Library? The books I’ve ended up with are the books I’ve ended up with. I can’t say I’m sorry. Unexpected arrivals flocked in when I ran a market bookstall for two years. I took everything. Airport novels I promised to burn in the winter but didn’t. Girlie books about horse riding – all those books you can’t be bothered to turn the right way round to read the spine.
“Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop” wrote George Orwell (Bookshop Memories Fortnightly November 1936) I didn’t mind them so much, it was a great way to learn French. A policeman asked me if I was a Communist, a gypsy showed me how to mend a rush chair, a girl brought me hot chocolate from the cafe at ten. I had a trailer like a red clam shell that opened up to show the display I built each week.
Now I have to confess to a private thing with all those books – I write. One of the ways I write is to search for tropes. That may seem like a silly word, but I understand it is the right one. A trope is a distilled form of action usually associated with a genre. Think the gunslingers walking towards each other down the dusty high-lit street. Fictional tropes seep out now into the everyday; after a violent incident people say it was just like on TV. Re-inserting tropes back into fiction where they belong after they’ve strayed into the real world is a full time job. They come back with all sorts of ideas.
Anyway to get back to my point: searching for tropes. I was reading Through many skies – the flying days of one Polish pilot when all of a sudden my memory told me that I’d read something like that before. Tadeusz Szumowski was talking about a temporary airstrip in France just after D-Day in 1944, talking about the depth he had to make his slit trench and about the two sides firing shells over his head and about how he went over to England and flew back with barrels of beer under his wings, using propellor cones to smooth the aerodynamics.
Fine I thought; it was like a children’s game, snap or pelmanism – I already had one of those. Which book could it have been in? Oh yes, If I don’t write it, nobody else will the life story of British comedian Eric Sykes. I pulled it off the shelf. On page 136 Eric tells us he digs a slit trench and the next night steals a barrel of beer from a marquee where there is a boozy send off for a big-wig. During the day the noise of Spitfires taking off and naval bombardment, during the night the enemy firing back. He digs a better slit trench.
The date is June 13 so just about time for the pre-invasion alcohol to have quit these guys systems and them be looking for more. Where did the barrels come from? Turn to Polish Pilot p114 11 June and the bare narrative above.
So you have the rough assembly of a trope which you can twist and distort according to purpose. It comes in seven sections with some branching spurs – (warning, this way madness lies) – the sections are: arrival, first impressions, digging a slit trench, the first night bombardments, getting hold of a barrel of beer, digging a better slit trench, being happier about bombardments.
For the branching spurs you can have for the first section personal feelings or description of military layout; for the second section you can have impressions of the countryside or reflections on the waste of war; for the third section you can have the older experienced soldier, the sweat of labour or the one who says I won’t bother.
For the fourth section you have a medley of light details, soundscape, nightmares and being awed by power; for the fifth section you have to make literary tapestry of a high order – this is where you can put in your other characters, this section is free to use as you wish but should include native cunning or brass faced cheek.
The sixth section is a reprise of the third section except that now the protagonist is the experienced one, his labors are drunken and the one who won’t bother is dead.
Lying in your pit, the tip of your cigarette the first red light above you, the whuffling and crumping all around you await the horrible accident of being dropped on by another sleeper – end of section seven.
There is another way of using the material, the coincidence if you like, which is to uncover or invent, research or presume the actual event-terrain between the two narratives. More complicated since it rests on the point at which you admit defeat in not being able to establish the facts. There are layers ordered like this:
Relying just on what is presented in the books.
Adding what you know as already held knowledge.
Adding precision by active research.
So I start at the top – what is presented in the books, under date time place action.
Through many skies – the flying days of one Polish pilot
11 June airfield B.10 within range of German gun in the hills over the River Orne digs a good deep hole and lines it with tar paper from the temporary airfield construction. Possible digression into development of temporary airfields.
12 June airfield B.10 asked to go back and get beer from country hotel near Chichester (their former feeding point in England. In the evening soldiers barter battlefield souvenirs for beer.
If I don’t write, nobody else will
13 June night somewhere past Bayeux, bombardment slit trench day Spitfire engines taking off.
14 June night deeper slit trench
15 June move piano from Cruelly steal beer – smash emptied barrel to sounds of bombardment.
The narrative rest on it being plausible that, pleased by the system, the RAF types order more barrels brought over between the 12th and the 15th. Accept that and you can look at the geography. Off the top of my head I can’t, so turn to my copy of Beevor’s D- Day and see straight away that our friends were at opposite ends of the Allied bridgehead. So the narrative as a tissue connected in fact falls. Connected in fact, a tissue of lies, we do say that don’t we? A tissue of lies, woven spaces, something that can be brushed aside unlike the facts which peg us nicely down to earth.
Through many skies – the flying days of one Polish Pilot
Highgate Publications Beverley
If I don’t write it, nobody else will
Harper Perennial London
ISBN 9780007177851 tk
D-Day – the battle for Normandy
Viking Penguin London