Max Hastings and Romantic Twaddle

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.

Elaine Madden in FANY uniform 1944
Elaine Madden in FANY uniform 1944 – looking romantic?

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.

So I stand up for women and for Romance!

The Agony and the Ecstacy…

There’s nothing quite like opening that Jiffy bag and seeing the first copy of your new book, hot(ish) off the press.

I Heard My Country Calling
I Heard My Country Calling

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.
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Radio Times Festival – we were there!

Venerable listings mag Radio Times launched its very first TV/Radio/Book festival this year 24-27 September in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace – and we were there!Not exactly in lights... ... but on the programme!

Not exactly in lights…
… but on the programme!

The line-up was starry. Everything from the stars and writers ofWolf Hall to Doctor Who and Call the Midwife. David Attenborough, Peter Capaldi, Brucie, Andrew Marr, Jon Snow, Thomas the Tank Engine, Simon Schama, Phillipa Gregory… The best-known names in British telly and publishing in fact.  And Steve and me, talking about Britain’s Greatest Generation  and how we rose to the challenge of getting 90 and 100-year olds to tell their stories for the series and the book.

Yes, we were in a marquee, and our select but lovely audience gamely put up with competition from a VERY LOUD session on Radio 4 coming from the other end of the tent. We just about made ourselves heard over the theme tunes to Listen With Mother and The Archers...

But these are quibbles.  It was a privilege to be part of such a buzzy and well-organised event. Afterwards we went to sessions with Russell T Davies (writer of Dr Who, Bob & Rose, and the amazing and under-rated Second Coming) and Peter Kosminsky – a hero of mine who directed Wolf Hall  and who has been making brilliantly controversial drama-docs for more than 30 years –The Government Inspector, The Promise, Britz, Shoot to Kill among them.

Worryingly, both speakers were pessimistic about the future of the BBC and seemed convinced that the Tories are intent on dismantling it out of spite, revenge or pure ideology. We’ve been here before and the Beeb has survived political onslaughts from governments of all stripes. But it is Britain’s most precious cultural asset and events like this that round up so many BBC gems and talents remind us just what we’ve got to lose. I predict a Luvvie – and a public – fight-back.

This was the first RTFest – let’s hope it becomes an annual fixture. Popular culture deserves no less.


Chiswick Book Festival


This is a great little litfest – local to West London yet attracting a starry line-up  including Max Hastings, Mary (Queen of Shops) Portas and senior stateman Vince Cable,. So I was honoured to be invited to join a panel for the launch session on Thursday evening this week in the stunning Palladian setting of Chiswick House. Well, in a tent actually, though a pretty splendid tent with chandeliers and posh flower arrangements.

Waterstone_Chiswick_book_FestMy fellow-panelists were Sonia Purnell, author of a just-published biography of Clementine Churchill (First Lady, the Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill) and James MacManus who has cleverly woven the story of Roosevelt’s wartime aide Harry Hopkins into a engaging novel about love and cross-Atlantic politics in Blitz-worn London (Sleep in Peace Tonight).  We were kept in check in the nicest possible way by our Chair, Diana Preston, author of A Higher Form of Killing, about 3 horrific episodes over a 6-week period in WW1 that changed the course and conduct of warfare forever. Continue reading

Elves in Ealing?

642_Things_to_writeI had a birthday recently and a friend gave me a brilliant present called 642 Things to Write About. At first I thought she’d given me an A4 lined notebook (she’s usually much more imaginative), but then I saw that it really did have 642 ideas of things to write about and the space in which to write them.

A random sample:

 ‘Write a love scene from the point of view of your hands’
‘Fix the plot of the worst movie you’ve ever seen’.
‘Find a photograph. Write the story of what’s happening outside the frame.’
‘Scientists announce they’ve discovered the secret to immortality. Write a petition letter to save the event of death.’

Unsurprisingly, it comes from the US.    Continue reading

Inspirations, Compulsions and Comfort Zones

Gus Bialick (centre) featured in ‘Britain’s Greatest Generation’

My inspiration and my comfort zone is The Past. Twentieth century social history to be exact. All my books so far have been, in some way or other, real-life stories about 20th century people. Three have them have a specific focus on WW2.

Perhaps this is less inspiration, more compulsion. Writing for me is a way of understanding the past, how it shaped my parents’ generation and so how it shaped me and mine.

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Choosing a reader

We’re probably not the best judges of our own work. We can be oblivious to our blind-spots (among mine are too liberal use of commas and an annoying addiction to alliteration). It’s almost as bad to be too self-critical.

Having someone else read your work and make constructive comments can save you from grammatical ticks, grave structural misjudgements and unconvincing characters (a just about acceptable level of alliteration there, I think…)     Continue reading