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Thursday, 26 July 2018

Why Do I Write About the War?

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I think that the first thing that I would say is that At the Dark Hour is not really about the war at all. It happens to be set in the Second World War but it is not about the war. The war is a crucible for what happens. The war makes things happen. It “accelerates things” to paraphrase what one of the characters says.

But, essentially, the war is a backdrop. It is the curtain at the back of the stage. It is a story about ordinary people caught in an extraordinary situation where death could be waiting around the corner for any one of them. But the war remains a curtain at the back of the stage. Every era has its curtain and some of them are darker than others. I don’t think that I can think of a darker scenario than living in London through the Blitz.

So, it is not about the war as such although the war is a central character. The war is a catalyst as well as being a crucible. It accelerates things. It leads to Julia breaking off her affair, without proper explanation, with Adam Falling. The reason she does so is the evacuation of her children after the declaration of war against Germany. This is always understated in the novel. You have to work it out for yourself.

However, she loves her children so much that the enforced separation from them makes her realise what will happen if her husband were to succeed in divorcing her. She will lose them and she will lose any financial support (at a time when women were not expected – or often allowed – to work). She has to make a choice between Adam, whom she loves, and her children. She loves her children more.

Adam has been carrying on a happy affair with Julia and no one appears to have noticed. Not even his wife, Catherine, who is more intelligent than he is. But in the period between the evacuation of the children and Julia’s ending of the affair, she has noticed a difference in him. She concludes that the war brought this on and gets as far as pinning the time of the breakdown of their marriage to the evacuation of the children (their child included) but she cannot work out why. All she knows is that Adam has become “detached, uncoupled, disengaged”.

So, the war is responsible for that acceleration of things but this does not make it a novel about the war.

Of course, we learn all about the blackout, food rationing, bombing raids, the massacre of all the pets and the imminent threat of sudden death. But that does not make this a story about war. It is instead a story about love and redemption. It is about the nature of love. Can one love two people at the same time? Well, yes, I think that you can. However, on the other hand, when it comes to that sticking point you will realise that you love one person more than you love another person. And you will make a choice based upon that realisation. So, the question inevitably becomes: did you ever love the other person at all?

Why Do I Write? 

I have been pondering this particular question. I have always written. I spelt my first word (“shell” actually) at the age of 18 months and, with the aid of my mother and grandmother, I was reading before I was four. I have always written or imagined poems and stories. I have written hundreds of poems as well as songs, short stories and novellas.

I remember, under exam conditions when I was 14, being given a picture of a frozen lake and being asked to write a story about it. I imagined a fox hunt in the dead of winter. I imagined the fox being cornered by a pack of hounds and the only way the fox could go was out onto the lake. I imagined the fox venturing carefully onto the lake with the hounds baying behind him as he went further towards the middle. I imagined the ice beginning to fissure and crack. But still the fox went on further. Behind the fox the baying hounds were getting closer. Then, just as the fox felt that the ice was bound to break, he tip-toed away from the creaking surface and found a different way back to solid ground. The hounds, following the scent rushed after him. The ice broke and they all fell in and drowned. I hadn’t thought about this essay, really, until I was asked the question “why do you write?” I thought of another essay that I wrote at about the same time. The theme was based on the poem by Philip Larkin 'Why should I let the toad, work, squat on my life?' I wrote a story about a Japanese commuter taking the Bullet Train from Tokyo back to Osaka in the 1960s and making the decision to give up working on financial things in the city to become a pearl fisherman in Osaka in the knowledge that he would not ultimately do so and would have the same conversation with himself on the commute the following day. My English teacher said that it was the best story he had ever read.

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I continue to write almost in spite of myself. I write songs with various collaborators (I write the lyrics whilst I leave the music to them), I have written hundreds of poems. I have never really got round to trying to get them published although I did submit a poem on the death of Orwell which was published in the Literary Review. I have written a novella, A Short While, which my god-daughter, Hannah Sharp, and I are turning into a screenplay – about cancer in the home counties. I am writing another novella which begins with a hundred mechanical parrots squawking “Give me your money” in a garden in Gipsy Hill. I have written a series of children’s short stories about two female wombats, Wallis and Wendy, who escape from the circus on their tandem with their ukeleles to perform at the Ayers’ Rock Country and Western Music Festival (“sometimes it’s hard to be a wombat”) which my good friend and great artist, Candida Spencer, is illustrating for me. So, I am always writing and it is an uncontrollable urge that I am not sure how to satisfy. I think that I look into my imagination, see what is there and then write it down.

I had an unusual education and so I never actually studied English literature. I studied law instead although the stories and poems and the rest of it carried on coming into my head. Various writers from that time were very important. Chief amongst these were Evelyn Waugh, Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene and George Orwell. Particularly, George Orwell. I read nearly everything that he wrote. A seminal moment for me was reading his essay “Why I write”. It struck a deep chord. He described how, as an individual, he would walk into a room and see the sunlight slanting down over the table and a box of matches sitting there. And how he would see that scene, simultaneously, in words. And I thought that this was exactly what I had been doing for all of these years. He also wrote, in that same essay, that literature should be like a transparent pane of glass. That you should be able to look through the prose to the action beyond the prose. I knew exactly what he meant and I have strived to do that with my writing. I think that I feed off my imagination, let the images develop and then write down what I see. Sometimes I feel as though I am almost an observer on my own imagination. The other thing that Orwell said in that essay was that:
“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”
I’m afraid that I associated with all of those comments as well.

I particularly liked his comment that at the bottom of any writer’s writing there is a mystery. The writer wants to show off how great he is but at the same time, he (or she) wants to remain a mystery. If a writer can achieve Orwell’s “transparent pane of glass” then the writer’s own life can remain a mystery. I like that. The writing is ultimately about the story and not about the writer.

I think that most writers, ultimately, want to remain hidden.

There was another theme. This novel is set in 1940 and 1941 and it concerns a love affair that began in 1936. Well, that is 82 years ago. Some of the characters were already in their fifties. The younger characters were in their thirties. The youngest child was born in about 1935. So, basically, every character in this novel, with the possible exception of Julia’s daughter Agnes, is dead. I thought that it was interesting to write about love, passion and deception for characters who are no longer with us and, let’s face it, we won’t be around that long either.

I think that the readers expect the writer to provide something of a firework show. I agree with that notion. I think I am paraphrasing Don Simpson, the late and legendary Hollywood film producer, who said that he liked his films to start with a massive explosion and then build up to a climax from there. As a novelist, I disagree. I think that the reader wants to have a firework show but, also, that he or she wants to wait until it gets dark before it starts. One has to build up to it. The kindling has to be put in place, In addition, one needs to be sure that everyone who needs to be there is there. Then one has to find the right moment to strike the match. And after that one has to find the right moment to light the fuse. If you can time it right, as a writer, then you will have a very good firework show and that should please the reader which is, of course, the most important consideration.

I think that, although I have written much that I am proud of, At the Dark Hour is the greatest thing that I have ever written. I hope that your readers will also like it.

Originally from Wigan, John Wilson is a QC at 1, Hare Court, London who was called to the Bar in 1981. He has written or contributed to a number of academic textbooks, written very many articles and is a published poet. Wilson drew on his many years of experience of family law (and in the early days criminal law) and upon the misogyny and homophobia which were characteristic of the law at the time the novel is set. When not working in London, Wilson spends as much of his time as possible in the South of France, where the novel was written, and travels extensively.

At the Dark Hour is available to buy now. For more information about John and his work, you can visit his website.

Will you be reading the book? Let me know in the comments below!

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