On Grief, revisited

Three years ago, I wrote about the suicide of my much-loved nephew Barney. They say nothing comes of nothing; but sometimes something can. In the time since Barney's death, my little brother Richard, Barney's father, has devoted his life to raising awareness of mental health problems in adolescents, travelling the country and the world telling schoolteachers and others closely-engaged with young people, the signs to watch for and the action they might take, so that, from Barney's death, others might instead be helped, and live. I am prouder of Richard than I can ever describe; and doubly proud to accompany him to his TEDxExeter talk on 24 April in the Exeter Northcott Theatre. Tickets for this event sold out within two hours, but Twitter and livestreaming are, of course, availble, and I can't urge enough anyone -- parent, teacher, friend, family -- engaged with adolescents to follow them.

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Welcome. I'm currently working on my next novel which has taken off in a direction quite unexpected by me – a common experience to authors but the first time it's happened to me to quite this extent. The book is set in Berlin in the early Seventies where I lived young Army wife. I'm hoping that by the time it hits the Virago presses there'll be no vestigial references to Rome (where it was originally set) during the rise of Mussolini (when it was ditto). But it's fun, intriguing, surprising and -- for the readers as well as for me, I hope -- quite immersive. Its themes are betrayal (of all kinds) and things that come in threes (of all kinds).

Meanwhile the sad, chaotic anniversary which forms the climax of my current novel approaches fast At Break of Day (Virago) or, as it is titled in the USA, The First of July .

The novel is a story of fate, war, destiny, love, loss and the triumph of hope. Four men — different backgrounds, different lives, different hopes, fears, and longings — are brought together at break of day on the 1st July, 1916: the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and the last day of the dreams of the Edwardian era. You can find how to buy it — or my other titles — on my Books page.

I'm delighted and proud that The First of July is the Central New York libraries' choice as CNY Reads One Book for 2015.

For the occasion, and because family illness meant I couldn't be there in person, I shot a brief video, talking about -- and reading from -- the book:

I'm not sure whether it's by accident or design, but the book is saturated in music: popular music, street music, religious, avant-garde, devotional, romantic, joyful and heart-breaking.
Writing about music is always a strange and unpredictable business. What comes to my mind is not necessarily what comes to my characters', and different again to how the reader will respond.
A friend, and fellow-author, has made a short video with excerpts from the music in the book. You can see it below. I wonder what will come to your mind... I look forward to your comments!

At Break Of Day: Four lives, interrupted.

This is a novel about bicycles and coffin-making, the heyday of the great London department stores, and a hospital run entirely by women. It explores French river navigation, church organs, pigeons, international politics and early film, and finds philandering, friendship, deception, duty, and the terrifyingly random operation of fate.

A story of a young century with old grievances and young men and women with plans and hopes. It is a journey through music heard as colour, and, perhaps inevitably, about doubt and love and loss.

It is also about war. Specifically war on a single day: the middle day of the year in the middle year of the Great War. As July 1st 1916 unfolds into the worst ever disaster in British military history, the lives and hopes of four men collide over a few desperate hours.

Can any secrets remain hidden, any dreams still come true, and who will survive when the world descends into chaos?


Frank: bicyclist and man of the future

The sun was beating down as Connie looked at me, to see if we were still friends. ‘I pray every night there won’t be war,’ she said. ‘But if there is, I shall never hold conversation with a soldier—or a sailor, come to that.’ ‘My uncle says if there’s a war, our boys won’t have no choice.’ Nancy said ‘There’s always a choice, Nancy,’ Connie said. ‘Isn’t there, Frank?’
FRANK STANTON, the ambitious son of a Devon coffin-maker, has found a position as a shop assistant in one of London’s largest department stores. He is keen on self-improvement and acquiring-useful facts, attends classes at the Working Men’s Institute and makes careful lists, including one for the qualities of a potential wife. Above all, he is obsessed with bicycles and, in particular, the Tour de France, yet despite every effort, his attempts to acquire his own machine are always frustrated.
As war comes he is drawn to the peace movement, partly because of a girl who might be wife material, and partly because war seems likely to impede his long-term plans. Can he stay? Should he go? Might war even come and fetch him? And what could drive him to a decision?

