Book Club: Crooked Heart
Lissa Evans traces the origins of her dazzling, tragi-comic blitz-era novel
Trying to work out the origins of Crooked Heart is like trying to unpick a knot – ‘one of those fancy ones, all loops and no ends’, to quote one of the characters.
The starting point, though, was probably a Christmas day in the 1970s, when I was thirteen. My older sister gave my father a book called How We Lived Then by Norman Longmate. Sub-titled ‘The History of Everyday Life during the Second World War’, it was a chunky volume that told the story of the Home Front through the recollections of ordinary people.
‘It’s had brilliant reviews,’ said my sister (a sociology student).
‘But I lived through the Second World War,’ said my father, rather plaintively. ‘I don’t need to read about it.’
So I was the one who read it – and re-read it – riveted by the accounts of ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times. It was the detail that fascinated me: the four-page newspapers, the home-made toys for Christmas, the holiday beaches skeined with barbed-wire, the grey recycled paper and unpainted pencils, the crowded class-rooms, the hurried marriages in borrowed finery and the park flower-beds replaced by vegetable patches and pig-sties.
As I grew older, I read more widely on the subject, building up a sort of familiarity with the era, almost as if I had wartime memories of my own. There was nothing glamorous about Home Front life – it was tiring, tough and makeshift and people had to adapt to the most enormous changes, often on a day-to-day basis, but what struck me, over and over again, was how quickly the population adapted, and how much wry humour they brought to their changed lives.
My own life moved on. After a brief career as a doctor, and a rather longer one as a producer and director of comedy in radio and television, I started writing. My first two novels were set in the present day, but while I was still working on the second, I came across a quote that changed everything. It was from the autobiography of George Arliss, a British actor who was very famous between the wars, but who is now largely forgotten; in his recollection of film-making, he wrote something that made me grin with recognition: ‘when once work begins in the studio, nothing that happens in the outside world is of any relative importance.’
‘No change there,’ I thought, remembering all the miniscule details that I’d agonised over as a producer, and which in retrospect seemed so utterly trivial. And then I began to wonder: What if something truly important was happening in the outside world? What if there was a war and bombs were dropping and shrapnel hitting the studio roof? Would actors still be complaining about that nagging little draught in the dressing room? Would it still take twelve people to decide on the colour of the leading man’s tie?
I began some tentative research, and quickly realised that – bombs notwithstanding – the world of 1940s film production bore remarkable similarities to the world of 1990s television. I knew those caustic writers, those fragile actors, those interfering producers – I knew them and I wanted to write about them. The year of research that followed was hugely enjoyable, I talked to veterans of the industry, sifted through the archives of the Ministry of Information Film Division, read fan-mags and trade papers from the forties, and watched countless films. I found a world of stories to write about; the resulting novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half, was stuffed with those familiar characters and followed the making of a British propaganda film at the height of the Blitz. (Incidentally, it’s now been made into a film itself, and is therefore a film about a book about a film, involving much filming of a film being filmed.)
I tried to begin another novel, set in the recent past, but my head was still in the 1940s. There was also a personal reason why one particular aspect of the Home Front kept tugging at me: not long after finishing Their Finest Hour and a Half, I had become the adoptive mother of two school-age children, and I kept thinking about all those other small people who’d been sent across the country to live with strangers. And during that mass evacuation from the cities, you went with whoever took you, and you put up with whatever you found there.
I thought of an evacuee and a foster mother who would have had no understanding of each other: a boy raised in loving and rarefied isolation, possessor of a strong, if eccentric, moral code, and a woman who struggled daily through chaos and poverty, trying to survive using any means possible. I called them Noel Bostock and Vera Sedge.
I began to write about a world quite different to that of my previous book, a world of cheats and scams and under-the-radar activities, and then I ran into a research problem. The sort of characters I was writing about – petty crooks and debtors, marginalised people living on their wits – weren’t the type who published diaries or wrote memoirs or found themselves being interviewed for BBC documentaries. They were invisible, living in the cracks, and I had to find a way to peer into their lives.
My route was through the pages of a local newspaper, the Herts Advertiser and St Albans Times (now defunct). It contained a patchwork of stories that reflected all aspects of wartime provincial life, with bomb news and black-out advice nudging shoulders with accounts of Masonic Social Nights and long lists of rates defaulters. There were police reports of women claiming money for non-existent evacuees, and evacuees forming gangs and terrorizing the villages and thieves breaking into houses and stealing travelling clocks and bananas. There was desperation in the pages, but there was also humour and surprise, and whenever my writing flagged, or I struggled with the plot, I’d always return to this source; it never failed to inspire me.
So that’s Crooked Heart unknotted, and it turns out to be not one piece of string but several – and I’m now following one of those strands even further into the past and writing about Noel’s beloved godmother Mattie. Because once you start unravelling, it’s hard to stop . . .
When Noel Bostock - aged ten, no family - is evacuated from London to escape the Blitz, he winds up in St Albans with Vera Sedge - thirty-six, drowning in debts. Always desperate for money, she's unscrupulous about how she gets it. The war's thrown up all manner of new opportunities but what Vee needs is a cool head and the ability to make a plan.
In 1940, every draft of every film script had to be approved by the Ministry of Information. Cast and crew were waiting to be called up at any moment, travel was restricted and filming was interrupted by regular bombing raids. And so it is that we find a disparate group of characters whose paths would never have crossed in peacetime.
Stuart Horten (ten, but looks younger) is now the owner of a magician's workshop - except that without his Great-Uncle's Last Will and Testament, he can't actually prove it. Which is a problem, since someone else wants it as well; someone who has a lot of money.