Beryl Kingston on WW1, writing and upcoming book Great War, Little Peace

Beryl Kingston

by Beryl Kingston

Rosie Goodwin, like most working class children in 1909, is sent out to work as a nursemaid as soon as she is twelve years old, and from then on she sees her family only once a year, on Mothering Sunday. She must grow up fast. Intelligent and courageous, she vows to change her life as soon as she can. Life will interrupt, however, and soon she will have to face the horrors of World War One, followed by the crushing poverty of the twenties and thirties – there are hard times ahead of her.

Great War, Little Peace is about World War One and the terrible years of depression that followed. The original spark for it came from a distant but much loved relation of mine whom I called Dardy when I was too young to pronounce her name properly and who, like my heroine, was sent away to work in a great house on her 12th birthday and from then on, only saw her family on Mothering Sunday and Christmas. She accepted it phlegmatically as just something that happened but I thought it was absolutely appalling to do such a thing to such a young child and made a note of it in my diary.

Dardy

Useful things, diaries. I kept a whole series of them from 1935 to 1950, so a lot of the details about the thirties in Great War, Little Peace, were recorded and therefore accurate. I revisited a lot of the places I knew as a child, like the Borough Market, Petticoat Lane, Cheney Walk, the Tate Gallery and the streets in Worthing where the fascists of the BUF strutted and roared,  just to be sure that my memory wasn’t playing tricks and was delighted to find that they were all reassuringly familiar.

I also had two other relations who unwittingly gave me information which I recorded in my diaries and used in this book. Dardy’s husband had served in the trenches in World War One for four years and told me a lot about that. My aunt was a Suffragette and she was a wonderful source of information, too; a lovely, determined, intelligent lady who chained herself to the railings in Parliament Square and was proud to have been part of the movement.

The only ingredient in this story that was entirely new to me was the very tiny hamlet of Binderton, just north of Chichester, where I wanted my heroine to be born and bred. In her time it was simply a hamlet, consisting of a farm, half a dozen farm labourers’ cottages and a rather grand manor house. When my granddaughter/amanuensis and I drove off to discover it, it was so small, we’d driven through it and out the other side before we were aware of it! But it was exactly what I wanted as a launch pad for my Rosie and she grew in my mind from that moment on.

Writers are such magpies. We gather gossip wherever we go, picking up unconsidered trifles like Autolycus, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, always a jolly sight too quizzy for our own good. But this is the first time I’ve used information from my family, usually I’m listening in to strangers.

While I was writing this book, I was very aware that national and international history intermeshes with family history. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” John Donne said, “it tolls for thee.” If we live in the UK, we are children of our time and our class, whether we are aware of it or not.

Great War, Little Peace will be published in February 2016.

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