Vera Atkins won’t leave me alone!

Special Operations Executive

Special Operations Executive

Yes, I do mean Vera Atkins of Special Operations Executive Section F fame. I first heard of the SOE agents probably around fifteen years ago when I began researching WWII for my novel Tomaree. I have been fascinated with the amazing women of SOE ever since.

About 18 months ago on goodreads I read about a book entitled A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and missing agents of WWII by Sarah Helm. I marked the book to read and thought that someday, when I had a bit of time, I would read it. After all, I am currently researching Sydney in the 1920s and when I am not reading books on that subject I am participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 so Vera would definitely have to wait!

Well it seems she wouldn’t wait! As a writer I do not ignore that funny hunch, the information that appears unrelated to my research but falls into my lap and even photographs that I can’t ignore. They do often turn out to be important in some way. But, let’s face it, how can female WWII agents and the woman that recruited and mentored them, have anything to do with my current manuscript? I have no idea but I can’t put the book down!

It seems inconceivable now the circumstances that these agents operated under – constantly having to move from place to place and fully aware that they may be captured at any time. Of approximately 400 men and women of F section that were couriers, radio operators and organisers, over 100 did not return.  39 SOE women were sent undercover, 13 did not return – a loss of one in three which is tragic. 

I can’t wait to find out how Vera Atkins (travelling to Germany after the war) eventually uncovered the fate of all but one of the missing F Section agents, all the while remaining a mystery herself that Sarah Helm must uncover.

Stay tuned for a review of A Life in Secrets.

Finding the right historical details

magnifying glassI‘ve always believed, as the cliche says, that the devil is in the details. I love to seek out little known facts that can’t be found in historical accounts, newspapers and non-fiction works. Whilst writing my book Tomaree I interviewed upwards of 100 elderly people on their experiences of living during WWII. Most of them loved to chat and I wish now that I had had the time to talk to them about their whole lives, rather than just aspects of it. But unfortunately I was a single Mum working part time and I could only spend a few hours every fortnight or so up at Port Stephens where the novel was set.

Some of the stories I heard still resonate – the elderly lady whose mother, in the first years of the last decade, used to drive her pony and trap filled with home grown products from Anna Bay to Stockton, along a stretch of sand at low tide. Sometimes she got caught with the rising tide and a neighbour would have to mind my interviewee. Some time around the 1920s, I think, the sandbar was washed away after a massive storm and then the locals had to travel the long way around to Stockton or Newcastle after that.

There was also another Port Stephens resident who, as a young boy, remembered the American soldiers giving him money for ice-cream. I asked why and he told me it was because they hated all our small change, the threepennies, halfpennies etc that used to weigh down their pockets. “Here kid, go buy yourself an ice-cream.” You won’t find this fact in most non-fiction accounts of WWII involving Americans serving in England and Australia but some elderly people will remember that that’s what they often did.

As a novelist who is very interested in details such as these, I spend quite a lot of time hunting down such facts to make the past come alive. Interviewing people who have been there is a wonderful source of gems – such as a friend of mine’s uncle, a Rat of Tobruk, (he must be one of the last) who acquired a camera by trading with an Italian prisoner of war. When he got the film developed there were pictures of Rommel and his men. A case of truth being stranger than fiction.

I have sent my friend Gina, an oral historian in training, off with a list of questions. Not many of course as her uncle is 93 but I’m hoping she can get a few things down so his memories won’t be lost forever. This is one of the reasons I have started Starving in a Garret a collaborative workspace and sanctuary. One of the things I want to achieve is to find people interested in being oral historians and point them in the right direction. Recently a much loved GP died, I’m not positive but I’m guessing that most of the stories he could have told about being a doctor in Newcastle in the middle of the last century, have died with him.

I’m hoping to work towards building a team of oral historians that can interview people and compile a list of their memories of the local area (as well as details of their life of course) that can be donated to the local studies unit of their closest library. Memoirs and local histories are being written right now but I’m sure that there are wonderful, elderly people out there who are slipping through the net. I’m posting this blog to Starving in a Garret as well so please check there for progress on this project.

What I’m currently reading and/or am about to read or are on my bedside table.

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous but what can I say? And you haven’t seen my TBR (to be read) pile yet. I’m a bookcrosser – lakelady2282 at www.bookcrossing.com and things can get out of control. Goodreads – www.goodreads.com doesn’t help either. According to goodreads I am currently reading 8 books. Seven of those are pictured above and the eighth is Dracula which I began reading about two years ago whilst at work (at a job where there was nothing to do).

Wikisource http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikisource is wonderful for this. You open up the book on your computer screen, say The Scarlett Letter or Sense and Sensibility (making sure the chapter heading is not showing and it looks like you are reading some sort of detailed manual). Perfect! It’s how I read both the last two books.