Jean-Baptiste: a boyhood beside the Somme

In all the tales of the river, it was not just the banks and the weeds that were slippery, the fish and the water creatures, but also the spirit of the river itself; once a river had flowed with blood, it might develop an appetite for it. Most of all, Jean-Baptiste should have realized that if you leave such a place, you cannot reasonably expect it to wait for you unchanged.
JEAN-BAPTISTE MALLET is French, fifteen years old, and a would-be runaway. The only child of a pretty widowed mother, he lives in a small town on the confluence of the peaceful backwaters of the Rivers Somme and Ancre in Picardy. Jean-Baptiste has two role models: the glamorous, urbane local doctor (and womaniser). Dr Vignon, newly arrived to his job, who lets Jean-Baptiste row his boat, Sans Souci, and Godet, the, strong, silent, anti-clerical, anti-German village blacksmith to whom Jean-Baptiste is eventually apprenticed.

Harry: Having it all, on Park Avenue

‘But, you know,’ his fellow guest said, ‘your country’s right in there. They’re beyond choice. If I were an Englishman, even a legitimate exile, I might just want to see what kind of soldier I’d make.’ She was watching him, perhaps to see if she’d gone too far. His eyes met hers. ‘You mean what kind of man I’d be.’ She inclined her head minutely. ‘A wealthy man, a comfortable man,’ her smile softened any mockery, ‘a well-connected man. Clearly a thinking man. But what else might you be or not be?’ “
HARRY SYDENHAM seems to have it all. He is a wealthy, well-connected and enlightened industrialist, long settled in New York and on honeymoon with his beautiful new American wife, Marina. Nevertheless Harry has a complicated past. He is English-born and still holds British nationality and driven by a determination to escape the consequences of a catastrophic event in his early life. His intention is to remain far away from his own country and to keep the truth of his departure, and his original circumstances, from his wife. As his love for her deepens, as European tensions tighten, as family crises break over him, how can Harry keep his lives apart? When war comes, where does duty lie?

Benedict: The colours of music

‘But a war wouldn’t make any difference to us, though, would it?’ Benedict said, as they walked slowly along Welbeck Street, and wondered if he wished it might. ‘You’re such a chump sometimes,” Theo said, with a note of irritation. ‘Of course it would. You’d be girded in a Sam Browne, pips on your cuff, armed and polished to the teeth, not nipping off to play evensong at St. Elfrida’s in your drooping gown.’ ‘But I don’t know the first thing about soldiering. My people were always church.’ Realizing he was sounding like an idiot, Benedict ran on: ‘I get seasick, I’m a rotten shot, and, anyway, I need spectacles to see into the distance.’ ‘I don’t think not seeing into the distance is very crucial,’ Theo said. ‘In fact, it could be a distinct advantage.’
BENEDICT CHATTO, the son of a West Country vicar, Is an organ scholar at the great cathedral of Gloucester, where the poet Ivor Gurney and the song writer Ivor Novello, both study. He is immersed in his organ studies and loves the architecture around him, and, synaesthesic, he hears music and sound in colour and, sometimes, more disturbingly, feels physical pain from the injuries of others. Benedict ‘s life is dominated by his increasing doubts about God and the simultaneously disorienting and compelling nature of his physical attraction to the charming, musically brilliant but amoral Theo. Benedict’s passion for music is a constant but can beauty and violence and love ever be reconciled?


Here is a list of the music excerpted in the A/V, in the order in which it appears. Click the arrows or use the keyboard arrow-keys to page through the list.

