Sex: Male mid to late 60s. Weight of heart: 10.6 ounces. Evidence of having been broken. Some scarring: never fully healed.
The challenge posed at our creative writing class: write a piece from the point of view of a minor character in a story or film. The character I decided on was a German soldier from the novel The Collaborator by Margaret Leroy. The story is set in Guernsey during the German occupation. It is told in first person by the central character, Vivienne de la Mare.
I read this book a few years ago and despite the woeful cover graphics I thought the story powerful and the writing excellent. The narrative contains wonderful imagery of the island scenery juxtaposed with the intensity of the occupation; the tension and emotional turmoil. It is one of the only books that have felt compelled, when only three quarters of the way through, to read the epilogue. I just had to find out the fate of the main characters!
While pondering on how to write my piece I was watching a TV quiz show. One of the questions posed was what an Epistolary was. I had no idea. The answer: a story written in the form of letters. An example is Dracula. This inspired me to write my piece in the form of a letter from the soldier to Vivienne de la Mare. I have tried to write the letter in character, using phrasing that I imagine someone would use writing in a second language.
6 May 1956
Dear Frau de la Mare
I am Hans Schmidt, the soldier who was under the command of Hauptmann Lehmann in Guernsey during the occupation. You may recall we once conversed in your garden; talked of the flowers, the weather, my cat at home in Hamburg; normal things in the midst of war. Then, at that time I was a young boy soldier of little experience of life.
Recently, I met, by chance, Hauptmann Richter, who is now a doktor at a hospital, local to me in Hamburg. He remembered me. He told me of his visit in 1946 to meet you in Guernsey to bring you the news that your friend Gunther Lehmann had died on the Eastern Front. He told me that it was you who had been sheltering the escaped prisoner Kirill in your house.
He said also that he explained to you that it was I, not Gunther, that betrayed Kirill to the OT after seeing the forced labourer in your garden. Knowing now that he had been, in his homeland Belorussia, a craftsman, a maker of violins, and that he was shot because of my actions fills me with sorrow.
Understand, please. As a fourteen year old boy I was, like many, a member of the Hitler Youth. At a rally in Hamburg I met the Führer. He stopped in front of me to remark on something, some neatness of my uniform perhaps. He looked at me and his eyes were mesmeric. From that moment I would have followed him anywhere. As we all foolishly did. We sowed a wind and harvested a terrible whirlwind. Only my cat was alive to greet me on my return, Frau de la Mare. The cat, only. Now, please believe me, I am a more enlightened man. And so, this letter has been most difficult to compose.
I write to seek your forgiveness. You were a friend to this man Kirill. A good friend when he had none.
My kind regards
When I became a driving instructor, thinking it would be sensible to learn how to actually teach, I took a diploma course called Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning System. On thing I gleaned from the course was, and it’s pretty obvious anyway, is that people learn better if they see and feel the joy and purpose of a subject.
That is why, to avoid boredom setting in, I take my pupils on occasional fun road trips. One day I took Cherry Cuevas on a drive to the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. In spring sunshine we drove along countryside roads edged with early emerging blossom. Brave birds flew low across our path, burdened with nest construction materials, clutched in their beaks. Lambs played alongside their dozing mothers in the fields we passed.
I stopped the lesson to give Cherry a rest. While admiring the gently rolling countryside we discussed how wonderful the area would be for walking our dogs. How, if she had a car, Cherry could bring her dogs to walk on the wooded Otley Chevin. She showed me pictures of her dogs, two border collies, Shadow and Calypso and told me that in her home country, the Philippines, dogs are not regarded as pets, only as working animals. Cherry, besotted with her dogs has embraced our dog loving culture.
I asked her if she had watched the film ‘Lassie come home’. Her eyes lit up. Yes, she said, she had seen the film and the television series. This is not surprising as the book and films were a worldwide phenomenon. The reason I mentioned the film was that the author of the book, Eric Knight, had lived in the village of Menston half a mile away from where we were parked. I knew exactly where. I had learned this interesting fact from another pupil who’s grandmother lived in the house, Carlrayne, where the author had been born on the 10th April 1897.
What I find surprising is that the recognition of Eric Knight’s life is quite low key in his home town; a plaque, bearing minimal information, on the wall of the the local library. Had my pupil not told me I would never have known he had been born in Menston, despite living there myself for two years. Knight was the youngest of three sons born to Frederic and Marion Knight. His father, a diamond merchant, was killed in the Boer War when Eric was two years old. His mother moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to work as a governess for the imperial family before settling in America. Apparently, Eric was left in the care of an uncle and aunt in Yorkshire and emigrated to America in 1912 settling in Philadelphia.
