Narratives should speak volumes about the past
Thursday 24th March 2016
The books we read as children are often the stories that stay with us for the rest of our lives, says novelist LYDIA SYSON, and that’s why good fiction is so important in sparking a lasting interest in history for young people
JUST as history has to be rewritten in every generation because the present always changes, so too does historical fiction for the young.
This truth came home to me when I realised how little my children’s generation knew about the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s. I grew up with Jack and Moira Gaster, grandparents who talked to me about taking part in the Battle of Cable Street and of friends who died in Spain.
Moira encouraged me to learn poetry by heart in case I found myself in a prison cell without a book — that can happen after a protest, she explained.
But now there is nobody left alive in Britain who fought with the International Brigades. Aid for Spain is a distant memory and the Spanish civil war barely gets a mention in school history lessons.
So when I started work on A World Between Us, the story of a nurse, a journalist and a young communist East Ender who go to Spain in 1936, I felt a great sense of responsibility.
I hoped the book would spark a life-long interest but I knew it might be the only one many teenagers would ever read about Britain’s involvement in the Spanish civil war. I had to get my facts absolutely right. But I also had to keep those pages turning.
Twilight, the series of fantasy romance novels, was all the rage among young people just then. Any kind of history, let alone radical history, was a hard sell in the burgeoning young adult fiction market.
Faced with a readership obsessed with vampire love affairs, could I sweep them away into the heady, idealistic politics of interwar Europe? Could I convey how easy it is to fall as passionately in love with an idea as with a person?
Luckily for me, historians like Angela Jackson had begun to uncover two aspects of the Spanish civil war that are now getting even more attention — the history of women in the war and also the history of medicine.
As I read about the breakthroughs in blood collection and front-line transfusions, A World Between Us began to write itself. Throughout republican Spain, villagers, city-dwellers, nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers all rolled up their sleeves to give blood for the cause of democracy and progress.
What a powerful image, a gift to a novelist! The nurses whose accounts I plundered even spoke of themselves as vampires.
I already had my opening chapter, in which nurse Felix and wounded protester Nat Kaplan meet during the clash between demonstrators and police when Mosley’s blackshirts tried to march through the Jewish East End 80 years ago. The cry at Gardiner’s Corner was taken straight from the streets of Madrid: “No pasaran! They shall not pass!”
Felix pursues Nat to Spain, and her admirer George sets out to bring her home. But he cannot remain neutral in the face of the horrors he witnesses. Plotting my characters’ stories and emotions against the key events of the war — the siege of Madrid, the battle of Jarama, Guernica, Brunete, Teruel, the Ebro — I worked out a subplot of sabotage and thwarted hopes.
A World Between Us was published in 2012 by an innovative new publisher Hot Key Books. They were so enthusiastic about promoting the radical history behind the novel they even produced an enhanced iBook edition, available on iTunes, with interviews, archive material, photographs, maps and music.
One thing always leads to another. School students I talk to always recognise photographs of Hitler. Some manage Mussolini, and a few Franco, but I’ve yet to meet one who can identify Oswald Mosley, the charismatic leader of the British Union of Fascists.
They gasp when I show a picture of British crowds giving a fascist salute to a procession during the 1935 Royal Jubilee. It’s easy to forget that in the summer of 1940, when invasion threatened Britain, fears of fifth columnists and quislings — home-grown fascists who would welcome the enemy with open arms — were all too real.
Spy fever raged. Pacifists were abused. National unity could hardly be taken for granted. This is the atmosphere I tried to recreate in That Burning Summer, my second novel. It’s set on Romney Marsh in Kent during the Battle of Britain and its hero is a Polish pilot who has lost his nerve.
I returned to epic romance for my next book. When talking about A World Between Us a few years ago for a World Book Day school event, we sang the Internationale, the anthem which united international brigaders from 53 different countries.
The Internationale was written at the fall of the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871, from which at least four brigade battalions took their names. Two commemorated the commune’s best-known heroine, Louise Michel.
It was obvious from the success of Les Miserables that love, revolution and barricades would always be an irresistible combination for teenagers. I had the germ of a new novel, Liberty’s Fire.
The eloquence of so many former volunteers for liberty made A World Between Us a relatively easy book to write. In taped interviews, letters and memoirs, women and men like Patience Darton, Penny Feiwel, Aileen Palmer, Reginald Saxton and James Neugass described their experiences in extraordinarily vivid and often poetic terms. Making the world of the Paris Commune live and breathe was a much harder task.
Between 10 and 20,000 communards were massacred on the streets of Paris in May 1871 when French government troops brutally invaded the capital.
The dead can’t tell their story. Many of the survivors, particularly working-class women, were illiterate or left no records. Imagining their voices sometimes felt an impossible challenge.
I also had to disentangle the confusing politics of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. And this for a young audience who perhaps knew a little about the 1789 French revolution but nothing at all of the four that followed.
Once again, my focus was on character and the detail of the everyday. I stared at photographs of women in prison accused of arson, the notorious — and probably mythical — “petroleuses.” I tramped the streets of Paris, eyeing up paving stones. I marvelled at how thoroughly and quickly the violence of the final days of the Commune was erased, its memory repressed.
Property speculation in London is now forcing ordinary workers ever further from the capital’s centre. Zero-hours contracts are the new norm. Women still don’t have equal pay for equal work and the arts remain dominated by an elite. Shades of Second-Empire Paris? The Commune’s social justice agenda continues to resonate and you can feel its spirit in movements like Occupy and the Indignados.
Some young readers will notice these echoes and ask questions. Others might have picked up the book in search of a love story. They’ll find that but also more, I hope.
Though I don’t write novels to provide lessons, but to sow seeds, seeds do take time to grow. In later life, my grandfather Jack said he was a romantic socialist before he was a political one.
Passion is essential to politics and if you want to understand how the two are connected, historical fiction seems to me a very good place to begin.
Lydia Syson will be discussing her work with archivist Meirian Jump at 7pm on March 31 at the the Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green, London EC1 as part of the library’s Children and Socialism series, details: marx-memorial-library.org www.lydiasyson.com @lydiasyson