As to the pile pictured above – well let’s see. I started The Facing Island by the historian  Jan Bassett ages ago. It is about WWI so it should be a priority to read but somehow I still haven’t got around to it. I know I will though.There’s With My Body by Nikki Gemmell which I keep interrupting to read other books, mainly because it’s too heavy to take to work (to read in my lunch break). And then as you will have spied by the familiar cover there is Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James which I have pretty much abandoned like a hell of a lot of other readers…evidently. I keep thinking I might get around to reading at least to the heavy BDSM section but always end up reading something else.

Also on the goodreads list is Early One Morning by Robert Ryan. The book is about SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents in WW2, a subject I’m really interested in and I should finish this book soon. Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau I began (before I finished any of the other seven) so I could send it out on the VBB (Virtual Book Bag) 1001 (1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die) being run by a lovely bookcrosser. There’s And So Forth an excellent collection of essays by the erudite Robert Dessaix (but I don’t always feel like reading essays so it’s still not finished). And lastly The Collected Wisdom of Florence Scovel Shinn which I dip into every now and then.

Now we come to the remainder of the books pictured. These are the ones I lugged home from Speers Point Library yesterday.I still need to research Australian nurses during the First World War so I borrowed Nightingales in the Mud by Marianne Barker. I am also currently trying to find a few books that my character Phyllis Summerville is reading and sharing with other passengers on board ship to England in September 1917. The 1001 book is useful for this. D H Lawrence is also very useful as I wanted a few risque books. The Rainbow seemed perfect until I found out it was banned for eleven years. I chose Sons and Lovers and his first novel The White Peacock (the small orange book, top of the right pile). I won’t use the latter. I’ll probably settle on Sons and Lovers for its shock value but I need to check this so will scan through the book. That’s three down of the second lot. I borrowed The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan because that’s the book Phyllis actually chooses to read instead of the Lawrence (so now I need to re-read it). When I chose the Buchan book from the stacks out the back I discovered Singleton’s Mill next to it by an Australian author Sinclair Buchan. (It’s the book on the top of the left pile.) I just might have to read this book too.

The River Baptists I especially ordered from the library after hearing Belinda Castles speak at This Is Not Art last weekend in Newcastle. I googled her name and found out that this book is set in the Hawkesbury River, a place I know and love from my teenage years when my parents owned a Halvorsen cruiser. I am really looking forward to reading this book. It is high on my list to be finished first but its tied with the other book that was on display at the library entitled Why Not Say What Happened? a memoir by Ivana Lowell. Who can resist “a heartbreaking account of a gifted woman, her brilliant but destructive parents, and a glamourous, aristocratic life that was laced with arsenic”?

Certainly not me! So there is the complete list of the books pictured above which pretty much exemplifies my life at present – researching WWI whilst being distracted by sex (as such), the glamourous life (the grass is greener) and generally taking too much on!! What more can I say, except reviews to follow… I hope.

On Memory

an island boatrower's hands

One of the things that drives me as a writer, my passion I suppose you could call it, is to recreate the past incorporating memories of those that were there or there through their parents’ recollections. It is very important to me to uncover these personal details that can make the past come alive – because not everything is recorded in history books.

Nine years ago I began interviewing many elderly residents of Port Stephens to help me understand what Nelson Bay was like during WWII for my novel Tomaree. This time I am writing about WWI so I am relying heavily on first hand accounts of people that of course have since died. Luckily, I have though, two helpers who are very much alive: Vera Deacon and Helen Marshall. Both have memories going back to the Thirties and Forties and as Mayfield didn’t change too much from 1920 until about 1935 or so, I am able to use a lot of those memories.

Vera Deacon is an island girl. She grew up on Dempsey and Mosquito islands – islands that no longer exist. (They have been covered in slag and turned into Kooragang Island). As a young woman she was always on the water rowing everywhere, along the channel, between the islands and to work at Mayfield. Her hands can be seen above – boatrower’s hands.

And Helen Marshall (who helped create the Mayfield walks) http://libguides.newcastle.edu.au/content.php?pid=251354&sid=2089250 has a prodigious memory going back to around 1933. Helen has been marvellous in helping  me map out three walks that my main characters Miss Summerville and Adrian Langley take in my novel The Grey Silk Purse. We have had some wonderful discussions about Waratah House and Argyle House, two properties that have been demolished years ago. We have also talked about the colour of Platts Channel, the way a gate faced surrounding Argyle House, also the Black Wharf off Ingall Street and Shelly Beach (both long gone). I only hope I can do her and Vera’s memories justice.