This was an open event, not a luvvie publishing party – and all the better for it. Only about half of the 40 or so people there (it’s a small space so it felt packed to the gunwhales) were friends, neighbours and people I’d press-ganged to come. The rest, miraculously, came of their own accord on a dark, damp November evening.
Pitshanger Bookshop owner Fiona Kennedy gave me such an enthusiastic introduction – she’d read the book and seemed genuinely to have loved it – that I launched on my little talk and readings on a high. I don’t get much chance these days (or, frankly, for the past 40-odd years) to make use of my Drama training, but I gave the readings welly and did my best to bring print to life. Not so difficult as Elaine and her story leap off the page unaided.
When I’d run out of voice there were informed and appreciative comments and questions from the audience. And – as often happens at these events – a sprinkling of people with intimate knowledge of the subject through family or other contacts. One chap made a bee-line for me afterwards to tell me all about his mother – an agent with F Section, sent into France – and show me her memorabilia. He omitted to tell me her name – just her codename!
Then a long queue of people with books to sign. Fiona was thrilled that she sold every single copy in stock – even the one on display in the window. This, apparently, is unprecedented!
So, pretty much a triumph all round. Thank you Fiona for your tremendous support for us local authors, and thank you to everyone who came, especially my dear Sis who made the trip from the Isle of Wight specially to be there. Madden relatives in Australia and Canada who’d helped me so much in my research were, I know, there in spirit.
To be interviewed on BBC R4’s (I want to say ‘iconic’ here, but it’s such a cliche) Woman’s Hour is both an honour and an ordeal. You feel so much more exposed on radio than telly somehow… and a live interview first thing on a Monday morning gives you the whole weekend to worry about whether you’ll fluff it. I’d done one before, on The Children Who Fought Hitler, but that was pre-recorded so any fluffy bits could be edited out before broadcast.
This was The Real Thing.
But there’s something about entering the portals of Broadcasting House – the original entrance under the Eric Gill sculpture of Propspero and Ariel, not the flashy new bit round the corner – that inspires pride. It is our BBC after all (take note John Whittingdale and those who would diminish the Corporation through malice or neglect). From there I and my fellow-interviewees (on vaginal sprays, as it happens) were taken into the competent and comfortable embrace of the WH team where, in the Green Room we were greeted by presenter Jane Garvey and told the running order. Vaginal sprays were on first. I was on last, so I had another 40 minutes or so to listen to a packed edition and admire Ms Garvey’s skill and professionalism in handling so many disparate items with humour and an enviable light touch.
The Green Room clock ticked ineluctably on. Then it was time…
Veteran journalist and much-published military historian Max Hastings has a new book out on the secret war. His thesis is that secret codes, agents and subversive activities during WW2 contributed little more than a jot towards Allied victory. I might argue with that, but he says something much more infuriating in his Introduction: “Most accounts of wartime SOE agents, particularly women and especially in France, contain large doses of romantic twaddle”.
Sweeping or what? He might be thinking of some early embroidered ‘autobiographies’ and some later books and films (Charlotte Grey is a culprit here – but this is fiction, Max). He certainly ignores more recent excellently-researched biogs and scholarly studies – done by women. But more important (for me, anyway) is his dismissal of Romance as anything to do with War. For many of the woman who joined SOE, old-fashioned romantic notions of King & Country, duty and service inspired their actions – and let’s not dismiss another possible motivation: that they might have romantic adventures in the course of their clandestine duties.
This isn’t twaddle; it was part of these women’s experience of the secret war. It’s certainly true of Elaine Madden’s experience as I found when I was researching I Heard My Country Calling. And she wasn’t alone.
There’s nothing quite like opening that Jiffy bag and seeing the first copy of your new book, hot(ish) off the press.
The first thing I do is check they’ve spelled my name right. Yes, I’ve pored over proofs obsessively but the second t in Elliott sometimes inexplicably goes AWOL. Jolly good, all t’s present and correct.
The cover is a strong design and says what it needs to, but the weight and feel of a book is important too. Does it feel good to handle and is the paper a decent gsi? What colour is the hard cover beneath the jacket? A nice cream with gold lettering on the spine, good choice. How has the plate section come out – are the photos hi-res and glossy and are the captions as I recall writing them? Like many book-browsers, I always turn to the photographs first to give me a flavour of a non-fiction book. Continue reading →