In 1996 I was commissioned to write the first of a series of historical stories for Franklin Watts. The stories would fit in with the national curriculum and bring to life important historical episodes in an entertaining and memorable way. The first story was to be about the London blitz: not a huge undertaking, but for reasons I’ll come on to, a lot more taxing that I was expecting.
I looked forward to this challenge. I’d taken history to A-level, and had always been a more enthusiastic reader of fact than fiction. What I didn’t want to do was simply repeat everything that had been said a thousand times about the blitz, but to go back as far as possible to primary sources. For this purpose I was delighted to discover Mass Observation, the social research organisation founded in 1937 which set itself the task of recording the opinions of ordinary men and women as a counter to official government propaganda: it is often credited with being the beginnings of modern social science in the UK. A founder of this project was the poet Charles Madge, and by the most amazing coincidence I had just befriended a young anti-war activist in Cardiff who happened to be his granddaughter.
As so often happens, research soon led to plot and character ideas. I was a bit taken aback, however, when Watts produced their advance publicity for the series, complete with the title “The Sandbag Secret” for my book. I’m not sure how this title came about, but it was not as a result of any communication with me! Still, it added to the challenge, and a friend suggested to me that maybe “Sandbag” could be the name of a character. Uncle Sandbag was duly born, a black marketeer, and the plot revolved around uncovering his secret activities as the bombs rained down. It’s not hard to create suspense by introducing a locked door, or in this case cabinet, at the start of a story.
One of the prevalent myths about WW2 is that everybody pulled together under fire, but there is plenty of evidence of criminality, anti-social behaviour and social conflict. As I was writing an informative historical story and not a piece of government propaganda I wanted to show this. I also wanted to portray the heroism of the people who fought fascism in the years leading up to the war, generally ignored in books and films about the period. The truth is that ordinary people, not the government, challenged Mosley’s blackshirts; nor did the UK lift a finger to prevent Hitler’s bombs and troops helping Franco to overthrow the elected government of Spain. The British ruling class were quite able to live with fascism until it threatened their interests.
While my characters talk about the Battle of Cable Street and question the government’s wisdom, however, The Sandbag Secret is full of action and intrigue, primarily centring around the question of what Uncle Sandbag is up to. Reading it now, I am amazed how lively it is, considering the state I was in when I wrote it.
I had been suffering fatigue for a long time, particularly since a flu-like virus which had lasted months in 1993. Nevertheless I’d carried on playing indoor football in the Star Centre, Splott, even though my ankles were suspiciously swollen after every game and I was beginning to suffer palpitations. This was the first year of my relationship with Natalie, then just 25, and she had misfortune to see her 41-year-old boyfriend put on more than four stone in weight and break out in masses of cold sweat simply walking to the shop. Eventually my entire body was swollen like the Michelin man, I was unable to breathe, massively depressed, and only able to sleep sitting up against the sofa. Yet I was still teaching evening classes in creative writing and, with an impending deadline, forcing myself to write 500 words a day until I’d finished The Sandbag Secret. It may only be a slight volume, but given my condition, I always think of it as a great achievement.
Why did I not go to the doctor? Well, I did have quite a serious, though not overwhelming phobia about doctor visits, but besides this was the influence of my previous partner, who had pretty much convinced me that all physical problems had a psychological cause. I believed I was dealing with a repressed bad memory. And if I had not gone to the pharmacist to ask for diuretics and been told to immediately see a doctor, I would probably have died because of this misconception.
The doctor sent me straight to a kidney specialist at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary – fortunately just around the corner in Adamsdown – where my blood pressure was measured at 200 and something over 100 and something. X-rays showed my heart swollen to twice its normal size and my lungs filled with great clouds of fluid (that explained the bagpipe-like sound every time I breathed out). Something was wrong with my kidneys and I had basically got into a heart-kidney vicious circle, the poor state of each increasingly affecting the other.
With diuretics and blood pressure medication the crisis passed, but I was only at the beginning of years of fatigue and breathlessness. Despite many hospital visits, 24-hour urine tests, ultrasound etc, doctors never diagnosed the cause of my kidney problem, while repeated visits to cardiology showed my heart slowly resuming normal function.
I’ve never advertised the fact that I suffer more or less constant fatigue. It’s not something that would recommend me to editors offering commissions, teachers wanting an author visit, or students interested in taking one of my creative writing classes. None of these need worry, however, as I’ve learned to manage my condition, am resolutely professional about my obligations, and always able to get myself sufficiently fired up to talk, teach or write when necessary. It’s the days after which are a bind, days when my brain simply won’t work and I live in abject frustration. I guess it’s like a footballer with an injury: I’m no good at sitting around.
Happily The Sandbag Secret pleased my publishers enough for them to offer me three more books in the Sparks series: the first of these, Sid’s War, about evacuation, gave me another opportunity to satirise snobbery and the rank hypocricy of a society where people with next to nothing were required to take in evacuees while those with great manor houses were not. Then there was Down the Drain, about the building of London’s sewers, and The Canal Diggers, about the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal. I had to learn a lot to write each of them and for me that was half the pleasure. Though the advances were small and the royalties non-existent, Franklin Watts were not a bad firm to work for, with some excellent editors. I might have written one or two more but I took Natalie with me to a Watts party and they decided to commission her instead. Not a bad achievement for her considering she’d never written a book or sent them one sentence of her writing. You can find Boudicca Strikes Back selling for £295 on Amazon.