Fittingly, I started this book on holiday in France in 1997, when a week of torrential rain kept us housebound instead of cycling the local byways. By the time the rain had stopped, I had the synopsis, Chapter 1 and most of Chapter 2 under my belt.
After France, progress was steady, but personal circumstances caused writer’s block and for almost two years, I stopped writing. I have always been fascinated by World War II history and following the adage to write about things you know, sought to weave a novel around a WWII theme. When the urge to take up my pen –well, mouse – returned, I realised that key to the problem was my lack of knowledge of SOE training methods and operations. The excellent staff at the Imperial War Museum at Elephant and Castle were more than helpful, and I left the former Bedlam armed with sheafs of information. Juliet Gardiner’s beautifully researched book ‘Wartime Britain’ was a mine of information and essential reading for anyone seeking the detail of a country at war: Robert Gildea’s ‘Marianne in Chains’ paints a similar picture of occupied France.
Research is all part of the fun of writing. Richard Day, Curator of the Bugatti Trust, seriously enlarged my knowledge of the marque. The Daily Telegraph obituary column focuses on military figures and from one eulogy on a former SOE agent, I discovered the Lysander roll for exiting a moving aircraft. When I had almost finished the book, I was astonished to read an obituary on Jacques Poirier, an SOE agent. Unwittingly, my hero could be Jacques’ clone. Frank Muir’s ‘A Kentish Lad’ contained an unexpected bonus with his clear description of the parachute training school at Ringway. Plus, I have always been an Autolycus for facts, snapping up unconsidered trifles for later use. ‘Dynamite’ fishing I learned about from my maths teacher, a former commando.
I salute the extraordinary courage of the men and women of SOE, a courage very different to that of battlefield bravery. Agents lived for months, sometimes years under cover, using and remembering different persona and carrying volumes of information in their heads. The bigger the networks they created, the greater the chance of Gestapo infiltration or betrayal by an informer. The merest slip could be fatal. One newly landed agent was caught because he asked for café au lait in a bar; genuine residents knew that the Germans had all the milk and only café noir was on the menu.
The role model for Colonel, the hero’s wire-haired fox terrier, was Humphrey, a family pet. Role model is perhaps the wrong phrase. Both share the endearing traits, but whilst Colonel’s behaviour is impeccable, Humphrey never did a damn thing he was told and remained a lovable rascal until his death. I miss him still.
This is a novel spanning several generations and explores the gamut of human emotions but with love the most important. If despite my research there are errors, please excuse them, likewise my slight liberties with French geography.
The support and encouragement of all my family have been invaluable, especially my sons Richard and Tim, the latter himself a writer, but the key figure has been my wife Cathy, whose exhortations of ‘This is so readable, I can’t put it down, you’ve got to finish it’ bolstered my sometimes flagging motivation.
‘ Readable’ is my genre, that of Clive Cussler, Dick Francis and Jeffrey Archer, yarns that you just do not want to put down. I hope you take as much pleasure reading the book as I did writing it.