‘If you are a person who is drowning, you put all your efforts into trying to swim.’ Eileen Nearne.
As it’s International Women’s Day, I thought I would pay tribute to Eileen Nearne, the inspiration for the character of Marièle in my recent novel Swim Until You Can’t See Land. Eileen worked as a secret agent for the Special Operations Executive during WW2, however this was only discovered after she had died and her flat was being traced for next of kin. She was flown into France in 1944, just days before her 23rd birthday, and worked as a wireless operator for five and a half months, sending and receiving messages, until she was arrested by the Gestapo. While researching my novel, I discovered her file in the National Archives in which she describes, quite matter-of-factly, her capture, torture and subsequent imprisonment in a labour and concentration camp. ‘They put me in a cold bath and tried to make me speak but I stuck to the story.’ Eileen ended up part of a work gang who ‘worked on the roads for 12 hours per day,’ however she and two French girls managed to escape by hiding in a forest and then receiving help from a priest. Even then Eileen’s ordeal wasn’t over as, without her papers, she was interrogated by the American Intelligence Service who thought she might be a German agent – ‘subject claims…that despite being tortured she did not reveal any information detrimental to the British Intelligence Service.’ Eventually, after being held for over a month ‘in the camp with the Nazi girls,’ they were able to confirm who she was and she was flown back to the UK.
Eileen was an extraordinarily brave woman, who was awarded an M.B.E. and a Croix-de-Guerre for her actions during the Second World War. She was badly affected by her wartime experiences and, like many of her generation, didn’t talk about her past. There’s a very poignant entry in her file dated November 1945, in which she is recommended for work after her return to the UK – ‘In view of her extremely valuable war service and the hardship which she suffered at the hands of the Germans we are anxious to see her re-established in a suitable peace-time occupation. She is extremely keen to train in beauty culture and I have no doubt will work very hard on making a success of it if she is given an opening.’ I hope that in my novel I’ve been able to honour Eileen, and the other women like her, who gave so much during the Second World War.
I spotted this phone in the window of a curio shop in Morningside. It drew my interest because, not only is it gorgeous, but it has an old-school Dundee number on it.
My mum’s family are all from Dundee; I was born there and my grandparents lived there till the late ‘90s. Somewhere from the depths, a number popped into my head: 65798 – my grandparent’s old phone number. I found it amazing that I’d remembered it all these years later, a strange but wonderful trick of the human brain.
When I was in the Brownies, we were taught how to use a public telephone. We had to take 10p with us and then we went out in small groups to the nearby red telephone box. My folks didn’t have a phone at the time, so I phoned my grandparents in Dundee. 65798 – I had the number written on a scrap of paper.
Looking at the phone, I started to think about so many different things. Who had it belonged to? Maybe it was someone my Granny knew – perhaps the owner had held the receiver and listened to my Granny’s voice on the other end of the line?
What sort of conversations had the phone overheard – declarations of love, secrets, gossip, arguments? Was the receiver slammed down in anger? Maybe the owner received bad news on it? Cried tears which slid down the white Bakelite. Or maybe it was good news – a pregnancy confirmation, a daughter phoning to say she’d got engaged? Perhaps the phone was just used for mundane things – booking a hair appointment, phoning a plumber, a business phone used to arrange meetings?
How had the phone ended up in Edinburgh? And what had happened to its original owner? It made me feel slightly melancholic as I wondered all these things. The person who once used a finger to spin the dial, who breathed into the mouthpiece, who laughed and cried while gripping the receiver, is probably no longer with us. While this white Bakelite phone still remains, so far from home and no longer in use, looking out at me from behind a pane of glass.
I thought, on this Remembrance Day 2014, I’d tell one of my Gran’s WW2 stories that didn’t make it into Swim Until You Can’t See Land. My Gran used to tell us story after story about her time working in Millar’s the grocers during WW2. I often think about the boy who also worked there, her friends, who never made it home. Willie Boyle, Philip Lindsay, George Auchterlonie – their names engrained in my memory despite the fact they were long gone before I was born.
This story is about George. He was 30 years old and married to Teresa. He was in the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) and stationed in the Middle East when he wrote a letter home to his unborn child. He knew he probably wouldn’t make it back or ever get to meet his daughter. Teresa brought the letter into Millar’s and one of my Gran’s friends, who had contacts in DC Thomson, took the letter in to them. They went over the pencil handwriting in newspaper ink, so George’s words would never fade, so his unborn daughter would one day read for herself her dad’s words to her. George was sadly proven to be right; he died on 22nd November 1941 and is buried in Tobruk War Cemetery. Years later, his daughter came into Millar’s with the letter, asking to hear stories about the dad she never met.
I thought the story ended there but, visiting my folks a few weeks ago, my mum dug out an old autograph book belonging to my Gran’s best friend. As we looked through it we found two pencil drawings, signed by George and dated May 1940 and one by Teresa (still using her maiden name) also from May 1940.
It’s heartbreaking to think that, in just over a year from then, George and Teresa would be married, expecting their first child and then forever parted. I wonder where their daughter is now, if she’s still alive. I’d love for her to see the drawings made by her mum and dad.
