12 September 2020
Talking and walkin
I love conversation. Talking and walking is a favourite pairing, especially if the talk is linear and the walk a loop. A tandem cycle-ride is also ideal for a good chat, except on the hills. Talking, eating and drinking work well in any combination – my favourite room in any house is usually the kitchen where all three can be undertaken together. Reading and writing sometimes feel like extensions of this – talking with people not currently with you, some of whom are inconveniently dead. It’s all a big conversation across time and place.
My books have provided great opportunities for research adventure. After lots of reading I pack a bag and, at some point, do what Antonia Fraser calls “optical research”, going on holiday to follow in my subject’s footsteps. There is nothing more exciting than setting off alone with a mission. I have been lucky to meet many veterans and other witnesses, open up old trunks, read diaries, try on necklaces. You never know what will provide an unexpected insight.
When I was researching The Spy Who Loved, about Polish-born British Second World War special agent Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, I was invited to stay in the Warsaw apartment of the son of one of her lovers. The following morning I opened the front door to find a Wehrmacht division in the street outside. I automatically reeled back, but a second tentative look outside confirmed that not only was the unit really there, but one particularly angry officer was now getting off his motorbike and heading straight for me. He had a kind of hand-held machine gun, and as he shouted at me he started jabbing its perforated barrel towards my neck. I was nearly in tears before someone explained that I had walked into the filming of a Second World War TV series, ruining an otherwise good take. My panic brought home to me the depth of Krystyna’s courage in a way that no archive could. As a British special agent with a Jewish-born mother, serving undercover in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Krystyna had been arrested more than once, yet always kept her cool and talked her way out of trouble. I guess my talking skills still need some work.
I love most food. It is partly the sociable aspect of sharing a meal, but largely the pleasure of eating. Roast potatoes come high on my list, but a good mash, warm potato salad, or an intensely flavoured packet of crisps always go down well too. Perhaps it is a comfort thing. My lovely sister is also a keen potato fan, and even has a portrait of a King Edward on her kitchen wall, so potatoes also remind me of her. Marie Antoinette once wore potato flowers in her hair, but that is just a happy extra.
This I like in all its shades. Nuance is underappreciated, but it is what has drawn me to all my book subjects. Eglantyne Jebb, the subject of my first book, founded Save the Children yet avoided individual children as much as possible. The only two female test pilots in the Third Reich both put their considerable skills at the disposal of the Nazi regime; one was a fanatical Nazi but the other was part-Jewish and secretly in the domestic resistance. Special agent Krystyna Skarbek excelled in the predominately male field of wartime special operations and can only truly be in understood in the context of her country, although it often excluded her. My new book proposal hinges on an incredibly difficult decision that had the potential to change the course of the Second World War but required pitting the truth against victory. Accepting nuance is not only more honest than seeking absolutes, it is also far more interesting.
I am drawn to anything that carries the traces of time and tide, or otherwise hints at a human story. I like to weigh my grandfather’s cigarette case from the First World War in my hand, knowing he smoked away most of his pay in Gallipoli. I read the inky names inside old books, wondering what caused the smudges, and pause on the curve of worn stone steps, imagining centuries of passing feet. A friend recently knitted me a pair of gloves from a “glove recipe” written down by a great aunt when she was still a teenager. They are heavy and practical, not at all dainty-maiden-aunt type mittens, which pleases me immensely.
A few years ago my mum had wrapped up two small boxes for my birthday. One was so light I wondered whether she had forgotten to fill it; the other was small, square and pleasingly heavy. Inside the first was my grandmother’s hair, two bunches chopped off around 1910 when she graduated to womanhood. It was not in particularly good condition, and my husband expressed his relief that it was not, at least, a severed finger. The second box contained my grandmother’s medal for coming second in the 1912 civil service entry exams. A medal seems a much more sensible thing to keep than a tangle of old hair. Medals are earned rather than grown after all. But it is only when the two things are taken together that you get a real flavour of the woman.
Dancing cannot be combined easily with talking, walking, eating, travelling, nuance or looking at old stuff; nevertheless I love it. Especially a cèilidh or any other dance where someone tells me what to do.
Please note: this article was first published in “Reaction” magazine on the 5th of September, 2020.