In my edition of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, his powerful World War 1 novel centred on the first, disastrous day of the Battle of the Somme, Mr Faulks says the original inspiration for his story dated back to his schooldays, when he’d read out at Assembly all the names of the old boys who had died in the fighting.
In the preface to my edition, he says, “It was a tiny school, but the list was so long that I was excused lessons the next day with a sore throat.” His curiosity was piqued by this terrible list, along with his history teacher’s reluctance to talk about the war.
Unlike Faulks, my schoolgirl brushes with the First World War convinced me for decades that I knew as much as I’d ever want to know about the horrors of that conflict: the nightmare gas attacks, the mutilated, dismembered bodies, lions led by donkeys, the pity of war…
Even at the London School of Economics, where I studied 20th century history as part of my international relations degree, I shied from courses that covered the 1914-1918 war years. Politics, I felt back then, ended when the fighting began and resumed when it ended. And I was only interested in politics.
It wasn’t until 2013, on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, that chance changed my mind.
In the summer of that year, Andersen Press announced a short story competition for students on the writing for young people MA which I was attending at Bath Spa University. The rules were simple: write a story set during WW1 with a girl protagonist. The prize: publication.
I jumped at the chance, partly out of journalistic impatience – a short story would demand a concentrated effort over weeks (months at most) and not the wearisome years it takes to complete a novel – but also because my imagination had been fired by seeing the National Theatre’s brilliant production of War Horse the previous Christmas.
Most important of all, this was a real subject, one that demanded research. Travel. Facts. I’m not a big fan of sitting around, fishing in the well of the subconscious for story ideas. I look outward for inspiration, not inward.
But my subconscious was at work whether I knew it or not. Something intuitive and deep-rooted stirred as the Andersen editor talked us through the competition. It brought to mind one image of WW1 in particular, a photograph I’d seen years before on a television documentary.
The photograph showed hundreds of farmyard geese waiting in a French railway marshalling yard, and was being used to illustrate how Spanish Influenza – the terrible bird ’flu pandemic which swept the world in waves in 1918 and 1919, killing tens of millions of people – arrived in France in the winter of 1916/1917, and also how it spread via soldiers returning home by railways and ships.
I now believe that picture provided me with what Skellig author David Almond calls ‘the freedom of knowing your limitations,’ an idea he came across through the American author, Flannery O’Connor.
In an interview, he explained: ‘For me, it was a matter of accepting certain things about myself that were going to be the things that gave me my true voice and my true subject … like the fact that I’d been brought up as a Catholic; that I’d been brought up living in the North East. I spent a long time trying to struggle against those things and cast them out from my work. It was only when I got to the point of realizing that that wasn’t working, and just sighing and saying, ‘Oh yes, that’s what I am’ and accepting those things, that they actually brought a great deal of richness and imagery to my work.’
That WW1 photograph gave me France, a country where I’d lived and worked as a Reuter’s foreign correspondent and always love to revisit. It gave me geese: mysterious birds linked to witchcraft and early Celtic mythology. It gave me railways and the steam trains that had taken my grandfather to the battlefields of the Dardanelles in 1916. Andersen Press demanded a wartime heroine. I had my creative limitations.
Armed with the complete poems of Wilfred Owen, the SatNav coordinates of a French rural museum which kept a flock of Toulouse geese, and a growing conviction that I’d remained wilfully ignorant of what had happened between 1914 and 1918 long enough, I set off to discover the story that would win me the Andersen Press competition, as The Marshalling of Angelique’s Geese (War Girls, 2014), and five years later would be published by Walker Books as a full length novel for teens as The Goose Road.