When I worked in publishing, I remember a book coming out called The Railway Man by Eric Lomax. The author was a former Japanese prisoner of war and although he survived his ordeal, he had never come to terms with what had happened to him. Only in his seventies did he begin to talk to people about it and to seek help. This led to him finally returning to the Far East and even meeting one of his former captors. My starting point, then, was this idea that many veterans live in silence with their memories, often with devastating effects.
I also remembered that when I was at school there were always rumours about certain masters and what they had got up to during the war; I was intrigued by this idea that as a schoolboy, you view teachers as teachers and little else; somehow, they often don’t seem to exist outside the confines of the school.
From these two ideas began the seed of the book: a retired schoolmaster – a man who has never been especially popular with either his pupils or his fellow members of staff. A quiet, almost curmudgeonly man, still wedded to the school. A widower too, although with one son with whom he has a far from satisfactory relationship. But this man – Edward Enderby – has once been a very different man. During the war he has been an idealistic, almost reckless, Spitfire pilot, who has served bravely in England, Malta and Italy.
The themes and plot developed quickly from there on. The two men – the taciturn, often austere seventy-something and the young twenty-one year-old – are almost completely different people. The aim of the book was to show how one became the other. Naturally, Edward’s past hides terrible tragedy, events that he has tried to keep buried ever since his return from the war. Like many Englishmen of his era, he has preferred to bury his head in the sand and hope the painful memories will go away rather than ever talk about it openly. In this regard, the school has become a refuge for him – a place where he has been able to shut himself, and his memories, away; not even his son knows about what he got up to in the war.
It is the events of the 50th Anniversary of VE Day in 1995 that stir these memories once more. I remember those celebrations very well, visiting Hyde Park in London and going to the huge open-air concert they held. By looking at old newspaper articles at the Newspaper Archives in Colindale, North London, I was able to recreate the festivities around the country that took place back in May 1995 – the events that bring back Edward’s nightmares once more and which force him to finally confront his past, just as Eric Lomax had done for real.
I like books that have two different time frames, so around a third of the book is told from the perspective of Edward as a seventy-four year-old in 1995, and two-thirds is told from the time of the war. At its heart are the two great losses Edward suffers, and although it does not end on an entirely bright note, I wanted to leave him with a sense of hope for the future, and that despite his great loss, he is, finally, able to move his life forward.