(Go back to the video)
1. Aupres de ma Blonde. A seventeenth-century French folk song, still popular today as a nursery rhyme and as a military march. This performance is by Olivia Chaney and you can see it here.
2. Street music in London. Tunes from a mechanical piano (universally known as a "barrel organ") are accompanied by images of music and everyday life in the pre-war city. The harpist and his accomplice would have been Italians, from Clerkenwell, who had something of a stranglehold on street music, as well as acrobatics, ice-cream, hot potatoes and roasted chestnuts.
3. Louis Vierne, Symphony No 1, the finale. The background to Gloucester cathedral where my fictional character, Benedict, is an organ scholar. The performance here is by the young British virtuoso Daniel Cook, currently based at Westminster Abbey, and can be seen here.
4. Scriabin Prometheus, Poem of Fire. Performed in New York in 1915, with a clavier of light to produce Scriabin’s intended fusion of music and colour. The photographs are of ordinary men, increasingly in uniform, and the rivers the lead characters are associated with.
5. Row Row the Boat. A popular British song, dating from at least the early nineteenth-century in the UK and US, it is often used as a metaphor for team effort, difficult choices and for the journey of life and fate.
6. Keep the Home Fires Burning. Written by Ivor Novello and published in 1914 the song became one of the most well known songs of the war. It is accompanied here by images of the Arch-Duke Ferdinand, whose assassination was an ignition point for the war, soldiers in France when optimism and comradeship still prevailed, the handsome Ivor Novello himself (he was to join the new Royal Flying Corps) the British Royal Family and home life in Britain and the early fighting.
7. Die Wacht am Rhein (The Watch on the Rhine) is a patriotic German song with its roots nineteenth-century Franco-Prussian enmities and was, understandably, very popular in WWI. The pictures here are of home life back in Germany as war looms.
8. By the Banks of Green Willow by the English composer George Butterworth in 1913. He called it an 'idyll'. Butterworth joined the Durham Light Infantry and was killed during the Battle of the Somme. On the video the music accompanies an idealised English summer day.
9. The Battle Hymn of the Republic (“Glory, Glory Hallelujah”) is a mid eighteenth-century, patriotic American hymn. At first America intended to keep out of what was seen as a European war, but was eventually drawn in on the allied side in 1917. A number of Americans with British sympathies or roots joined the British or French forces (including the poet, Alan Seeger, who died in the first days of The Battle of the Somme).
10. La Marseillaise. The French national anthem. Written in 1792 and adopted after by the Republic after the revolution. It was originally known as War Song of The Army of the Rhine (making it a interesting pairing with the German ‘The Guard on the Rhine’ , the disputed borders of the Rhine being central to so much historic feuding between the two countries, an animosity which led to total war.
11. Abide With Me. A well -known hymn from the mid-nineteenth century, often used at funerals, its words, by the Anglican priest Henry Francis Lyte — who was haunted by hearing them murmured over and over while his best friend lay dying — are also prophetic of the worldwide horror to come. The song was immensely popular in the trenches, and was sung by Nurse Edith Cavell the night before her execution by a German firing squad for helping British soldiers escape from Belgium.
12. Daffyd y Garred Wen (David of the White Rock) is an Old Welsh folk tune.
The Welsh miners who will play such a crucial part in the Somme campaign are pictured in their tough and impoverished environment before the war takes them overseas.
13. Daisy Bell (1892). This one is simply for my fictional character, Frank, whose world revolves round the quest for a bicycle and a wife — not to mention a passionate interest in the Tour de France.
14. Lark song. Larks were observed by combatants waiting to go over into action, despite the continual bombardment on the Somme battlefield and have become part of its myth.
15. (briefly) Bizet's Carmen. Set against a clip of famous music hall comedian, ‘Little Tich’, doing his celebrated "Big Boots Dance" in one of the very earliest sound movies. (The reason will perhaps become clear when you get to where Carmen figures in the book...)
16. Gilbert & Sullivan: "The Soldiers of Our Queen" from Patience. Songs from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan crop up a couple of times in my novel. Very popular in this period, all the songs were very familiar to a wide range of society, but this one flourished during the war. The images are of adventure and comradeship in the early stages of the war, but equally, the lines "The enemy of one / The enemy of all is" could serve as a handy summary of the causes of the First World War, proving once again the power of satire to hit its target right between the eyes.
17. Oft in the Stilly Night — a lament, written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore and set to music by composer John Stevenson in the eighteenth century. Played here on bagpipes and accompanied by pictures of night bombardment and the horror of its aftermath.
18. Bach: Komm, O Tod, du Schlafes Bruder (Come, O Death, thou Brother of Sleep) This chorale opens on a scene of nurses on the Somme, sleeping in a glade of dead leaves.
19. An Wasserflüssen Babylon is perhaps the greatest of the hymns of exile, written by Wolfgang Dachstein in the early 16th century. This decorated organ version, which seems to drown in grief, is by Bach, accompanies images of nurses running to their positions, a soldier carrying his dying friend, Sikh soldiers marching. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Zion . . . How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?”
20. Schlaf mein Kinderlein. This lullaby is known in German and also in English. In the video it accompanies images of the human cost of war, including one of the cinematographer, Geoffrey Malins’ famous shots of the 1st battalion the Lancashire Fusiliers awaiting zero hour on July 1st. They were almost immediately cut down by German fire.
21. Aupres de ma blonde (repeated)
22. Hear my Prayer by the German composer Mendelssohn — better known by the words of this section, "Oh for The Wings of a Dove" (from Psalm 55). A much-loved religious anthem in England, its first recording had to be re-made when the master disk actually wore out, such was the demand for copies.
23. When David Heard, a setting by the 17th century Welsh composer Thomas Tomkins of the death of Absolom in 2 Samuel, 18. The heart-breaking repetitions of ‘my son, my son, my son’, shown on the musical manuscript here, are matched with the hand of an adjutant writing letters of condolence to the families of fallen officers.
24. The Internationale. The famous anthem of the Communist Party. Communism was just one of the outcomes of the Great War that advanced with speed through the ruins of war into the modern world.