Knight served as a signaller in the Canadian Army during WWI, then as a Captain of Field Artillery in the U.S. Army Reserve between the wars. When not in the armed forces he was an art student, a newspaper reporter and a Hollywood screenwriter. In 1943, when a major in the United States Army Special Services, Eric Knight died in an air crash.
Eric Knight published many books. His novel ‘This above all’ is considered one of the significant novels of the Second World War and his novel ‘Lassie Come Home’ set in Yorkshire was made into a film by MGM. Sequels and television series followed making Lassie a worldwide icon.
As I stood with Cherry, looking through the gate at the house where Eric Knight was born, I thought of the incredible story of this extraordinary man and his life. Is this, I wondered, a kind of literary snobbery. Is the author of story of a dog, enjoyed and loved by millions around the world not regarded as worthy of greater recognition.
The Scottish writer and poet Kirsty Grant, on her blog http://www.kirstywirsty.wordpress.com recently posted ‘The reason why I blog‘. I always find it interesting, instructive and encouraging to read the thoughts of other writers. Why they write. For what it’s worth here are my thoughts.
My urge to write is in my blood. My great-grandmother Elsie Walter, born, like me, in Edinburgh, wrote stories that were published in the People’s Friend and various church magazines. She had a book of short stories published that was read as far afield as Norway and USA. Her son, my maternal grandfather, who died in the First Word War was a poet.
In 1959, aged 9 years, I showed a glimmer of promise that the continuation of the family literary tradition was in safe hands. As a pupil at Lasswade Primary School I won a composition competition run by Cadburys. The prize, a certificate and a silver foil wrapped chocolate egg. There followed a 51 year hiatus in my writing career until my daughter, Laura, asked me to contribute stories to her blog http://www.arewenearlythereyetmummy.com . The stories were humorous memoirs, about her early years in Leeds and my childhood in Bonnyrigg, then a small industrial town in Scotland. My memoirs proved popular with her followers and I was encouraged launched my own grandparent blog http://www.lifeaccordingtogramps.co.uk . The content of this blog was still mainly childhood memoirs but also included stories about events in my adult life.
I can understand writing, for some, can be a private activity, a form of therapy; setting out your inner thoughts on paper can bring peace, a sort of self analysis. All that applies to me too. But, I wanted people to read my work. So, I found historical and community groups connected with my childhood home town of Bonnyrigg and village of Lasswade in Scotland on the Internet and posted my work on their sites. This attracted visitors to my blog; old school friends, contemporary pupils and people interested in the history of their community.
I was astonished one day when I received a comment from a woman Janice Kos living in Andover in Massachusetts who recognised the name Tooter Ritchie, one of the characters in a memoir about a failed attempt to introduce the game of cricket at Lasswade High School. Then, a girl I went to school with, commented to corrected some detail of a story about a teacher’s misguided showing of a film about a leper colony to our class of 8 years olds. This classmate, Margaret Sørhagen nee Duncan now lives in Norway. So, thanks to the power of the Internet, like my great-grandmother Elsie, l have readers in USA and Norway!
Last year, I decided to expand my writing skills beyond my comfort zone of memoirs. I joined a writing group run by the Workers Educational Association. It is called Adventures in Creative Writing and the tutor is James Nash a poet and writer. Under his guidance and encouragement I have tackled a wide range of genres: poems, blank verse and sonnets, flash fiction and short fiction. I have also realised the importance of editing and discovered, after some apprehension, the satisfaction of reading my work to the group. In fact I find reading out loud, to my family or even to an empty room is a good way to test a piece of writing. If it sounds good it usually is! I have no other way of knowing; I left school with a very basic technical understanding of English: nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives are the extent of my knowledge. I was an interior designer for 35 years and I have the sense that there is architectural process in the writing of stories or poems: foundations, shape, structure,style. A word, carefully placed, adding strength to a sentence, a sentence reinforcing a paragraph and so on.
I’m 65 years old, but in denial about my age. The late David Bowie described the oddity creating from the perspective of an old person with the mind of a twenty year old. I like that! I regret not developing my writing skills much earlier in my life. But my hand writing was poor and my education sketchy, due to an intermittent hearing problem as a child. The handwriting is no longer a handicap thanks to the development of word processing and my iPad is my best friend. I’m hoping that I will manage a novel this side of the grave.