26 Fruits

History rhymes

Eighty years ago my mum and dad, recently married, were active in the local Labour Party and its resistance to fascism that was rising in the 1930s. In 1937 during the Spanish Civil War they turned their sympathy into active support for the Spanish republican, anti-Franco cause. They adopted a Spanish boy called Jesús. In our family photo album there were a couple of pictures of Jesús and pictures of my mum surrounded by Spanish boys giving the No Pasaran salute.

My daughter Jessie – named after my mum – got interested in these photos of the Spanish boy and the grandmother she had never met. My mum and dad, Jessie and Frank, had died in the 1960s when I was relatively young. So all those questions I now wanted to ask, could not be asked or answered. Jessie started digging and I started reading books about the Spanish Civil War, the International Brigade and the 4000 Basque children who had been evacuated to Britain in May 1937 almost exactly 80 years ago to this day.

With these thoughts in my head, by chance I was going to Spain three years ago to run one of my Dark Angels writing courses. Before the course I had a night and a day to myself in Seville. That night I slept badly but I dreamed and for the only time in my life I dreamed some words that I remembered on waking. I wrote down the words in a notebook because I thought they were interesting, a good phrase: “Mother declared herself happy”.

Who was this Mother? And why had she come to Seville? I decided to find out by writing and seeing what followed on from those words. Wandering around Seville, sitting in coffee shops and on park benches, I carried on from those words. Like this:

“September 1984, Spain

Mother declared herself happy. She had not liked Madrid. In her head it still rang with the steel clang of jackboots on the cobblestones. Standing in front of Picasso’s newly installed painting Guernica, paying silent homage, had left her tearful. Now we had moved south to Seville, and her mood lifted.

Sometimes we rattled through the streets on trams but mostly we walked. Even in late September Seville was hot, the heat rising from the pavements as well as burning down from above. So our walking was strolling and our strolling was sitting in the gardens. Watching the world go by was what Mother did now, now that the world was passing her by. It seemed that way to me too, now that I was nearing my fortieth birthday.

I had been a disappointment to Mother and Spain had been the reason for her disappointment. In her youth, her beliefs and her friendships had been defined by the Spanish Civil War. In north London, particularly in Hampstead, the war had raged fiercely through the weapons of words. I wish I had heard her then, in her prime. I was left with the black and white photos of a young woman with dark hair tied back and a raised clenched fist. “No paseran!” she shouted from the centre of her eccentric group of comrades.”

That was the start and it continued. I wrote a story of 1000 words, read it out at the Dark Angels course, and got good reactions. So when I returned home I began writing. That story became the Prologue to a life story that would be set before, during and after the second world war. This Prologue had already suggested much of the back story to this elderly woman’s life – Guernica, her son, Spain’s political history, the pursuit of happiness by trying to live a good life.

When I began writing there were three important characters: Lorna, elderly in the Prologue but what had she been like in her younger days? Harry, a member of the International Brigade, and Pepe a Spanish refugee boy adopted by Lorna after he had arrived, with 4000 others, on the boat Habana from Bilbao to Southampton in May 1937.

There’s a phrase much used at the moment: History does not repeat but it rhymes. Supposedly written by Mark Twain, though no one’s sure. Over the last week it’s been used to point out similarities between two American presidents, Trump and Nixon, both crooks.

But as I wrote it became clearer to me that the story I was writing had real relevance and resonance to the times we live in now. History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. A rising authoritarian right wing. A refugee crisis. History rhymes.

The second part of the book is set in the second world war, the third part in the post-war 1947. A time of hope and optimism. The National Health Service founded. The nationalisation of the railways. The world I was about to be born into.

Which brings me to why we’re here in this pub on Levita House estate. Just there, 100 yards behind me, is the flat where I was born. A few years later this is the pub where my mum would send me to buy her a bottle of Guinness for her nightcap. Yes, nine-year-olds could do that in the 1950s.

I decided that I would feature Levita House as the place where Lorna would be living in the third part of the novel. After all, I knew I could write about it authentically. I didn’t really have to do much research. History rhymes. Here’s a bit from the book…

“They now lived in Levita House, on a council estate between Euston and St Pancras stations. The estate was regarded as something of a model for new public housing when it was built in 1930. Its architects had been influenced by modernist styles from Germany and Austria. Part of the post-war reconciliation, thought Lorna, not really believing herself. But she remained pleased with her new home even as she stared from her balcony towards the bank of snow that had been shovelled from the pavement against the high redbrick wall that ran along Ossulston Street. Behind the wall the trains were still not moving in the station goods yard.”

I need to round up now and strain your patience no further. I hope you’ll want to read the book and find out more about the story of Lorna who is not, by the way, based on my mum. But in the most magical way of writing fiction, I found myself writing scenes that I imagined my mum might have been present at. Along with my dad and my aunt Ce.

So you can see, it’s a very personal book but novels need to be written from deep feelings. If this novel has any merit, that is why.


2 Responses

  1. Gillian says:

    It does indeed have merit, John. A wonderful book you have written, and all the more enjoyable because I’m acquainted with the personal stories that inspired it. Looking forward to the sequel 😉

  2. John Simmons says:

    Actually will be the prequel. Sounding very Star Wars…

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