I’m going to be reading from Swim Until You Can’t See Land, and chatting about the book as part of the Previously History Festival 2014. The event is on Thursday 13th November at 6:30pm at Blackwell’s Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh. The event is free but ticketed and you can get tickets here. Please come along and say hello!
I have been AWOL from here for quite a while but, to be fair, I have had good excuses for doing so – having a baby being the main one! I’m now back with my new novel – Swim Until You Can’t See Land. We had the launch in Blackwell’s last Tuesday which was great fun, and the book was officially launched this week. It’s available as a very pretty hardback and an e-book.
Swim Until You Can’t See Land charts the relationship between two women born sixty years apart, whose chance encounter marks a watershed for the younger woman. In her early twenties, Hannah Wright is forced to give up a promising career as a professional swimmer, and is adjusting with difficulty to her narrowed horizons. She is in danger of becoming embittered, haunted by a lost future. Mariele may now be frail and old, but as her exploits during WW2 unfold, she is revealed as a woman of extraordinary spirit, unbroken by capture and interrogation as an agent in occupied France. Hannah’s delight in the medium of water and the rhythms of swimming are set in dramatic counterpoint to Mariele’s of torture by water, an ordeal that puts her in touch with her core strength – something Hannah starts to discover in herself.
My super-fast sister Eilidh and I appeared on the Janice Forsyth show this week. You can listen to it here, but you only have 26 days left to do so!
I’m also in the Evening News this weekend talking about the book and how I came to write it.
I was sixteen when The Crow Road was adapted for television, my first encounter with the writing of Iain Banks.
Even now, just the mention of The Crow Road brings back that time for me: sixth year at school, everyone having a crush on Joe McFadden, getting the book for Christmas and being totally engrossed in it from start to finish (when I wasn’t distracted by those brown doe-eyes of ‘Prentice’ on the cover).
It also seemed as if everyone was reading his books. My dad, my next door neighbour, some random girl I met at a party. His writing able to encompass all readers.
At sixteen it dealt with those issues I could relate to as an angsty teenager – families, sex, death, drink, unrequited love. It was also set in Argyll, which was where my dad had grown up and where I’d spent many happy times visiting my grandparents, so it all just seemed to click for me in the way certain films, albums and books do when you’re a teenager.
Reading it was an epiphany, discovering ‘contemporary Scottish fiction’ for the first time. The joy and despair of it. Realising that this was what I wanted to write, but knowing that I’d never be able to come up with something so brilliant.
When I moved to Edinburgh, he was one of the first customers I served in Virgin Megastore. I was genuinely star struck and too shy to tell him I was a fan. After that I got used to seeing him in Edinburgh; like Greyfriars Bobby or the Scott Monument, you’d just pass him in the street every so often. Always with a smile on his face, like he wasn’t quite there but off somewhere else inside his head.
It’s funny how a stranger can have such an influence on you. Time to re-read that copy of The Crow Road…
Radio 6 had a really interesting programme on last weekend marking 40 years of Virgin Records. I have to admit that, even though I worked in Virgin Megastore on Princes Street for four or five years, I didn’t actually know that much about the history before listening to the programme.
I can’t really picture the Richard Branson of today smoking pot and sitting on a beanbag listening to music, but that’s how it all started – a small record shop in London to a major record label. I love a bit of pop culture trivia and Richard Branson had some great stories – the shyness of Mike Oldfield, the linguistics of the word ‘bollocks’ (also means ‘priests’ apparently) and the sexual antics of Keith Richards!
Although at times the job was a bit shit, on the whole I loved working at Virgin. For me it was a perfect ‘just finished uni job’ – venturing out into the real world for the first time but not doing it in a scary, serious kind of way. I earned enough money to live on, got discounted CDs and DVDs (still VHS when I first started), maintained the social life of a student and worked with a bunch of really cool (often eccentric) people who were just as passionate about music and films as I am.
I look back on my time working there with a great deal of fondness, and I still have a lot of friends (and also a husband!) from the Virgin Megastore days. When I wrote Trackman, it seemed an obvious choice to have Davie work in Virgin Megastore on Princes Street. I could write about what I knew and, at the same time, pay tribute to a special time in my life.
My husband and I sat in the bar of the Pleasance Theatre last night having a drink before the Rachel Sermanni gig. They were showing some pish-awful music on a big TV screen including Christina Aguilera’s latest offering. Christina wears not very much, writhes around singing completely forgettable chart trash and has one night stands with men (including in a toilet cubicle – classy!) before killing them. She adheres to this awful idea of attractiveness where all women must look identical and have no unique qualities whatsoever – artificially blonde mermaid -style hair, caked on make-up, false eyelashes, orange skin. I found the whole thing very depressing.
Enter Rachel Sermanni – fresh faced, hair tied back, wearing jeans and a baggy jumper. She picked up her guitar and pretty much stunned the entire audience into silence from her first song onwards. She is everything a singer should be – talented musician, beautifully unique voice, endearing stage presence, exceptional songwriter and lyricist, not a clone.
I hope young girls aspire to be the next Rachel Sermanni and not the next Christina Aguilera.
P.S Her support act was the excellent singer songwriter Lidh from Anstruther – is there anybody from Anstruther who is not musically talented?