Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Magnum Opus

I'm going to let you into a secret but you must promise not to steal, tell or otherwise misuse the knowledge I am about to impart. What follows is my intellectual property and mine alone. I have decided that for my debut novel I will write about a family in the early years of the 20th century. The central character - let's call him Tom Packham - can hardly be called a hero. He was born in the dying years of the 19th century - 1899, to be exact. Although he came from a reasonably good home (his father was a removal man) in London's east end, Tom was something of a problem child. Eventually, his parents decided they could no longer control him and, as he was an habitual truant, he was sent to the Islington truant school. (This will provide me with an opportunity to write about the abominable treatment of boys sent to these residential schools.)

In 1913, at the age of fourteen, Tom is released from school. He helps his father for a few months but eventually enlists in the army - the Royal West Surrey, an infantry regiment - as a musician although still only 14 years of age. The discipline, surprisingly, is what he wants and he is fairly happy for about 18 months or so. But things go wrong and he deserts in the autumn of 1915. But civilian life doesn't suit him so he re-enlists after just three months. He chooses a different regiment - the Royal Field Artillery - thinking that they will not discover he has already enlisted once and is, in fact, a deserter. Of course, his secret is discovered but his commanding officer treats him leniently, deciding that as he is back in the army the loss of time served for pension will be sufficient punishment.

We are now, of course, in World War I. Tom is sent to France and is very soon in trouble. He is punished, it seems, every two weeks or so for some misdemeanor or other: being late on parade, absenting himself from the stables without permission, refusing to comply with an order. (This will give me the opportunity to describe Field Punishments No 1 and No 2.) After about six months somebody wakes up to the fact that Tom is still only 16 and is too young to be serving on the front. He is sent back to England - and promptly deserts again.

Six months later he enlists for the third time. But does he? Although the man who enlists gives his name as Tom Packham, his occupation and background story seem remarkably similar to those of his cousin, Herbert Cobie.

Somwhere along the line I will have introduced Tom's Aunt Matilda. Matilda Packham was not a particularly good-looking girl but she was (as my old granny might have said) no better than she ought to have been. She fell pregnant at the age of 17 and reluctantly married the father-to-be. However, her own father had disowned her and refused to attend the wedding. (She told the vicar he was dead.) Her mother did manage to persuade her father to relent and she, her husband and the new baby lived with her parents for a while. The marriage didn't last and before many years are gone she is to be found living with her cousin Charles D'Arcy, having assumed his name without the benefits of any ceremony. This is where Tom comes in as he claimed to have spent two years working as a salesman for Charles, although quite obviously he has not been out of the army for two years in total since he left school.

By this time, though, Matilda has left Charles D'Arcy and has actually married Charles Arnold.

It's all very confusing still and there are plenty of details I need to iron out in my mind before I get very much down on paper. But I'm sure you will agree that there are some interesting possibilities. Was it Tom who enlisted for a third time, or had he persuaded (blackmailed?) his cousin to join the army in his place. If so, why? If not, why did he use his cousin's life story?

I need to digress very slightly at this point to tell you that in the way back yonder I was travelling by train from London to Plymouth, the reason for my journey perhaps being a suitable subject for a blog another time. I was reading a book by Wilbur Smith when the man sitting opposite me struck up a conversation. He suggested I might like Robert Goddard's books and recommended I start with In Pale Battalions. I followed his recommendation and Mr Goddard is now my favourite author with, to my mind, In Pale Battalions being his best book. The plot bears an uncanny resemblance to some of the story I have outlined above. But my story is not the synopsis of an intended novel; it is the true story of distant cousins of She Who Must Be Obeyed, a story I have pieced together over the last week or so. It's quite true that fact can sometimes be stranger than or at least as strange as fiction.

3 comments:

Uncle Skip, said...

I haven't read any Wilbur Smith lately. Somebody left a copy of Driving to Detroit on the exchange table at the Senior Center so I'm reading that. I just finished a rather lame Tom Clancy knockoff.

Stephen Hayes said...

I would seem that you have your work cut out for you to bring this story to light. I wish you much success.

Buck said...

Truth is indeed at least "as strange as fiction." Especially when it comes to families... DAMHIK.