Exeter, the Baedeker bombings and research

Man Booker nominated author Clare Morrall looks back at the discovery of a letter from her mother which led her to write her latest novel, After the Bombing

The Blitz in Exeter

The starting point for my new novel, After the Bombing, set in Exeter during the war, was a letter found among my mother’s belongings after she died. I stayed in her cottage for a short period while we sorted everything out and spent one evening reading through a large number of old letters and documents that she’d kept, including some of my father’s correspondence from a period before they met. This particular one was written to him by four schoolgirls during the war, dated 20th July 1941, when he was a lecturer at Exeter University and warden of Exeter Hall. He had once told me how he’d had to go to Plymouth to collect some children who’d been bombed out of their school and temporarily needed accommodation. He described the scene of complete destruction when he got off the train in Plymouth. He couldn’t recognise where he was. There were no streets, nothing left that reminded him of the city he used to know. When he told me about this, he gave the impression that he was fetching young children, primary school children. This turned out not to be the case.

In the letter, the girls were writing to thank my father for the wonderful time they’d had at Exeter Hall. They knew their headmistress had already written to thank him, but they felt she would be cold and formal and and they’d decided they could do a better job of it. They’d returned to their half-destroyed school and found that they no longer wanted to study the movements of ocean currents, when their minds were still on the walks they’d had in Exeter, the ping-pong and the gramophone. The contact with the University had made their headmistress aware of the existence of scholarships. According to the girls, she had the knack of building extraordinary castles on very weak foundations, so she was gaily assuming they’d all get scholarships, go on to get MAs and goodness knows what else. The girls assured my father that their headmistress was someone who could make things happen. So if he wanted to be a Prime Minister, he only had to ask her, and she would fix it within five minutes.

Baedekers Guide

It was clear that these girls were not children. They must have been about fourteen or fifteen. For all they knew, the Germans could invade at any moment, so their lives were full of uncertainty, yet they were lively and enthusiastic about everything. I started to think what a stir they must caused when they turned up at Exeter Hall, a men’s Hall of Residence. I wondered how my father, a serious, academic man of few words, coped with all those hormones and exuberance. But it was clear from the letter that he’d accommodated and entertained them with good humour, even though he couldn’t possibly have had any experience of teenage girls. I loved this letter, this glimpse into the past, these unknown girls who must have taken the University by storm, and, although I was writing something else at the time, I started to consider how I could construct a novel that would convey some of the excitement and fear that comes from living on the edge, and the sense of fun that couldn’t be subdued.

My father had also spoken about the Baedeker bombings. In March 1942, the allies had bombed Lubeck and Rostock, two ports on the Black Sea. It’s not clear why these raids had taken place, since the towns didn’t seem to have much strategic importance, but they had great historic value.  They were Hanseatic towns, part of a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe.  It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the  Late Middle Ages and up to the 17th century. They were largely destroyed by the bombings.

There was outrage in the German leadership over the destruction. Hitler (who didn’t normally seem to have any problems with bombing historic places) was incensed. He is said to have brandished the Baedeker Guide to England, one of a series of holiday guides, and declared that he would destroy anywhere in the guide with three stars. Information about his exact words (or if it was one of his propagandists) is not easy to establish, but the gist of it seems to be true – that he wanted to destroy historic towns. He chose Exeter, Norwich, Canterbury, York and Bath.

When do you have enough information? What is enough information?

After the Bombing is set in two periods – 1963 and 1942. 1963 I could do – I have memories of this time. But although I grew up in the shadow of World War 2, 1942 was before I existed. The novel was going to be historical. I was venturing into the unknown. It became clear to me that I would have to do research – an alien concept. For me, fiction has always been the most pleasing way to digest facts. I know about the American Civil War (imperfectly, I have come to realise) because I read Gone with the Wind and I know about the destruction of the Congo after reading The Poisonwood Bible. I was not at all sure I was capable of research.

However, once I became interested it was impossible not to investigate further. In the Exeter Waterstones, I found two books of photographs. One – entitled One Man’s War in Exeter - contained many images of the aftermath of the bombing, taken by a man called Ken Jackson, who had been there with his camera at the crucial moment, while the other – Exeter News Photographs from the 1940s – contained pictures which featured in the local newspapers, the Express & Echo and the Western Morning News (such a wonderful title!). They vary in quality, but they present a remarkable record of the city immediately after the bombing. Photographs present the reality as if you’re there, standing next to the photographer, seeing what he sees.

I also found online a site called Exeter Memories, which has a large section where people recall their experiences of the bombings. Enter here at your peril. You won’t want to leave. This is one of the problems, I found, of doing research. It was all so interesting. When do you have enough information? What is enough information? When do you stop and start writing? One of my concerns was language. It’s not the words, it’s the way people say things, the expressions that we use freely today that were not in common usage seventy years ago. People talked much more formally then. You have to get the right feel. The trouble is, if you weren’t there, it’s hard to know if modern expressions are creeping in.

I have checked and double-checked, but discovered that some things can’t be checked. For example, what did people call an individual member of the Home Guard? As the copy-editor pointed out, they weren’t soldiers. Everyone obviously knew this, but confronted with a man in uniform, even if it wasn’t full uniform, wouldn’t they call them soldiers? I never resolved this problem, but decided that if they wanted to talk about one nameless individual, they would have to refer to him as a soldier. There was no other obvious solution, apart, of course, from watching all the episodes of Dad’s Army. I was tempted, but decided that would be too time-consuming and potentially distracting. There was a danger I’d be caught up in the story and forget to notice the language (I do love Sergeant Wilson).

So eventually, I put the research aside and started writing. I had to trust my instincts and get on with it. After all, I am a novelist. Making things up is what I do. Experts out there will spot things that I don’t know, but with any luck, if they happen to read my book, they will be forgiving and keep quiet.

Clare Morall, for Waterstones.com/blog


After the BombingYou can Reserve & Collect After the Bombing from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1h6Pbae), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1h6OWMe) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/QHTeim)

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