it around the time of the referendum and I’m sure Alan would have been a Yes voter; I couldn’t help feeling that the result let him down.
Although David and Alan fight and squabble, they love each other a great deal. Their friendship is definitely of the Joey/Chandler, JD/Turk ilk – two heterosexual men who are not afraid to show their emotions:
He came to me with open arms. ‘Come to my arms!’ He cried, and embraced and kissed me hard upon both cheeks. ‘David’, said he, ‘I love you like a brother. And oh, man,’ he cried in a kind of ecstasy, ‘am I no a bonny fighter?’
When they finally have to part at the end of Kidnapped, it’s heartbreaking and I felt like crying myself when I read it. The passage evokes an oppressive sadness which suffocates the reader as much as it does David.
Neither one of us looked the other in the face, nor so long as he was in my view did I take one back glance at the friend I was leaving. But as I went on my way to the city, I felt so lost and lonesome, that I could have found it in my heart to sit down by the dyke, and cry and weep like any baby.
There’s a statue of Alan and David in Corstorphine near the Rest and Be Thankful, and it makes me smile whenever I see it. It not only reminds me of my Dad and my battered old copy of Kidnapped, but I’m glad that the friends are forever immortalised together.
As part of Book Week Scotland, the Scottish Book Trust is asking us to write a love letter to our libraries – to tell them what they mean to us and why they are important. Here is my love letter.
My first was Aberfeldy. The librarian there said I was her best customer. Granny always told me I was desperate to read for myself and, once I could, there was no stopping me. I remember the wonder I felt on my first visit. The realisation that I could choose any book, take it home, then bring it back and swap it for another. So many books. So much choice. I even remember the first book I borrowed – Five on a Treasure Island.
Since then, no matter where I’ve lived, I have sought out my local library.
My current one is Fountainbridge in Edinburgh. What a beauty! Probably the best looking library I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. It helped me to research my latest novel. I take my daughter there, to sing songs and listen to stories at the Bookbug sessions.
I would never have read so much if it wasn’t for my local library. Who could afford to keep up with my reading habit, or have room to store all the books? Because I read lots and love books, it was a natural progression to want to write my own. I’m the person I am today because of my local library. It scares me to think who I would be without their constant presence in my life.
So thank you library. I will do my best to look after you and protect you. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always had a library to go to. I want that to be the same for my daughter.
I’ll be at South Queensferry Library on Wednesday 26th November to read from and chat about my latest novel, Swim Until You Can’t See Land. Please come along and say hi. It’s free and you can get tickets here.
I thought, on this Remembrance Day 2014, I’d tell one of my Gran’s WW2 stories that didn’t make it into Swim Until You Can’t See Land. My Gran used to tell us story after story about her time working in Millar’s the grocers during WW2. I often think about the boy who also worked there, her friends, who never made it home. Willie Boyle, Philip Lindsay, George Auchterlonie – their names engrained in my memory despite the fact they were long gone before I was born.
This story is about George. He was 30 years old and married to Teresa. He was in the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) and stationed in the Middle East when he wrote a letter home to his unborn child. He knew he probably wouldn’t make it back or ever get to meet his daughter. Teresa brought the letter into Millar’s and one of my Gran’s friends, who had contacts in DC Thomson, took the letter in to them. They went over the pencil handwriting in newspaper ink, so George’s words would never fade, so his unborn daughter would one day read for herself her dad’s words to her. George was sadly proven to be right; he died on 22nd November 1941 and is buried in Tobruk War Cemetery. Years later, his daughter came into Millar’s with the letter, asking to hear stories about the dad she never met.
I thought the story ended there but, visiting my folks a few weeks ago, my mum dug out an old autograph book belonging to my Gran’s best friend. As we looked through it we found two pencil drawings, signed by George and dated May 1940 and one by Teresa (still using her maiden name) also from May 1940.
It’s heartbreaking to think that, in just over a year from then, George and Teresa would be married, expecting their first child and then forever parted. I wonder where their daughter is now, if she’s still alive. I’d love for her to see the drawings made by her mum and dad.
I’m going to be reading from Swim Until You Can’t See Land, and chatting about the book as part of the Previously History Festival 2014. The event is on Thursday 13th November at 6:30pm at Blackwell’s Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh. The event is free but ticketed and you can get tickets here. Please come along and say hello!
I have been AWOL from here for quite a while but, to be fair, I have had good excuses for doing so – having a baby being the main one! I’m now back with my new novel – Swim Until You Can’t See Land. We had the launch in Blackwell’s last Tuesday which was great fun, and the book was officially launched this week. It’s available as a very pretty hardback and an e-book.
Swim Until You Can’t See Land charts the relationship between two women born sixty years apart, whose chance encounter marks a watershed for the younger woman. In her early twenties, Hannah Wright is forced to give up a promising career as a professional swimmer, and is adjusting with difficulty to her narrowed horizons. She is in danger of becoming embittered, haunted by a lost future. Mariele may now be frail and old, but as her exploits during WW2 unfold, she is revealed as a woman of extraordinary spirit, unbroken by capture and interrogation as an agent in occupied France. Hannah’s delight in the medium of water and the rhythms of swimming are set in dramatic counterpoint to Mariele’s of torture by water, an ordeal that puts her in touch with her core strength – something Hannah starts to discover in herself.
My super-fast sister Eilidh and I appeared on the Janice Forsyth show this week. You can listen to it here, but you only have 26 days left to do so!
I’m also in the Evening News this weekend talking about the book and how I came to write it.